A Portrait of David Schorr’s “Hannah Arendt Center: The Centenary Prints”
By Steven Maslow
In 2011, the Hannah Arendt Center commissioned the artist David Schorr to create an original engraved series of 50 prints of Hannah Arendt based on his iconic drawing that graces the cover of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of the World. These prints were lost for a decade, but were found and are now being made available through the Arendt Center. Learn more and join the center here.
Steven Maslow, then the Chairman of the Arendt Center’s board, a student and later friend of David Schorr’s, offers reflections below on the prints, their connection to Arendt’s writing and thinking, and his friendship with David Schorr.
MADE VISIBLE in these prints by David Schorr is the ‘autumn’ sensibility in Hannah Arendt’s work, a molten current of deep emotion that courses beneath her classical erudition, just as many listeners feel it does through the formal musical structures of that other North German, Johannes Brahms.
Some of the greatest artists–and, compositionally speaking, Hannah Arendt was indeed a great artist––are distinguished by their ability to affirm our humanity while sometimes revealing the most unpleasant truths. Arendt’s rage (1) against totalitarianism may be felt in her writing, yet it is conveyed through orderly and meticulously documented academic prose. Reading Arendt, hearing Brahms, you feel the pulse of the world beating in your own body, not the onset of a heart attack.
Many readers experience this while reading, for example, Arendt’s descriptions of the silence of terror in the extermination camps (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) or the gurgling voicelessness of Melville’s Billy Budd (in On Violence). The effect is very similar to what many listeners experience when listening to that otherworldly calling from Brahms’s German Requiem, particularly the second movement (2), throughout which the strings play con sordino (muted), and whose melodies march in strict ¾ time, yet manage to soothe us, with all their gloomy grandeur.
It is this sensibility, of rage and orderliness, that David Schorr so successfully conveys in his 50 engraved prints called: “Hannah Arendt Center: The Centenary Prints”. ‘Centenary’ refers to what would have been Hannah Arendt’s 100th birthday in 2006, in honor of which Elisabeth Young-Bruehl gave a lecture at New York’s 92nd Street Y, and where this author and David Schoor first discussed creating a portrait of Hannah Arendt.
You can see this in the portrait most evidently in Schorr’s intricate crafting of Hannah Arendt’s eyes, where, it has been reported several times, the artist appears to capture some of how it feels to read Arendt, the somber richness of her magisterial writings, and what Mary McCarthy described as “the deep dark pools of inwardness in Hannah Arendt’s eyes: the unfathomable that seemed to lie in the reflective depths of those eyes.”
David Schorr (b. 1947, Chicago, IL – d. 2018, New York, NY), who suffered a fatal seizure while teaching a class in 2018, was an artist, an engraver and lithographer par excellence, a calligrapher, and a Fullbright Scholar three times(3). He was a characteristically blunt professor, “because there is no place to hide on the page in art,” and he once told his student that he found Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem “searingly honest, and confrontational without being hostile” In other words, David identified with Arendt’s style and devotion to teaching, which he did at Wesleyan University for five decades.
Although David often shocked his students by claiming he was “no intellectual” (he could say this in four languages) his pedagogy shared with Hannah Arendt’s a willingness to confront unpleasantness, to talk about the ‘elephants in the room,’ albeit with sensitivity and compassion for the listener(4). Their stylistic similarity is evident in Arendt’s remarks during a speech she gave(5) for the US Bicentennial Celebration: “When the facts come home to roost, let us try at least to make them welcome, let us not try to escape into some utopias–images, theories or sheer follies”(6) In “The Centenary Prints” series David shows poets can sing about seasons other than spring. The prints say, with Keats, “Autumn, thou hast thy music too.”
* * *
At Wesleyan, in the 1980s, David Schorr was, at first, my employer (I was his cook) and then became his student (in drawing). He was part of a circle of professors that I happened to study with and know, including Phyllis Rose, who wrote Parallel Lives (David illustrated parts of the book)and and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who wrote the prize-winning biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (featuring David’s portrait of Arendt on the book’s cover). The same year those books came out, David was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to create the poster for one of their productions, to go in front of the opera house in Lincoln Center. It seemed the world was, by and large, applauding: a humbling experience for us, their students, trying to keep our questions centered on our studies, instead of what we were itching to know, which was, “What is it like to become famous?”
