Irving Sandler

Amei Wallach

Irving Sandler died in the midst of life. Until the last possible moment, he spent his days doing what he had always done: championing art, the artists who made it, and the curators, critics, and colleagues who were committed to it.

Just short of his 93rd birthday—Irving called 93 “the new 92”—he was throwing himself with accustomed passion into preparing his first novel for the publisher, collaborating with curators on a fest exhibition of artists he had written about, and researching a major talk.

The talk was to accompany the exhibition, Herbert Ferber: Space In Tension at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and was scheduled for April 25th. The weekend before, Lucy Sandler called to say that Irving wondered whether I would be willing to discuss Ferber and his sculpture in his stead. He’d just been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, but he was as intent as ever on doing right by the artist and the museum. I said that I knew almost nothing about Ferber, though I’d be willing to read his talk. Irving had different ideas. The museum, he instructed, would do well to invite me to talk there at any time on any subject.

That generosity of spirit defined Irving Sandler as surely as his sweetness of temperament and the intellectual rigor he shared with Lucy—she in medieval pursuits. In a world of professional jealousies and petty ambitions, his were always larger concerns. His pleasure was in helping others do what they did best, even as he chronicled each new generation of artists, never afraid to change his mind. “The Situation Now,” had been his focus of inquiry in the 1950s, and he lobbied critics to broach the subject anew in 2018.

A few weeks before his death, three of us from the AICA-USA board went to tell him about the inauguration of a new Irving Sandler Award for Distinguished Art Criticism. When we arrived, he’d been pretty much just sleeping, on the settee under the double portrait that Alex Katz had painted for the wedding of Irving and Lucy Freeman Sandler nearly six decades before. After a time Irving stirred. “Am I dead yet?” he asked, comically slicing through the atmosphere of dread. Fully revived, he talked with purpose about the new award. “We’ll have a meeting to plan it,” he said. “Here,” he declared, pointing an emphatic finger. The meeting never took place, but the award will.

And Irving Sandler lives on, not only in the words he wrote, the institutions he instigated, and the lives he touched, but in his latest accomplishments. The fest exhibition Irving Sandler: Points of View opens at the Neuberger Museum of Art on September 26, curated by Karen Wilkin and Neuberger Director Tracy Fitzpatrick. The novel, Goodbye to Tenth Street, will be published this fall. The Alex Katz double portrait will eventually hang in the National Gallery of Art.

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