Category Archives: Meyer Schapiro

An epilogue for a prologue

This post is an epilogue of sorts. The project to process, describe, and make accessible the Meyer Schapiro Collection at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library is now complete.

This post is also a prologue. Now that the collection will soon be available to the public, I can only imagine that new scholarly and historical perspectives will emerge relating to Schapiro: his influence, relationships, and contributions to the field of art history. As a historical figure, Schapiro was at the center of many important circles, whether artistic, philosophic, or scholarly and this collection will give the public a new understanding of not only Schapiro but to the historical period of the pre- and post-war years.

The collection, with a total of 398 linear feet of material, is a portrait of a man through documents, recordings, and his art works.

I’d like to use this final post to give readers a description of the collection and how the records were arranged. Stay tuned for the full finding aid to the collection in the near future.

Description of the collection

The collection of art historian Meyer Schapiro contains a vast range of material documenting the professor’s personal, professional, and artistic life. The collection encompasses Schapiro’s early academic training to his rise as a prominent theorist and historian of Medieval, Romanesque, Impressionist, and Modern art. His personal life is documented through early school records, course notes from college, typescripts and notes relating to his masters thesis and doctoral dissertation, and photographs and notebooks from his travels abroad between 1927 through 1957. The collection also houses an extensive set of Schapiro’s own art work in various mediums that spans from the early 1920s through the 1980s.

Schapiro was at the center of many artistic and political debates from the 1930s through the 1990s and his correspondence in the collection  reflects his ongoing support of academics, artists, and philosophers. This includes his efforts to aid German and Jewish refugees of World War II.

Schapiro’s professional activities as a professor and lecturer are strongly represented in the collection. Materials include transcripts, outlines, research notes, and audio recordings of his lectures, many of which formed the basis for his written corpus. Also in the collection is Schapiro’s extensive research notes on subject matter relating to art, politics, and sociology that are arranged alphabetically by subject.

Included in the collection is a substantial array of Schapiro’s published and unpublished writings, including articles, essays, manuscripts, published works, reviews, translations and poetry. Schapiro’s intellectual curiosity necessitated his own constant reappraisal of his professional written work. This includes editing, clarifying, and expanding upon typescripts, outlines, and notes relating to lectures that he foresaw as being published.

A constant source of support for Schapiro’s professional and artistic output was his wife, Lillian Milgram Schapiro. After Schapiro’s death, she would work to complete projects that Schapiro began and oversaw the management of his legacy. As a result, material in the collection that post-dates Schapiro’s death in 1996 was generated by Lillian Milgram Schapiro and is noted throughout the finding aid.


This collection is arranged in VIII series.

Series I: Personal papers, 1919-2001

Subseries: I.1: Awards, degrees, and prizes, 1959-1995

Sub-Subseries: I.1.1: Awards, 1959-1995

Sub-Subseries: I.1.2: Degrees, 1966-1988

Sub-Subseries: I.1.3: Prizes, 1979-1985

Subseries: I.2: Biography files, 1927-2001

Subseries: I.3: Dedications and eulogies, 1980-1996

Sub-Subseries: I.3.1: Dedications, 1980-1996

Sub-Subseries: I.3.2: Eulogies, 1996

Subseries: I.4: Exhibitions, 1960-1989

Subseries: I.5: Photographs, 1928-1990s

Sub-Subseries: I.5.1: Portraits   , 1928-1990s

Sub-Subseries: I.5.2: Travel photographs, 1927-1957

Subseries: I.6: Private collection, 1961-1998

Subseries: I.7: School records, 1919-1929

Subseries: I.8: Travel notebooks, 1926-1974

Sub-Subseries I.8.1: Notebooks, 1927-1974

Sub-Subseries I.8.2: Detached leaves and tourist maps, 1927-1947 

 Series II: Correspondence, 1920s-2001

 Series III: Professional papers, 1929-1990

Subseries: III.1: Administrative records, 1950s-1990s

Subseries: III.2: Courses, 1929-1977

Sub-Subseries: III.2.1: Columbia University, 1929-1977

Sub-Subseries: III.2.2: New School for Social Research (New York, N.Y.), 1930s-1954

