Partial Recall: Phil Leider

Phil Leider wasn’t the best teacher I ever had. He wasn’t the most intelligent, nor the most articulate, nor the most insightful, nor the most attentive. However, he was one of the most consequential to me. He was the first in my life to point out one of the trails I ended up following, and to show me it was well worth walking.

The search engine at my fingertips tells me that Christopher Buckley studied under Phil and found him similarly influential. He writes

I took many classes from Phil Leider, who is probably the best teacher of any subject I ever had. Classes I had from Leider were not focused on contemporary work, but he taught us how to look at painting. Neither Art Historian nor Art Critic, (he had been editor of ArtForum for a number of years in New York and in San Francisco), Leider gave us both lines of thinking on a particular painting or artist and then supplied a view that often discarded both theories and considered, in a very immediate, specific, and practical fashion, the artist and the aspects of the work itself. He taught us to always “trust the artist first.” The main thing was that after studying with him, consciously or unconsciously, I had some idea about how to look at painting.

On a whim, to fill out my academic schedule for the first quarter of freshman year, I took a course selected nearly at random: Phil’s survey of Spanish painting (from Velázquez to Picasso, more or less). At the time, I was unaware of art history as an academic discipline. I had visited only a couple of museums prior to college (most memorably the Telfair Academy in Savannah). I had no expectations and no goals beyond discovery.

Leider, in contrast to nearly every other teacher I had ever had, was utterly informal. He would begin each lecture by scribbling a list of names or key terms on a chalkboard, but working from the board was not his forte and he seldom made reference to those notes. Rather, he would riff with seeming improvisation on one image after another in order to flesh out the conceptual and psychological space of each artist, patron, or subject. In doing so, as Chris Buckley points out, Phil would massage into high relief the conflicts and tensions that defined not only the art in its context but also the art historical discussions unfolding in the metacontext. We were learning not only to read the artifacts, and to identify the cues and clues that facilitate such reading, but also to see the subsequent criticism as similar in kind and as susceptible to the same analytic curiosity.

That’s all good, but what was special about Phil was his style. He was a blue collar art historian, an ordinary Joe of an art critic, with a blue jean vocabulary and a take-no-crap style. He was utterly unpretentious, and deeply concerned to step aside, out of the spotlight, and to draw the students closer to the artworks and to the words of their creators. I found him completely engaging.

A couple of years later, a friend well versed in Renaissance art history was visiting from Germany. I took her to hear one of Phil’s lectures. While I found his insights into competition and identity in Florence captivating, she found his persistent mispronunciation of ‘Ghiberti’ grating. (He’d say “juh-BERT-ee”, by no means his only verbal anomaly). What did I value in Phil that was either invisible to, or unwanted by, my dear Westphalian friend? Maybe it was the fact that Phil seemed emphatically American. He was informed but unpolished. He came across like some guy on a street corner, respectable but common, who was just bristling with that Unitedstatesian mix of pragmatism and idealism, and who wasn’t going to quit until he had gotten to the bottom of the vexing cultural conundrum that was making his brain itch. He was Brooklyn and California, intense and feisty but laid back and expansive.

Years later, working with Vincent Scully made me recall another key facet of Phil: he could be intensely dramatic, playing the timing of a pedagogic moment like the string of a plaintive viola. He was sometimes cocky, sometimes chatty, sometimes astonished. He worked the audience. In short, he was entertaining. The house was always packed, and we came in numbers because everyone knew, or had heard tell, that at the end of too quick an hour, we’d walk away having learned something worth knowing or having practiced a skill worth honing.

I ended up taking enough art history courses for a minor, and later turned to that discipline for graduate study. It seems to me that this probably wouldn’t have happened if Leider hadn’t hooked me from the outset and given me a reason to keep coming back for more. Others taught me about rigor, precision, methodological awareness, and balanced weighting of evidence. In course after course, Phil taught me about soul, passion, and humanity in the explained and the explaining. The more I teach, the more I come to see how much wisdom there was in his distinctive way of taking it to the streets.

Thanks, Phil.

10 thoughts on “Partial Recall: Phil Leider”

  1. As an art major at the University of California, Irvine, I discovered Phil Lieder after enrolling in a required art history class. Studio art was my study emphasis but art history became and insistent minor, chasing after my studio subjects,and nearly overtaking them with unit credits. Art History nearly became my major because I packed in every minute and hour of my schedule with every art history class taught by Phil Lieder. I left the lectures singing. And I am still in song, teaching art to inner-city students, doing my best to open up their minds and unlock their imaginations to see art as artists. I remember him daily. Yes, agreed, thank you Phil!

  2. Phil taught me to love art. After taking his art history series one summer, I became an art history major only to discover most of the other AH profs at UCI were dull as dirt. Thankfully, Phil was teaching other classes that were also great so I ended up with just an art history minor and my love of art still intact. Thanks Phil!

