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 the poet 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.