New York Times

March 4, 1996

Meyer Schapiro, Art Historian and Critic, Dies at 91

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NEW YORK -- Dr. Meyer Schapiro, university professor emeritus at Columbia University, multi-disciplinary critic and historian, galvanic teacher, lifelong radical and for more than 50 years a pre-eminent figure in the intellectual life of New York, died Sunday at the Greenwich Village house that had been his home for more than 60 years. He was 91.

As an academic, Schapiro excelled in two completely different fields. It was as a historian and elucidator of Romanesque sculpture that he made his name in 1931. He also wrote on 19th-century and early-20th-century art -- from Courbet and Cezanne to Mondrian and the Abstract Expressionists -- in ways that gave new dignity to the discussion of modern art.

But it was not in his nature to function as a specialist within any one particular discipline. Even less was he a satrap of the seminar with specific "turf" of his own to protect. It was, in fact, the very essence of Schapiro that he never conceived of any aspect of art, of belief or of language in isolation.

He regarded all forms, schools and systems of knowledge as interrelated and interdependent. As far as he was concerned, he had been put on earth to know, and to make known, the correspondences between them all. And he addressed himself not to the insider, but to the generality of intelligent human beings.

An archetypal Jewish immigrant, Schapiro arrived in the United States at the age of 3 from Lithuania, where Jews were subject to periodic and odious harassment.

It was in New York, the fulcrum and heartland of immigration, that he lived out his life. New York made him welcome, nourished his fiery and agile intelligence, and made it possible for him to master one discipline after another with a speed and a thoroughness that have had few parallels in our century.

What New York had given him, he gave back many times over. To be in the same city as Schapiro was a privilege, and more than one generation of gifted New Yorkers was well aware of it.

The painter Robert Motherwell said in 1974: "It was in order to study with Meyer Schapiro that I came to New York, which was the single most decisive factor in my development. He introduced me to European artists in exile here from the war in the 1940s, and this was the second most important factor in my orientation. I have great admiration for him as a sage, though I disagree with him on some judgments. I admire him as an irreplaceable man and as an extraordinary representative of the unique greatness of New York City."

William Rubin, formerly the director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, said: "Few art historians have the eye and mind of a Meyer Schapiro. And none of those shared his extraordinary humanity. So when Meyer Schapiro communed with great art, he saw kinds of things that eluded the rest of us."

Hilton Kramer, the editor of The New Criterion, said: "In my generation, one of the key points of entry into the life of art in New York was the experience of hearing Dr. Schapiro lecture on modern painting at the New School for Social Research. Those lectures, always crowded with artists and writers, were dazzling performances that left one in no doubt that the great work of the modern painters stood at the very center of life."

In lecture hall and seminar, Schapiro would sometimes start from a prepared text or with a purpose that he summarized at the outset. His speech at such times might be plain and straightforward to the point of hesitation.

But before long an almost perceptible halo of cerebration began to wreathe his head. As he took off into an empyrean to which he alone had access, ideas and intuitions crowded in from every quarter.

At such times, all present were drawn into a magic circle that he had been tracing since the late 1920s. It could have been overwhelming, but such was the intellectual courtesy behind it that those in his audience left the room convinced, for just a minute or two, that they were as clever as he was.

As to the general direction of his work, he himself defined it when, in 1973, he was given an award by the Art Dealers Association of America.

"The study of art history" he said, "pre-supposes that art is a universal and permanent feature of civilized life, and that what we do to preserve it, and to discriminate the best of it, will contribute to future enjoyment as much as to our own."

"Our concern with the work of art, however touched by vanity or greed, is a homage beyond self-interest," he continued. "Through it we surmount, if only at rare moments, the limitations of our striving, possessive selves and, as an old poet says, 'into glory peep.' "

All his life Schapiro had a capacity for total recall. No matter what subject was raised in general conversation, he could usually name not only the necessary books on the subject but the chapter heading and even the page reference that was most appropriate. In this regard, he was rarely faulted. Equally remarkable was his visual memory for works of art that he had once seen and never forgotten.

When the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz was newly arrived in New York from Europe during World War II, he spent an evening in Schapiro's company. The talk turned to the great collections of tribal art in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, and in particular to a piece that he had especially admired.

To help Lifschitz recall it, Schapiro took a sheet of paper and drew, from memory and to scale, not only the piece in question but every other piece that had been in the case with it some years before. He did not see this as anything out of the ordinary.

Artists and writers prized in particular the unexpected and far-ranging connections that he could summon up when in their company. The French painter Fernand Leger was not given to mystical observances of any kind, and when Schapiro took him to the basement of the Pierpont Morgan Library during World War II he may have wondered what was in store for him.

But it was thanks to Schapiro that Leger found, in an 11th-century illumination from the Beatus Apocalypse, an important element in the vocabulary of his later paintings. This was one of many occasions on which Schapiro dealt with living artists on an inspired basis.

