Steinberg's Critique of Formalism, from Other Criteria:

One way to cope with the provocations of novel art is to rest firm and maintain solid standards. The standards are set by the critic's long-practiced taste and by his conviction that only those innovations will be significant which promote the established direction of advanced art. All else is irrelevant. Judged for "quality" and for an "advancedness" measurable by given criteria, each work is then graded on a comparative scale.

A second way is more yielding. The critic interested in a novel manifestation holds his criteria and taste in reserve. Since they were formed upon yesterday's art, he does not assume that they are ready-made for today. While he seeks to comprehend the objectives behind the new art produced, nothing is a priori excluded or judged irrelevant. Since he is not passing out grades, he suspends judgment until the work's intention has come into focus and his response to it is - in the literal sense of the word - sym-pathetic; not necessarily to approve, but to feel along with it as with a thing that is like no other.

I am aware that this second mode tends to be expatiating and slow. It offers neither certitude nor precise quality ratings. But I believe that both ways - the will to empathize and the will to appraise - have their use. There must be an ideal combination of them, and perhaps most critics strive to achieve it. But that achievement lies beyond individual sensibility; the capacity to experience all works in accord with their inward objectives and at the same time against external standards belongs rather to the collective judgment of a generation, a judgment within which many kinds of critical insights have been absorbed.

Since mine is the second mode, I find myself constantly in opposition to what is called formalism; not because I doubt the necessity of formal analysis, or the positive value of work done by serious formalist critics. But because I mistrust their certainties, their apparatus of quantification, their self-righteous indifference to that part of artistic utterance which their tools do not measure. I dislike above all their interdictory stance - the attitude that tells an artist what he ought not to do, and the spectator what he ought not to see.

(Return to top of page)


On Picasso's Skull and Pitcher, from The Skulls of Picasso:

Skull and Pitcher, painted on March 10, 1945. A rectangular table having five, six, maybe seven sides (counting is not encouraged ). It stands at a window or porch, an ambiguous outside-in station, an interior that inhales the outdoors. The reticulate backdrop may be a tiled wall, or a plaid hanging, or coincident grids out of register. On the table, skull faces pitcher; between them - a spread of white light, either cast by the window or the negative of a shadow thrown by the skull. The glazed earthenware jug shows five facets; that means every aspect accounted for, to say nothing of lip, handle, and corrugated inside. The orientation of its lighted and shaded planes is reversed. The slender segments facing the incoming yellow light do not brighten up, but show sunless violet, so that we recognize them despite their precession for what they are - averted planes, tokens of other aspects. The light's character is consistently altered, as in the bar of white light standing up under the table. And above board, the light enters not softly, like the spiritual substance it ought to be, but like a sharpened ax-blade whose contact causes instantaneous recoil. The situation is tense; skull and pitcher in confrontation.

...the skull is mean and hard as a bullet. The thrust of its cranium reverberates at the pitcher's throat. And the curvaceous vessel, as befits the responsive sex, reels. Shrinking back, timorous, yielding, belonging - its caving gorge, you remember, attuned to the death's head - it plays the receiving role in a Satanic annunciation.

Like the pitcher, the skull too enrolls all its facets - top, occiput, profile, and hollowface. Its impending mass sits flat and full against the sunlight. No tenuous fragility here of human bone, no openwork hinging of jaws; it is all solid matter, obdurate substance, a fossil in its absolute prime. "One way to master the fear of death is to become its embodiment," reports a psychiatrist. And since this picture is laden with passionate metaphor, I cannot unthink the possibility that Picasso, who during the 1930's had projected himself into the Minotaur monster, is self-projecting again.

The pressure of emphasis contained in this sentient skull accords with its density. Despite the flat planes of the painter's idiom, it is made to seem indestructibly solid - but by what means? Of course, the heavy black boundary holds the parts down like a steel hoop, and such secure casing must be assumed to enclose an incumbent mass - the more so since the border thins out against the light and thickens below as on any three-dimensional object properly rendered. Then again, the segmental shapes at top and back suggest partial views in perspective. And the suggested planes, changing color from dark tones to light - from violet to a heightened turquoise - tend to read as tonal gradations on a spherical body. Furthermore, the skull lies in the path of an entering light, whence its bulk emerges by implication; it has to be volumetric to block all that light. Then there is the effect of the larger stark-staring eye which looks straight out and at the same time to left so that it rivets front-face and profile together. More important, the wedged-in triangular centerpiece: though it tips on one corner, it maintains the most rigid of geometric forms - a right triangle, its hypotenuse running from ten o'clock to five on the dial. And finally, the sides of this interned triangle - three chords of a circle - discharge (with refracted break of direction) into the surrounding field. Reading centerward, these fielded lines impinge from without to form planar ridges. Thus every internal division of the cranial orb claims its remote anchorage far afield; each side of its face is steered into place and held fast. It is the most redoubtable skull he ever painted.

