The life and works of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro

The following series of interviews from the early 1990s gives a good sense of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro’s life and work. You can download a selection of his writings by clicking on the links immediately below.

Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

Memories of John Dewey, confrontation with Jacques Derrida, visits with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Claude Lévi-Strauss


David Craven: It has been suggested by some people that you were involved behind the scenes in the Erwin Panofsky/Barnett Newman debate that took place in the pages of Art News in 1961. Could you confirm or refute this claim?

Meyer Schapiro: Yes, I was in Israel in the Spring of 1961 when I read Panofsky’s letter in Art News. I sent Barnie one letter, with the understanding that my counsel be kept confidential, in which I pointed out that Panofsky was wrong. I told him to check a large Latin Dictionary and he would see that both sublimis and sublimus are acceptable, as demonstrated by their appearance together in Cicero’s citation of a passage from Accius. Both bits of advice appear in the first letter. Everything else in those two letters was contributed by Barnie himself.

DC: What type of relationship did you have with the philosopher John Dewey?

MS: I was a student of John Dewey, whose classes I very much enjoyed. Dewey asked me to do a critical reading of Art as Experience in manuscript form. The book is important, of course, but it is marked by a tendency to treat humanity and art as extensions of nature, as products of nature, without dealing with how humanity reshapes and remakes nature, hence also itself. This lack of emphasis on mediating nature, on humanity using craft and art to redefine itself, is a problem of the book.

DC: Did you ever meet the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch when he was in the U.S.?

MS: I admire his work very much, but I only met him once or twice. His critique of the Stalinist misuse of Marx’s thought is of fundamental importance.

DC: How often did you see Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo when they were in New York City in the early 1930s?

MS: We met with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo several times. Diego was very entertaining and on one occasion he railed with great emphasis against color reproductions of artworks.

Lillian Milgram: Frida was quite taken with Meyer. She gave him gifts a few times, including a pre-Columbian figurine that we still have.

DC: On October 6, 1977, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a presentation at Columbia University, in which he responded to your refutation of Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s 1886 oil painting of shoes that is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This presentation by Derrida would later appear in a longer version as “Restitutions” in his book La Vérité en Peinture (1978). Derrida’s paper is surprising because of how the whole tenor of the piece becomes so shrilly ad hominem.

Yet on the one occasion when I had a chance to talk with Derrida up close, in April of 1983 when he was speaking at Cornell University, I found him to be quite approachable and unpretentious, even though I was taking issue with some things that he had said in his public talk about Western Marxism.6 He welcomed this exchange and was much more put off by the sycophantic behavior of some other people in attendance. This is why I find Derrida’s reaction to you so surprising and perhaps uncharacteristic.

MS: He was challenged strongly by many people in the audience. I was abrupt with him, because he neither understood nor cared to understand the nature of my criticism. Furthermore, I discovered later that Heidegger changed his interpretation of the Van Gogh painting when he did an annotated commentary of his own essay and that he ended up admitting that he was uncertain about whose shoes they were. This material will appear in volume 4 of my selected writings.

One of Derrida’s obvious shortcomings is that he entirely disregards artistic intention in his analysis.

DC: How well did you know the remarkable school of political economists who edited the Monthly Review, which was started in 1949? I am thinking especially of Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, the latter of whom praised your editorial help in one of his most well known books.

MS: I knew Leo Huberman well in the 1930s, but we lost touch after that. I never met Sweezy, but I know and respect his writings.

DC: Were you harassed by the U.S. Government during the McCarthy Period?

MS: The F.B.I, visited us in the 1950s to ask whether or not certain students of mine were “reds.” They visited us again in the 1960s to ask me whether or not J.J. Sweeney was a “red,” since he had once invited Leger to the US!!

LM: When they visited us in the 1950s, they had first asked all of our neighbors about Meyer’s communist affiliations!!

DC: What do you think of Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art from Paris?

MS: Not much. I never finished reading it. The title alone is rather silly. All art is “taken” from other art.

DC: What of your relationship with Clement Greenberg over the years? After all, his interpretation of Abstract Expressionism is quite at odds with yours.

MS: In the 1940s we were on friendly terms, but I grew increasingly disturbed by Greenberg’s dogmatic formalism, by his refusal to grant artistic intention or social context, much less iconography, any place in analysis…The problem is that Greenberg does not know how to characterize a painting.

…In the early 1960s, I was asked to write a piece about Greenberg, which I did. But the essay was so negative that I decided to withhold publishing it.

From an interview at the summer home of the Schapiro’s in Rawsonville, Vermont, July 15, 1992

DC: What of your political involvements on the left since the 1950s? This is a question that needs to be asked because there are those who erroneously claim that in the early 1940s you came to reject socialism and the writings of Marx.

MS: What are the political credentials of those who say this? What type of activism have they engaged in? I am still a member of the steering committee of the Democratic Socialists of America and I am still on the editorial board of Dissent, a socialist magazine. I was a founding editor of the Marxist Quarterly and I continue to recommend that people read Marx as a way of discovering conceptual tools for grappling with an analysis of art and society. I am, like Irving Howe, against all slogans and labeling. Our views of socialism often overlap.

DC: Were you active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s?

MS: Yes, I was always opposed to the war. In 1968 I spoke at Columbia’s largest anti-war rally, along with a professor in physics. I worked in the anti-war movement and the democratic socialist movement with Michael Harrington.

From a telephone interview, August 20, 1992

DC: Were you and T.W. Adorno friends when he was in New York City from 1938 to 1941 with other members of the Frankfurt School, all of whom were affiliated with Columbia University?

MS: Adorno and I were close then. I saw him constantly and he was very friendly with me. We usually discussed the political situation in Germany, which disturbed Adorno greatly. He lived on the Upper West Side near Columbia, so he would drop in on me often.

