Dorothy Seiberling, influential arts editor, dies at 97
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Dorothy Seiberling, influential arts editor, dies at 97
Dorothy Seiberling in an undated photo. She was an editor at Life magazine, New York and The New York Times Magazine. Image via Mary Huhn.

by Bonnie Wertheim

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Dorothy Seiberling, an influential magazine editor who championed modern artists, died Saturday in Wilmington, Delaware. She was 97.

Her death was confirmed by her niece Mary Huhn.

As Life magazine’s art editor, Seiberling helped shape public opinion about the 20th century’s foremost avant-gardist artists, encouraging open-minded consideration of their importance.

Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe were already renowned by the time she produced feature articles on them, but their legacies were in question. Some art critics had written off Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist work, particularly his celebrated “drip paintings,” as chaotic and unintentional, and O’Keeffe’s as explicitly feminine — “a woman on paper,” as her husband, the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, said. (She didn’t see it that way.)

Seiberling’s articles instead posed questions — “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” one asked about Pollock — and illuminated their painting processes in vivid photo essays. Rather than defaulting to statements about gender, Seiberling referred to O’Keeffe, who granted her a rare interview at her studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico, as “one of the most distinguished pioneers of modern American art.”

With her first husband, Leo Steinberg, regarded as one of the most important art critics of the 20th century, Seiberling amassed countless art prints, a handful of which the couple donated to the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

Decades later, Seiberling gave dozens of pieces from her personal collection — including works by Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Christo and Claes Oldenburg — to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. Papers from her editorship at Life are in the archives of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Dorothy Seiberling was born March 7, 1922, in Akron, Ohio. Her mother, Henrietta Buckler Seiberling, helped found Alcoholics Anonymous; the first meeting reportedly took place when she invited two men into her home to talk. Her father, J. Frederick Seiberling, was the son of Frank Seiberling, a founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. and the Seiberling Rubber Co., for which he worked.

Dorothy was the youngest of three children. Her brother, John F. Seiberling, was a congressman from Ohio who sat on the House Judiciary Committee during President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment hearings in 1974; her sister, Mary, was a social justice activist. They grew up at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, their grandfather’s 70-acre estate in Akron.

Seiberling attended Vassar, where her mother and sister also studied, and graduated in 1943 as an English major. In the 1960s, when the presidents of Yale and Vassar were considering a merger of the two schools, Seiberling joined a resistance movement to keep the institutions separate; she published an essay in Life urging their autonomy.

“A Vassar in New Haven would have as much relation to the original as Athens, Ohio, to Athens, Greece,” she wrote.

After graduation, Seiberling was accepted into a training program for researchers and fact checkers at Time Inc. She rotated among departments before landing at Life as a researcher. Within a decade she had worked her way up to editing and writing for the magazine.

Her articles sought to make Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline accessible to a somewhat perplexed public. She was especially proud of a special double issue, “The Bible,” published during the Christmas season of 1964, examining the book’s influence on history.

She married Steinberg in 1962. The marriage ended in divorce, and he died in 2011. They had no children. Seiberling is survived by seven nieces and nephews, who knew her as Aunt Babe.

Seiberling became Life’s senior art editor in 1965. When the magazine ceased weekly publication in 1972, she was out of a job.

She was hired by Clay Felker, who had left Life a few years earlier to establish New York magazine. After a few years, she joined The New York Times Magazine, where she was appointed deputy editor.

In 1977, Seiberling reconnected with a friend, Sidney Stiber, whose job titles included director, producer, restaurateur and aviator; they soon married.

Not long after, Seiberling quit her magazine job and moved to Shelter Island, New York, where she became involved with the Shelter Island Friends of Music, a nonprofit group dedicated to bringing classical music to Long Island’s East End. She was its president for 22 years.

Stiber died in 2013. That year, Seiberling sold her apartment at the Beresford, on Central Park West, for a reported $3.8 million.

Until October, Seiberling lived on Shelter Island, where she remained committed to bringing art to the public, even after stepping down as the Friends of Music president.

“She’s already preparing copy for the next SIFM concert,” a 2012 article in The Shelter Island Reporter said, after announcing her retirement.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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