  3. I was a chemistry major at UCI in the 70s, and took Phil's art history class on a whim. I was instantly hooked. His passion for art was palpable, and his lectures were engrossing. It opened a new world to this hard-science major.

    I left UCI with a quarter left to graduate and went to work in Switzerland, due in no small part to Phil's influence . I travelled though Europe and visited scores of art museums. In nearly every one I would find a painting that was talked about in Phil's art history survey course. It was like seeing an old friend and gave me an anchor point in an otherwise dizzying array of art.

    Years later I find myself working as a studio furniture maker. Phil Leider's influence is still being felt in my life.

  4. I was an econ major back in the eighties and stumbled into Phil's class. I took his one-year survey, then North American Abstract Art. Right at the start he lit up an idea in my brain that I build on to this day: whoever painted in the earliest caves already understood perspective. Not the mathematics of it, but the lifelike representation part. The fact that later in human history people drew people sideways (2k years in Egypt!) or with mismatched feet and heads (500 years in the Middle Ages) wasn't that people didn't know better, but that their religion and mindset said that was the way to do art. My lesson was that civilization isn't one big upward learning curve: people have been unlearning and relearning many things over the ages. Thank you, Phil (and all of you for this post and the comments).

  5. I think of Phil Leider every time I look at a piece of art. I was a Math major at Irvine and eventually became an engineer. I love art and it's because of Phil. I took six classes. I take my kids, now 14 and 16, to museums and give them the speeches I got from Phil. We just saw Caravaggio at LACMA. Here's me in my best Phil imitation. "Where is the light being directed children? What is important to the artist … What?" then "Look, the light is leading us to what … his knee." And "here – in this one – take a look at that elbow" or "look at this dirty foot practically sticking right out of the canvas" or "he's is suppposed to be a saint – he's just an ordinary guy in a bar trying to get everyone to listen to him." My two budding engineers actually enjoyed themselves at an art museum, I cracked them up. Now, they love Caravaggio, what he meant to painting in the Renaissance, and they've already referenced him in their daily lives. It's just a dribble compared with the waterfall that Phil gave us in 9 weeks. What a great time I had in class. Like Jayn Rosenquist says, above, "I came out singing" from his lectures.

    What a gift he gave us. Thank you, Phil, for flying down to Irvine every week to educate us. I'm 54 and I've NEVER forgotten you or what you gave me.

  6. I graduated with a BA in Econ from UCI but pursued an MA in Art History. This decision has so much to do with Phillip's classes I took for non-majors at Irvine in the late 80s. I have lectured on surveys of art at San Jose State University and now lecture throughout many museums in Shanghai. Every time I receive any form of compliment from my students and audiences about my excitement and unique way of presenting art, I always say I had excellent professors in which Phillip will always be my foundation. Thank you Phillip. May your legacy endure.

  7. I was a performance art student and took classes with Phil Leider> I learned to love art, to love Picasso and Cezanne and Matisse and many others. That passion has remained through my life. I was also interested in spirituality, and the intensive and honesty with which Phil spoke suggested to me that when some men and women speak it is not them speaking but something of them and something unknown that cannot be defined or grasped which does the speaking. I wanted to explore this in art, of speaking or painting in which it is the person plus on the canvas or in the drama or in the sculpture. The intensity of his presentation made the paintings vivid as never seen before.

  8. I remember Phil in those early days in San Francisco. I babysat for Phil and Gladys who were outrageous New Yorkers living in San Francisco. They were so refreshing to me, at the time, a young impressionable kid. They were so bright and challenging in conversations and so passionate in life. I would like to know where they are now. Any ideas? I found this article by chance. If Phil or Gladys is around, my maiden name was Mulgannon… Remember? Let me know where you are!
    My best

  9. Wonderful inspiration to myself and my fellow students at U.C.I. Thanks to that experience, I am still making Art, performing, and writing.

  10. I had the privilege of taking three Art History courses for non-art majors at UC Irvine from Phil Leider in the last 70s. The lecture hall could hold about 300 students, but there were people sitting on the floor and in the aisles just to hear his lectures. I even brought my father one time. Phil used to tell us to scribble down his notes at the beginning of the class, and then consider his lecture as "musak" to the art. He said his goal was to make us want to walk around art museums and galleries, and he certainly accomplished that with me. He used to read letters from Michelangelo to his father and tell us about the inner turmoil of the artists ranging from Donatello on through the Renaissance, how the artists couldn't put the genie back in the bottle and return to a more innocent, naïve and less cynical church age once the old Roman techniques and learning were re-discovered. Finally, I remember how one morning lecture he was walking around the stage, humming that old Neil Young song, "Down By The River", and he wasn't sure who wrote it and he asked the class….just a great guy. He told us during finals, when it might be easy to cheat, that we had to think of it as a vegetarian going to a dinner where meat was served – you're not missing out if you know what's good for you, and thus, you shouldn't cheat just because others might. He was awesome. We would gasp when he would change slides sometimes, because he prepared us to see the beauty and the wonder.

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