While I was on the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I arranged to have Adorno give a talk on Schönberg’s music and also to have Walter Gropius speak on the Bauhaus. Both of these talks were held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1939…Of all the members of the Frankurt School, Leo Löwenthal was the one with whom I have had the longest relationship. We have been friends since the 1930s. [He died in 1993.]

His primary field was European, specifically German literature, and he had a broad interest in theoretical problems. In the late 1930s, he was the book review editor for the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung. At a memorial ceremony in 1967 at the Goethe House in New York City for Siegfried Kracauer, Löwenthal and I were the two main speakers.

DC: What of your famous article on Santo Domingo de Silos? Did it mark a fundamental shift in your approach to analyzing art? Was it influenced by Soviet thought, specifically by Mikhail Lifshitz’s 1938 interpretation of Marxism and art?

MS: I have never read the book by Lifshitz, nor am I interested in doing so. The conceptual framework for my 1939 Silos article was first used in my 1929 dissertation on Moissac. The third part of this dissertation, which has never been published, uses a Marxist concept of history. Originally, after the first part of the dissertation appeared in the 1931 Art Bulletin, I planned to revise the second part on iconography and then to publish this plus the third part on the historical context for Moissac.

For various reasons, I never found the time to complete the revision of this second part, so the last two parts have never appeared in print.

…In 1927, I was a guest of the monks at Santo Domingo de Silos. Much of my article was conceived then and it was written long before it was published in 1939.

DC: There is a certain reading of your 1936 essay “The Social Bases of Art” that has led to the belief that you had been opposed to modern art before a dramatic change of perspective in 1936-1937. How would you respond to this claim?

MS: My essay on the social bases of art was never meant to be a blanket condemnation of modern art, but only a criticism of some aspects of it. I was never interested in any position that forced you to choose between social realism and modern art. In fact, members of the Communist Party and of the John Reed Club, especially during the Burkewitz controversy of 1931, accused me of being against “art for the people” because I said that with one or two exceptions the social realists were bad artists from whom the people stood to gain little.

From a telephone interview, February 19, 1993

DC: From how many languages have you produced translations for publication?

MS: From German and French, as well as from Latin and Italian. One of these articles was by an eighteenth century German physicist named Lichtenberg, who wrote on Hogarth’s work…He stated in his essay on philosophy: “In all languages, the verb to be is irregular, hence metaphysics.” I also translated and introduced an essay by Diderot.

DC: What about twentieth-century French thinkers? Did you ever meet Jean-Paul Sartre?

MS: I read Les Temps Modernes when it first came out in 1945. And although I was unable to meet Sartre when he came to the U.S. in 1946, I subsequently met with him in the late 1940s.

DC: What about [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty?

MS: I spent more time in Paris talking with Merleau-Ponty, whose Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) I found to be impressive. Merleau Ponty’s thought was close to my own. His work on Cézanne and on the nature of perception shared a lot with my concerns. No other philosopher seemed to know as much about the material process, the concrete techniques for making art or about the complexity of perception.

LM: We knew Jacques Lacan also, because he was André Masson’s brother-in-law. We heard him lecture and read his books.

DC: Did you have any interchange with Bertolt Brecht when he was in the U.S. during the mid-1940s?

MS: I saw Brecht several times in this period. Once, we went with Brecht to dinner at the house of Max Wertheimer [of the Gestalt Psychology School]. Wertheimer, who was more conservative than Brecht, pressed him about the legitimacy of violent insurrection on behalf of bread. Brecht responded by saying, “In fact, if I had time, I would write a play called A Piece of Bread.” Through such a play, Brecht said he could go from looking at the struggle over bread to an examination of the production of bread to a consideration of the general structure of society. At this time Brecht was somewhat at odds with the members of the Frankfurt School over their criticism of Stalin and the Soviet Union.

DC: But of course you were even more critical of Stalin than were the members of the Frankfurt School? [“Of course” because Schapiro was at the time a Trotskyist]

MS: That is true.

From an interview at the home of the Schapiros on West 4th Street in New York City, April 3, 1993

DC: When did you first read Rosa Luxemburg’s work?

MS: I first read her in the early 1930s and I admired her letters from prison a great deal…Paul Mattick, a friend of mine, was a Luxemburgian thinker of importance.

DC: On the cover of Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art (1951 ) are favorable comments by you and by Thomas Mann, the great German novelist.24 Could you elaborate on this?

MS: I wrote a prepublication discussion for the publisher of Hauser’s book, whose wealth of knowledge and range I admired. Nonetheless, I had serious reservations about the study, since it was not sufficiently grounded in history. During the 1950s, while Hauser was teaching at Brandeis, he visited me in New York and we had a pleasant conversation about art.

DC: In your writings there is a conception of historical meaning as something that emerges from a dynamic interplay of subjectivity and objectivity, with neither one being the final determinant of truth value. One looks in vain for any traces of the type of epistemological realism that often marks the claims to complete objectivity or so-called “value-free” [Wertfreiheit] inquiry by orthodox Marxists and those Western scientists who are positivists. Could you say something about this?

MS: What is a fact? According to most languages it is a product of labor. Consider the word for fact in German, Tatsache, which means “thing done”; in French fait, which means “made”; or even the Latin base for the English word “fact,” which is the word factum and is related to manufacture, which means “made by hand.”…What is the truth? The truth is what is made [paraphrasing Vico, verum ipsum factum]. There is an important letter in this regard by the scientist Galileo to the painter Cigoli, in which Galileo spoke of the truth as a synthesis of the technique of the artisan plus the knowledge of the artist.25

From an interview at the home of the Schapiros on West 4th Street in New York City, May 20-22, 1993

DC: Did you have much interchange with Claude Lévi-Strauss when he was in New York during the war?