Sub-Subseries: III.2.3: New York University, 1930s

Sub-Subseries: III.2.4: Other or unknown institutions, 1930s-1965       

Subseries: III.3: Lectures, 1930s-1980s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.1: 1930s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.2: 1940s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.3: 1950s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.4: 1960s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.5: 1970s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.6: 1980s

Subseries: III.4: Committees, memberships, and professional affiliations, 1972-1990

Sub-Subseries: III.4.1: Committees, 1972-1978

Sub-Subseries: III.4.2: Memberships, 1939-1989

Sub-Subseries: III.4.3: Professional affiliations, 1989-1990

 Series IV: Writings, 1928-2009

Subseries: IV.1: Administrative records, 1960s-2003

Subseries: IV.2: Articles, 1929-1994

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.1: 1929-1930s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.2: 1940s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.3: 1950s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.4: 1960s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.5: 1970s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.6: 1980s

Subseries: IV.3: Essays, 1930s-1990s

Subseries: IV.4: Manuscripts, 1930s-2002

Subseries: IV.5: Publications, 1928-2009

Subseries: IV.6: Reviews, 1930-1972

Subseries: IV.7: Scrapbooks, 1928-1966

Subseries: IV.8: Translations and Poetry, 1930s-1970s

Series V: Research files, 1930s-1990s

Subseries: V.1: Administrative records, 1950s-1980s

Subseries: V.2: Articles and clippings, 1930s-1980s

Subseries: V.3: Bibliographies, 1930s-1960s

Subseries: V.4: Research card files, 1930s-1980s

Subseries: V.5: Research notes, 1920s-1990s  

Subseries: V.6: Reproductions, 1930s-1990s

Series VI: Exhibition announcements, invitations, and press releases, 1920-2001

Subseries: VI.1: 1920-1942

Subseries: VI.2: A-E, 1943-2001

Subseries: VI.3: F-L, 1943-2001

Subseries: VI.4: M-R, 1943-2001

Subseries: VI.5: S-Z, 1943-2001

Subseries: VI.6: Group exhibitions, 1945-2001

Subseries: VI.7: Oversize

 SeriesVII: Sound and video recordings, 1952-1990s

Subseries:VII.1: Administrative records, 1985-1990s

Subseries:VII.2: Audiocassettes and audiotapes, 1952-1982

Subseries: VII.3: Videocassettes, 1988

Series VIII: Works of art, 1920s-1980s

Subseries: VIII.1: Administrative records, 1980s-1990s

Subseries: VIII.2: Prints and drawings, 1920s-1980s

Subseries: VIII.3: Paintings, 1930s-1980s

Subseries: VIII.4: Sculptures and printing plates, 1930s-1980s

Subseries: VIII.5: Linoleum printing blocks, circa 1930s-1960s

Subseries: VIII.6: Sketchbooks, 1960s

I’d like to thank the following interns for their excellent work in making this project a success. Bronwen Bittetti rolled her sleeves up to work on Series VIII: Works of art, 1920s-1980s; Tamara Kemp organized  Series VI: Exhibition announcements, invitations, and press releases, 1920-2001 brilliantly; and Megan S. Rulli jumped right in to sort out Series V: Research files, Subseries: V.2: Articles and clippings. Additional collection management support was provided by Columbia University work-study student Haruna Otsuka.

I will end with a quote from John Pope-Hennesy’s Learning to look where he describes Schapiro brilliantly: 

"The function of art history is to determine why individual artifacts took the form they did. This task involves a mastery of widely divergent areas of knowledge, which extend from simple history (if any history is simple) to semiotics and psychology. In relation to the ideal requirements of the subject the equipment of most art historians (myself included) is sadly inadequate. They operate in the conventional, clumsy way in which dentists used to drill teeth half a century ago. But with Schapiro one is constantly astonished by the variety of angles from which problems are attacked, and by the lucidity with which his concepts are expressed. His work is at root visual."

Thank you all for following this blog!