On the Wesleyan campus, David cut a dashing figure: tall, fast-walking- and-talking, his head like a Roman portrait bust, with a full dark beard, topped by extravagant black curls. He could be voluble, but worth listening to because he knew secrets we would ‘never’ know: about a greenish-white and rare Italian wine, Vitovska, whose grapes grew on the Karst, the chalk hills of Friuli-Veneto that separate Austria from Italy; about intaglio printing techniques from ancient times, about Gustav Mahler’s sources of Chinese poetry that the composer used in Das Lied von der Erde (which David called Mahler’s 10th.) Being friendly with David meant eating at a moveable feast of delicacies from art, history, poetry, music, wine, and, yes, cuisine.
He lived in a 19th-century building on Wesleyan’s main street, inside of which he created a vibrantly contrasting, modern, minimalist apartment, with muted colors, punctuated by his own artworks, and those of certain students. Coolest of all, he had a beautiful loft apartment on West 86th Street(7) in Manhattan to which he would sometimes invite you for espresso, the Russian coffee cake from Zabar’s, and a chat. In addition to his circle of professor friends, there were his “darlings,” an ensemble of uber-talented students whose work he would tirelessly promote through his network of galleries, printmakers and academic institutions. He entertained both professors and students unpretentiously, exuberantly and generously, and his preferred mode of discourse was the dinner party. In 1982, he even had a private chef. That was me.
David had a gaze that could penetrate fog, and I found it intimidating. Once, when he focused on me, at 86th Street, he asked to photograph my head saying, “You have a very 18th-century face. Did you know that?” After which he was too tactile for my 19-year-old tastes, and I thanked him for the coffee and scurried away from his apartment, wondering if I would still have a job with him when I returned to campus. I did. We never spoke of it again. Later he admitted me as his student to his drawing class, despite the fact that I didn’t pass the qualifying exam.
David and I met every few months for a few years after I graduated. “Teniamoci in contatto,”(8) he would say at the end of our get-togethers, in his fluent Italian, but my work schedule consumed my private life in those days, and I no longer made time for him. There were occasional sightings: once at a party for his friend, the writer André Aciman, at his publication of Call Me By Your Name; and later, in 2006, at a lecture by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl on the occasion of Hannah Arendt’s 100th birthday. In that same year, I met Roger Berkowitz at a conference he had organized for the occasion at Bard, and I eventually became the chairman of the Hannah Arendt Center. The circle of life is now in full view.
In 2011, the Hannah Arendt Center (HAC) contacted David to follow up on the suggestion that he create an engraved portrait of Hannah Arendt. Since our last contact, Schorr had been busy being excellent. In the print world, he had revived “lost” techniques, such as burin engraving and silverpoint drawing, to extraordinary acclaim (for example, his Roman Prints and Drawings). He commanded commissions that we could not afford, but he discounted his fee out of sympathy for the HAC. And so, with the support of Roger Berkowitz, and the board of directors at Bard, we commissioned David to engrave and print the series you have before you.
David knew he would have a tough panel of judges to satisfy, because three of our supporters knew Hannah Arendt well and were her students: Leon Botstein(9); Jerome Kohn(10), and Alex Bazelow(11). But David was confident and he began work(12) immediately.
To my great surprise–because I thought you were supposed to leave artists alone to be creative–after commissioning “The Centenary Prints,” David set up a large number of meetings, lunches, dinners, and conference calls (this was the pre-Zoom era) for the two of us. He called these meetings to show me format, papers, paper weights, inks, plates, and I also believe it was at this time that I learned the word “deckle” which describes the uneven edge of the hand-made paper on which this portrait has been printed.
It was as though he needed my advice on a topic about which I knew next to nothing. Albrecht Dürer(13) became a name mentioned more often than President Obama. Still, David explained things so well that any adult could answer his questions within minutes of his spelling out the choices. Then we would talk long into the afternoon or night.