MS: I knew Claude Lévi-Strauss very well. We talked often during the mid-1940s. We also met with each other in Paris, as, for example, in 1952. He gave lectures at the New School of Social Research from 1942 to 1945. Once at least, he wrote a letter asking for my opinion on an anthropological point concerning an issue in folklore.

At Columbia, Lillian and I studied anthropology with Franz Boas. Margaret Mead, who was Boas’s assistant, subsequently marked Lillian’s exams.

DC: Did you see Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner much during the 1950s?

MS: Lillian and I saw Pollock, who was generally taciturn and drank heavily, on several occasions at the home of Jeanne Reynal, who was the daughter of the famous publisher, and her husband Tom Sills, who was an African-American painter. Lee Krasner was more approachable and sociable. On one occasion, at a Pollock Opening at the Betty Parsons Gallery, probably in 1950 or ’51, I asked Pollock if he had made the right choice in using gold paint intertwined with other colors in one of his large all-overs and Pollock became furious!

He was very volatile if ever questioned about a choice he made while creating one of his works.

From a telephone interview, November 11, 1993

DC: Did you ever discuss anarchism with Mark Rothko?

MS: I knew he was an anarchist, but we did not discuss his position at length. He was very inclined to support workers and to value workmanship.

From an interview at the home on the Schapiros in New York City, June 5, 1994

DC: What is the source in your own analysis for the concept of “state capitalism”?

MS: It means a situation in which the state, like private capital, has a monopoly over the means of production, so as to disallow workplace democracy. It denotes an antidemocratic organization of the workplace and of society in general. Ultimately it is a critique of Leninism, as well as of capitalism. As for the source, it goes back to Luxemburg and Korsch.

DC: What of Robert Motherwell’s claim in his 1944 article “The Modern Painter’s World” that “the modern states that we have seen so far have all been enemies of the artist”?

MS: This view is too extreme and historically reductive. It is a position typical of much anarchist thought.

DC: You mean that Motherwell was insufficiently attentive to what was both progressive and reactionary about the state at any given historical moment?

MS: Yes. It is not merely a matter of the state’s being the enemy or not. The secular state in the medieval period was not only an institution of repression. This was the case with the communes, which were sometimes at odds with other states or institutions, specifically that were religious. The communes represented a state formation that was quite important for creating a space within which a type of artistic freedom could begin to emerge.

From a telephone interview, January 22, 1995

Alice Neel_Meyer Schapiro 1947

Recollections of Kurt Seligmann, Robert Motherwell, Walter Benjamin, Leo Löwenthal, Theodor Adorno, André Breton, and correspondence with Trotsky


James Thompson: In 1970, the summer before I started graduate school at the Institute of Fine Arts, I went to Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. One of the professors there, a talkative realist painter named Gabriel Laderman, told me he only knew one art historian who was also a “first-class draftsman.” I suggested “Clement Greenberg?” as possibly the person he had in mind, since I knew the famous critic did some art work, but Laderman said: “No, Clem does some nice little impressionist landscapes, alright. But the only first-class draftsman among art writers is Meyer Schapiro.”

MS: Draftsmanship is appreciated in many different ways by different people. De Kooning was once employed at an advertising agency, and he told me he had a very high respect for the skill of trained people devoted to commercial art.

Susan Raines: [pointing to wooden sculpture on the floor] Is this yours?

MS: Yes. I found it as a piece of hardwood around here. When I saw it, I thought I could make a head out of it. It was very easy. I had it set up on a shelf with the backside against the wall; it seemed to be an emerging head.

JT: Do you own any Romanesque sculpture?

MS: I bought some from the estate of a merchant named Cotton. He in turn had purchased them from a man named Joseph Brummer who, before he became an important dealer in New York and Paris, had been an assistant of Rodin. Near the end of his life, Cotton gave instructions that pieces from his collection were to be sold to his friends for just what he’d paid for them. Extraordinary prices, something like $400 for three stone sculptures: a twelfth-century piece from St Gilles and two Romanesque works I gave to the Metropolitan Museum. Brummer once volunteered to assemble objects for a major Byzantine show that was going to take place in Paris. He didn’t charge anything for gathering all those pieces together. In his building on 57th Street we were able to view a remarkable group of works. Brummer used ultraviolet, infrared, and x-ray to study the objects, and I saw many beautiful things of which I was unaware. Also Brummer pointed out to me that he was doubtful about the authenticity of a certain number of them, so I asked him: “Why did you undertake to have all these works brought here at your expense, insured here, and then forwarded to Paris?”

“Well,” he said, “it enabled me to become acquainted with every piece of genuine or unauthentic Byzantine art in private collections in America.”

Of course, sooner or later at sales in the market he’d know which were the good ones and which ones were spoiled, which ones were completely unauthentic.

Brummer was a remarkable man, who had a gruff manner but was very gentle, a very human person. He had gone through many struggles, having been a poor student in Paris while his family lived in wealth in Budapest, disapproving of him. He’d originally intended to be a sculptor. He was always ready to help. I remember that when he wanted to find out whether a certain Spanish work — a very large sixteenth-century complex stone altarpiece with architectural trimmings — was genuine, he asked me to look at it and to give my opinion. I said I’d have to study it, that he should give me some photographs and I’d look through books on Spanish Art and would try to identify the artist. I gave him an opinion within a week or two of intensive looking at things. He offered me $500 for doing that, and I asked if he would allow me to use it as a student fellowship at Columbia — if I gave it to the University it would not be taxed. I wanted them to award it to a student I would designate.

