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Whereas Duchamp said that a bicycle wheel could be art, Steinbach says that art may as well be a bicycle wheel.
“‘Everyday objects’ could include a work of art. I mean, if I had a Brancusi to put on the shelf, I would put it,” he explained. “Art is everywhere. Art is in the eye of the beholder. You can look at that piece of rock or something, and you can have a moment of ecstasy — an artistic, sublime experience that’s as big as looking at a painting.”
For Steinbach, who seems at least a decade younger than his age and has a focused and sometimes intense energy, this idea to recast the mundane objects of our lives grew out of his education as an artist and the way that education dovetailed with the world around him.
At the time, the rise of minimalism had people rethinking what an art object should be; Steinbach brought that question home, quite literally, to his parents’ kitchen, where he began to notice a shelf filled with tchotchkes in a new light and to wonder what the pieces on it meant and what they were saying.
This wasn’t the family’s first kitchen; the Steinbachs moved to New York City from Rehovot, Israel, when Haim was 13, landing on the 13th floor of an apartment building in the Bronx. Five years later, his parents moved to the Bayside section of Queens, while he attended Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn. Two years after that, he took off for Europe, spending a year in Aix-en-Provence before returning to finish his undergraduate degree.
By the time Steinbach had his revelation, his parents were living in upstate New York, and he had been in the United States for nearly 20 years. Yet in a certain light, his artistic approach harkens back to his younger self — an immigrant encountering a strange, new culture and, not knowing its rules or hierarchies, processing it as best he can. (Steinbach left Israel when it was still a fledgling state, far less similar to the United States than it is today.)
“I think that Haim interrupts on the shelf what our first reading of an object might be, and he allows us to look at that thing in all its strangeness,” said Jenny Jaskey, curator of Steinbach’s current season at the Artist’s Institute. “That’s analogous to going to a culture for the first time and being able to see things without being able to read them.”
After Pratt, Steinbach held a series of teaching jobs before he was accepted to Yale University’s Master of Fine Arts program in 1971. When he finished there, rather than follow many of his colleagues to New York to break onto the art scene, he went and taught in Vermont, at Middlebury College. He has continued teaching — which he calls “a very good exercise in thinking” — in some form ever since, and credits it with helping him develop quickly as an artist.
“While [my peers] kind of settled into the mode of ideas and work of that period, I was just traveling through periods and ideas through my teaching. It’s almost like I digested a certain set of ideas that I had to work through, and I could move on to the next thing.”