We were so depressed by Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s decadent dungeon encompassed snaps of strippers, hung upside down on poles like Baselitzes, that we walked over to 11th Avenue for air.
It was Chelsea’s carnivale opening night last Thursday. We turned the corner onto 27th Street -- there, sitting on a stoop, nattily dressed in a burnt umber suit with light yellow shirt and his always resplendent beard, was Leo Steinberg.
The eminent art historian puffed on a "Now" cigarette. "I’m 85 now," he told us, "and I’ve been smoking since I was 17. They say it will kill you, but in my case it takes time."
We mentioned his monumental study of the Christ Child in art and its particular popularity among psychoanalysts.
"Everyone contends that I portray Jesus as a sexual being," Leo continued. "They couldn’t be more wrong. Jesus led a celibate life. I was in analysis briefly, but it takes no courage to be an analyst." Steinberg pointed to the Hudson River. "It’s as easy as naming that river."
We told him that on Henry Hudson’s third trip across the Atlantic, his crew mutinied, and set Hudson and his son adrift in the ice floes off Newfoundland, in a dinghy, to die.
"It’s a very Christological story," we averred.
"You’ve just taught me something," Steinberg responded. We blushed at the compliment. "You have a very authoritative face."
Leo puffed on his "Now." "I’m over here to see Paul Brach’s show (at Flomenhaft Gallery). Back in 1964, in Art International magazine, Steinberg called Brach’s simple yet opaque paintings "the invisibility of an encompassing, undifferentiated homogeneity," then asked rhetorically, "can it be painted, this ineffable, metaphysical One?"
Such longstanding loyalty to an artist felt like a well-worn slipper, full of character holes.
Steinberg looked up. "I’m past the stage of sexuality, but I can tell you that the best moment in life is after an orgasm, when you open your eyes."
Veteran curator Carlo McCormick drifted by. When he spotted Leo Steinberg, Carlo sank to his knees on the street and bowed to the master deeply, saying, "You are my hero."
We bid goodbye and floated off in a satisfied trance. There were other shows that night: Danica Phelps borrowing heavily from Beth Campbell and Francis Bacon; a hot socialite-filled opening at ATM Gallery; the beautiful Danielle Tegeder doing a wall drawing at Priska C. Juschka; somebody named Marcel Dzama at Zwirner.
For us, there was Leo.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).