There was a French student who came from a similar bolt to Brummer; he decided to study History of Art. He came from a proper French family; his father was a government official. Brummer agreed, and the department gave the money to that student on my recommendation. Brummer also assisted other students. He was always willing to help out if the students were worthy and well recommended to him by people who knew them better than he could know them. He carried on that way for years. Cotton also bought a building in the Village which he planned as a clubhouse for Jewish writers and artists. He had purchased some Chagalls to decorate it. He would stop me on the street to talk about it.

JT: Did the club ever come into being?

MS: No. He died. That’s how I happened to get the Romanesque sculptures…This [pointing to a picture] was done by Jean Hélion. He was a good friend of mine who lived in New York during much of the war. He was an abstract painter when I met him, and I tried to help him at that time. He had a dealer, for whom I wrote a brief text about the quality of Hélion’s work. He managed to do well.

Eventually he was called into the army when the war — the Second World War — broke out. He was in one of the divisions that had to surrender to the Germans after they broke the Maginot line. He was put into a camp; but after he was in the camp a year, he was able to escape. And since his wife came from a well-known Washington family, he got a visa by crossing the border into Portugal. Through the American Embassy there, he got a visa and came back to New York. He was immediately a hero. He wrote a book — They Shall Not Have Me — and found literary success. One of the byproducts was his marriage to Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter Pegeen, from whom he was divorced after awhile. He went back to France and began painting from nature, especially human figures. They were not of the very best quality of which he was capable and were among the few things he did directly from nature instead of from imagination. This (indicates picture) is of downtown rooftops in Paris from his studio window. He has had a great success since then.

JT: In 1975 when I was a grad student in Paris, starting my dissertation on Fromentin, you told me to call on Hélion because he especially loved Fromentin’s Les Maîtres d ‘autrefois. I didn’t have the nerve.

MS: He loved Fromentin when he was still an abstract painter. He wrote very well, and he wanted to teach. He prepared a statement of his ideas on the proper instruction in a field as vague as painting. I tried to get appointments for him among the various art schools which were not associated with universities at that time, schools which were general cultural centers and had access to living artists and poets, like the YMHA on 92nd Street. Though he gave a few lectures publicly, he never got a regular appointment. I have that document he wrote somewhere. I really should give it for publication.

JT: You’ve got lots of things of your own to bring to publication.

LM: Well, we’ve given away letters, artists’ letters.

JT: Where do you give them to?

MS: Texas, and the Archives of American Art.

LM: We gave Forest Bess’s letters to Texas.

MS: Do you know Forest Bess? A Texan painter, shrimp fisherman, engineer by training, rather poor. He was a visionary who made really superb pictures. He came into his own only after the Whitney Museum showed his work, through Betty Parsons, who used to sell it at prices ranging from $100 to $150. Each year, for a number of years in succession, I would buy one for Lillian’s birthday, so we have quite a collection. A poetic person, who wrote little texts to go with his paintings.

LM: He’s a great pet now of young painters; very young painters all seem to know Forest Bess.

MS: He’s faithful to his vision. Imagination: it’s in your head. He made pictures just large enough to be the size of a big head. These two paintings [indicates works] are by Hyde Solomon, a friend of ours who began as an abstract painter with a Cubist slant. He went south to paint in Georgia on the coast and was so taken with the woods and the dense fields which he could use to make the brush strokes stand out in a clear way — that he shifted to landscape. His landscapes became more and more imaginative, but they are landscapes which retain strong images of sunrise and sunset, and of water and sky. Visions of the three parts of nature, so to speak: the sky, the sea, and earth. Really remarkable works. We have several of them. This is from an exhibition of his, an earlier period, the beginning of his shift, and we couldn’t make up our mind which one to choose. So we agreed we’d get one she preferred and one I preferred. Our preferences were very different.

JT: Which one is which?

LM: He’s forgotten!

MS: You know the story about forgetting? The Oscar Wilde story? When he got out of prison, Oscar Wilde was interviewed and asked how he felt. He said:

A wonderful story comes to mind. A man goes on a trip through the Pacific Ocean and lands on a barren island, looking for water or some supplies. He walks around and around and doesn’t see anything, until he suddenly comes across a little improvised cottage. There’s a man there who greets him; his dog is with him.

He asks: “What are you doing here? Are there other inhabitants?”
The man says: “No, I’m the only one on this island.”
“Why did you come here?”
“I came here to forget.”
“To forget what?”
“Ah, I have forgotten.”


JT: Motherwell died recently, I guess it saddened you to hear that. You were mentioned in the New York Times obituary, weren’t you?

MS: Motherwell wrote to me from the University of Oregon, where he was teaching painting around 1942 or so, saying he would like to come and study with me — a long letter which we have somewhere in New York. He had read my article on abstract art in the Marxist Quarterly year or two before, and was interested in theoretical questions and leftist politics also. He sent me some of his work from Oregon, a male and female figure on a long bench in a city park. When he got here, I introduced him to the young painters like Roberto Matta, Kurt Seligmann, and that circle. Matta came from Chile but had been to Paris. There he had studied architecture and was first employed in Le Corbusier’s office. He also lived in England for awhile; then he came to the United States. He married an American woman. He had twin boys, one of whom became a painter/sculptor. She used to call the children “Castor” and “Pollux.” Motherwell stayed at Columbia for one year and then became active as a painter.

LM: Did you advise him to go back to painting?

MS: Yes. I sent him to Kurt Seligmann as a teacher. I thought he needed supervision from an older man who was a good technician as well as an imaginative painter, someone who did prints — etchings and engravings — as well, so he would learn both types of art. Motherwell studied with him for part of a year.

LM: He never mentioned his study with Seligmann. That’s the part that didn’t sit well with Motherwell, somehow.

