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A Tribute to Anne D'Harnoncourt (1943-2008)

Portrait of Anne D'Harnoncourt. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Anne D'Harnoncourt. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

I so fondly remember when I was standing in front of the great Cézanne “Large Bathers” with an Italian friend from Tarquinia (we all came down from New York to see the Cézanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996) and I ran into Anne D’Harnoncourt. We had met once with Meyer Schapiro in 1992 (I was Schapiro’s companion for the day with the wheelchair) at moma’s Matisse retrospective. Not only did she recognize me from afar, but she didn’t fail to make a witty comment about why on earth Clement Greenberg claimed that Monet’s “Water Lilies” is superior to Cézanne’s “Large Bathers”. My response was simple—Greenberg had discovered for himself a formalist thread that, by recognizing the suppression of value contrast, created a new kind of openness in the late Monets. He then brought that observation to the work of Pollock, Hofmann, Newman, Still, and consequently to post-painterly abstraction including Color Field paintings. She then said, “That’s the popular dissent among lyrical abstractionists as well. They too, felt the last great paintings were made in the ’60s and the ’70s.” I quoted Rouault, “subjective artists are one-eyed, but objective artists are blind,” and we parted ways smiling.

That was the last time I ever saw D’Harnoncourt. Although I never had the pleasure of furthering this acquaintance, I always kept up with her activities at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the cultural life in Philadelphia. While most everyone in the art community across the country was aware of her visibility and distinguished stature among major museum directorship, only a handful of individuals knew of her advocacy of artists whose work lay below mainstream consumption. As the painter Jim Nutt recalled when I spoke to him at home two days ago, “Anne must have shared the same view as Walter Hopps, who felt that the museum should be involved with the art community. She came to Chicago as an assistant curator in the late 1960s, and by the early ’70s, Anne and A. James Spire began to purchase works of mine and several other local artists. However, by the time she left in the early ’80s, things began to dissipate, and we all missed her presence here.” Similarly, John Ollman of Fleischer/Ollman Gallery (a well-reputed dealer of self-taught artists including Gertrude Morgan, Bill Traylor, William Edmonson, Martin Ramirez, Joseph Yoakum, James Castle, and a few others) who had dinner with D’Harnoncourt two weeks before she died, observed that “our program took a non-mainstream track. We started out showing ethnographic material such as Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art, and Anne, like Jim and Gladys (Nutt), took an interest in what we were doing. I clearly remember the day she came to the gallery when we were having our first Bill Traylor show in 1981, a year before the Corcoran show, and said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got one of these drawings that my dad gave me when I was a teenager and I’ve still had it ever since.’ Anne was the reason why the Philadelphia Museum of Art has the most extensive, best collection of 20th century self-taught artists.”

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” perhaps is the best way to describe Anne D’Harnoncourt’s remarkable similarities in terms of social manner and taste with her father. Rene D’Harnoncourt, the Director of moma from 1949 to 1967, mounted several important exhibits including “Lipschitz” (1954), “Rodin” (1963), and “Picasso” (1967). In his youth, he had worked for Frederick W. Davis, an important dealer of folk art and antiquities based in Mexico City, who was also a collector of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and other Mexican modernists. As a result of that experience, D’Harnoncourt has promoted Native American craftworks ever since. In 1939, he organized an exhibit of Native American arts and crafts for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, which turned into a larger, more influential show called, “Indian Arts of the United States” at moma two years later. Like her father, in addition to her once-removed curatorial achievements (and a rare ability to have complete confidence in her curators), D’Harnoncourt had been instrumental in the success of many retrospectives of Brancusi, organized by Ann Temkin; Margit Rowell, and Friedrich Teja Bach in conjunction with Centre Georges Pompidou, and Cézanne; organized by her husband Joseph Rishel, and Barnett Newman by Ann Temkin. At the same time, she was responsible for other exhibitions of equal importance that included the works of lesser known indigenous and ethnic European artists, Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, and the much anticipated James Castle: A Retrospective, overseen by Ann Percy, will be on view from Oct 15, 2008 to Jan 4, 2009.

Respected and loved among those who had worked with or known her in other capacities, D’Harnoncourt was, in Robert Storr’s words, “absolutely in the middle of everything.” He continues, “Once I did a performance at the Fabric Workshop for Louise Bourgeois’s ‘She Lost It’ where I wrapped strips of printed gauze over my barely-covered body, and by the time I got unwrapped, both Aggie (Gund) and Anne were there in the audience laughing. Even though Anne belonged to museum royalty and had an aristocratic upbringing, she never took that privilege for granted. On the contrary, she was a natural leader, and above all had a great sense of humor.”

On behalf of The Brooklyn Rail, I’d like to extend our deep condolences to all of D’Harnoncourt and Rishel’s extended family, friends and colleagues. She will most certainly be missed.

—Phong Bui

ps: The painter Jake Berthot once called me up late at night, in his rather alarming voice, said, “If you don’t do anything about getting artists you know to contribute funds to keep Eakins’ masterpiece ‘Gross Clinic’ in its home of Philadelphia, I won’t ever speak to you again or be supportive of the Rail.” I remember calling as many artists as I could the next morning urging them to do what I was told. I don’t know how many funds we generated from our modest network, but one thing is for sure, without Anne D’Harnoncourt’s crucial role in her brilliant campaign to raise sixty eight million dollars, the “Gross Clinic” would never have been rescued from the joint offer to be purchased by the National Gallery of Art and Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. I think my friendship with Jake was restored!


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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