THERE’S A SENSE OF DEJA vu about “Prints From the Leo Steinberg Collection, Part I,” the exhibition on view at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art through July 27. It’s not that the work is familiar; much of it is strikingly unexpected. But a pattern does seem to have emerged: A small university gallery acquires a coveted collection, amassed by an eminent scholar, out from under the noses of America’s top museums. Five years ago the Blanton scored a stunning coup with the acquisition of the Suida-Manning Collection, a cache of Mannerist and Baroque paintings and drawings assembled by art historians William Suida, his daughter, Bertina, and his son-in-law, Robert Manning, all noted authorities in the field who got into the market ahead of a trend. Last summer the art world was similarly startled to learn that Leo Steinberg, who is regarded as one of the most brilliant art historians working today, had given the Blanton his stellar print collection. Like Suida and the Mannings, Steinberg stole a march on the market, picking expertly from a selection that today is much smaller—and far pricier.
“It was certainly one of the last comprehensive yet distinctive collections of prints in private hands in this country,” says Blanton curator Jonathan Bober, who was instrumental in engineering both the Suida-Manning and the Steinberg acquisitions. “In terms of the rarity and quality of the impressions, there is nothing like it.” While the $3.5 million estimated worth of the Leo Steinberg Collection doesn’t match the Suida-Manning Collection’s $35 million, its value to a teaching institution like the Blanton can hardly be overstated. Extending from the fifteenth-century origins of Western printmaking to Jasper Johns’s celebrated 1964 color lithograph, Ale Cans (Steinberg wrote a seminal essay on Johns’s art in 1962), Steinberg’s 3,200-piece collection reflects an intellect legendary for its breadth, erudition, and edginess.
Born in Moscow in 1920, Steinberg grew up in Berlin and studied in London before settling in New York at the end of World War II. In his half-century as a writer, a scholar, and an educator, he has ranged across half a millennium of Western art, elucidating Modern masters such as Picasso and Johns and old masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo, often tossing bombshells along the way. Steinberg’s 1983 tome, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, was a controversial (to say the least) masterpiece of intellectual temerity, taking to task established scholarship for politely ignoring Renaissance artists’ obvious fixation on Jesus’ genitals—which Steinberg interpreted as an important doctrinal expression of the humanity of Christ.
Steinberg’s collection took shape in the aftermath of a heart attack he suffered in 1961, shortly after he had finished his Ph.D. dissertation on Italian Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. Advised by his doctor to take it easy, he spent the summer browsing for engravings and etchings in New York bookstores and art gallery bargain bins, quickly finding that this neglected genre appealed to his independent streak. “Prints were considered beneath the consideration of serious galleries,” he recalls. “I would take a batch of prints on approval to the print room of the Metropolitan Museum and acquaint myself with the range of the artists’ work and the relevant literature. Artists I had never heard of became heroes to me.” Starting out on a teaching assistant’s budget, Steinberg occasionally sampled big names like Rembrandt and Piranesi but preferred soon-to-be-discovered masters like sixteenth-century Dutch engraver Hendrik Goltzius (whose posterior view of The Farnese Hercules, the colossal nude statue that was a tourist favorite in Renaissance Rome, is one of the collection’s signature images), as well as artists who even today remain underrated, like Jean Lepautre, a seventeenth-century French engraver who set biblical scenes amid precisely detailed, extravagantly invented classical architecture.
“I couldn’t afford to buy anything that was over one hundred dollars,” says Steinberg, who sometimes bought at bulk prices averaging out to pennies per print. After casually inquiring at a Lexington Avenue frame shop in 1962, he was shown an album of prints pasted onto pages by a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century collector, then given a paper knife and invited to cut out entire pages at a dollar apiece. His favorite story, though, involves a shop in an alley off of London’s Charing Cross Road that specialized in portrait engravings of Englishmen. Asked if he had anything other than the English portraits, the elderly dealer replied, “Oh, my God, I have a whole basement full of them.” Needing to run out for lunch, the dealer apologetically locked his customer in a basement Steinberg describes as “dingy and dusty, with a large central table piled high with prints, stacks of prints five feet tall lining the walls, and a sole fifteen-watt bulb overhead. The light was so bad that anything that looked halfway interesting I put aside.” When the dealer returned two hours later, Steinberg had about a hundred prints he’d hoped to winnow in better light before discussing prices. But after a quick riffle through the stack, the dealer simply put his hand on the entire batch and said, “Shall we say twenty pounds?” Among the prints in the bargain-basement haul was a remarkable early work, now appraised in the high four figures, by celebrated English visionary poet and engraver William Blake. Johann Kaspar Lavater (1787), Blake’s portrait of a Swiss theologian and physiognomist, combines the conventions of the then-fashionable neoclassical profile with a sense, in the sitter’s strangely blazing gaze and sharply drawn features, of the artist’s own intensity.
The Blanton’s 104-piece premiere showing is no mere sneak peek at the collection’s greatest hits but a thoughtful presentation that chronicles a media explosion similar in many ways to the introduction of radio and television in the twentieth century (Part II, covering much of the same ground with a whole new cast of works, opens August 22). A relative latecomer in Western art, printmaking paralleled Europe’s ascent to modernity, leaving us vivid images of both the higher aspirations and the basic instincts of a