Another was a well-known occasion in 1952 on which he convinced Willem de Kooning that his "Woman I" was not a failure, as de Kooning had supposed, but a success from which other successes would surely come.

More recently, the point was put with ideal concision by R.B. Kitaj, the American painter, who now lives in London.

"Meyer Schapiro was here," he wrote. "Like having Plato in the living room!"

But then, there were few people who came within his orbit and were not changed for the better. For those who worked with words, he was the speaker they most wanted to hear and the reader they most wanted to please.

Irving Howe, the editor, critic and commentator, once said in that context, "To gain even his conditional approval for something I have written has been the single highest reward to which I could aspire."

In 1974, on the occasion of Schapiro's 70th birthday, 12 of the leading artists of the day made original lithographs, etchings and silk-screens that were sold in an edition of 100.

The proceeds were given to a fund for the endowment of a chair in Schapiro's name in the department of art history and archeology at Columbia. The artists were Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Liberman, Stanley William Hayter, Roy Lichtenstein, Andre Masson, Robert Motherwell, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Saul Steinberg.

Schapiro was born in Siauliai, Lithuania, on Sept. 23, 1904. He was the son of Nathan Menachem Schapiro and Fanny Adelman Schapiro. The descendant of Talmudic scholars, Nathan Schapiro in first youth abandoned the Orthodox Jewish traditions in which he had been reared and became influenced by the Jewish Socialist Bund and the Haskala, an Eastern European enlightenment movement that welcomed Western secular learning.

In 1906 Nathan Schapiro immigrated on his own to the United States, where he found work as a teacher of Hebrew at the Yitzcak Elchanan Yeshiva on the Lower East Side in New York.

After only a year, he had saved enough money to send for his family. While Nathan's son was being processed on Ellis Island for entry into the United States at the age of 3, his name was changed from Meir to Meyer.

With his family settled in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Nathan Schapiro prospered as a paper-and-twine jobber. His intellectual interests were uncommonly varied. Yiddish was the first language in the family home, but he kept up with literary (as distinct from spoken) Hebrew, secular Bible studies, the theories of Darwin, books on language, the contemporary socialist press and much else.

While a pupil at Public School 84 in Brooklyn, Meyer Schapiro was encouraged by his parents to let his curiosity run free.

He read, drew, took and developed photographs, mastered electrical gadgetry and did not disdain sports.

Like many other brilliant Jewish students at that time, he found a second home in the Hebrew Settlement House in Brownsville, where he was the only child in an evening art class that was taught by the painter and etcher John Sloan.

In 1975, at the 75th-anniversary celebrations of the settlement house, he pointed to the medal that his wife, Dr. Lillian Milgrim, was wearing around her neck. She had received that medal from the settlement house for teaching at its Sabbath school, Schapiro said.

While at Boys High School in Brooklyn, he received very high grades in Latin and mathematics, attended lectures on anthropology and economics at the Young Peoples' Socialist League, and worked summers as a Western Union delivery boy, a warehouse packer, an electrical-supply assembler and an adjustment clerk at Macy's.

In 1920, at the age of 16, he graduated from high school. In September of that year he entered Columbia College as the holder of both a Pulitzer scholarship and a Regents scholarship.

Already convinced that he would never make the grade as a practicing artist, he chose an undergraduate curriculum that included Latin, living languages, mathematics, ancient and modern literature, anthropology, philosophy and art history.

The poet and English professor Mark Van Doren remembered Meyer Schapiro as a Columbia student with "thick, curly black hair, eager white cheeks, darkly rolling eyes" and "a passion to know and make known."

Still not yet 20, he received his bachelor's degree with honors in art history and philosophy. What he called his "sense of the deep connections of art with the totality of culture" was already shaping the direction of the life's work that was to come.

Both anthropology (under Franz Boas) and architecture tempted him, meanwhile, and art history as then taught at Columbia seemed to him almost derisory, based as it was on courses given, in his view, by "men who had never really conducted investigations after writing their Ph.D. theses."

But art history remained the discipline that would best satisfy both his love of learning and his love of art. Turned down by the department of art history at Princeton -- a rejection that he attributed at least in part to his being Jewish -- he settled for graduate work in art history at Columbia.

The next years were decisive for his career on two separate counts. One was the fact that the distinguished medievalist Ernest DeWald had moved from Princeton to Columbia. The other was that Meyer Schapiro taught himself German (by way of Yiddish) and was thus able to read the seminal work of two great scholars, Wilhelm Voge and Alois Riegl.

From Voge, he learned to study the emergence of the monumental style in 11th- and 12th-century Europe. From Riegl, he learned the correspondence between changes in art and the development of individual perception from one stage of life to another.

