Picture of a fine curator
When the news of John Szarkowski’s death at 81 reached me on Sunday, my mind turned immediately to the first time we sat down together for a serious conversation, almost 40 years ago, and how his style of thinking and personal conduct still affect me.
I was in my 20s, still in diapers as a museum curator. Szarkowski had invited me for lunch at the Century Club of New York, a venerable private social establishment on Fifth Avenue within walking distance of his office at the Museum of Modern Art and a 15-minute bus ride from my desk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had lived in New York for only two or three years and was in awe that a private social club could hold on its walls paintings by some of the same artists on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum. I was nervous about what I would say to my legendary senior.
I found my way up the paneled stair to the Century Club dining room, where Szarkowski was seated with one of the famous Century gin martinis on the small round table. He welcomed me and invited me to join him in the same (a habit I regrettably picked up). He was wearing a uniform I saw him in many times -- a navy blue blazer, paisley medium-width tie and gray trousers, and he was smoking a pipe. Seated around us were luminaries from the fields of publishing and advertising. I was impressed by Szarkowski’s skill at telling a story peppered with juicy anecdotes, and how he could manage to achieve diplomacy and candor in the same breath.
At the time of our meeting the Diane Arbus exhibition was at MoMA, but not having anything original to say about Arbus, I told the story of the slender thread that had led me to Szarkowski, which also touched on how I had been bewitched by the art of photography as a doctoral student in the history of art at Brown University. I related how I was assigned to assist professor William Jordy in teaching his popular undergraduate course on the history of American architecture. One of my jobs was to prepare informal exhibitions drawn from the art department collection of photographs of works of architecture and secure relevant books from the library.
When it came time to prepare materials about the buildings designed by the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose work I admired greatly, it turned out the strongest images of Sullivan’s architecture had the name “John Szarkowski” attached to them. In 1966 his name meant nothing to me, but by 1971 I had matched Sullivan’s photographer with the man at MoMA. Sitting in the Century Club, I directed the conversation to the subject of how a curator learns the skills required to do our job. His advice: “look, look, look and don’t stop looking.”
We communicated regularly over the decades, and Szarkowski’s compelling genius forced me to put up with his often cantankerous attitude. There was much to admire, envy and regret. He could be courtly and generous one minute and the next be brutally opinionated about a trivial matter.
I respected the methods he used to teach a whole generation of people how to look at photographs and to comprehend their cultural, historical and artistic importance. I respected how he followed in the well-established tradition of the artist-savant/connoisseur, whose understanding of quality and importance in his subject stemmed from years of practicing it. I admired his commitment to mentoring newcomers about the art of photography. I admired the way he communicated personally with photographers, what he said to them about their work and how he took their advice about what was worth looking at. I will miss the chance to match with him on a point of disagreement and will especially miss his extraordinary sense of humor that inevitably brought a laugh at the most unexpected point in a story.
Weston Naef is curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.