(Return to top of page)


On Jasper Johns, from Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art:

When you ask Johns why he did this or that in a painting, he answers so as to clear himself of responsibility. A given decision was made for him by the way things are, or was suggested by an accident he never invited.

Regarding the four casts of faces he placed in four oblong boxes over one of the targets:

Q: Why did you cut them off just under the eyes?

A: They wouldn't have fitted into the boxes if I'd left them whole.

He was asked why his bronze sculpture of an electric bulb was broken up into bulb, socket, and cord:

A: Because, when the parts came back from the foundry, the bulb wouldn't screw into the socket.

Q: Could you have had it done over?

A: I could have.

Q: Then you liked it in fragments and you chose to leave it that way?

A: Of course.

The distinction I try to make between necessity and subjective preference seems unintelligible to Johns. I asked him about the type of numbers and letters he uses - coarse, standardized, unartistic - the type you associate with packing cases and grocery signs.

Q: You nearly always use this same type. Any particular reason?

A: That's how the stencils come.

Q: But if you preferred another typeface, would you think it improper to cut your own stencils?

A: Of course not.

Q: Then you really do like these best?

A: Yes.

This answer is so self-evident that I wonder why I asked the question at all; ah yes - because Johns would not see the obvious distinction between free choice and external necessity. Let me try again:

Q: Do you use these letter types because you like them or because that's how the stencils come?

A: But that's what I like about them, that they come that way.

Does this mean that it is Johns's choice to prefer given conditions - the shape of commercial stencils, inaccurate workmanship at the foundry, boxes too low to contain plaster masks, etc.? that he so wills what occurs that what comes from without becomes indistinguishable from what he chooses? The theoretic distinction I tried to impose had been fetched from elsewhere; hence its irrelevance.

I had tried to distinguish between designed lettering subject to expressive inflection, i.e. Ietters that exist in the world of art, and those functional letters that come in mass-produced stencils to spell THIS END UP on a crate. Proceeding by rote from this distinction between life and art, I asked whether the painter entertained an esthetic preference for these crude stenciled forms. Johns answers that he will not recognize the distinction. He knows that letters of more striking design do exist or can be made to exist. But they would be Art. And what he likes about those stencils is that they are Art not quite yet. He is the realist for whom preformed subject matter is a condition of painting.

(Return to top of page)


From The Philosophical Brothel, Steinberg's epochal interpretation of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon:

(The beginning section is from William Rubin's recent study, summarizing Steinberg's analyses.)

Steinberg was the first writer to come to grips with the sexual subject of the Demoiselles. He was the first to deal closely with the studies for the picture and, indeed, the first to deal at all with its many preparatory drawings in which the bordello subject is most evident. Steinberg was convinced that in the final work Picasso "did not abandon" his initial idea but discovered "more potent means for its realization." Thus, Steinberg viewed the Demoiselles essentially as "a sexual metaphor," whose figures "personify sheer sexual energy as the image of a life force." The stylistic differences between individual personages in the final work constitute Picasso's challenge "to the notion that the coherence of the work of art demands a stylistic consistency among the things represented," and the artist's decision to introduce these differences was characterized as "purposeful." Steinberg saw this stylistic multiplicity as paralleled by a methodological variety in Picasso's means of indicating space, the whole of which was compressed not only from back to front but from its sides: "no terms taken from other art - whether from antecedent paintings or from Picasso's own subsequent Cubism - describe the drama of so much depth under stress." This is not a flattened form of Renaissance space, not a Cubist space, but one "peculiar to Picasso's imagination." Beginning with the raised, pointed edge of the foreground table, "a visual metaphor of penetration," the space and the figures and objects in it were seen by Steinberg as expressively and symbolically in the service of the sexual content of the picture. The space was "not a visual continuum," but "an interior apprehended on the model of touch and stretch, a nest known by palpation, or by reaching and rolling, by extending oneself within it. Though presented symbolically to the mere sense of sight, Picasso's space insinuates total initiation, like entering a disordered bed." The picture's "inconsistencies" and "discontinuities" were subsumed in a higher expressive and psychological unity that "resides above all in the startled consciousness of a viewer who sees himself seen."

