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PRINT September 2008

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Anne d’Harnoncourt

Anne d’Harnoncourt with Marcel Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915–23, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973. Photo: Patrick Radebaugh.

NOW AND THEN, as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I found myself speculating about what Anne d’Harnoncourt might have done had she not followed in her father’s footsteps as a museum director. University president? Supreme Court justice? Or US ambassador to the United Nations? For reasons I don’t quite understand, this game intrigued me, as my imagination delivered her diplomacy, eloquence, and erudition to sectors of American life sorely in need of them. Perhaps it was just fun to know well someone who was fully credible as a star in any of these roles.

What these musings reflect, certainly, is that Anne was as much a civic as a cultural leader in her adopted home of Philadelphia. In such a city, it would have been easy for the museum to have remained an austere Greek temple on a hill, an elitist oasis aloof from the problems—Anne would have called them complexities—of its metropolitan surroundings. But as a committed democrat, Anne was determined to make hers a palace of the people, whether that meant Monet and Chagall exhibitions that lured those who knew little about art, or Jacob Lawrence and Beauford Delaney shows that attracted large African-American audiences. Local artists were a valued element of the calendar, with major retrospectives dedicated to such Philadelphians as Sidney Goodman and Thomas Chimes. And Anne’s involvement in the city’s culture extended far beyond the museum’s walls. She was an energetic behind-the-scenes actor in decisions involving the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the never-ending travails of the Barnes Foundation, as well as a key voice in fellow organizations like the Fairmount Park Art Association and the Fabric Workshop and Museum. David Brownlee, chair of the History of Art department at the University of Pennsylvania, put things in proper perspective by noting that with Anne’s passing, Philadelphia had lost one of the greatest cultural leaders in its entire history.

Despite Anne’s dedication to an inclusive mission for the museum, populism could not trump intellectual rigor or scholarly adventure. Not a shred of cynicism accompanied her plans for shows with mass appeal, and there was never a question that they deserved anything less than first-rate scholarship; indeed, one sensed that she took contrarian delight in serious attention paid to the oft-maligned Renoir, Dalí, or Wyeth. At the same time, Anne carefully threaded these crowd-friendly shows among exhibitions that were of guaranteed fascination only to the curators who proposed them and to a small circle beyond—whether devoted to Hon’ami Koetsu, Barnett Newman, or the colonial arts of Latin America. She appreciated the curator’s curator as much as the artist’s artist, and she always had faith that others would be converted.

Anne’s leadership drew on remarkable reserves of unfailing good humor. It was virtually impossible to hear her speak unkindly about her colleagues, friends, or patrons. On any issue other than those of ethics and integrity, she granted endless miles of slack. It was almost unnerving—how could she choose to see the good side of even the laziest staffer, the nastiest critic? One effect of this, of course, was that Anne made you anxiously see yourself as petty and mean-spirited. But the other was that her example actually improved your own personality. If, on the one hand, we curators sometimes needed to be cranky among ourselves just as a reality check, on the other, we also realized that generosity and optimism could be learned behaviors.

I came to understand that Anne’s worldview was a matter of both nature and nurture when I spoke to people about how her father ran the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1949 to 1968. His kindness and fairness were legendary, as was the gentle reason he brought to a tumultuous period in the museum’s history. Much has been made of René d’Harnoncourt’s background as an Austrian aristocrat, and of the old-world glamour this lent him and, in turn, his daughter. But Anne was equally the daughter of Sarah Carr d’Harnoncourt, the fashion editor for Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago, whom René met at a book signing there in 1932. From Anne’s mother came a profound New Deal liberalism, a down-to-earth loveliness, and an unerring moral compass for matters large and small. From both parents came a boundless curiosity that ranged from art to music to nature to politics and, always, to people.

After twelve years at the Brearley School in New York, Anne majored in history and literature at Radcliffe College, and went to the Courtauld Institute of Art to do a master’s degree in art history. In London, she studied modern art with John Golding, and wrote a thesis on the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1967, Allen Staley, then curator of painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, offered her a position as curatorial assistant on a catalogue of British Romantic painting. Anne’s stay there coincided with the death of Marcel Duchamp in 1968 and the revelation of Etant donnés, an airtight secret for twenty years before it was bequeathed to the PMA. It fell to Anne to join Duchamp’s stepson, Paul Matisse, in managing the work’s transfer from a rented room in the East Village to a space Duchamp had earmarked adjacent to the gallery containing the “Large Glass,” 1915–23, and his works in the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, all of which he had carefully shepherded to Philadelphia in 1950. Anne then coauthored with Walter Hopps (who in 1963 had organized Duchamp’s first retrospective, at the Pasadena Art Museum) an extraordinary issue of the PMA’s quarterly Bulletin, calmly exploring the genesis and meanings of this bizarre diorama, while diminishing none of its mystery.

