Meyer Schapiro - Biography and Legacy
Art Historian and Critic
New York, NY, USA
Biography of Meyer Schapiro
The descendent of Talmudic scholars, he was born Meir Schapiro in Lithuania to Nathan Menachem Schapiro and Fanny Adelman Schapiro. Nathan had abandoned the Orthodox Jewish faith and was influenced by an Eastern European enlightenment movement that favored Western secular learning.
Nathan moved to New York City alone and worked as a Hebrew teacher at a Yeshiva in the Lower East Side. Once he had earned enough money, Nathan sent for his family, which emigrated in 1907.
While growing up in the predominately Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn, Schapiro discovered at an early age that he lacked the natural gifts of an artist, but this shortcoming did little, if nothing, to deter his interest in the arts and their rich history. After attending public school in Brooklyn, Schapiro attended Columbia College to study mathematics, philosophy, and art history, and graduated with distinction before his 20th birthday.
Although Schapiro was an artist himself, and painted and sketched frequently throughout his life, his real talents lay in history and education. In his earlier years, he studied under the painter John Sloan, but ultimately Schapiro did not make a living from his artwork.
He wanted to pursue graduate studies at Princeton, but was refused admission - which he believed was due to his Jewish background. So he returned to Columbia to earn his doctorate in Art History. While writing his dissertation, he spent five years studying and researching abroad (mostly in France) and taking in all the history and culture he possibly could of both ancient and modern European art; this knowledge and experience would soon prove beneficial to him and his many students-to-be upon returning to the U.S.
One invaluable skill he possessed was his knowledge of German philosophy and literature. Schapiro grew up in a primarily Yiddish-speaking household, thus he was able to teach himself German and became very familiar with the teachings of Georg Hegel and Karl Marx, among others.
In 1928, before completing his dissertation, he was made a lecturer in Art History at Columbia and was appointed to Assistant Professor in 1936.
In the late 1930s, Schapiro helped organize a socialist dissident group called the American Artists' Congress, which counted as its members artists like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. The Congress was established as a place for artists to have a voice in the fight against global fascism. Schapiro later resigned from the Congress, but remained a member of the newest organization the Congress helped spawn, the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, formed in 1940 for the purpose of assisting artists in exhibiting their work.
As a faculty member at Columbia, Schapiro began to gain wide acclaim for his progressive theories on art history and, in particular, those on the cultural significance of modern abstract art, something that at the time remained on the fringes of what was popularly considered true art. Schapiro would soon help change all that. When the paintings of some of the European modernists - Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró - arrived to New York City for an exhibition in the late 1930s, Schapiro worked hard to promote them. Although they were still relatively unknown in the U.S., he cited them as significant to the progression of art history and offered his own theories on how these modern painters were influenced by artistic giants like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne (two of his favorites). Schapiro lent some validity to the modern art movement and the Abstract Expressionist movement that followed.
Schapiro had made his home in Greenwich Village, which during the 1940s and '50s was a hotbed of intellectual and artistic activity. Schapiro was renowned and frequently sought out for his theoretical leanings towards Marxism and Socialism. However controversial these theories were at the time, he was known to be quite impartial and levelheaded; he didn't argue for the sake of arguing.
Schapiro was on the acquisitions committee on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and reportedly was instrumental in convincing the museum to purchase Jackson Pollock's The She-Wolf (1943). Pollock was still relatively unknown at the time, a recluse living on Long Island, but Schapiro's intuition for great modern art seemed to be more attuned to the times than other committee members.
From 1936 to 1952, Schapiro held one of the most influential roles in his life: a lecturing post at The New School for Social Research in New York City. Many of his students, including the Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell, came to the New School specifically to learn from Schapiro and benefit from his vast understanding of art history. Many of the era's best artists were not well versed in the history of their trade, so Schapiro proved to be a valuable asset and friend to many.
The one story for which Schapiro is probably best known is the time when he advised his friend Willem de Kooning not to abandon the painting Woman I (1950-52). De Kooning had worked on it for 18 months, and Schapiro, ever the tempered and patient thinker, reassured him that it was a worthy endeavor and that he should complete the work. (Whether there is any truth to this story has been questioned over the years.)
In 1950, Schapiro and fellow critic Clement Greenberg were contacted by Samuel Kootz to help organize an exhibition called Talent 1950 at the Kootz Gallery, which showcased the works of younger artists like Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Sue Mitchell, Esteban Vicente, and Manny Farber. Many of these artists had attended lectures given by Schapiro at the New School and at the famed Artist's Club, which was a regular gathering place for artists and writers in Greenwich Village, as The Cedar Tavern was for Abstract Expressionists and beat writers.
In 1954, along with the literary and social critic Irving Howe and other New York intellectuals, Schapiro helped launch the magazine Dissent, a quarterly newsmagazine of politics and culture, which still exists today. The founding editors opposed Soviet totalitarianism and McCarthyism, and, throughout the Cold War, they challenged the Marxist notion that culture in all its forms should be at the service of politics.
With the New York art scene, in all its post-World War II glory, now taking a strong liking to modern and abstract art, dozens of art galleries began popping up all over the city, and Schapiro was a regular attendee at many of them. By this time a seasoned educator and historian, Schapiro could have settled into his comfortable professorship at Columbia and spent his later years basking in moderate celebrity, but he chose to remain active in the New York art world. In 1957, using much of the art on view in the galleries, he helped curate a show at the Jewish Museum called Artists of the New York School: The Second Generation.
