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Meyer Schapiro

By Wolf Kahn

It is a daunting occurrence to be a member in the Department of Art, delivering the tribute for a departed member of the Department of Literature. It would have been actually inappropriate were some of Meyer’s closest writer friends still among us. We would have been privileged, for example, to hear about Meyer from Irving Howe. Meyer and he shared common antecedents in eastern Jewish culture. Meyer and he fought side by side in some of the most crucial ideological conflicts among the left in America. I myself come from a German Jewish background which is a much thinner broth, and I never became anything more interesting politically than a bourgeois liberal.

Nor am I adequately equipped to assess Meyer Schapiro’s contributions to serious scholarship. I know that he was a MacArthur Fellow from 1987-92, that he was a Slade Professor at Oxford in 1968, and that he gave the Norton lectures at Harvard in 1967, and that he was named a University Professor in 1965, after a 40-year teaching career at Columbia, where he continued to teach for many more years. His lectures were legendary and attracted listeners from way outside the academy. I asked Professor James Ackeman of Harvard to sum up what made his colleague so special in his field, and here is what he writes:

Meyer’s contributions to the history of art, which ranged from studies on early Medieval to contemporary art, were always informed by his interest in an extraordinary breadth of disciplines. I recall a seminar on Romanesque sculpture in the 40s in which he applied to the interpretation of some image an agricultural report from a mid-western state. Not only were virtually all disciplines interesting to him, but, as rarely had occurred among historians, he moved easily from one theoretical base to another. The early work on Moissac was rigorously grounded in intense visual analysis, but at the same time he was producing essays based on Marxist principles; from there he easily moved into iconographical studies, to Freudian interpretation, and, more recently, to semiological readings. His collected essays amount to the highest achievement in the discipline.

The art historian David Rosand, whom Meyer Schapiro designated as his literary executor, put it even more succinctly: “Meyer Schapiro represented the very best of American art history to the world; he brought to the discipline an originality of vision founded on profound and the keenest sensibility, as well as a passionate belief in the value of knowledge. He was a scholar’s scholar, but among scholars he was a poet.”

As for me, I first met Meyer when I was in my twenties after a group of us opened a little co-op gallery on 4th Avenue and 12th Street. We were all of us unknown, but, lo and behold, Prof. Schapiro appeared one day on our threshold, and even more lo and behold, he bought a little wash drawing of mine, which helped my morale considerably at the time.

All of this was very untypical behavior, but Meyer was an altogether untypical art historian. He loved artists, and they were drawn to him. It is far more usual to find that artists and art historians keep their distance. They tend to distrust each other. They feel that in the way each approaches their common concern, the work of art, essentials are being overlooked. Artists are perceived, justly at times, as being intellectually sloppy, while art historians, if they love art at all, go about it in a strange way. Examples abound in the universities where the conflicts between the studio art professors and the art historians reach such epic proportions that the Dept. of Fine Art has to be divided into two distinct departments before academic peace and decorum can be restored. But Meyer was, besides being a scholar’s scholar, an art historian for artists.

And he was a wonderful friend. To have had Meyer as a friend meant that there were a number of things you didn’t need. You had no need of an employment service, and you didn’t need a rich relative. You just let Meyer find out that you needed a job, or that you were broke, and he found a way to dip into that incredible network of friendships and connections he had always available to find a way out of the present difficulty. When I came back from my Fulbright in Italy in 1965, dead broke, with two small children, I hardly had to say anything before Meyer managed to convince the trustees of the Jewish Theological Seminary that what was needed was a group portrait of the Senior faculty and he knew just the man to paint it. The rabbis were a bit unenthusiastic, but with Meyer’s nudging they allowed an example of the graven image to become the gravy image for the starving artist.

Another thing you didn’t need with Meyer as a friend was a reference library. You simply called him to get the answers, to all your questions. I well remember one evening in the Village when my wife Emily and I were eating out with a group of younger art historians, and we ordered scallops baked in the shell, known among gourmets as Coquilles St. Jacques. What, we asked the assembled scholars, was the possible connection between the Saint and the savory? Silence among the sages. “Let me call Meyer,” I said. A half an hour later I emerged from the phone booth, a happier and far wiser man, having been treated to a one-on-one lecture all this time on the iconology and iconography of the scallop shell from pre-history to the present. My scallops by then were cold but that was a small sacrifice.

Another time, however, such a friendship pulled me up a bit short. I had been serving as a one-man jury for a Texas regional painting annual held in Houston. It had been a satisfying, perhaps overly satisfying experience which had convinced me of the overwhelming advantage of autocracy, at least in this limited context. I was so exhilarated that I decided to set down my insights in an article on art juries and I began this useful work, as one does, with a bit of historical background. After a couple of paragraphs I came to a stop. What was the date of the first Salon des Refusés, the first jury-less salon in Paris? Was it 1867? Well, I hadn’t talked to Meyer in a while anyway and he wouldn’t mind a minor consultation. “When” I asked, “did the Impressionists organize the Salon des Refusés?” “Well” he said “first of all, it was organized a decade before the Impressionists—read me what you have written so far.” I did. There was a shocked silence on the other end of the phone. “Wolf, that’s all wrong” he finally stated.  “Now to get your facts right you must read La system des Juries en France dans le dixhuitième Siècle by Jean-Auguste Francois le Sage published in 1911 by Gallimard, as well as “Die französischen Salons in der Mitte des neunzenten Jahrhunderts” by Ernst Ludwig Deutschman-Weise, which I know to be in the Columbia Library, whereas the other book can only be found in the NYU library in Washington Square, and then there are two more books which you must read…” “Wait a minute, Meyer: I interrupted, “do you mean to say that to write one sentence I have to read four books?” “Ah, now you are learning what scholarship is all about” was his answer.

It was our privilege as well as our pleasure to have had among us a person who combined, in one mind, such intellectual rigor, such concern for friends, such love of art and artists, and such general curiosity, and such enthusiasm for all aspects of experience. Such individuals are rare, and it is no surprise that they become as the phrase has it a legend in their time.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 7, 1996.

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