In 1969, Anne left Philadelphia to become assistant curator of twentieth-century art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although her stay there lasted just two years, it proved transformative for two reasons. One was that she worked under James Speyer, the remarkable curator of modern art renowned (like René d’Harnoncourt) for his flair as an installer and for his deep commitment to working directly with living artists. Speyer stayed a close friend and mentor until his death in 1986. Anne also met Joseph Rishel, associate curator of European painting, whom she would marry in 1971, and together they moved to Philadelphia to become curators of twentieth-century art and European painting, respectively. Not long after her return, Anne cocurated with Kynaston McShine the retrospective exhibition of Duchamp’s work presented at the PMA, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1973–74. Thirty-five years and countless numbers of Duchamp books later, the catalogue remains a fundamental reference on his work. In her decade as a curator, Anne also organized shows on subjects including Futurism, Violet Oakley (a Philadelphia maverick of the early twentieth century), and John Cage’s prints and scores. With the 1978 exhibition “Eight Artists,” and a host of acquisitions of works by artists ranging from Ellsworth Kelly to Claes Oldenburg to Elizabeth Murray, she developed the museum’s contemporary program. In the early ’70s she initiated with Jasper Johns an incomparable extended loan of his paintings and sculptures, joined today by the 2001 acquisition of a majestic “Catenary” painting.

Anne d’Harnoncourt and Donald Caldwell, president of the board of trustees of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in front of Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic, 1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2007. Photo: Kelly & Massa Photography.

It is often thought that the transition from museum curator to director (which Anne made in 1982) brings to a close one’s best work as a writer. But one of my indelible images of her is writing, always in longhand, in a beautifully flowing script that matched perfectly the marvelous lilt of her voice. Beyond the occasional essay on a favorite subject, her gift found most frequent expression in her forewords to the museum’s catalogues in every field. Far from perfunctory, they were filled with provocative comments and keen insights; a student of art and culture could learn a great deal from a collected volume of Anne’s forewords. I can also imagine a collected volume of her thank-you notes, an endless stream of them for myriad contributions and gifts, each entirely genuine and joy-filled even if it was the umpteenth note she’d written that day.

As much as she was a writer, of course, Anne was a reader—of every manuscript on its way to the museum’s publications department, always returned to the author with astute queries and warm compliments. But a reader, too, of a nonstop parade of books on all subjects for which she somehow managed to find time. Anne and Joe’s residence, the capacious former house and studio of Philadelphia artist Franklin Watkins, overflows with books, and the periodic attempt to get the problem under control was always a losing battle.

In one of their few concessions to self-defense in separating the private and public realms, they did not have a telephone answering machine at home, so they would not have to be guilty of ignoring missed calls. Nor did they avail themselves of call-waiting when such a thing became available. The result was that if they were home, the phone was probably busy. And although Joe was the more loquacious of the two, it was Anne who loved the telephone. Seven days a week, at all hours of the day or night, Anne was likely on the phone with curators, trustees, or dear friends abroad like Teeny Duchamp or her daughter Jacqueline Matisse. But she also might well be on the phone in her advisory capacity on any number of boards and organizations to which she devoted not only extraordinary amounts of time but also intellectual energy, as the go-to person for the most miserable of political tangles. The lengthy list includes the Smithsonian Institution, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the John Cage Trust, the Georgia O’Keefe Foundation, and the State Hermitage Museum. If she was a magnificent citizen of Philadelphia, she gave equally of herself to the international cultural establishment.

The greatness of Anne d’Harnoncourt is exemplified in the 2006 campaign to save for Philadelphia Thomas Eakins’s 1875 masterpiece The Gross Clinic. Thomas Jefferson University gave the city forty-five days to prevent the school’s sale of the painting to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, now under construction in Arkansas. For Anne, the situation had absolute clarity—the painting must remain in its hometown, even if the $68 million price tag was an unheard-of amount for Philadelphia to raise for a single work of art. First of all, it was about the city: Eakins was Philadelphia’s, and the nation’s, greatest nineteenth-century artist, and this was one of his greatest paintings, of a great Philadelphian at work. It was a matter of institutional collaboration (with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). And it was a grassroots effort that ultimately combined funds from meticulous deaccessioning of other work by Eakins with those from more than thirty-five hundred donors from all fifty states. The Gross Clinic’s iconic presence in Philadelphia—like countless other works in the collection, the museum’s new Perelman Building across the parkway, and Frank Gehry’s addition still in its planning stages—makes wonderfully real Anne’s soaring aspirations for her institution and its audiences.

Ann Temkin is the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.