Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 6, 2024
Holly Borham, ed. The Circulating Lifeblood of Ideas: Leo Steinberg's Library of Prints Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, 2023. 163 pp. $39.95 (9781646570348)

In 2002, Leo Steinberg donated 3,648 prints from his collection to the Blanton Museum. In a talk there the following year he succinctly said why prints were so important for the study of early modern art: “I had escaped graduate school and was discovering that, for the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, prints were the circulating lifeblood of ideas." That statement provided curator Holly Borham with an inspired title for this richly illustrated and illuminating catalog that so well describes the work of prints in Steinberg’s writing and thinking about art. The lecture, eventually published in an essay provocatively called “What I like About Prints” (Art in Print 7:5, 2018, 3–28), records Steinberg on the subject in his own words. As such, it provided essential support for Borham’s two insightful catalog essays and an erudite contribution by Peter Parshall, which both discuss the importance of prints, printmaking and print collecting to the development of Steinberg’s best-known art historical concepts. Borham’s biographical essay at the beginning of the book also makes good use of information in the five volumes of Steinberg’s collected essays published after his death in 2011. The print essay does not appear in those volumes, but it would have been in the spirit of the book’s lively and informative exposition of Steinberg’s prints as a generative research library and archive to have included it here. In that essay we hear Steinberg in his speaking voice: "If you’re going to do art history, I realized, you’d better know what your artists were looking at. And that has to include prints . . . " (Art in Print, 8). Emphasizing the role of prints in spreading pictorial ideas to artists across Europe, he wondered about the “global outreach” of engravings that brought Italian inventions not only to Northern Europe but also to the Mughal empire years before most academics thought of art history in global terms. Italian painters who seemed miraculously to discover new ways of enlivening their imagery through iconography, composition, or gesture—all transmittable in a black and white print—were looking at the same prints and adapting the innovations they saw there into their own painterly idioms.

When Steinberg began his collecting in the early 1960s prints were a minor art form unworthy of academic attention, or even the best art collections. He bought early modern prints cheaply, recording 746 purchases in his first year of print collecting alone (16). Acquiring over six thousand seven hundred prints in his lifetime, he formed a living collection that he researched on his own, traded, and sold to buy other prints when their prices began to rise in the 1970s. This gave him unhindered access to a huge, manipulable personal image base for which he found his own logic alongside observations outside his home, as he formulated his art historical theories. Knowing that specialist scholars and respectable dealers, unlike artists, “wouldn’t be seen dead looking at prints,” prints became an ally in his ongoing investigation of how art comes to look the way it does. Borham writes that he “often made his arguments, whether in lecture slides or in his publications, on the basis of an onslaught of visual comparisons” (13).  Prints could be viewed at any angle, rearranged, and gathered in quantity in a small space so he could “compare images at something like the molecular level” to see “just how you get from here to there” (Art in Print, 18), conclusions that his print library enabled and supported.

This notion of molecular comparison also made clear the many ways printmakers improved on what stuck out for them as idiosyncratic in their models when they made printed copies. Attending to copyist’s changes provided a foothold for Steinberg’s distinctive approach to art through the visual criticism they provided; he called them “corrective copies.” It was unusual in those days not only to make a case for the visual interest of prints and declare an important role for them in art historical narratives but also for serious consideration of reproductive art in any medium. He said: “Reproductive engravings are not so much a branch of art as the medium through which, for nearly four hundred years, all branches of art interacted” (Art in Print, 12). It is in this way that prints were the circulating lifeblood of ideas beyond their solander boxes, in the hands of artists across media, space and time.

Borham’s essays on Steinberg’s intellectual biography and his development as a print collector and scholar tell us how this émigré from Russia and Berlin went to London to study art at sixteen. Settling in New York at twenty-five, he lived in the United States for the rest of his life. An artist himself as well as an art historian, Steinberg understood that all visual materials were fair game for artists. He knew that prints were rich primary sources about the making and reception of art and they provided him with evidence about the processes and intentionality of early modern artists. In his essay “Leo Steinberg’s Print Affair,” Parshall writes that Steinberg took it for granted that the questions he asked about art would be motivated by the times he lived in and that the palimpsest of interpretation and meaning created by the interpretive overlay with which investigation and interest endowed any work of art is itself a subject of historical interest.

Steinberg therefore also asked questions about early modern art that were motivated by looking at the work of the contemporary printmakers he admired and collected such as Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. His published essays on modern art pushed back against academics who looked for the meaning of art in texts and explanations. He ends an essay on Jasper Johns in Other Criteria: “Who would need pictures if they were that translatable? [ . . . ] Johns puts two flinty things in a picture and makes them work against one another so hard that the mind is sparked. Seeing them becomes thinking.” (Oxford University Press, 1972, 54). While he met and interviewed contemporary artists like Johns, he felt that old prints put him in community with a “small band of dedicated enthusiasts, spread out over continents and centuries,” and provided a sense of intimacy “with artists long dead—not only the makers, but their users” (Art in Print, 10).

Parshall notices how little of Steinberg’s writing actually centered on prints; most of what did consisted of shorter pieces for The Print Collector’s Newsletter, a specialist publication important to printmakers and print dealers about what was seen by the academy as a commercial art genre. Centering Steinberg’s relationship with prints as a reflection and embodiment of “his unusual visual intelligence”(60), Parshall says the printing press “took the world in and then returned it in multiple for widespread consumption” (63), showing how Steinberg’s methods, generated in large part through his engagement with prints, extended the reach of academic art history and anticipated “the emergence of what came to be termed ‘visual culture’ and ‘Bildwissenschaft,’ related concepts that became central to the ‘New Art History’ of the 1980s” (61). He also mentions Steinberg’s writing (in, as Borham points out, his fourth language), a striking aspect of his scholarship that some used to discredit him: “His image bank . . . proved to be as extensive as his linguistic lexicon, and together they produced some of the most eloquent passages of ekphrastic prose to be found in the literature of art history” (61).

Parshall goes on to discuss the metaphor of the flatbed printing press that Steinberg developed while thinking about Rauschenberg’s Combines, which was published as the title essay in Other Criteria. The printing press—its orientation and operations—provided Steinberg with the material for a new conception of the pictorial surface as “a constructed multidimensional domain of its own . . . rich in implication for a new understanding of artistic process and the redefinition, if not obsolescence, of the Renaissance picture plane as we knew it. This idea proved to be powerful in the extreme, providing as it did a marking point for the shakeup that, largely through Steinberg’s critical writings, came to be termed ‘postmodernism’” (62).

The last section of the book is a catalog, ordered chronologically from Raphael’s studio to Black Mountain College, of highlights from the Blanton’s Steinberg collection. Perhaps a palimpsest itself, it overlays Steinberg’s collection in assigning it a purpose the museum’s director welcomes in her preface: to support a survey of Western printmaking with attention to “how image making evolved aesthetically and mechanically over the centuries” (7). Each illustrated print is accompanied by a substantive essay by Borham peppered with quotes from Steinberg. While the subject of this catalog is Leo Steinberg’s collection, it teaches us a lot about how he used and thought about pictures whether he owned them or not. With the black and white images printed in color, this is also a beautifully designed and produced book that provides an excellent and accessible introduction to Steinberg’s life and thought and makes you want to read, look at, and perhaps rediscover more.

Evelyn Lincoln
History of Art & Architecture and Italian Studies, Brown University