Sam Hunter (1923–2014)

Sam Hunter at an opening at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 1965. Photo courtesy The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

SAM HUNTER, HISTORIAN, CURATOR, AND CRITIC of modern and contemporary art, made a swift ascent in the art world. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1923, Sam graduated from Williams College in 1943, served in the navy until 1946, and took up a post as art critic at the New York Times in 1947 at age twenty-four.

The trajectory of Sam’s career reflected his virtually elemental lust for life and unabashed ambition not only to chronicle art but also to play a potent role in its unfolding. In 1952, Hunter embarked on what would become a decades-long association with the publisher Harry N. Abrams. In 1956, Sam became associate curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he organized the first major museum exhibitions of Jackson Pollock and David Smith. He was tapped by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to become chief curator and acting director in 1958.

Sam’s intertwined roles as professor and protagonist of contemporary art aligned in his remarkable achievements as associate professor and founding director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University from 1960 to 1965. The collection he put together there is legendary. Lured back to New York to direct the Jewish Museum in 1965, Sam oversaw that museum’s blossoming as a serious context for cutting-edge art with such exhibitions as “Primary Structures,” curated by Kynaston McShine.

In 1969, Sam joined the faculty at Princeton and became curator of modern art at the university’s art museum. Over the next decades he authored dozens of books and scores of exhibition catalogues, essays, and articles, including definitive survey texts and crucial monographs on Isamu Noguchi, Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Tom Wesselmann. In many instances he was the first chronicler of artists who have proved over time to be the pivotal figures in art of the past half century.

Sam was shrewd and incisive but decidedly not doctrinaire. Students regularly joined Sam in New York and further afield for studio visits with artists—Larry Rivers, Robert Indiana, George Segal, Tony Smith, Josef Albers, Alexander Liberman, Christo, and Jeanne-Claude. These exhilarating forays usually concluded with a good meal and a lot of laughter.

Sam stayed close to the object and the artist. It seems no surprise that both of us, as Sam’s students in the 1970s, wrote dissertations on then-living artists (Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning). Here, Sam’s links throughout the art world were matched by his even more crucial knowledge and uncanny insight. A letter to Bacon opened the door. And it was Sam’s early research, published in a 1952 article, which set the course for subsequent Bacon scholarship. Alert to the importance of second-hand imagery in Bacon’s paintings, Sam assembled the disparate photos and visual sources strewn about the studio, documenting this raw material in a series of revelatory photographs. As for de Kooning, Sam advised an unannounced knock on the door in Springs, East Hampton, which, startlingly, opened the way for a series of interviews across many years. The mention of Sam’s name unlocked troves of de Kooning material—from the recollections of Annalee Newman and Thomas B. Hess to the files and back rooms of Allan Stone and Xavier Fourcade.

It would not be unusual, after an arduous afternoon of Sam’s probing—and unquestionably improving—one’s dissertation, to follow up with a vigorous, hard-fought game of tennis—where Sam’s tenacity, competitiveness, and sheer enthusiasm came to the fore—leading at last to a gin and tonic and a raucous dinner with conversation ranging all over the art world. Sam made work fun.

Determined to play a powerful part in the dynamics of emerging as well as established art, Sam was pragmatic and dauntless. As a scholar, curator, collections adviser, and editor, he anticipated the ways that universities, museums, collectors, and publications would intertwine.

Sally Yard is a professor of art history at the University of San Diego.

Hugh M. Davies is the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.