Klaus Kertess (1940–2016)

Klaus Kertess, 2000. Photo: Robert Giard.

KLAUS KERTESS’S BRILLIANT EYE shaped a strong curatorial voice at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, during the 1980s and ’90s, when it was my privilege to work with him. He served as the Robert Lehman Curator (1983–89) and continued as an adjunct curator and articulate advisor, ultimately serving on the search committee that selected the architects Herzog & de Meuron to design the new Parrish in Water Mill. Even a short list of the many exhibitions he organized for the museum gives a vivid picture of his wide-ranging tastes and distinctive approach: “Marin in Oil” (1987), the first scholarly study of John Marin’s paintings, more lyrical by far than the better-known watercolors; “Painting Horizons: Jane Freilicher, Albert York, April Gornik” (1989), a cross-generation look at landscape painting; and “Alfonso Ossorio: Congregations,” (1997) a survey of this influential yet under-recognized artist’s radical assemblages. In describing Ossorio’s panels heavily encrusted with every imaginable kind of gewgaw, Klaus made note of their surfaces where “objects seem to have grown like mold out of painting’s fermentation”—a phrase that vividly evokes the murky brew of Ossorio’s cosmos. Klaus was a prodigious wordsmith, known for coining words or placing them in unexpected contexts, for example, the Abstract Expressionists’ “dissolution of form, space, and composition—in favor of a diffused and formless all-overness that heroically sought to visualize the ethers of the sublime.” Yet he also knew when to bring in the words of others. In comparing the work of Joan Mitchell and Jackson Pollock, he quoted a writer he admired: “Both share the quality that Frank O’Hara so aptly attributed to Pollock’s painting—‘lyrical desperation.’ ” Most importantly, Klaus was an eloquent champion and loyal friend to artists, who universally held him in high esteem.

Klaus curated so many extraordinary exhibitions—for the Parrish and at leading museums around the world—but for me, one particular moment stands out. We were finishing the installation on the last wall of the last gallery of his beautiful 1998 show “Sea Change,” organized to commemorate the Parrish’s centennial. He looked at the Pollock drip painting Phosphorescence, 1947 (a key loan from the Addison Gallery of American Art at Andover, his alma mater), hanging alongside one of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s nineteenth-century roiling seascapes. A broad smile came over his face. “This makes me happier than anything I’ve ever done—to see these two paintings side by side. You know immediately that for Pollock, Ryder was ‘the only American master.’ ” And this is what Klaus did superbly—bringing works of art together and letting them speak for themselves—and this will be his enduring legacy.

Alicia G. Longwell is the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chief Curator, Art and Education at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York.