His knowledge of art was encyclopedic, spanning both ‘the math and the music’ of the art business, and he was a not-so-closeted art historian too. I recall him becoming viscerally melancholy when discussing a painting by Caravaggio that was lost in the bombing of Berlin in 1945(14); and I remember his clenched fists raised in fury when he talked about the conflicts of interest that corrupt art auction houses (he pointed out that in 2000, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s had simultaneously offered Gaugin’s painting Vase de Fleurs until Christie’s(15) was humiliated into admitting it had authenticated a fake); and I remember the serene joy lighting his face, “like the Pips at their gladyst”, as he spoke about artists creating their supreme works towards the end of their lives (he sang and played air-piano excerpts from Beethoven’s opus 106 and each of the two-movements of the opus 111 piano sonatas, he spoke of the colors and the brushwork in Monet’s paintings at Giverny, and he asked me–even though EYB was a contact in his mobile phone– how Hannah Arendt’s late works compared to her early ones.) His inner-businessman was impatient and succinct; the rest of him alternated between a high baud-rate conversation style, and languorous, elaborate hand gestures, like a conductor’s.
His insistent questioning about print matters, which he knew better than I, drove me crazy, and he knew it. David had a boyish-devilish streak, and would laugh out loud at my confusion, but there was method in his madness. David disappeared from my life after the project ended (the term of art is now “ghosted”), and did not return my calls, texts, or emails. To me it still seems the mighty dragon ceased his fierceless roar.
MADE VISIBLE by his absence, in my lighted, rear view mirror, is the realization that David was postponing the end of the project, anticipating, correctly, that its completion would change the frequency and basis of contact between us. You may infer what you will about this, but, in some senses then, these prints are the offspring of my reverence for him, and the love he shared with me.
But mostly these prints are the work of one of the greatest printmakers of our time, a magnificently prodigious and talented draughtsman, painter, calligrapher and an engraver. David Schorr read and understood Hannah Arendt and her poetry, and was able to forge her image for our generation from his understanding of her books, from his consummate technical skills, from the life of European culture he lived, his wealth of friendships, and from the smithy of his great soul.
Steven Maslow, Brooklyn, New York, July 2022
1 Since the time of Tacitus, sine ira et studio (meaning ‘without bitterness or partiality) has been the guiding principle for historians and academics. Arendt, faced with describing the unprecedented nature of her subject, broke through this restraint. At first much criticized for it, she is now widely imitated, her footnotes often being as interesting as her texts.
2 After the death of his mother, Brahms set Isaiah 40: 6-8 and Peter 1:24-25 in Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (trans. Luther) to music as the second movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem, a requiem that offers not prayers for the dead, but is rather concerned with comforting the living.
3 in Italy in 1975 and India in 1998 and 2001.
4 Gershom Scholem would vehemently disagree with this assessment of the ironic tone of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and he went so far as to accuse her of lacking love for her own people. Given what we know today about Eichmann’s true role in the Final Solution, it is possible that Arendt, who narrowly escaped from the Nazis’ clutches at the Gurs detention center, was too close to her subject to maintain objectivity about Eichmann (he fooled her) though this does not detract from her assessment of responsibility in “the darkest part of the whole dark story.”
5 At Senator Joe Biden’s request. At the 1976 US Bicentennial, Joe Biden was a first-term senator, having been elected in 1972.
6 “Home to Roost: A Bicentennial Address”, Arendt, Hannah, The NY Review of Books, June 26, 1975
7 At 40 West 86 Street, Apt 7D New York 10024
8 “We will stay in touch!”
9 The president of Bard College
10 Hannah Arendt’s literary executor and the editor of her posthumous publications
11 An early champion of the HAC
12 David later presented these prints, on 22 Sep 2012, in memory of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who had died the previous December, at the Fifth Annual Hannah Arendt Conference at Bard. The prints were sent to California for safekeeping prior to the arrival of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, and were lost for a decade. They were found, having been carefully stored in a cedar chest in an air conditioned warehouse and then returned to Steven Maslow in May 2022.
13 1471-1528, he was a painter, woodcut artist, engraver and theorist of the German Renaissance, and one of the most influential printmakers of all time. He counted among his friends DaVinci, Raphael, and Bellini. David had a copy of Dürer’s Praying Hands in his study.
14 Saint Matthew and the Angel (1602), completed for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesci in Rome. It is now known only from back-and-white photography.
15 Sotheby’s sold the original, took their commissions, and paid the owner £169,000 despite solid evidence he also had owned the fake, without ever notifying the authorities!