Signing off …

Farris Wahbeh

Project Archivist, Meyer Schapiro Collection

Columbia University | Rare Book & Manuscript Library


Archival archeology: a working definition

As the project for processing and describing the Meyer Schapiro Collection comes to a close, I’ve come to realize how, like an archeological dig, I sifted through strata of documents, papers, images, photographs, and countless other mediums, to make an intellectual framework for Schapiro’s records.

I first came across the linking of the term "archeology" with "archives" in the paper "A Transition of Bits: A Case Study in Preserving the Michael Joyce Digital Papers at the Harry Ransom Center." The authors, discussing the processing of electronic files by hypertext author Michael Joyce, discuss the data recovery and preparation of these files stored on floppy discs from the 1980s as "digital archeology."

As they write, "many of the procedures that were used to extract and identify the electronic records were dictated by the characteristics of the storage media. "


Their "digital archeology process" is a six step procedure as follows:

1. Receive and identify physical media

2. Create a cataloging system for the physical media

3. Copy files from physical media and record metadata

4. Perform initial file processing

5. Create an item-level listing of all recovered files

6. Create working copies of all files and protect the original copies

Because born digital records are easy to create, and countless iterations of a single document can count as potential "records" in and of themselves, the process of understanding where, when, and by whom records are created require a form of authentication.

As the authors of the paper suggest, in regards to irregular or incorrect data in countless digital records, there is a "fundamental assumption in digital archeology: we assume that the date provided by the original user is correct. This is really no different than the analogous case in physical archives, where dates are written on paper as best the creator can recall and are subject to error. The lesson learned here is that although digitally assigned dates may be reliable in most cases, they are not immune to error and must be taken as a best estimate rather than indisputable fact."

A case in point that is quite important to remember. As archivists and collection managers, we deal with records that, at  times, are difficult to ascertain their veracity. With large physical collections, records are dispersed across cabinets, boxes, and files. With digital collections, files and documents can be of the same content, but with various different file names and located in a variety of folders.

Making a cohesive arrangement and description of records requires that you utilize the records as sources of evidence and that, in the end, those evidential exhibits form a larger whole to the records motive. In this sense, extending "digital archeology" to a broader term "archival archeology" suits both practices of analog and digital archival material, but links them in a process that is principal to archival practice: the importance of provenance and the authenticity of records.

In the article "Making the Leap from Parts to Whole: Evidence and Inference in Archival Arrangement and Description," Jennifer Meehan gives a stunning overview on how evidence gathered from the archival collection itself can be used to infer why those records were created, by whom, and for what purposes.

As Meehan articulates, "As archivists we must reason about the records in this way not only because we are removed from past events by both space and time, but because the information about these events obtained from existing sources is always only partial, and therefore incomplete. Gathering contextual information is not sufficient to understand the various contexts of any given collection. To arrive at such an understanding requires the archivist to make a leap of sorts, an inferential leap from what is available in the present texts (the contextual information) to some past event (the specific activity that gave rise to and/or subsequently shaped the records)."

As Meehan suggests of making inferential leaps,"the archivist in effect creates the external and internal relationships of a body of records. Rather than merely identifying these relationships on the basis of gathered information, the archivist for all intents and purposes constructs these relationships on the basis of the inferences drawn from the gathered information."

As a case in point, I’d like to give a quick gloss into how archival archeology plays a part in inferring the "parts to whole" relationship of archival records.

Meyer Schapiro wrote extensively throughout his whole life. He constantly had in mind various projects that could be potential books, but, for one reason or another, never manifested as books. These files were essentially compiled papers, outlines, and research notes that were assembled and often times paginated to reflect a cohesive manuscript.

Schapiro was notorious for revisiting his writings later in his life, reworking, editing, and expanding upon writings from the 1930s to the 1960s. His wife, Lillian Milgram Schapiro, would also aid him in those efforts, and by the 1990s, after he had passed away, she would continue to edit those records (and, to add to the volume of material, she would copy everything in triplicate!).

Indeed, it was quite a challenge, when as an archivist, you would see files such as the images illustrated in this post. But it was through archival archeology, and the process of inference, that I came to understand the meaning of these records and what their motives were.

