MEET ROBERT WOLTERSTORFF, THE MAN WHO WILL LEAD THE BRUCE MUSEUM INTO A GRAND NEW AGE
Who was the most influential artist of the twentieth century, Picasso or Matisse?
“Duchamp,” says Robert Wolterstorff, who last year succeeded Peter Sutton as executive director of the Bruce Museum of Art and Science. In May, as the museum sat in coronaviral abeyance, we decided it was time to affably interrogate Wolterstorff: Who is he? What are his tastes? Where does he plan to steer the new Bruce, once its shimmering $60 million expansion is complete?
Ordinarily, we would pace the galleries with him, walking and talking; he would be the slender man with the thick silvery hair, casually shedding erudition as he went. But for now the only persons at the Bruce were masked construction workers, and so Wolterstorff talked to us by phone from his place in New Haven, where he was holed up with his wife, Mari Jones, and their two young-adult children.
Marcel Duchamp is not everyone’s cup of tea. He’s the fellow who put a urinal on a pedestal and titled it “Fountain” (1917). Justly or not, a panel of 500 art experts voted Duchamp’s plumbing fixture the most influential art work of the modern era, ahead of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Duchamp claimed his art works were not about pleasing the eye so much as about the play of ideas. Certainly, the idea that art could be chosen rather than created was revolutionary, as was the idea that mundane, mass-produced objects like urinals, bottle racks and snow shovels could qualify.
Absurd? Sure. And yet it’s difficult to conceive of Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Jasper Johns’ flags or Damien Hirst’s shark without Duchamp having reimagined what art could be.
Duchamp is one of Wolterstorff’s heroes; another is Yves Klein, who had a similar element of prankishness in his work. Once, Klein exhibited an empty gallery as a work of art. Today his best-known paintings are solid blue from corner to corner, and they sell for millions. When Wolterstorff was a young man, he chanced upon Klein’s “Leap Into the Void,” a 1960 trick photograph of a nattily dressed Klein diving from a rooftop into a suburban Paris street. It’s an arresting image, all right—it looks like a documentary shot of a suicide, though the artist himself perversely insisted the photo is about flight.
Wolterstorff says, “For me, great art is art that unsettles, that leaves you with questions rather than answers. And it’s art that changes art itself, that pushes the bounds of what art can be. From the beginning, I was interested in art that is sometimes as surprising and destructive as it is creative.”
Do these leanings foretell the direction of the new Bruce? Not really. Wolterstorff turns out to be a man of intriguing contradictions. Though forged by modernism, he gazes with equal intensity at the old world: His favorite painter is Titian, the Renaissance superstar, and his doctoral thesis at Princeton was on Robert Adam, the Scottish neoclassical architect. Closer to our own era, he can declare the onetime critical punching bag Norman Rockwell “still misunderstood” despite his twenty-first century rehabilitation. (Of course, Rockwell was always popularly beloved, whatever the critics thought.)
The biggest surprise in Wolterstorff’s background is that, early on, he had no intention of studying art at all. At Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he majored in biology. But misgivings crept in. Being a biologist meant being stuck in a lab, when what Wolterstorff really loved was the life of a naturalist, a passion fed by his own boyhood frog-catching excursions and by the books of conservationist Gerald Durrell. (“I read his books still—probably about three a year.”) But his art-love lay dormant.
In 1970 his father, Nicholas Wolterstorff, a renowned Christian philosopher then based at Calvin, took his family on sabbatical to Great Britain. When the school year ended, all seven Wolterstorffs piled into a Volkswagen camper and toured Europe. “We saw cathedrals and art museums, and I hated most of it,” Wolterstorff admits. “It represented boredom and sore legs and paintings of naked women and museums I didn’t understand. But it had an impact, somehow.”
In college, at his brother’s urging, he took a course in the modernism of Vienna and Berlin, studying the new-fangled painters, architects, filmmakers and composers of 1890 to 1930—Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, Adolf Loos, Fritz Lang, Arnold Schoenberg—and suddenly the fuse ignited.
“The course was revolutionary for me. It blew my mind. It introduced me to the idea of the avant-garde, a little cadre who wanted to explode the old in order to bring in the new.” Wolterstorff quotes with a laugh the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro’s radical prescription for artistic rejuvenation: “Burn down the Louvre!”
After graduating from Calvin, Wolterstorff earned his master’s in art history at Williams College and interned at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (The PMA’s large Duchamp collection enabled Wolterstorff to gain a nuanced appreciation of the artist, however strange that might sound to those acquainted only with the urinal.) At the PMA a new career path opened before him. Where he had envisioned becoming an academic, he now began to think of himself as “a museum person.” Academics, like biologists, tend to focus on a narrow area of study, where museum curators get to go from one capacious subject to another—the sort of “big picture” approach that appealed to Wolterstorff.
Next came a master of fine arts and a doctorate in art history from Princeton University, and the odd choice of studying Robert Adam.