MS: Through me Motherwell had also met André Breton, and there was a falling out between Seligmann and Breton. Breton was the head of a Surrealist circle, which met regularly to have discussions and to listen to talks on subjects selected by Breton. At one meeting he included instructions for the group’s next project: to occupy itself with the subject of magic. He wanted them to try and create a new twentieth-century set of Tarot cards, which would symbolize moral states, practical states, social manners, and politics. When Breton was explaining his plan to those who knew nothing about the Tarot, Seligmann (who knew a great deal about magic and later wrote a scholarly book about it) corrected him. For this, Seligmann was ostracized by Breton and forbidden to attend further meetings. I heard this story from Seligmann himself, who was an outspoken man, very serious, but was amused by the situation. Motherwell viewed his connection with Breton as much more valuable than his with Seligmann.

Motherwell also gave a rather questionable account of what he’d been doing before he came to New York. He had a wealthy father who was a banker on the West Coast, who supported him at that time. He didn’t have the financial problems of anybody else in that group.

JT: But I suppose he wanted to appear to have them, and even invented them? In his early pictures, he looks like a well-heeled, stylish sort of young man playing at being a bohemian rebel. And he always retained something raffiné about the way he thought and the way he approached things.

MS: Well, before coming to Columbia he spent a year at Harvard as a special student. He took a course in the philosophy of art with a man named Prall. He used to say he’d gone to Harvard and “majored in philosophy.”

JT: That, I think, is when he said he translated Signac’s D’Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionisme, but his notes were torpedoed by a Nazi submarine coming back to America.

MS: I didn’t see him much in later years. He moved out of New York, partly on my advice. I told him he should not be too close to the New York City art businesses and world.

JT: That was before he married Helen Frankenthaler?

MS: Yes. She was also a student of mine in one course.

LM: Everybody passed through his hands. Day or night. Most of them at night, because he lectured at the New School for Social Research — it’s on 12th Street and they were all in the neighborhood in the Village.

MS: I partly did those New School courses because Lillian had never heard me lecture. A young painter, Jane Freilicher, used to stand at the door, to check identification of enrolled students. I instructed her to admit everyone who said they were artists.

JT: You were good friends with Kurt Seligmann, weren’t you?

MS: Yes. We became acquainted in September, 1939, when we both came to New York together, although we met only after the boat had landed. He had a wealthy family in the furniture business. He received a good, old-fashioned art education in Switzerland, where he was a student with Giacometti, whom he also knew later in Paris. He married the daughter of the art dealer Wildenstein — Arlette — and built a house in Paris which he called the “Villa Seurat,” after the painter. Seligmann did not have higher university degrees but he was quite scholarly: he read Latin and Greek. When he was researching his book on the history of magic in art, if there was a rare image he couldn’t buy in the book market to own, he would borrow the volume in question from the library and make an etching copying the illustration.

JT: Is it true that Josef Albers invited you to teach at Black Mountain College in the 1940s?

MS: Yes.

JT: Why didn’t you go?

MS: There were several practical reasons. But secondarily I didn’t feel temperamentally compatible with Albers. The way he ran the school, as a kind of deity or unique creature, in charge of everything. He had a completely dogmatic doctrine of what art should be, based on his square composition, in which he said any combination of colors would work. All that made me very hesitant to be part of the machine. I was asked by the New York Review of Books to prepare a critique of his position as put forth in his work on The Interaction of Color, but I ultimately decided to withhold it.

JT: Did you know Hans Hofmann?

MS: Yes. A painter Dolia Dorian, whom I didn’t know well, appointed Hofmann, Milton Avery, and myself to be the executors of her estate, to determine which museums might suitably receive and house her works. I think Hofmann and Avery might have had something to do with my selection. Hofmann was an inspiring teacher to a lot of young people I knew. Although he had a certain “lingo” based on his native German – one of my students used to love to mimic him with very funny stories — he was a really dedicated painter and teacher, with great regard for opposing views, as long as they were pursued with seriousness. He had an openness to great variety in the work of his students, which you can see simply by looking at the list of different people who studied with him.

JT: Alice Neel painted your portrait twice, didn’t she?

MS: Yes, she painted one portrait for which I sat, and made a portrait from sketches and memory while she was a pupil of mine: she attended my evening course at the New School. She was a very attractive person and enthusiast for lots of things in art.

SR: [to Meyer] When did you first come to New York?

LM: He came to New York at three years old from Russia.

SR: And you?

LM: I was born in Brooklyn.

MS: Her parents were born in Russia.

JT: Were you from the same part of Russia as Bernard Berenson?

MS: Yes. From Lithuania.

LM: Berenson dedicated a little book to him, and wrote his name in Hebrew in it, “To Meyer.” I mean he inscribed it.

JT: Francis Steegmuller, whom I saw recently, did dedicate a book to Meyer, a mystery called The Blue Harpsichord — “AMICO SCHAPIRO PRO MUSCIPULA GRATIS.”

MS: Yes, we knew each other at Columbia. The dedication was inspired by my essay on the Mérode altarpiece, in which I talk about Joseph making a mousetrap to catch the Devil. How is he?

JT: He’s well. He recently had a new book come out. It’s a book of letters by a female French aristocrat to a Neapolitan Abbé.

MS: Ah yes, the Abbé Galiani. I once translated something of his as part of an article I did for a magazine put out by Saul Bellow, called ANON.

JT: I believe Francis and Shirley (his wife, the writer Shirley Hazzard) have gone back to Capri for the summer.

MS: Do you know the account of his travels in Sicily by Guy de Maupassant? It has beautiful pages about Sicily, not only atmospheric images of nature but also of the architecture, the works of art, the people. And he did it from a sailboat, landing while going around the perimeter.

