An Interview with Marsha Steinberg, Studio Art Coordinator for California State University in Florence.
by Marissa Danielsen – studio art major
When I imagine her coming to Italy in the 1970’s, I imagine her gazing out of the window of a jet plane holding a book for a companion: Willem De Kooning’s drawings; his chaotic figures speak to her soul. The plane roars to life, angels into the air, taking Marsha Steinberg away from her native Los Angeles, to her new home in Florence, Italy.
It is 2012. I am in her apartment in Florence facing a wall filled with her paintings and etchings. They resonate with color and energy.
“Would you like something to drink? Like water or a coffee?” she asks me.
While she is in the kitchen, I examine her bookshelf. It is filled with art books: Andy Warhol, art through the decades, books on abstract expressionists. She returns with a glass of water. I am one of her studio art students enrolled in the California State University studio art program in Florence Under her guidance, all thirteen of us studio art students passed the entrance exam for the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. We are attending the Accademia in courses of painting, sculpture or etching for the entire academic year 2011-2012. We have weekly critiques in our art advising sessions with Marsha at CSU that are lively, refreshingly honest and helpful. I volunteered to do an interview with Marsha Steinberg for Flo N’ the Go because Marsha represents what CSU studio art is all about.
She tells me about her life. In her early 20’s, she went on a vacation to Europe and she fell in love with Italy. This journey led her to choose the California State University System for its International Program over OTIS College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. At California State University, Northridge she took classes in painting, etching, drawing and ceramics, as well as a variety of art history courses. Marsha was also passionate about literature and political science. She tried to understand the political situation of Vietnam, gas rationing, and the formation of OPEC. Furthermore, she expanded her political knowledge by reading books on Marxism and other political and economic systems. Marsha has a love for poetry, English and American literature, especially for the greats such as Yeats, Keats, T. S. Eliot, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.
At the time, she was the only student attending the Accademia from her CSU International Program. I begin asking questions.
When did you know you were an artist?
“I discovered I was an artist when I was 19 years old. I was passionately engaged. I remember vividly my first year at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze: I was in a big room by myself and I was painting a woman in different perspectives and combining the perspectives into a single form, then I began undoing the lines. I fell in love with it then and there. The teacher, who watched me paint, told another student to leave me alone and let me work. I was really feeling it at that moment.”
How did your parents feel about your decision to become an artist?
“My parents were afraid that I wouldn’t make any money as an artist. This is why teaching and painting are in perfect relation to each other. They provide inspiration and also a secure place in the world. I am very resourceful.”
Do you feel that by moving to Italy you were running to something or away from something? If so, what?
“Honestly, I was running away in order to find out more about myself and take a leave from my family. I was running away with 53 other kids to another country.”
Why did you become a professor?
“I am not the type of person who just works in a studio. I need to go out and mingle with people, relate with the world directly. I also wanted to combine my painting and etching with teaching young people. I wanted to teach them about how to express a personal vocabulary through art. But, not only that, I had a desire to learn more as well. When you teach, you also learn from your students. I wanted to be around minds hungry for knowledge, eager to learn new things, open to new ways of making art and especially to an Italian-European point of view towards making art – research. Then the expression of this investigation reveals itself in painting, etching, sculpture and drawing (and a multitude of other media forms).
When I started working at Il Bisonte, an etching school here in Florence, I was an assistant to Prof. Viggiano and Prof. Kraczyna. I loved it but I wanted to teach CSU students who had decided to come abroad as I did; students who wanted to enhance their artistic vocabulary by attending the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. I got going by getting other people going. Something sparked in me; so I went back to school to finish my Master’s. I needed my Master’s to be able to open up the CSU Art Program again.
I organized a pilot program in 1989 to reinstate a relationship between the California State University and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. This program has been going on for 23 years and is the only American University program in Florence that collaborates with the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze.
This program was and is in my heart. I loved attending both schools here in Florence when I was in college. As a teacher, I wanted my students to have this wonderful opportunity to immerse themselves in a true Italian reality where they could meet Italians and international students and share their views with a new world. TheAccademia offers a completely different reality from the universities in the States. Each student, while continuing his or her undergraduate studies, works on a personal project, first researching an idea and then developing this idea or concept into a very personal body of work. The influence of all the art that Florence offers is of great inspiration to my students, as it is to me. The old with the new is a perfect combination. To study the old masters on site, digest them and let yourself learn to love them is what I did and I want to pass these experiences on to my students at CSU.”
What do you feel are the differences of being an artist in the States and being an artist in Italy?
“I don’t think there is a difference. An artist is international and feels and sees art everywhere in the world. The basis of today’s art comes from the past: Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, and so on, and they are all available to the artist here in Italy and especially in Florence.”
You’re familiar with the movie Midnight in Paris. If at midnight you could be transported to any time period, which time period would it be? Who would you want to encounter?