Seven years later Steinberg himself would summarize his many aperçus about the "explosive debut" in the Demoiselles of what he called Picasso's "discontinuity principle":

The picture crowds five disconnected figures - not as one group, nor in one ambience, but each singly encapsulated: the lone curtain raiser at left, separated even from her own lifted hand by an unmediated space jump; the second figure stretched forth in reclining position seen from on top - she arrives on the picture plane like a Murphy bed hitting the wall; the straight middle figure adjacent, but with no spatial ties to her sister, seen from below again. Then those curtain folds like packed ice to quarantine the intruding savage at upper right - treated in a menacing "African" mode; and lastly "crouched for employment" an exotic jade realized like no other, dorsal and frontal at once.

Comparison with the numerous studies for the Demoiselles revealed how tenaciously Picasso pursued this end; he was resolved to undo the continuities of form and field which Western art had so long taken for granted. The famous stylistic rupture at right turned out to be merely a consummation. Overnight, the contrived coherences of representational art - the feigned unities of time and place, the stylistic consistencies - all were declared to he fictional. The Demoiselles confessed itself a picture conceived in duration and delivered in spasms. In this one work Picasso discovered that the demands of discontinuity could be met on multiple levels: by cleaving depicted flesh; by elision of limbs and abbreviation; by slashing the web of connecting space; by abrupt changes of vantage; and by a sudden stylistic shift at the climax. Finally, the insistent staccato of the presentation was found to intensify the picture's address and symbolic charge: the beholder, instead of observing a roomfuI of lazing whores, is targeted from all sides. So far from suppressing the subject, the mode of organization heightens its flagrant eroticism.

(Return to top of page)


Excerpts from Pioneering Cubism, a symposium held on the occasion of the Picasso/Braque exhibition in 1989:

There's a small Picasso painting of 1913 which is here titled Hat Decorated with Grapes. I bring it up because in it Picasso paints a very beautiful, conventional Kewpie doll, but the woman's mouth is upside down. It's all oil, no mixture of materials, neither Ripolin nor papier colle, but the mark is upside down. Is there meaning in this?


On another point, I would like to propose a distinction in the reading matter between the headlines, the headings, and the solid blocks of type. I think it may be a mistake to regard them as equivalent: pictorially, they are not on the same level. My suspicion is that the blocks of type are not to be read; they provide texture, a kind of precise energy within the field. I sketched Glass and Bottle of Suze on a piece of scrap paper to make sure I understood it. The stem of the glass is a piece of white papier colle, and then, in charcoal, Picasso draws a very affectionate curl around the stem that suggests the base of the glass. In order to indicate the roundness of the cup he attaches a circle at the top of the stem. He then considers the cup itself, its opening and the shadow that would define its three-dimensionality. All of the parts and properties of the glass are given, but dislocated in what I call "the separation of predicates." I was just standing there copying this when I noticed the words LA DISLOCATION situated opposite the joint of the glass where the stem and the circle meet, and I thought, "Now, that's a coincidence. Was Picasso aware of it? Did he choose that piece of newspaper for this reason?" I looked at the heading above that one, and it says L'ORDRE DU JOUR, "the order of the day." And farther up the column it says LE MEETING EN PLEIN AIR. The words PLEIN AIR reminded me of Bill Rubin's persuasive suggestion that, in what is possibly Picasso's first papier colle, the words LA BATAILLE S'EST ENGAGEE refer not to Picasso's supposed intense involvement in the Balkan Wars but to the friendly rivalry with Braque. The words LE JOU, from jouer, followed by LA BATAILLE S'EST ENGAGEE, seem to support that interpretation. And if that is right, then possibly the words NOTRE AVENIR EST DANS L'AIR [The Scallop Shell: "Notre Avenir est dans l'air"] might be interpreted not in reference to Picasso's interest in aviation (he was a coward, and I believe he never went up in an airplane in his life), but rather to the overcoming of gravitation in Cubism. As with LA BATAILLE S'EST ENGAGEE, the phrase "Our future is in the air" might be self-referential. If that is so, then LE MEETING EN PLEIN AIR might carry a similar self-reference. Finally, there is one other caption in the Suze collage, and it says LES JOUR; the "s" is missing, obscured by the sawtooth-shaped piece of pasted paper, but one reads it as "les jours annoncent." Below that comes UN, and then VICTOIRE. But "Victoire" is feminine, so you read, "Les jours annoncent une Victoire." I also noticed that the author of this article is Paul Erio; the name Paul Erio occurs again, upside down, at top right. I wonder whether Picasso picked two articles by the same author because of the reference to his own first name.

I'm trying to suggest that, in a picture like this, the body of the text isn't meant to be read because, as reading matter, it doesn't function pictorially; the scale is wrong. So, we might want to distinguish between blocks of reading matter and, on the other hand, headings and headlines.