JT: Lamartine, en route to the Holy Land, stopped at Malta and saw Caravaggio’s Beheading of John the Baptist. This would have been the 1830s. He said something like, “You know, the French painters could learn a lot from this Caravaggio. There’s really a lesson here for the painters back home.” He was almost prophesying Courbet and what was going to happen in the middle of the century.

MS: I had that Lamartine book, and I gave it to a young Frenchman whom I liked very much and whose wife was French but of German extraction. He was a writer. He came to the United States to be consulted by the American Government on French Affairs. He became the Deputy for one of the larger French cities, a socialist representative of a Burgundian town. His name was Worms, which is a German name. His family was Alsatian. And since he spoke so warmly of Lamartine, I gave him the book, the French original, which I found here, in a Vermont bookstore…Lamartine also made very interesting practical suggestions, which sound like the twentieth century, after going through Turkey, the Asia Minor part. Most Westerners believed Turkey to be extremely barbaric and barren. Lamartine wrote: “this is a wonderful country with beautiful resources, marvelous gardens and houses, and people who have long traditions.” The university at Istanbul taught the history of art and architecture and comparative linguistics…

JT: When did you first come into contact with the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin?

MS: During the 1930s. He was translated by a woman at MIT. I never met him. I thought his work interesting but not so interesting as the work of Vygotsky, who died very young.

JT: Weren’t you sent to Paris to meet Walter Benjamin?

MS: Yes, I had a mission to persuade him to come to New York with the support of the Institute for Social Research, which was the Frankfurt Institute, where Max Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse were all members. They had been here for some time. This was in 1939, just before the war broke out.

JT: Did they choose you because you spoke the best French?

MS: Not necessarily, that wasn’t the main reason. But they knew that I was very sympathetic to him. I had read some of his work; he wrote for their magazine called Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the magazine of social research.

JT: Maybe they thought if they went over they couldn’t come back?

MS: Well, he had already been invited by them. But he turned it down. He didn’t think he could be at home in America, granted the difference of his background and interests. He didn’t speak English. I was going over and they asked me to meet him, write to him and to his friend, Gershom Scholem, whom I knew: the man who was the professor of Jewish mysticism at the University of Jerusalem. When I got to Paris (this was the summer of 1939 before the war had started, a very tense moment), I phoned him. He suggested we could meet at the Deux Magots café. I asked, “How will we know each other?”, and he said, “You’ll see.” So, Lillian and I were sitting in the café, waiting to hear from him, when I saw a man walking up and down the sidewalk, looking at all the people and holding up a little copy of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the social research volume. So I called out to him. I said, “Benjamin?”, and he said, “Schapiro.” He came down and sat with us, and we talked about everything under the sun. He decided that it would be too hard for him to live in New York, even though so many of his good friends that he had been very close to were there. Within a few weeks there was the fateful moment of September 1st. We were instructed by our embassy not to stay in Europe: all Americans should go home. At that time I’d had a sabbatical year off, and I’d been invited by different Scandinavian universities to give some lectures. I had prepared my subjects and papers when the news came that Germany had invaded Poland. We had to leave the next day. We were concerned already; we’d had serious doubts about whether there would be a war because a few weeks before in England we had noticed that air raid shelters were being installed and people were all getting gas masks. When I went to the British Museum to look up some things, I met an English acquaintance of mine who was going out in a great hurry. I greeted him but he said, “I have to leave right now for Wales. We’re moving manuscripts by Sir Isaac Newton to a Welsh site.” Also, going to Le Havre, we noticed they were taking down the stained glass windows in the churches we were visiting. So we were convinced that there would be a war, but when? The French reserves were being called up. When the announcement of the Soviet pact with Hitler came, we were sure that there would be great difficulty. The only ones who disagreed were the Communist Party leaders and some people like Louis Aragon, the friend of Picasso. He was a leading Surrealist, a French writer who broke eventually with Breton because of a disagreement.

Aragon went to Russia and he was full of enthusiasm…He published, as an editor of Ce Soir, an article analyzing the Soviet Pact. He said, “This will prevent war, it’s a way of stopping Hitler, of not giving him a free hand.”

LM: I got Meyer to promise me that he would leave Europe if war started and it did, and he came back, with me. I was going back anyway.

MS: She had a ticket back. I didn’t, we had to improvise; and I had to sleep on a mattress laid out in one of the third class dining halls on the ship. The first day out we heard that the sister ship, the Athena, had been sunk just after we set out from a Belgian port; and it contained on board a great collection of works of art belonging to an Austrian, a Jewish collector. I saw Benjamin in late August and I met people who were already in trouble — Heydenreich, who had been a professor in Munich.

JT: Ludwig Heydenreich?

MS: Yes.

Heydenreich was in England; he realized war would break out because as a professor in Berlin he was a member of the German government service for the protection of monuments and works of art, both Italian and German. During the war, he communicated with a pupil of mine, Fred Hartt, who had a similar post with the American authorities for the protection of monuments. They would communicate by wireless about the places that had been damaged.

LM: They both wanted to protect everything.

JT: And Heydenreich was in Germany at this time?

MS: No, Heydenreich was in England but was put out by the British authorities, knowing who he was and that he was the son of a well-known Nazi admiral. He tried to stay, but they said, “Out you go, you’re a German,” so he went to France. While we were in Paris he appealed to the French government to be allowed to stay. They said no, so he went to Switzerland. Finally he had to go back to his family in Berlin.

War was expected, this was a month or two before it broke out. And the independent Communist press of the Trotskyist wing, which had a very bad odor with the orthodox party, had already made revelations as to negotiations between Russia and the Nazis, both in connection with the export and import of arms and materials and as to economic understanding with regard to financing. There was surely something brewing that would be part of a war effort. The moment we got the news I phoned the hotel and asked them to forward what they had stored for me to the American Express company in Bordeaux, which I knew was far from the war zone. And there was no trace of them.