“Well, I mean if it were Midnight in Italy then of course I would want to go back to the early 1900’s and the 1920’s and meet Giorgio de Chirico, or the Futurists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Balla and Boccioni. I would also want to meet the Macchiaioli in 1865, the Italian Impressionists, Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega, and Telemaco Signorini. I would also like to meet some great painters from the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods: Giotto, Pontormo and Caravaggio. If we are talking about the Rinascimento, then above all I would meet Piero della Francesca, I particularly love him because his paintings are sublime. He transcends beyond what we are looking at.”
Political climates: Do you think there is a parallel between the political climates of the 70’s and today?
“I definitely think there is a parallel. I come from the post WWII generation: baby boomers. When I was in college there was the war in Vietnam. We were the “flower children”. We were “hippies”. We were rebels. The generation of Vietnam, of rebellion couldn’t help but find itself within the new artistic tendencies that deconstructed and melted the forms, opened up the spaces, and refused to carry out the regulatory function of The Name of the Father as painters like De Kooning, Gorky, Rothko, Pollock, among others, did. Similarly, regarding quantum physics, a theory was developed “devoid of sense” to explain the strange behavior of electrons, as Richard P. Feynman says. Following this line of thought, Art invented the free gesture (as if it were chance contrasted against the necessary), the events, the performance, New Dada, Nouveau Réalisme, etc., as a renunciation to Western Hegemony and I am dealing with the recuperation of a re-presentation that relates to reason and to measurements. History repeats itself. In the art world, there was nothing guiding artists then and nothing guiding artists now. From the 50’s to the 70’s, Abstract Expressionism was very anti-establishment. Even today, art is very anti-establishment: look at Banksy’s appropriations. It is a return to subject matter but still anti-establishment.”
Is there anything else you would like to say to the young artists of today?
“Try to find a balance between chaos and stillness. If you go too much into the chaos, you could be easily led away by violent radicals like the ‘68ers. You need to find a happy medium. In those days, chaos fit me perfectly. The scream of Nietzsche (the need to have chaos inside oneself so that a star can be born) is what I was feeling. I was pure form and color. Now there is stability and ground but also energy. There is balance.”
What are you currently working on?
“I’m currently working on a series called Cattivi Maestri e Donna / Iniquitous Masters and Woman. They are appropriations of works of my art heroes with my own tweak, a woman in front of them gazing at the painting. It might be hard to explain but I’ll try. I believe that the artist is supposed to guide the viewer to see something; which is the perception of the artist, to guide the viewer to see. In other words, as my analyst Prof. Panaiotis Kantzas says, “to fulfill the function of the Father. After we have eliminated all Fathers: from God the Father up to the Father of the family,” I felt and still feel the need for the Father, who shows and reveals that which I am unable to see, as well as what I am unable to say. My heroes are the Abstract Expressionists, and looking back, they gave me a lot of things, but they did not give me everything. They taught me how to paint, but not what to paint. They took me to chaos and left me there. The woman in front of the painting is me. It is the artist who interrogates abstract art. And in her questioning, only with her presence, she adds something to the chaos: a question. I want these paintings to raise a question in the viewer’s mind on their own relationship to the work of art, the act of looking at art. There is a breakdown of separation between the artist and the viewer. It becomes like an infinity mirror. You look at the art and the spectator in the art, while you yourself are a spectator looking at a work of art. I wanted to do these paintings because they are difficult. Especially Rothko’s works since he paints nothingness.”
Why do you paint bulls?
“Often I went with my ex, Beppe, to a ranch in Maremma (south of Pisa) where bulls, horses and cows were raised and I was very interested in the bulls. I loved the stillness and their forms. A Bull is like a huge still life to me. For me it also brings up the idea of Greek mythology, the idea of Theseus and the Minotaur. The bull is an entity that brings us to the Minotaurs of Picasso and then to their simplicity: bulls without being Minos. The energy of the beast presented in its stillness. The bulls have the same energy as my abstract paintings: they felt like a manifested energy form. As Prof. Rolando Bellini says: “they are masses of physical forms of nature’s energy like rocks, mountains, enormous natural forms, etc.” I liked the challenge of including abstract forms inside and outside a large animal form.”
What do you want your legacy to be?
“Through painting, I want to transmit passion. I want to express the relationship between myself and my students and my painting and my students’ painting. I want to express the interconnectedness of everything. I want to be a guide for myself, my students and the viewers of my paintings. I want to raise questions and create a dialogue and not leave my viewers or students in chaos.”
Is there anything else you want to say?
“Yes. I want my new dialogue between myself, my past and present art heroes and master painters to be viewed, to become visible. I want to be and declare myself as being an artist who realizes the function of The Name of the Father.”
“Thank you Marissa. It was great fun and enlightening having this conversation.” Marsha