Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers, Volume II
by Meyer Schapiro
Braziller, 277 pp., $20.00
In April 1957 the two principal speakers before the American Federation of Arts meeting in Houston were Marcel Duchamp, proto-Dada and practicing non-artist, then seventy years old, and Meyer Schapiro, a Columbia University art historian best known for his articles on Early Christian, Romanesque, and nineteenth-century French art. In an almost symmetrical reversal of roles, Duchamp read a sober (and probably ironic) assessment of the spectator’s considerable role in “the creative act” and cited Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Schapiro delivered an eloquent hortatory defense of contemporary abstract-impressionist painting emphasizing its spontaneity, randomness, automatism, and the self-sufficiency of its pure forms and colors.
Both talks appeared that summer in Art News. Duchamp’s was republished the following year in a collection of his writings; Schapiro’s, entitled “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,” was not republished in spite of the fact that it immediately became and has remained one of the most widely read and influential articles on abstract painting. Instead it began a vigorous underground existence, photocopied for critics’ and artists’ files and reproduced year after year for seminars on modern art. Because of Schapiro’s scruples about book publication and his resistance to writing in the conventional form of the book-length monograph, for forty years we have had to read his works largely in some samizdat form. Therefore it has been difficult to take his measure as a scholar-critic.
Now Braziller is bringing out Schapiro’s “Selected Papers” in four substantial volumes. Romanesque Art has already appeared and been received with respect at the highest critical and scholarly level. Early Christian and Byzantine Art and Theory and Philosophy of Art will follow. The present selection of fourteen articles and lectures on nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting (sculpture is barely mentioned) employs several different approaches to its varied subjects. It includes six articles—among them the Houston talk—in which scholarly considerations are in great part preempted by highly controversial questions about the nature and direction of contemporary art. This book really falls into two counterbalanced halves: a hundred pages at the start on major figures of nineteenth-century painting (Courbet, Van Gogh, Cézanne), and a slightly longer section at the end on the development and nature of abstract art. In between the editor has sandwiched three short pieces on Seurat, Picasso, and Chagall. Rather than recapitulating the arguments of so many articles, I shall address myself principally to the general cast of Schapiro’s treatment of modern paintings and touch on certain historical, philosophical, and aesthetic principles that guide his thinking as it moves between the two sections.
Schapiro writes an evenly paced prose that leans toward the florid yet never abandons a carefully conducted argument. He avoids dramatic effects and startling leaps; he finishes many of the essays by just coming to a stop, as if time or material ran out. But nothing seems missing. The intellectual excitement of attending his lectures is partially muted in this printed version; what one hears is the steady …