Later Years and Death
Schapiro was made a university professor at Columbia in 1967 and later a professor emeritus in 1973.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Schapiro was called upon to deliver lectures and advanced courses on art at Harvard University, Oxford University, and the College de France in Paris. In 1976, he was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He lived out his remaining days in his long-time home in Greenwich Village.
Although he did not teach very often in the late 1970s, Schapiro did continue painting until at least 1979 and possibly beyond.
In 1987, Columbia University housed a very unusual exhibition, devoted to the artwork of Professor Schapiro. The works spanned the time period from 1919 to 1979. This show successfully shed new light on a man whose talents and achievements were already far reaching in the modern art world, and the Columbia show proved he had even more to offer.
He died at the age of ninety-one, in the same Greenwich Village apartment he had lived in since the late 1930s.
The Legacy of Meyer Schapiro
Meyer Schapiro was more than just a proponent of modern art; he was a historian and intellectual of the highest regard. He paid close attention to art movements that were popular in a given time and believed that art and the society in which it exists must be considered in tandem. True appreciation of a work of art must be complemented by an understanding of its time period.
As a friend to several abstract artists and as a member of MoMA's acquisitions committee, Schapiro was instrumental in championing the art of two of the era's most celebrated artists, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. It's worth asking today if either man would have been as famous if not for the advice and counsel of Meyer Schapiro.
Schapiro on Art History
As much as art history fascinated him, he was skeptical of historians and teachers in academia who had little to offer in the ways of real world experience. Schapiro's love for modern abstract art was informed by his love for much older forms of art (Romanesque sculpture, Renaissance art, religious art, Impressionism, etc.), and he saw an undeniable connection between the ancient and the modern. In a 1973 speech, Schapiro said, "The study of art history presupposes 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."
According to Schapiro, art is informed by the society in which it is created. This idea was closely linked to the ideas of his philosophical and literary heroes, the German philosophers Georg Hegel and Karl Marx.
Many forms of art, wrote Marx, can only come about at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. In other words, in the history of art, great art is truly great because, when it arrives, we have no standard for judging it; nothing quite like it has come before, so we must judge it the only way we know how - by looking at the art within our own society.
So when the works of Braque, Picasso, and Miro all arrived to New York in the late 1930s, it was Schapiro who assisted the public in properly judging them, with the use of theory, history, and, most important, a historical context. The public's understanding of modern art was not ready and too underdeveloped to accept these artists as is, so it was Schapiro who helped ready them.
Schapiro on Abstraction
Schapiro once wrote that sculpture and painting were "the last hand-made personal objects" in a society dominated by the division of labor. This outlook is particularly relevant to abstract art, which communicates to the public more contradictions than solutions.
Schapiro viewed abstract art as a major leap forward in art, because while the world had been transformed by modernization and industrialization, it offered access to different realms, and its handmade products offered authentic means of expression. Abstract art, Schapiro believed, was a critical stage in history because it communicated to the viewer the achievements of the individual in an era when industry and mass communication were the accepted norms.
Schapiro on Dialectics
When it came to Abstract Expressionism, Schapiro promoted the idea of a dialectic in art, or in other words, the natural existence of opposing forces - a thesis and antithesis - which together form a synthesis. A dialectical approach to art is a concession that there are contradictions present, particularly in modern art, and it's these contradictions which must be embraced for their merits, not their shortcomings.
The specific dialectic Schapiro embraced was this: during the 1930s and 1940s, when the civilized world was being torn apart by differing political and ideological factions (fascism, communism, socialism, democracy, industrialization, and so forth), abstract art inspired intense emotion and spontaneity, and the greatness of the individual mind, all without communicating any political or ideological message. Schapiro firmly believed, like Hegel and Marx, that art and society were interconnected. However (and this is where Schapiro deviates from Marx), the two should and must remain mutually exclusive. Art, in many ways, reflects the society in which it's created, but it must remain free of any social or political influence. This is a modern idea, and not one widely accepted at the time.
Schapiro and Kunstwollen
Schapiro's writings and teachings were heavily influenced by little-known German historian Alois Riegl, who introduced the idea of Kunstwollen, the definition of which has been debated for years, but has commonly been boiled down to the "will to art." In other words, any society's willingness to create art stems from its understanding of the world around it. The will to create art differs greatly from generation to generation, and from culture to culture, but the will itself always remains. When Schapiro viewed any art, whether modern or ancient, he yearned to observe it contextually and through the lens of that time period's particular "will to art."
The Legacy of Meyer Schapiro
Schapiro provided beautiful and highly visual descriptions of specific works of art, something his more well-known contemporaries Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg did not do in their writing. Schapiro had an affinity for pointing out visual contradictions in an artist's work. Of Vincent van Gogh he wrote: "The duality of sky and earth remains-the first light, soft, rounded, filled with fantasy and suggestions of animal forms, the earth firmer, harder, more intense in color, with stronger contrasts, of more distinct parts, perhaps masculine. Or one might interpret the duality as of the real and the vaguely desired and imagined."
Schapiro wrote about artists and their works in terms of symbolic meaning, and how such works existed in a historical context. Arguably, Schapiro's style of writing was intentionally designed to assist his readers in understanding a particular artistic style or form of expression.