LM: All his notes, a trunk full of papers, photographs, and his typewriter.

MS: Fortunately I was able to make contact with a man whom I had met, a Harvard graduate student whose father, himself of French origin, was an official of the Franco-American bank in Paris. I got him to go to the American Express company to find out what was what. He in turn talked to a French woman who had been working in England, I think her name was Marsh, and she at once made a fine suggestion that, if they had stored it, it would be under the letters Ch, not Sch, because in French my name is pronounced and spelt that way. And, sure enough, they found it, and it was forwarded, though it took several months before it reached New York.

…But to return to Benjamin. I was enchanted by his whole manner, his interests, some of which we shared. We had common friends, both in Germany and in Paris. We left without being able to talk to him again. Then we learned some months later that when the German army broke through, he fled to the south of France, where he was turned down at the border with other refugees and other citizens of either France or Spain. He was with Kracauer; they had been very close friends.

JT: Siegfried Kracauer, who wrote From Caligari to Hitler?

MS: Yes.

LM: Kracauer told us that they had divided some poison between them, and that’s the poison that Benjamin took when he was refused admission to Spain. They were held up, only for a moment, the day before they let the others through, but he thought, “This is it, I have to go back again,” and he took the poison.

MS: The end of the story.

JT: Terrible…Did you know Max Raphael as well?

MS: Very well. I helped him also. He got through. I saw quite a bit of him at the beginning. But we stopped talking because of a disagreement over the Moscow Trials. I gave him a copy of the minutes of a commission formed to investigate the Moscow Trials — I was a member. John Dewey was the titular head. My friends within the Communist party and other leftist groups, Americans employed by the Russian government, were all very indignant at my having signed the document. The commission heard testimony from various people who were French or from neighboring countries, or ex-communists. They testified as to what they knew about the Moscow trials and what preceded them, especially Stalin’s atrocities. It was a very important document as to the policies of the Stalin government, the execution of those generals.

LM: It gave all the lies that had been told about Trotsky plotting against the Russian government while he was in exile.

MS: The Russians had published a volume of testimony which was very much doctored for their purposes. All of that was analyzed in this very important document. So I gave Raphael the report to read. He never returned it — he must have destroyed it, because it was against his principles. But after he died, we heard he had told a young female student of mine — a former protégé of his, a loyal follower — that since he could no longer advise her on her thesis or her work that she should turn to me.

JT: You were second best to him, despite your deviant views?

LM: Yes, in spite of being anti-Stalinist.

JT: You already mentioned that you knew Adorno.

MS: Yes. He was in the Frankfurt School in New York for several years. He did some interesting writing about music — he was a composer and a friend of several composers. I admired his passion for ideas, and, of course, his close friendship with Benjamin counted for a lot in my respect for him. But he had several funny notions I couldn’t accept, which were overdone, exaggerated, like those about the “avant-avant-garde.” Once Adorno invited me to come and listen to a radio hook-up that allowed a group of us to hear one of Hitler’s speeches being broadcast. While we were listening, I sketched all the people who were there. I also did a drawing of a madman declaiming, and jumping up and down. In 1985 I went to Hamburg to receive an award (the 1984 award), given every two years by the friends of the Warburg Library, for my work in fields related to those studied by Aby Warburg, whose brothers had given him a share of the worldwide profits of the family banks. They paid all my expenses and gave me a flat sum. I presented those same drawings I had done almost fifty years before to the director of the museum there. They were reproduced in an important magazine called Idea [the Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunsthalle], along with the introduction of Professor Werner Hofmann, who spoke along with me at the ceremony.

JT: Did you know Leo Löwenthal well?

MS: Yes. I had known him since the 1930s. His main field was European literature, especially German literature; and he had a wide interest in theoretical and general problems. I last met him at an anniversary celebration for Kracauer. Löwenthal and I were the two speakers, although I couldn’t move because of injuries to my hip and ankle. I didn’t go to the meeting, but they sent a photographer and sound recorder so that I was monitored to the assembly. Löwenthal talked from the platform and my talk was given to the same audience via a hook-up.

JT: Didn’t you know Bertolt Brecht?

MS: I knew him for some time in New York in the 1940s. He lived in the Village, not far from us. Once I was invited to dinner, along with Brecht, by a German emigré, a well-heeled businessman interested in art and literature, who lived in a suburb of New York. During the evening, we had a discussion about Brecht’s radicalism — his communist views and his impressive dramatic writing. A famous Gestalt psychologist named Max Wertheimer, a great admirer of Einstein, upbraided Brecht for making such a big point of supporting working-class strikes. Wertheimer thought these actions were an embarrassment to other workers, causing disorder and hardship. He asked Brecht what they were fighting for, saying they certainly weren’t fighting for socialism. Brecht replied they were fighting for their actual livelihood, for enough to pay for a loaf of bread. He said, “I would like to write a play about a strike, where the question of a loaf of bread would be the issue.”

JT: Granville Hicks planned a book in the early 1930s with essays on Marxist thinking in America. The projected table of contents included, among other things, “A Preface to Marxism” by Sidney Hook, “The Novel” by Clifton Fadiman, “Magazines” by Granville Hicks, ‘Philosophy’ by Sidney Hook, “Newspapers” by Frederick Schuman, “Cultural Minorities” by Lionel Trilling, and “Fine Arts” by one Meyer Schapiro. What happened to that book?

MS: It never came out. With the Stalin Trials around 1935, there was a distinct cooling of feeling towards any notion of a party line. We decided instead to produce a magazine called the Marxist Quarterly, which only ran to four issues [in 1937].

JT: So your article for the Marxist Quarterly on “The Nature of Abstract Art” partly grew out of the book project.

