Part scholar and part solider, part seer and part drudge, Joshua C. Taylor, the director of the National Museum of American Art who died Sunday, blended in his person qualities so contradictory that in retrospect he seems not one man but many.
He was an egalitarian aristocrat. He came to pictures as a populist, to words as an elitist. His prose was always elegant, never common or pedantic. While exhibition catalogues are often unreadable, Taylor's sparkled. One of his, in fact, his "America as Art," won a nomination for a National Book Award. But while Taylor, in his writings, battled unrelentingly for the perfect word, Taylor, in the gallery, forgave imperfect pictures.
Taylor, 63, was a gray and gentle man whose soft-voiced mumbling could not disguise the brilliance of his speech, whose graciousness and wit never quite concealed his underlying toughness. Though colleagues in his field were at times dismayed by what they regarded as his quirky connoisseurship, Taylor did not fear a fight.His taste was not the usual. He was as fond of minor works as he was of masterworks. He liked byways more than highways. During the Bicentennial, when most great museums were fighting to display such American immortals as John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, Taylor's show excluded them. He preferred to call attention to the sentimental pictures of Lily Martin Spencer, the spooky ones of Elihu Vedder, or the near-grotesque ones of David Gilmour Blythe.He fought for the unlikely. "We're up to our old tricks," he would say of his exhibits, "looking at what nobody else is looking at." Lesser American paintings, and lesser American painters, have never had a better friend.
He cared nothing for "blockbuster" shows. "More than five people in front of one painting is a mob," he used to say. Though a showman of a sort, he did not year for crowds. As a young man in the 1930s he had designed sets for the stage, and that theatrical experience informed his installations. He did not like white walls. When he displayed the brightly colored oils of the American Impressionists at his G Street museum -- in those days it was called the National Collection of Fine Arts -- he had the pictures frames painted the same hue as the dove-gray walls. That made their colors jump. And his hangings weren't symmetrical. Big pictures in the middle with little ones on either side were almost never seen in Taylor's exhibitions. The precisely ordered wall, he felt, lulled museum visitors. He did not want to soothe our eyes. He wanted us to think.
He was lousy at delegating authority. Running a museum involves loads of donkey work, but Taylor seemed to like to do most of it himself. Yet he was in many ways a superb museum dirctor. Unlike many of his colleagues he never gave up writing. He was a teacher to the end. His museum here seemed part picture gallery and part university. Taylor was a teacher first, and teaching was his love. Two directors of the Corcoran Gallery of Art -- Walter Hopps and Peter Marzio -- were among his students at the University of Chicago. "More than anyone I know, he worked to bridge the gap between academia and the world of the museum," says the National Gallery's director, J. Carter Brown.
Though Taylor seemed to tower at the center of his field -- American art history -- he always loved its corners. "He would grow livid," Marzio remembers, "at the idea that American art was uniquely American. He always called attention to the debts owed the art of other nations." In time Taylor came to feel that the most American thing about American at was its special subject matter. He once traced the image of "the American cousin," the strong plain-speaking Yankee, from the 18th century to the films of Humphrey Bogart, explaining, as he did so, the attributes connecting Davy Crockett and Uncle Sam. He loved to call attention to the Northeast and the Southwest. Taylor was at much at home in Oregon ant Taxco as he was in Georgetown;l and he was as fond of Italy and Mexico as he was of his own land. "His eye was very good," Marzio observes. "But his ear might have been better." Taylor was a linguist whose languages included Italian, Spanish, French, as well as some German and a little Dutch.
He built a grand museum here. When he came to Washington in 1970, the National Collection of Fine Arts was in many ways a struggling institution. Its identity seemed smudged. Instead of competing for the high road with the National Gallery, the Metropolitan or the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he focused his attention on artists they'd ignored.
"Taylor in Washington did what the Whitney Museum of American Art might have done, but didn't," said John Wilmerding, the curator of American art at the National Gallery. "He forced others in his field to consider art and artists we'd previously neglected.He somehow maintained his position as both scholar and museum director. In an age which breaks museum directors, which chews them up and spits them out, Taylor was a model. He served the public. He served graduate students, college students, high school students, too. His contributions -- to the Archives of American Art, to the College Art Association, to the Bicentennial Inventory of American Art -- are, by any measure, great."
"His talents crossed so many boundaries, it is as if, in his death, we have lost more than a single friend," said Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
"It is time for the historian, Taylor wrote, "to shake up his thinking, to define a method based not on national or historical assumptions with their packages and compartments but on a free spirit of exploration, on scholarly humility in the assembly of facts, and on the audacity of carefully reasoned individual judgment." Joshua C. Taylor (1917-1981) practiced what he preached.