Or was it odd? Wolterstorff turns out to be an architecture buff, dating from his father’s designing the family’s mid-century modern house in Grand Rapids. Also, with so many students focusing on either the Italian Renaissance or European modernism, Wolterstorff had Adam happily to himself: “I have this little perverse streak—I like to do what others aren’t doing.”
Though Robert Adam stood firmly in the neoclassical current of the eighteenth century, he managed to be pioneering as well. He introduced the concept of “movement” in architecture—a sense of “rise and fall, advance and recess”—meant to suggest the diversity of landscape; and he designed furniture and fixtures to scrupulously match the architecture, a practice we imagine to have begun with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Robert Adam tells us something about Wolterstorff’s eye: It discerns that even “traditional” artists could be boldly modern in their day. This explains why Wolterstorff loves specifically late Titian, whose subject matter turned dark and his brush strokes bizarrely coarse, “flaring into each other like smoke,” according to Titian scholar Mark Hudson. “It would be centuries before paint was used with that degree of rawness and immediacy again.”
Three times during our interview, Wolterstorff used the word “nihilistic” to describe the art he gravitates to, but each time he retracted the word as not quite right. It IS a slippery word, but applied to art it suggests a storming of established values, as Titian did in the 1570s and Duchamp did in the 1910s.
In 1998 Wolterstorff won his first directorship, at the eminent establishment Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. Henry Austin of New Haven designed the Italianate villa in 1858 for Ruggles S. Morse, a luxury hotelier, and his wife, Olive. The brownstone exterior and four-story tower give the house a handsome but heavy air, but the interiors, by Gustave Herter, glow with Victorian exuberance—stained glass windows, gilded mirrors, carved cherubim, painted frescoes. (Herter would later design interiors for the Grant and Theodore Roosevelt White Houses.)
“I think historic houses are underestimated for how intellectually interesting they are,” Wolterstorff says. He regards them as artworks that exist on many planes—as objects that you can explore in all their spatial and decorative variety, but also as pieces of cultural history.
On the other hand, historic houses don’t really change; after eleven years in Portland, Wolterstorff yearned for the multifariousness of museum work. In 2012 he became executive director of the Bennington Museum in Vermont, known for its large collection of Grandma Moses paintings. The museum was founded in 1852 as a historical society, and its art side evolved incidentally, as citizens bequeathed furniture and paintings. Despite the Moses collection, the museum’s emphasis remained on history, and it was struggling. Wolterstorff told the board, “You have to focus on art now rather than history, because art is where it’s at, it’s what’s flying high in museums, and it’s where the money and the glam is.”
By happy coincidence, Wolterstorff learned that Bennington was sitting on a gold mine of modern art history. Helen Frankenthaler, David Smith, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro and Tony Smith, among others, either summered in Bennington or taught at Bennington College, making the town a vibrant Mecca of abstract artists in the Sixties. To celebrate that heritage, Wolterstorff and company created the Bennington Modernism Gallery, “and it brought new energy to the museum; it made us look more hip and modern.”
Two shows struck a particular chord: Alice Neel in 2014 and Milton Avery in 2016. Each painter was representational (rather than abstract) with a genius for color, and each suffered neglect during the abstract-dominated midcentury only to be canonized later on.
“These exhibits changed our destiny,” Wolterstorff says, noting the shows’ popularity and rapturous reviews. (“‘Milton Avery’s Vermont’ is as close to a perfect show as mere mortals can mount,” wrote the Wall Street Journal.) “Our vision was that we were a museum about Vermont art,” Wolterstorff says. “We saw that that was our unique niche.” When he left Bennington last year, the museum was riding high, in the pink of financial health.
Wolterstorff seems ideally suited to lead the Bruce. Not only has he successfully run a “blended” museum, but his scholarly experience precisely fits the Bruce’s blend of art and science. He arrived just as the Bruce was preparing to more than double its size, to 70,000 square feet.
“The old building was holding them back,” Wolterstorff notes. “The weird thing is that it’s an art museum, but it had no permanent gallery space. That’s a disincentive for people to give great art. Why give your Monets, if you know they’re going to be in the basement most of the time?”
The centerpiece of the new Bruce will be the William L. Richter Art Wing, a luminous block of cast stone and glass; groundbreaking took place in October. Bill Richter, a modest, intelligent man who earned his fortune investing in distressed companies (he cofounded Cerberus Capital with Steve Feinberg in 1992), built his dream house in Greenwich and started an art collection with a charcoal drawing by Matisse. Richter preferred art that “I could enjoy without a translator,” and this meant buying works by modern masters as various as van Gogh, Picasso and John Singer Sargent.
“I can’t believe every night when I get home what I have waiting for me,” he says. “I pinch myself.” In recent years he hit upon the idea of gifting his house and art collection to the town as a museum. “Museums that are homes, like the Frick, are my favorites,” he tells us.
