These writings are reminisces about artists that I have met; more will follow................ RS 11/17/07
Helen Frankenthaler is one of my favorite painters.
In 1975, the Corcoran presented a major exhibition "Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings 1969-1974". As Director, I invited Gene Baro to be guest curator. He organized the exhibition and wrote the introduction to the catalog.
Throughout my career as a museum director, I felt that the installation was my sole responsibility. Of course, the artist wanted to be involved and Helen was no exception! In fact, she was known to be most demanding. Her assistants were reluctant to do anything but unpack the work. Undeterred, I went ahead with Gene and not only spotted but hung the entire show. Helen's assistants were horrified with her absence and my presumption, yet the exhibit was ready!
The installation was completed Friday, the day before the preview. Helen arrived that Friday evening, wishing to rest and come to the Corcoran on Saturday morning to check the installation. Not much time to make changes, particularly as the Cocoran Ball took place that evening, honoring the exhibit and artist. However, arrangements had been for Helen's arrival. Helen traveling by train from NYC was met at the station by limo and chauffeur, resplendent in leather boots. Her favorite suite at the Hay Adams was reserved and ready.
The following morning in her limo, Helen arrived at the Corcoran. As director, I waited on the steps to greet her. We embraced, then turned towards the imposing bronze doors that slowly opened. On entering, museum staff lined the vestibule steps, with the installation crew resplendent in their white gloves. Respectfully, with a bow of the head, the staff welcomed the artist.
The exhibition was installed in the large, upper galleries, to be reached by the grand staircase, now flanked by flowers and museum guards. On the lower step was the registrar, Susan Grady, who had worked so hard and had one final task: the presentation of a bouquet of flowers to our guest. Helen was delighted, not only with her welcome but with the installation. Slowly and carefully, she toured the galleries, her staff so nervous, awaiting her appraisal. Of the 34 big canvases on view, she pointed to one and advised that the painting should be moved slightly to the left. We agreed and Helen left. The museum staff, including the director, were delighted and relieved; her assistants were amazed and in awe. Hugs and congratulations were shared and continued that evening, a great success!
Since I was young, photography has been of interest. With a Kodak Box Brownie, I took and developed my early snapshots. Later, the camera was used to study the ambiguity of abstraction in nature, from rock pools to clouds.
At the Corcoran, both in the School and Gallery, a commitment to photography had been made during the late sixties by the director Walter Hopps. As Dean of the School, I was pleased to further and formalize the study of photography with more faculty and improved facilities. Later, as Director, a gallery was permanently devoted to photography with changing exhibits; contemporary and historical. Major exhibitions of photography were presented. I met many photographers: Imogine Cunningham, Walker Evans, Ansell Adams.
In a visit to the School, Walker talked about his work with students. Questions followed and, inevitably, the great photographer was asked "What F stop do you use? What shutter speed? What film?"
Walker Evans looked, paused and for a while said nothing. Then, with students waiting expectantly, he slowly, ever so slowly, pointed to his eye and said " What I use is the eye.....that's what you need......the eye".
Louise Nevelson was the Grande Dame of American sculptors. Her dramatic appearance, with large hat, false eyelashes and black outfit was further emphasized by gesture and voice.
On the morning following her successful exhibition opening at Cranbrook Art Museum, she agreed to talk with the art students. Meeting in a gallery of her work, she sat on a chair with, at her feet, over a hundred students sprawled on the floor, surrounding her. They waited expectantly for her to talk on her sculptures and were surprised when the artist said "Tell me about your work". Silence.
Nevelson looked at a young girl. In a heavy accent, she asked, "Darlink, what interests you?". More silence. Eventually, the girl overwhelmed, began to speak. So nervous, the words came pouring out, as she breathlessly described her passion: sky diving! On and on, she went from jumping out of the 'plane to free falling thru the sky with the ground beneath; vivid visions, tumbling and turning, of earth and sky. The student paused and asked, plaintively and expectantly, "How do I make art out of this?". A long silence.
Obviously, Nevelson did not understand sky diving or how a young girl could fall thru the sky, leave alone the question of how to make art of this experience. Eventually, she slowly responded, "Darlink, while you talked, for a long time, I was looking behind you. The sunlight moved quietly across the wall." The artist gestured dramatically with her hand and continued, "The changing shadows, shapes and sun were so very beautiful; right there a universe, so simple and true, as is art. For you, that is the answer".
Charles and Ray Eames are regarded as the greatest of 20th Century American designers. Charles and Ray studied and taught at Cranbrook Academy of Art, establishing the infuencial and important Design Department. As President of the Academy, I visited Ray and got to know her well; there are many stories to tell of Ray Eames.
Ray was always dressed in black, as broad as she was short, like a mishka doll; intelligent, lively and likeable. She invited me to visit her and stay, a rare honor, at the Case Study House. What a privilege to stay in her home of innovative architecture and design. The interior was a delight with Eames furniture, objects and collections of bric a brac. Everything was kept, even Charles's pills were still in the medicine chest; nothing was thrown away. Ray continued to collect.
Ray announced that we were going out to her favorite restaurant in LA. That unforgetable evening, we set off in her Jaguar with Ray driving, hidden beneath and peering through the steering wheel. Down the steep streets of Pacific Palisades, along the crowded streets and the LA freeways into Beverley Hills. Much to my surprise, Ray drove into the Hilton Hotel and valet parked. To my chagrin, we went down the escalators to Trader Vics! Here I was with the great American designer in the restaurant of her choice.
Seated at the table, shaken by the drive, a harrowing experience, I ordered a large Scotch. Ray said "NO, NO! You must have one of their special drinks". She turned to the cocktail waitress and continued, " You know, the ones that come with the umbrellas"! Ray was adamant and we had two orders of these drinks with dinner, as she confided in me, " I come here only for the umbrellas."
The drive back at night, through the darkness and freeways, was even more frightening but somehow we got home. Of course, she had taken and folded all the colorful, paper umbrellas. In her kitchen, she proudly placed the four small, cocktail stirrers in a jar. The jar contained an assortment of over fifty miniature umbrellas. Later, I found that you could buy, in a store, a box fof cocktail umbrellas or a few dollars. All I could think of were the other people who had suffered and survived that dangerous drive to enlarge and enrich Ray's collection!