I would like to refer back to one of the two early still lifes Kirk mentioned [Jars with Lemon] and to the strange visual equation of the emptiness of the bowl to the lemon. Lawrence Gowing once described a portion of a Picasso as if it were a battleground, and, when you look at the surface of our 1907 picture, you notice that every single line has been slashed and reslashed. That's one of the things about looking at an original painting. It's an unforgettable experience to see how much labor went into this. There's been much talk about Picasso's insistence on defining the three-dimensional object, and yet here the definition of one object is repeatedly equated with the contour of another. It becomes instantly apparent that Picasso is concerned not with the plastic definition of an object, but with the relationship of the object to its surround. In the original, the yellow lemon-shaped top of the foreground bowl is much closer to the yellow of the lemon than it appears to be in the reproduction. The emptiness contained by the bowl is treated with a thick, rich impasto, while the body of that bowl is transparent and aligned with the curtain. Already, in 1907, there is the introduction of the interchangeability of solid and void which becomes crucial for our understanding of Cubism. Fifty years of classroom lecturing have made this a cliche, but how would this idea have been articulated in 1907 by the man who painted this picture? When Braque says "Picasso and I said things to one another that will never be said again . . . that no one will ever be able to understand," I suspect he is referring to discussions of this kind of mystery before there was a conceptual vocabulary for it.


One of the things I find most mysterious in Picasso's work is what I would call the "unlocation of place." Within the whole Western still-life tradition, from Chardin to Cezanne, to say "glass" is, at the same time, to say where the glass is. It is impossible in classical painting to assert an object without positioning it. This is not the case with language; if I say, "There's a glass on the table," I have yet to tell you where on the table the glass is. Picasso has managed to do the same for visual art. We now have three possibilities for the Au Bon Marche label: it began as a table; yesterday it became a carton; and today it becomes a synecdoche--the label itself standing for the carton. Now, if you look at the collage, the only suggestion of a background wall is due to the shadow cast by the bottle. But the wall space evoked by the shadow on the left is contradicted at right. The most mysterious thing about the glass on the right is that it is echoed on what appears to be an obliquely receding side wall; even its curving rim is repeated. Ask where that glass is, and you get one of the many statements in Picasso's Cubism of this time in which an object is postulated without indication of place. It has no specific location. This liberation of an object from specificity of place is essential to the movement from visual analogue to pure sign situation. That's a cliche; we've said that kind of thing many times. But to conceive such liberation in 1913 or '14 takes the kind of mind that only the ultimate poet, scientist, or theoretician has. This is what makes Cubism--as Bill suggested, using Leonardo's term--a cosa mentale. And I cannot see that Braque contributes to making a cosa mentale of painting. The contributions that Braque makes seem to me to be on another level.


Steinberg slam dunks Alvin Martin's interpretation of Braque's Le Portugais:

Steinberg: Is there a figure there?

Martin: There is a figure. You can see a profile of a caricatural face, with a funny cap on his head. He has buck teeth and a moustache. The shoulder is visible, as are the muscles of the arm and, at the lower center, what obviously looks like a guitar.

Steinberg: I still don't understand where the notion of Braque as the more poetic, lyrical, spatial, atmospheric, comes from when I look at this painting. And does this picture show a Bugs Bunny-type figure with two shoulders standing forward? Is that how we are to read and to teach Braque?

... Steinberg: All I can say is that if I am to see this Braque as a Bugs Bunny profile - if that is the reading of the picture - I'd be perfectly happy never to look at it again.


One of the things I'm profoundly grateful to this show for is my first sight of the original of Picasso's Stockholm collage. Among the things that continue to enchant me about it, apart from the wood-grain "double hip" contour of the violin, are the five pieces of newsprint in the picture. The one on the upper right, where the neck of the violin is drawn, seems to stand for the ground--the paper you draw on. That's the way Braque would use faux bois. To the left of it is a glass that casts a shadow upon another piece of newsprint, turning it into spatial depth. It may be that Picasso chose the piece because it features a little drawing of a boat on the open sea, which suggests associations to water, liquid, and air. I then look at the bottle at the left and find that the newsprint of which it is made stands for a solid body against atmospheric ground - the paper of the support. I look next at the word JOURNAL cut from a masthead; here Picasso wants the newsprint to read as the vehicle of a logo, a sign. Finally, he has lovingly framed a blank rectangle made of what seems to be the same paper - like a magician displaying his props. So, he uses cutout newspaper five times, and each time it is transformed by its context into something entirely different... Bill is right to say that to find the like of Picasso you have to go to the giants of the Renaissance.

(Return to top of page)


[Art Posters] [Home] [Juxtapositions] [Galleries] [Theory and Criticism] [Art CD-ROM Reviews] [Artchive] [Links]