But Richter soon saw that his idea was unworkable in residential Greenwich, and so he went looking for a future home for his art. He considered the Bruce tepidly. When Peter Sutton made his pitch, however, it wasn’t for art, but for money to build. “I don’t want to do that,” Richter thought at first; art was a much more interesting gift than money. Still, he found Sutton’s logic irrefutable—the Bruce needed the wing to attract the art—and he was impressed by the architectural renderings that Sutton showed him. He also liked the downtown, parklike setting—a house museum at the center of everything. “So, to Peter’s and my surprise, I said yes.”
Richter pledged $15 million toward a world-class art wing. Thus catalyzed, the Bruce began receiving promises to donate collections of staggering quality, collections that include work by Winslow Homer, Camille Pissarro, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Edward Hopper, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Andrew Wyeth and David Hockney.
Wolterstorff is equally excited about gifts of Native American art and Chinese antiquities and hopes yet to attract a collection of African art. Richter’s own art, some of it, will no doubt go to the Bruce as well, now that he is preparing to let go of his collection.
How does that feel? “Bittersweet,” Richter says, “like saying farewell to old friends—but knowing they’ll have a good home, with excellent care, and be enjoyed by thousands of visitors.”
The new Bruce will also feature an elegant lobby and courtyard, a 240-seat lecture hall, and a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating. The whole of the existing museum will be given over to the science galleries and to an education wing donated by Steven Cohen, the hedge fund manager and art collector who recently bought the New York Mets, and his wife, Alexandra, through their charitable foundation.
But what will the new Bruce look like exhibit-wise? Should we expect a notable break from the illustrious reign of Peter Sutton? During his eighteen years at the Bruce, Sutton mounted art exhibits of international stature, beginning with a show of seventeenth century Dutch painting, his own field of expertise. (That show included a painting by Johannes Vermeer, Wolterstorff notes, the only Vermeer ever exhibited in Connecticut.) And the Bruce’s shows had remarkable range, from Alfred Sisley to Chuck Close to Charles Addams.
Under Wolterstorff, there will be no burning down the Bruce. The eclecticism will continue. But the accent will fall on modernism more than it already did, for three reasons: It’s in Wolterstorff’s wheelhouse, it excites museum-goers, and most Greenwich collectors collect under the “modern” rubric. (Let’s stipulate, however, that Wolterstorff’s conception of modernism is broad: It embraces just about anything made after 1850.)
As he did in Vermont, Wolterstorff will also highlight the “local.” He notes especially our region’s ties to heavyweight modernists: Robert Motherwell lived in Greenwich, Helen Frankenthaler in Darien, Arshile Gorky in Sherman, Edward Steichen in Redding; Milton Avery and Sol LeWitt grew up in Hartford; and Jasper Johns, at ninety, is still at work in Sharon. Where possible, art and science will keep mingling, one illuminating the other. Wolterstorff mentions, for example, an exhibit he’d like to put on about the science of seeing, using pointillism and other styles of painting to illustrate it.
The Bruce Museum re-opened, carefully, in June, using reservations and timed ticketing. But because the pandemic still hangs over us, Wolterstorff cannot help but contemplate art and mortality. Is there a better place to do this than a museum, where the spirit of life abides long after the artist who captured it has fled the scene?
He’s thinking specifically of a favorite art writer, Peter Schjeldahl, who is gravely ill with cancer. Just before the virus struck, Schjeldahl visited the Prado and spent a long time gazing at the Diego Velázquez masterpiece “Las Meninas” (1656). This scene of the Spanish royal court is “radiant,” Schjeldahl notes, but quite soon all the life behind that radiance will drain away: The empire is in decline; the pretty girl at the center of the painting will become Holy Roman Empress but die at twenty-one; and Velázquez himself, pictured gazing insouciantly at the viewer, will be dead in four years, possibly of the plague. “Schjeldahl was asking, ‘Why are the Old Masters still, ultimately, deeper and more profound than the moderns?’ And his thesis is because they had death looking over their shoulder constantly.”
If the Old Masters have a “soulful heft” (as Schjeldahl puts it) that has been lost, perhaps the moderns have an urgency and a directness that we will soon rediscover. In any case, Wolterstorff predicts, “COVID will change how we look at art.” He points to the conceptual artist On Kawara, who would make a painting a day, consisting of nothing more than the date neatly lettered in white against a solid color background; often the painting would be paired with a framed sheet of newspaper from that day. Kawara, who died in 2014, resolutely did not speak about his art, but his oeuvre is rooted in the idea of survival: He himself survived the bomb-ravaged Japan of his youth.
“I had never appreciated them,” Wolterstorff says of Kawara’s date paintings, but now he sees them anew. “They’re an incremental record of a life. They say, ‘I’m alive.’ And isn’t that what we’re all about—raising your hand and saying, ‘I’m alive and I want to be counted?’ This idea, for me, is becoming more profound in the time of COVID. We’re here on this earth for a very brief time.”