For instance, I utilized correspondence and editorial notes to understand the context of these records. I also drew on other record types such as reproductions, editorial notes, and other materials found across the entire collection to synthesize what these records actually meant. The following is an arrangement note for the manuscript Schapiro wanted to publish titled " The content of modern art: studies in the painting of the end of the nineteenth century from Manet to Munch" and it gives a sense of how complex archival processing really is, and how archival archeology and inference play a part in contextualing records.

<arrangement>According to correspondence in file 18 of box 242 of this series, plans to publish this manuscript began in 1937, when Oxford University Press, New York, initiated contract discussions with Schapiro. There was also an agreement between Oxford University Press and the Museum of Modern Art to collaborate on the publication in 1939, but that never materialized. In an announcement dated 1938 found in file 19 of box 242 of this series, Phaidon Press was to publish the manuscript as "The content of modern art: studies in painting from Manet to Munch." That publication was also never realized. There are three variations of the title; the longer version is used since it includes variants from the other two titles. When possible, file titles below were supplied or condensed using Schapiro’s annotations or text to guide users to the contents found in the manuscript. Original file order is maintained to preserve Schapiro’s ordering. As a result, file titles may not include sequential sequencing such as section numbers. Files have research notes and editorial notes interleaved in the typescript sheets).</arrangement>

In another example, Schapiro continually worked on a manuscript titled "Pablo Picasso’s Guernica". The arrangement note is as follows

<arrangement> From a book jacket design in file 5 of box 248 in this series and correspondence in file 9 box 248, this manuscript was to be published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York as "Guernica: studies, postscripts" possibly in the 1970s or 1980s. Schapiro wrote consistently on Picasso’s Guernica, and material found in these files is culled from the 1940s through the 1990s. Files are organized by a pagination scheme devised by Lillian Milgram Schapiro in the 1990s through the 2000s relying on Schapiro’s original annotations on the typescripts. Her notes and lists relating to the reconstruction of the manuscript can be found in file 5 of box 248</arrangement>

Providing the researcher a note on how the archival material was arranged, and the process by which inference and archival archeology played a part in contextualing those records, gives the records a sharper focus and plays a part in authenticating their context.

As Meehan rightly suggests, one should provide information about "the analytical work done during processing, including the rationale for a particular arrangement, the reasoning behind decisions, and the sources of information used in reaching a particular decision. This sort of information would go a long way toward documenting the archival context of the records. And, if made available to the public, this information would enable users to make their own decisions about the possible meaning order(s) of a particular collection."

Describing processes that go into contextualing records can be recorded in order to authenticate records. Following the parameters set out by the InterPARES 1 project "Authenticity Task Force ‘Requirements for Assessing and Maintaining the Authenticity of Electronic Records,’"Michael Forstrom elaborates on this discussion in the article "Managing Electronic Records in Manuscript Collections: A Case Study from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library" in the journal American Archivist.

The author provides recommendations on how archival archeology, inference, and description can work in tendem “to guarantee the records’ identity and integrity.” These steps include utilizing elements of Describing Archives: a Content Standards (DACS) and explicating on the whole process of preserving and contextualizing the records.

In the end, the work of documenting and explaining how a set of records came to be arranged, described, and processed is part of a larger whole: one that balances the use of evidence gleaned from archival archeology with an archivist’s inference into their relationship with the creator of records.

This can at times be a journey for the archivist and one which opens the work of archival processing into the sphere of archival documentation: an important reminder on how archival archeology should be utilized as evidence in the process of describing archival material.

Borrowing privileges: Leon Trotsky, André Breton, and Meyer Schapiro’s books

Once in a while, as an archivist, you come across records that are so extraordinary that you simply stop and stare: partly in awe and partly in puzzlement.

This happened to me as I was processing Meyer Schapiro’s correspondence files several months back. I came across a letter from the well-known political thinker Leon Trotsky.

Aside from the fact that the letter was from Trotsky himself, I was also shocked to read that Schapiro had lent Trotsky books relating to the Surrealist artist, philosopher, and over all enfant terrible André Breton.

The relationship between Schapiro, Breton, and Trotsky is a complex one. All three knew each other, but never met as a group. They did, however, share a common interest in the arts and politics, and also, apparently, some books.