MS: Yes.

JT: Did you have much contact with Trotsky?

MS: Not long before he was murdered, Trotsky wrote to me — in anticipation of Andre Breton’s visit to Mexico — asking me to send him some of Breton’s writings so he could read them before he came. They were sent through his secretary Jean van Heijenoort, who was once involved with me in a debate Breton organized.

JT: What debate was that?

MS: It was on the term “dialectical materialism.” Breton was always using the phrase, and I said I thought the concept had some merit, but was being over-used in a dogmatic way. And, employed as an infallible key to decide on political issues, it was impossible. It had some merit in Hegel’s philosophy as a materialistic aspect combined with the idealistic one, in a dialectic, as a mode of thought. Breton had broken with the Communist Party some years before, he was condemned by the Russians for all sorts of heresies. He had a following among the poets and painters who respected his ideas, except for Aragon and a few others. I got to know Breton when he came to the United States, almost from the time of his arrival. He rented an apartment less than a
block away from me in the city on 11th Street, near the corner of West 4th Street. We lived across the street. We discussed things very often. He was glad to have someone with whom he could talk in French, so we saw him fairly constantly.

Breton was shocked that I did not believe that dialectical materialism was an adequate philosophy on which to ground theoretical and practical issues. It worked as a way of expressing concepts through the model of dialogue between people of opposing views, so that they would sooner or later generate an approach which would reveal certain aspects of the problems which could be grounds for criticism of idealistic views; that’s all I would accept. But the idea that there was a formula, the three terms and the logic of dialectic different from the logic of more practical theory, that was a mode of speculation — the official character of dialectical materialism in Russia and in the parties in Europe and in America — such factors were an obstacle to any clear thinking on these matters.

So, when we had an argument about dialectical materialism, I proposed that he would choose people to defend it and I would select two or three for my side. I chose the logician and philosopher Ernest Nagel, a very dear friend of mine. He was at Columbia, a great teacher as well as logician. A.J. Ayer was in New York, working for the British Government in their information bureau. Breton choose Jean van Heijenoort, who was the last secretary of Trotsky, a man who had a philosophical and mathematical education and who wrote on logic that excellent book which is a collection of the most important essays on modern symbolic logic — and he also chose a Greek poet named Nicolas Calas, a man who adored Breton and followed him everywhere. We met in Breton’s apartment, with Breton positioned like King Solomon in a higher chair. We sat around, disposed below. Breton was a very mild person, but he not only sat higher, he also talked with an air of authority, with that great leonine head. He said he would hear both sides; he wasn’t going to say anything until it was all over. No one else was there.

We carried on for an evening, in the course of which criticisms were offered by Ayer and myself and Nagel. Nagel put questions to van Heijenoort to answer. No one addressed any questions to Calas, who simply spluttered. He spoke with dogmatic authority; but when asked, “How would you justify it?”, “What are the grounds for believing that?”, or, “Is that consistent with such and such that you expressed before?”, was helpless. Van Heijenoort, when asked several such questions, said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve never really thought about that aspect. I regret it, but I really don’t know.” He opted out, and within a few months he broke completely with that approach and with his communist friends. He became a graduate student at NYU to complete his doctor’s degree that he’d worked on in France (he came from the Belgium part, Flemish France). During the debate Breton said not a word.

JT: I’m not surprised, confronted with your titanic trio.

MS: It finished when van Heijenoort was unable to answer, and poor Nicolas Calas was left to himself. Afterward Breton made no allusion to the phrase in his writing anymore. All his previous writings which were not strictly poetic had had some reference to dialectical materialism, and he had condemned people because they were not “dialectical.” It also disappeared from the vocabulary of Surrealism. Van Heijenoort did a doctorate in mathematics. He wrote a thesis which turned out to have already been presented and carried through logically by another mathematician in Europe, but since he had presented the outline of his ideas earlier, they made an exception and granted him a doctorate. As far as I know, he never did any further original work in mathematics or logic. He did all sorts of odd jobs. He died in California. He became active among the painters and artists. He lectured on the artist’s viewpoint toward modern logic and philosophy to a circle that met in the East Village during the 1940s.

JT: Did Breton speak any English?

MS: Not a word. He had a wife and a child. Jacqueline spoke English. She eventually went off with David Hare, the sculptor.

LM: She abandoned Breton.

MS: They were both on the staff of a magazine that Breton founded, the “triple V”: VVV.

LM: Hare had a big quarrel with Motherwell.

MS: Yes. Motherwell used to speak of himself inaccurately as one of the editors of that magazine, VVV. And Hare was, and made a point of it. Breton would call me about the strangest things. To give you an idea of what Breton would telephone me about, I remember on December 7, 1941, he called and asked, “Have you heard the news about what has happened at Pearl Harbor?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Do you think there will be war?”

Another time, he called and asked me when Newton’s Science of Optics had been published. I said, “the early eighteenth century,” but I wasn’t sure of the exact date. He said, “Could it have been 1713?” I said “Wait a second, I have a modern reprinting nearby,” and it was something like 1721 [actually 1704]. He sounded rather depressed and didn’t ask any more questions. Then I discovered why he had asked that question. He had offered for an exhibition of French exiles in New York, in Pierre Matisse’s gallery, a little maquette of a book he had constructed, and on the binding he had stamped “Isaac Newton/Optics 1713.” Now why 1713? Because the juxtaposition of the “1” and the European crossed “7” suggested an “A,” while the “1” and the “3” suggested a “B.” All together “AB” for “André Breton”: his identification. This is an example of Surrealist fantasy.

4 thoughts on “The life and works of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro

  1. Pingback: Mondrian: Order and randomness in abstract painting | The Charnel-House

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