A collector and an admirer meet in Ackland show

Jun. 26, 2014 @ 05:00 PM

“An Eye for the Unexpected: Gifts from the Joseph F. McCrindle Collection,”
Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, through Aug. 31.

Two men and a gift of more than 480 works of art; this is the heart of the new exhibition at the Ackland Museum. Joseph F. McCrindle (1923-2008) amassed hundreds of art objects during his lifetime and gave them to large and small institutions all over the country, including the Ackland. Many were given because of personal friendships.  Timothy Riggs spent the last 30 years as the loving steward of some 8,000 to 10,000 prints and drawings in the Ackland collection. At the end of this academic year, he will retire. Although the two men never met, Riggs wrote that he feels he knows him because of their shared love of works on paper.
The exhibit, with its 150 or so images, is the largest ever organized by Riggs and celebrates McCrindle’s gift to the Ackland and to North Carolina; included also are a few works the collector gave to other North Carolina institutions. Riggs’ research assistant Sara Berkowitz was his primary collaborator; she participated in the selection process and parts of the catalog essay. They arranged the exhibition into groupings titled “Studies,”  “Stories” and “Environments: Landscapes and Genres.” Berkowitz was responsible for the catalog sections on “Studies” and “Stories” and Riggs for “Environments.” In researching the images for the show, Riggs was able to put absolute attributions to several that had previously been unknown, a significant addition to the history of art.
McCrindle was an idiosyncratic collector, buying things he liked. According to Riggs, McCrindle did not collect certified masterpieces or focus on one style, artist or subject matter. Rather, he had an eye and gathered together outstanding works by minor artists. He was a major collector of drawings but also acquired paintings and prints. The works cover five centuries and come out of the European tradition, modernism from the United States and a side interest in Japanese art.  
Although McCrindle was involved in modern literary ideas, his taste in art ran to realism, not abstraction. 
The collector loved the humor he found in the hands of so many artists like John Sloan’s etching “Fifth Avenue Critics,” 1905. (This image is in the section “Genre Scenes.”) The scene centers on a carriage in the foreground with two elderly matrons who sniff disdainfully at a pretty young woman who drives past them.  The details give the viewer a picture of New York early in the century. 

In the “Studies” section, the subjects vary from individual portraits, figures that will be part of large paintings and animals. Sometimes there are several sketches of the same subject on a page. For example, in “Sleeping Bulldog” by Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) the artist has used red crayon testing several dogs’ heads scattered around the full rendering of the sleeping dog. 

One of the most complicated of all the images is the series “The Sons of Jacob: The Tribes of Israel,” 1550. The 12 etchings by Dirck Volkertsz, printed by Coornhert, (1519-1590), after Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), cover a wall.  Rather than traditional wall text, an iPad with the biblical citations and explanations of the iconography will sit beside the prints.  
The “Judah” scene is first in the series. Although he is the second son, he heads the family line and is depicted as a king with a lion at his side. Behind him stands a statue of Jupiter, the mythological counterpart to the majestic Judah.
At the end of the show, there is a small room decorated as a 19th century drawing room.  Photographic reproductions of images in the exhibition sit in an open steamer trunk.  Several empty shelves cover one wall. Visitors are encouraged to choose various images, place them on the shelves and make their own connections.
Facing this intimate space is a wall with two portraits. One is Henry Mosler’s portrait of his daughter and McCrindle’s grandmother, Edith Mosler, 1896. The other is Bernard Boutet de Monvel’s “Joseph McCrindle as a Boy,” c. 1930. McCrindle’s parents divorced when he was very young and his mother went off to Europe, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents. He lived in wealth and spent 10 summers of his young life traveling the world on the family yacht. 
He served in World War II, graduated from Harvard and Yale Law School.  His passion for art, music and literature was fueled by his grandparents’ interests; his attraction to contemporary literature led to his establishment of the Transatlantic Review. He promoted such authors as John Updike and Harold Pinter and when the Review closed, he set up the Henfield Foundation, now called the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation. His annual gifts to the arts and social causes are listed in detail in the catalog.
McCrindle became interested in the Ackland through his friendship with Charles Millard (director of the museum from 1986 to 1993), and the museum was listed as a beneficiary in his will, but it was the last 1,200 drawings to be distributed that Riggs talked about at the press preview. Ten small museums were invited to survey the remainder of the collection and later on select works of art. 
Riggs told of going to New York with Carolyn Wood in early November shortly after McCrindle died, wading through a mass of images, trying to pinpoint which ones would be best for the Ackland. On Dec. 3, Riggs returned to New York, took a second look and then sat down with nine other curators seated in the order of a number they had drawn from an urn. Each in turn chose one drawing; the tenth person picked two and then in downward and upward sequences the process continued. In the end Riggs had added more than 50 drawings to the collection. 
McCrindle chose the Ackland because of its strong collection of works on paper, a strength that came from a dedication to collect such images spurred on by Riggs. His expertise has been a major factor in moving the Ackland to its prominence in the world of university museums.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.