It’s very difficult to write about people you know well. The moment you start, you immediately suspect your own words and perceptions—you haven’t said enough? Made your point clearly? Or is it too simplistic? Obviously nobody perfectly fits a description. Sylvia has been a friend of mine, and an admired colleague, for some thirty years. What most distinguishes her are a tenacious intellectual curiosity, a wide art-historical knowledge, and clarity and elegance as a writer. But her real strength lies in her misguided but very welcome modesty, accompanied by a quietly warm, and happily diabolical personality and subtle wit.
She was born and grew up in L.A., was educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to settle in New York. She worked for many years at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in the publications department, immersing herself in the institution’s antiquities holdings, especially its rich Egyptian collections, as well as its 19th-century American paintings galleries.
Then, unexpectedly, she was invited to apply for an editorial position at ARTnews in the 1970s, after Milton Esterow had taken over the magazine and shifted its focus somewhat to the “news” part of its name while still harboring criticism and opinion. There she held various editorial positions, including executive editor, and wrote many pivotal articles on restoration, the Holocaust, art restitution, forgery, and Russia—then and now. She began working on stories produced by and with Soviet-born journalists Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov, with whom she became a close friend and collaborator on restitution issues as well as investigative market stories covering Russian modernists and contemporary artists. She ultimately developed a passion for Russia and Russians, and studied the language, becoming a fluent speaker.
She has written on the complicated legacy of Natalia Goncharova and the controversies over the proliferation of the painter’s fakes, and took aim at high-level corruption in the museum and political world; and she has examined the state of Clyfford Still’s paintings while under lock and key prior to their museum début. She has delved into the fingerprint-on-a-can-of-paint controversy in helping determining the attribution of a Jackson Pollock, and has tackled Rembrandt from many angles. In short, she is an indefatigable investigator and unpretentious enthusiast.
What I most admire about Sylvia is the way she has remained fresh and young in her thinking, allowing her intellectual and aesthetic appetites to flourish.
ContributorBarbara A. MacAdam
BARBARA MACADAM is Editor at Large at ARTnews.