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. Continue reading