Q:ot an academic. How'd you get your job?
A: I was working at a gallery when one summer day in 1947 this little man burst in and started firing off questions: How much was this picture? How much was that one? He asked me all about myself. Had we met? Was I married? He said he'd buy three. Then he disappeared. I figured sure enough he was a madman. So I phoned the boss and said, "Listen, the strangest thing just happened. A little guy . . . " Before I could finish, he said, "That was Joe Hirshhorn."
After that strange beginning we became rather friendly for one reason or another. I think it was because I said a kind word about the painter Louis Eilshemius.
Q: How many of his pictures do you have at the museum?
A: Oh God, I don't know, maybe 150. When he's good he's lyrical and wonderful; when he's bad, he's hideous.
Q: Once I saw his desk, a little desk for a little man. But it was covered edge to edge with objects. He seemed to love the solid more than the abstract.
A: He was not keen on abstract paintings for a very long time. When it did happen it happened in a burst of admiration . . . But at the beginning, he was very reticent about abstract expressionism. And I couldn't convince him. Joe never followed a trend, never said, "By God, all my friends are buying this, and I'm going to buy it."
He bought only what he wanted. As a kid he bought calendars with Salon reproductions and put them on his wall. He couldn't invent such a story, so I guess it's true. Why he bought pictures altogether is a big mystery. He had brothers and sisters who never looked at art. But Joe did.
Q: I always thought of him as a man who wanted everything.
A: He did. He wanted it all. Oh, yes. I think the only thing that limited Joe was money. He had less than people thought, and what he had he spent on art. When we opened the museum, Nelson Rockefeller came to visit. He was full of admiration. "Joe, you've done wonderfully," he said. And Joe replied, "You know what I could have done if I had your money?" Nelson said, "Joe, I don't have as much as people say I do." So Joe reached into his pocket and took out a wad of bills. He said, "You need a couple of hundred?"
Q: When did you first realize he was going to make you a museum director?
A: In the early 1960s we did an exhibition of the sculpture at the Guggenheim Museum. It was the first time that anybody had any idea what we'd collected. Joe had very democratic and expansive notions of what ought to happen to the collection. He was always saying, "I can't hold onto this forever. This is not for me alone." London, Zurich, Paris, Beverly Hills, Israel, New York State -- everbody wanted Joe's collection. Finally S. Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian came around.
Q: Was Ripley the first Washingtonian to suggest you bring it here?
A: Absolutely. It was no one else but Ripley. He thought that Washington needed a modern museum.
Q: In the mind's eye, Hirshhorn and Ripley seem an unlikely pair, Mutt and Jeff.
A: They loved each other. Mary Ripley loved little Joe Hirshhorn, too. I think they liked him because he was basically very honest, though he laid it on a little bit, you know. Eventually, Lady Bird Johnson came out to see the collection. She didn't know very muh about art. But she was a very smart lady, I must say. And then Lyndon Johnson put his arms around his shoulders, and called him Joe, and it was done.
Q: But there was,, unfortunately, more to your welcome in Washington than a Lyndon Johnson hug.
A: I think there was considerable hostility on the part of some people, though by and large we seem to have been welcomed very agreeably. It is true that there is a kind of society where Joe would have been unwelcome simply because he was a Jew. And he was a particularly aggressive little fellow, not at all agreeable to their notion of a gentleman. Joe could be very gauche in his way. But that kind of opposition gored me. It was something I'd hoped I'd never encounter, not on that scale anyway. And I thought it was so unfair. These people didn't know a thing about the collection, or about me, or about Joe, and yet they were perfectly willing to condemn it.
Q: But that sniping stopped after the museum opened.
Q: You grew up in New York with New York's museums. What's it like to run a museum in Washington on the Mall?
A: It's exhilarating and frustrating. It's exhilarating because you get lots of people. And, no matter what anybody says, there's nothing like a full museum. In Washington we have that. The problem is that we don't have the kind of hard-core audience that you would get in London, in New York or Paris. And that's frustrating.
Q: It's almost 10 years to the day since you opened your museum.
A: That was no small job. I don't think it was just by chance that about three years after the opening I had to have open-heart surgery. We knew we had to establish an identity. I think we've done that. I wanted to present the works of art as beautifully as I could. I wanted people to understand the nature of the development of modern art. I also wanted to keep people abreast of what was happening. We tried. Maybe not hard enough. It may be that I was a little too conservative.
Q: If you had to leave a memo of advice for your successor, James T. Demetrion, what would you tell him to do?
A: I'd tell him, one, be kind to your staff. Keep your door open. The second thing I'd tell him is to worry, to worry a lot, about housing the collection. Much of it will have to be stored outside. The building cannot grow . . . He ought to redo the plaza -- put in some grass, some trees, the things a city boy longs for. And then I would tell him he ought to do a little better than we did in keeping the museum current. Emphasize the contemporary a bit.
Q: A fantasy question: You're in a nightmare, the museum is on fire, you're running through the smoke. What objects would you save?
A: What a terrible choice. I think I'd go for Ekins' portrait of his wife . . . . But how could I leave the Brancusis in the fire? And there is that wonderful wooden Gauguin we acquired. I couldn't let that go up in smoke.
Q: You're about to retire. What are you going to do when you leave?
A: You know, it's funny. Years ago in this country when a man retired everybody said, well, he's worked hard all his life, he's entitled to put his feet up. They don't say that anymore. Now it's what are you going to do? I'm considering becoming a brain surgeon.