As Trotsky writes on June 14, 1939 to Schapiro from Coyoacan, Mexico, (he was in exile and writing one year prior to his death): “I was informed from my friend Jac Wasserman that you were gracious enough to send me some of Breton’s books. ¶ In my eyes it is a sign that you belong to the camp of friends, who as yet are not too numerous but who are, fortunately, increasing. I hope to return the books in short time.”

According to a typescript in Schapiro’s research files relating to Breton, Schapiro writes that he had seen Breton in 1939 in the Paris neighborhood of St. Germain-des-Près, but that they officially met in June of 1941 through their mutual friend, the artist Gordon Onslow-Ford.

As Schapiro writes of their 1941 encounter: “He [Breton] received me with a studied courtesy and graciousness. Gordon [Onslow-Ford] was radiant with happiness in the presence of Breton, as if he were showing me his father of whom he was inordinately proud before the world, and he was also proud before Breton for having presented him to me. Breton discussed so many things that I can no longer remember the order of our conversations; we talked for three hours about painting, poetry and psychology and the personalities of some artists.”

What they did discuss that day was Pablo Picasso’s work Guernica: “…[Breton] asked me what I thought of the bombing of Guernica, whether I considered it something good. I found nothing at all good in it, and distinguished the horror of the destruction of Guernica from the horror of the painting of Guernica. To this Breton said nothing.”

Breton and Trotsky, on the other hand,  knew each other from their meetings in Mexico while Breton was traveling there on a cultural mission granted by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1938, Breton, alongside Diego Rivera, wrote a treatise on how art can be in service of the revolution, Pour un art révolutionnaire indépendent, which was inspired from that visit in Mexico and the meeting with Trotsky.

Breton, however,  had an ambiguous relationship with politics in general, and Marxism in particular, because political activism was always cloaked under the mantle of Surrealism, as Pierre Taminiaux writes in the article “Breton and Trotsky: The Revolutionary Memory of Surrealism.”  

This may be why Schapiro would denounce Breton after the death of Trotsky, when Breton criticized the political leader for not bringing the revolution he promised: “Just as Kerensky attacked Lenin by asserting that Lenin as a boy tormented dogs in the streets of his village, Breton attacked the dead Trotsky for his rationalistic treatment of dogs and his illusions about them. Always dogs in the resentments of these deposed exiles! But to imagine that a Breton who devotes his days to speculations about occultism, astrology and playing cards, and constructs a black gadget to register all the significant events about the year 1713, which resembles the signature of his initials, should scold the revolutionary hero and greatest political thinker of our time, for not providing the revolution he has promised to Breton. If you do not give it to us soon enough, warns Breton, we shall have to excommunicate you from Surrealism.”

Schapiro’s characterization of Breton’s edict on Trotsky brings to light the many allegiances and friendships that Surrealism either shaped or broke.

In all, its curious how, in hindsight, Breton, Schapiro, and Trotsky  have become emblematic of the spheres in which they worked in: as artist, art historian, and political thinker respectively. It also shows how intricately connected the art world and the political sphere were back in the 1930s and 1940s and how, at times, hidden relationships (and the books exchanged) are not really known unless you have archival records to prove them. 


Technological advances and Stuart Davis’s postcards

Artist Stuart Davis used color and form to wise effect, forcing upon the canvas a vibrancy that at times jumps a painting’s support.

Davis was a painter influenced by the burgeoning jazz scene, and he sought to portray the canvas as a field of forms that mirrored the syncopation of jazz rhythm while also reflecting on the urban environment from which the musical genre sprang in New York City.

Davis’s artistic career began early (he was the youngest artist to be represented in the infamous Armory Show of 1913) and changed as it reflected his growing maturation.

He began working under the artist Robert Henri and was influenced by the Ashcan painter’s use of realism. As the times began to roll and as history began to play itself out, Davis would abandon such realism in favor of abstraction to evoke the sociological and technological changes around the world.

Davis’s fascination with technology is evident in two postcards he sent to Meyer Schapiro.

One fashions the Empire State Building as a beacon of industrial life in a metropolitan city. To the left shines the mascot of human ingenuity, a skyscraper of steel. While, to the right, the city dweller’s life is compartmentalized to illustrate the sender’s emotion, feelings, and daily activities. Life, in this instance, is as ready-made as an assembly line.

