Clio and Diderot attend (virtually) an exhibition featuring the extensive print collection of the legendary Leo Steinberg at the Blanton Museum, Austin.
Having recently visited a few other digital shows, what are your thoughts about the format of this online exhibition?
Diderot: In terms of format, this was the most similar to the MSK’s Van Eyck show, where the viewer has the ability to see the physical installation and move around the actual space. It’s interactive (and fun, sort of like a video game) as you have to actively click on different objects to see them up close and to learn more about them.
I have to admit, it took me a little while to get used to this format (although I experienced it going through Van Eyck). I thought it was a nice touch to include audio guides at certain points. Occasionally, I was confused by the organization, especially at new sections where you have to hunt for the main wall text. But overall, it thought it was very effective in recreating the exhibition experience.
Clio: It’s like an Easter egg hunt. It totally gamifies the exhibition experience. Unfortunately, maybe because I have no short-term memory, I tend to forget what I clicked on, and I find myself clicking back and forth between the objects and the explanatory texts, trying to recover the exhibition’s argumentative thread.
I appreciated being able to experience the physical installation and see how the curators grouped various prints. These relationships are important elements of a physical exhibition, they subtly guide the visitor towards particular arguments and interpretations by drawing out visual and physical relationships between objects. That said, I found myself wishing for a smoother ‘reading’ experience. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I find that the screen flattens everything, and it is easier for me to understand a show’s argument if the material is presented, on screen, in a format closer to a book or magazine page.
Unlike other shows you’ve reviewed (Rembrandt in Southern California, Van Eyck: Optical Revolution, and Miraculous Healings), this exhibition is focused not on an artist or theme, but on an art historian and his collection. How do you think the Blanton handled the difficulties in mounting this type of exhibition?
Clio: Organizing an exhibition around a collector is always challenging. These figures are often well-known within the art history community, but obscure outside of it. How do you excite the general public? One tactic, of course, is to highlight a collection’s exceptional quality. Visitors will queue up for avowed masterpieces. It’s helpful if the collector is also a celebrity. This exhibition did a good job presenting the importance of print culture, as a source of inspiration and as a form of transmission, for artists through the ages. This emphasis on prints and their relationship to artistic creativity, their role in the studio as tools, as inspirations, and as literal source materials (to be copied, traced, pricked and transferred onto walls or canvases), is probably the dimension that will appeal to the broadest segment of viewers.
Diderot: It’s definitely hard to present a figure such as Leo Steinberg to a general public, and even more difficult to focus on his collection. I agree with Clio and think the show did a good job explaining his theories on print and artistic transmission– it really highlights why prints (which could be argued as being less valuable/important because they are multiples) were so essential to artistic practice. The section “The Circulating Lifeblood of Ideas” illustrates these theories with concrete examples. For example, the exhibition presents a print and explores the development of its imagery across different media, including drawing and painting.
I also think it was very savvy that there was a large section, “Highlights of European Printmaking,” that focused primarily on the prints themselves, where the curator chose works by the most famous artists from the collection and arranged them chronologically in groups. Even if a general viewer doesn’t know (or care) about Leo Steinberg, they still have the chance to see prints after Raphael by Marcantonio Raimundi and other masterworks ranging from the Renaissance to the early 19th century.
The curator bookended the show by talking about different aspects of Steinberg’s scholarship and illustrating them through print. It made the show feel comprehensive, as it not only addressed Steinberg as collector, but also as an art historian, and how these prints were essential to his own research.
The temporal range of Steinberg’s collection might shock some viewers, especially those who aren’t familiar with his background as an artist, or with his passionate engagement with modern art. As an art critic, Steinberg engaged with everyone from Robert Rauschenberg to John Cage and Richard Serra. He was very engaged with other art critics of his time, most famously writing a series of essays reacting against Clement Greenberg’s school of formalism. All of these different personas appear in the Blanton’s exhibition. How does the exhibition integrate all of these aspects of Steinberg’s practice?
Clio: Some of the groupings in the very last room of the exhibition, “Steinberg’s Scholarship,” almost read like primers in art historical methodology, guiding the visitor through various aspects of the scholar’s practice: how to look, how to compare objects, how to think about art as historical, as well as artistic, objects.
Take the pair of prints made after Leonardo’s last supper–they’re presented as a trio, with a photograph of the fresco in Milan. The prints largely follow Leonardo’s composition, but they are not exact copies. The wall text notes that Raphael Morghen’s print “removes the wine glass at Christ’s right hand, thus erasing the Eucharistic meaning,” while the other print, by Pieter Claesz Soutmen after a drawing by Peter Paul Rubens, deviates from Leonardo by clearing the table of everything “except for the bread and wine, rendering the sacrament paramount.” Morghen’s print was made almost 200 years after the Rubens/Soutmen print (c. 1800 vs. c. 1620-30). The prints bear completely different inscriptions, and the painting bears no comparable inscriptions. The little trio is both a lesson in looking, and a lesson in historical analysis. Add on the fact that the Soutman print is a print after a Rubens drawing, and we begin to see how these objects present us with dizzying possibilities of artistic and scholarly interpretation. One could say the same of the very next grouping, a set of prints after Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
The wall texts helpfully summarize how Steinberg himself worked with these prints, and the sorts of scholarly interpretations that he drew from them. I enjoyed the way that these groupings both opened up the workings of Steinberg’s practice to me, and also left them open, in turn, to other potential interpretations. I might not see the same things as Steinberg, I may not agree with his conclusions–and that’s part of the fun, to be there, in a conversation across time, with so many different players, from Leonardo to Steinberg, all the way to me, a twenty-first century being whose thoughts, feelings, and subjectivities are so different from theirs. Yet Steinberg, as humanist, believed that all of us, gathered together, could still have a conversation. We share something, in our humanity.
What was your favorite aspect of the show?
Diderot: Aside from the thoughtful presentation of Steinberg as a collector and as a scholar, I really enjoyed the programming! The virtual symposium, Leo Steinberg: Collector, Critic, and Scholar (now available to watch online) was a great opportunity to hear talks from a variety of curators and academics. The symposium opened with an in-depth discussion of Steinberg and his collecting and use of prints in relation to his scholarship and theories; presented by the curator, Holly Borham, this was an excellent introduction to Steinberg that was geared to a somewhat more academic audience, although it was clear and easily understandable.
The other talks were equally interesting and as diverse as Steinberg’s print collection; they touched on works from the Early Modern to the Contemporary and dealt with issues of imagery and facture. Jennifer Roberts shared thoughts on Steinberg’s theory on the flatbed picture plane and the physical production of prints. Bernadine Barnes spoke specifically on Steinberg’s interpretation of Michelangelo through the many prints made after his famous works. The symposium ended with Patricia Emison and her Steinberg-inspired discussion of license and creativity in relation to sexuality in Northern Renaissance prints.
While the on-site exhibition closed on May 9th, you can visit the show virtually through the Blanton’s website.