The Artist Historian

A decade after his death, Meyer Schapiro is remembered as the most inspiring and imaginative American art historian of the past century. Although a distinguished professor of medieval art at Columbia, he was best known as a public intellectual who was as deeply interested in the contemporary art scene as in the art of the past. His legendary lectures attracted not only students and scholars from neighboring fields but also—and more importantly—many well-known New York artists. He was immensely learned, but followed his own idiosyncratic approach. Asked how he managed to move so effortlessly in his work from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he is said to have answered: “I skipped the Renaissance.” He never wrote a single great book, but his numerous articles and essays made enormous contributions to art scholarship. During the Thirties he had been drawn to Marxism—more precisely to Trotskyism—but he was never dogmatic and strongly opposed the excesses of Stalin. Above all, he believed in the autonomy of art, and viewed abstract painting as the last expression of uninhibited creativity and fantasy in a social world dominated by technology and industrial production.

I’ll never forget my first long conversation with him. It was early in 1962 on the campus at Columbia, during a snowstorm of which he seemed oblivious. I happened to mention Zeitbilder, a recent book by Arnold Gehlen, the conservative German sociologist,1 in which Jackson Pollock’s much-discussed technique—his “all-over” method of dripping paint on a large canvas stretched out on the floor—was likened to the automated process of a factory assembly line. This provoked an explosive reaction from Schapiro, who angrily defended Pollock: his work, he said, was fundamentally about spontaneity. I learned more about Schapiro himself in that moment—even about Schapiro the medievalist—than from reading and studying all his admirable essays.

At the time Schapiro began his graduate work in the 1920s, there had long been in the United States a naive notion of the “Romanesque” style, which was associated with castles and tournaments, monasteries and pilgrimage. In the second half of the nineteenth century, neo-Romanesque buildings with round arches, heavy stonework, short squat columns, and recessed entrances—all seen in contrast to the high, pointed architecture of the Gothic churches that came later—were erected throughout New England by architects such as H.H. Richardson. In 1904, the publication of Henry Adams’s astonishing book Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres did much to spread a violent and gloomy picture of the period in which Romanesque and Gothic art was produced. A decade later, George Barnard installed his picturesque collection of Romanesque fragments in New York. This collection, which he had assembled mainly from ruins and lapidaries in the south of France, became the core of the Cloisters, the museum constructed by the Rockefellers in Washington Heights in the 1930s that included architectural elements from several important Romanesque and Gothic buildings in France.

After World War I American interest in Romanesque art was greatly heightened by the work of Arthur Kingsley Porter,…

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