The other postcard, a TWA “Constellation” carrier in flight, can be seen as a skyscraper in the skies: a feat of human innovation aided by technological advances.

But Davis, in all his admiration for technology, was also aware of the individual living in it. As Davis writes to Schapiro in 1952 about the latter’s work on the middle ages: “I [received] new information [regarding] the existence of the human individual in what had been an historical abstraction of monolithic sanctity, that is, the middle ages.” One can also argue that this is true of post-war America, where the individual became subsumed in an ever increasing world of mass production.

Davis and Schapiro were friends who worked together in the group American Artists’ Congress that was founded in 1936 to “organize artists against war and fascism and to defend the economic and social interests of artists.”

Davis would later abandon the Congress because of the organizations silence on the rise of totalitarian regimes in the late 1930s. Davis would write: “The American Artists’ Congress has done much in the past to give a backbone to progressive sentiments among American artists, and I was most reluctant to resign from it, and did not do so until I felt sure that the centrifugal motion of its original policy had become unalterably centripetal, with a constant loss of influence in the environment.”

Davis’s insistence on understanding the local environment is as evident in his politics as it is in his aesthetics: it is the inspiration and understanding that the local gives to the global.

Meyer Schapiro Portraits by Alice Neel

Artist Alice Neel painted portraits of Meyer Schapiro twice in his life, once in 1947 and the other in 1983. Known for her expressionistic renderings of her subjects, Neel’s portraits sustain a deep gravitas towards the subject depicted. The portraits can be viewed on Alice Neel’s website.

Neel’s 1983 portrait of Schapiro is part of The Jewish Museum collection in New York City. More information on that portrait can be found here.

Schapiro was an adviser and trustee of The Jewish Museum for 50 years, and, according to their website, “Schapiro encouraged the museum to present cuffing-edge contemporary art. To expose the reciprocal relationship of old and new, to recognize in ancient ceremonial art the dynamic force of spiritual expressionism, and to read in the avant-garde new utterances of traditional values and ideas: this was the gauntlet that Schapiro threw down in the late 1940s. In its collections and programs, The Jewish Museum continues to embrace the challenge of Meyer Schapiro’s dynamic dialectical approach.”

Incidentally, the Schapiro Collection includes a treasure trove of art works by Meyer Schapiro, including many self-portraits created while he was a student. Schapiro was a practicing artist his whole life. A publication, Meyer Schapiro: His Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture, chronicles his artistic output. This image from the archive is a self-portrait Meyer created in the 1920s.

The Schapiro Wing, the Brooklyn Museum, and the clandestine facade

I recently made my monthly trip to the fantastic and inspiring Brooklyn Museum. (Their first free Saturdays are packed with great live performances, music, and other special events.)

I’ve walked the galleries frequently before, but did not really catch on to the fact that there is a Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing. Needless to say, it is the Meyer Schapiro.

The wing was dedicated in 1993 and was part of the museum’s Master Plan designed by the team Arata Isozaki & Associates and James Stewart Polshek. The wing was endowed by Meyer’s brother, the banker and financier Morris Schapiro. The brothers grew up in the Brownsville and Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn where their father worked as a paper and cordage wholesaler.

The history of the Brooklyn Museum’s building is extraordinary and well detailed on their website. It was designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White and the museum’s archive has a suite of photographs available for view on-line.

I have always been a bit surprised by the bizarre entrance to the museum and their website gives a tantalizing gloss about it.

There was also growing interest in the 1930s in creating a more direct and “democratic” entrance into the Museum. In April 1934, while principals of McKim, Mead & White were out of the country, the Municipal Art Commission quickly approved the demolition of the monumental front staircase, greatly altering the architectural character of the Museum’s main facade.

Sounds clandestine to be sure.

Mckim, Mead & White were exponents of the Beaux-Arts architectural style so popular during that time. They also connect the Brooklyn Museum with Columbia University: Mckim, Mead & White also designed Columbia’s Morningside campus and individual buildings such as Low Memorial Library, Philosophy Hall, John Jay Hall, and Hamilton Hall on Columbia’s campus.