Fired up by these revelations, he chose as the subject for his doctoral dissertation the cloister and portal of Moissac, an abbey in southwestern France that had been built about A.D. 1100 and had long been well known for its Romanesque sculptures. Those sculptures had always been regarded primarily as rudimentary way stations on the road to Gothic art and the work of anonymous artisans who wished only to dedicate themselves to God.

But in 1922 the French art historian Emile Male argued in his book on 12th-century religious art in France that on the contrary, they marked "the very inception of the modern tradition in sculpture."

Five years of research, much of it on site in France and elsewhere, went into the doctoral dissertation, which was accepted by Columbia in 1929.

Schapiro's research went far beyond the implications of Moissac itself. Medieval church history, liturgy, theology, social history, illuminated manuscripts, folklore, epigraphy, the analysis of ornamentand national characteristics (real or imagined) all were pressed into service and synthesized. As a result, what had been thought of as antiquarian artifacts were seen to have a completely different character.

"A new sphere of artistic creation," Schapiro called it, "without religious content and imbued with values of spontaneity, individual fantasy, delight in color and movement, and the expression of feelings that anticipate modern art. This new art, on the margins of religious work, was accompanied by a conscious taste of the spectators for the beauty of workmanship, materials, and artistic devices, apart from religious meanings."

In 1928, before his dissertation was completed, he was appointed a lecturer in art history at Columbia. That year he also married Dr. Milgrim, a pediatrician. As of 1931, when part of his dissertation appeared in The Art Bulletin, his exceptional stature was widely realized.

"For the first time," one scholar recalled, "Meyer treated a set of Romanesque sculptures as art, rather than as documents."

The rest of Schapiro's teaching career was spent primarily at Columbia, where he became assistant professor in 1936, associate professor in 1946, full professor in 1952 and university professor in 1965. Named university professor emeritus in 1973, he went to Columbia once a week to teach a graduate class on "Theory and Methods of Investigation in Art."

He also lectured at New York University from 1932 to 1936, and at the New School for Social Research from 1936 to 1952. His lectures at the New School had a particular importance for artists and writers, in that they coincided with the development of a New York school of painting that was to win widespread international acclaim.

Meanwhile, European modernism was still little known in the United States, and when paintings by Picasso, Georges Braque and Joan Miro arrived in New York they were often seen literally out of context. Schapiro at that time performed a public service by validating them in intellectual, historical and moral terms that were a revelation to many in his audience.

During the 1930s, the Schapiros' home in Greenwich Village was much visited by members of the radical left, and Schapiro became a contributor to The Marxist Quarterly, The New Masses, The Nation and The Partisan Review.

It was, however, noted by the novelist Saul Bellow that "Meyer never took part in any of the quarrels and backbiting and vendettas. ... He was the one person in the Village against whom no one had anything terrible to say."

For many years, Schapiro was reluctant to publish (or, in some cases, to republish) his lectures and papers. An annunciatory quality had always been fundamental to his performances on the platform and in the classroom.

The printed page ruled out the new insights that came crowding in -- or so it seemed -- on the spur of the moment and in the heat of exposition. For this reason, his output in print between 1931 and the late 1970s was almost absurdly small in relation to his reputation as both an art historian of the first rank and the most inspiring teacher of his time.

"Vincent van Gogh" (1950) and "Cezanne" (1952) were treasured texts, but brief. "Words and Pictures" (1973), likewise brief, applied the new science of semiotics to the study of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Other writings had almost a clandestine circulation.

But in 1977 George Braziller began publishing a four-volume series of his selected essays and lectures. "Romanesque Art" came out in 1977, "Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries" in 1978, and "Late Antique, Early Christian and Medieval Art" in 1979. The fourth volume, "Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist and Society," was published in 1994.

The former pupil of John Sloan painted and drew for much of his life. In 1987 he was persuaded by Rainer Crone and Elizabeth Ferrer of the art history department at Columbia to exhibit his work at the university.

The 65 drawings and paintings, dating from 1919 to 1979, touched lightly on portraiture, landscape, family subjects, the all-embracing horror of World War II and the potential of abstraction.

A self-portrait drawing made when he was 16 was a sure guide to his ardent nature, and as testimony to his gift for personal loyalty there were two portraits of Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist whose testimony was instrumental in the perjury conviction of Alger Hiss.

In 1966-67 Schapiro was Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer at Harvard University. In 1968 he was Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University. In May 1974 he was a visiting lecturer at the College de France in Paris.

In May 1975 the alumni of Columbia awarded him the Alexander Hamilton Medal for distinguished service and accomplishment. In 1976 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

In addition to his wife, Schapiro is survived by two children, Miriam Schapiro Grosof of Manhattan and Ernest Schapiro of Washington; two grandsons; a great grandson, and an older brother, Morris Schapiro.


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