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A remembrance of James Wood: An exuberant champion of the visual arts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2010 - The very notion of James N. Wood’s no longer being around seems ludicrous somehow; that, and unbelievable. Official statements that said he reportedly was in good health seem to those who knew him to be understatement. Mr. Wood was, it always seemed, the definition of health and vitality. And besides being so marvelously healthy, he radiated a less definable life force and joy of living that touched and inspired anyone who happened to be in his presence.

But then Saturday afternoon rolled in and a call came from Michael Shapiro, director of the High Museum in Atlanta and former chief curator of the St. Louis Art Museum. He said Mr. Wood had died at home in Los Angeles at 69. Mark S. Siegel, board chair of the Getty Trust, of which Mr. Wood was president and CEO, said he died of natural causes.

James Nowell Wood arrived in St. Louis 35 years ago to be director of the Art Museum, replacing Charles Buckley, who had retired. Before coming here Mr. Wood taught art history at the State University of New York at Buffalo and was associate director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. He also had worked at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and had spent time abroad, where he studied at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia in Italy.

Although scholarly and courtly, he also had an openness to new acquaintances and to new experiences that registered as quite different from the stuffy affectations of many museum officials of that era. Down to earth doesn’t quite describe him. He was of the earth, genuine, friendly, the real McCoy.

I was a young reporter when introduced to Mr. Wood at the opening of an exhibition at the Art Museum in 1975. I had studied some art history and was beginning to write about art for newspaper readers. Probably we both were nervous. Mr. Wood did not reveal it. He had organized the show with the celebrated scholar and curator Weston J. Naef: “Era of Exploration: Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885.”

Mr. Wood and I stood together beside a huge view camera as introductions were made. Perhaps because we were in the midst of all the silvery beauty and majesty of the photographs and proximate to this magnificent technological and artistic wonder, the moment became fixed deeply in my memory, as clear and sharp as if someone had caught us photographically in this first moment of our professional life and our friendship, and had photographed us for keeps.

Mr. Wood was smiling as he always was, and laughing heartily, and with his fine features and ramrod straight bearing I remembered thinking he looked like a young Florentine aristocrat, one who could have been the model for the Bronzino’s young man in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum – but quite noticeably without that young fellow’s haughty imperiousness.

Indeed, given his rather privileged background – Nobles in Dedham, Mass., for prep school, then Williams for his B.A. with honors and then the prestigious Institute of Fine Arts at NYU – he, by breeding and education, could have been a caricature of the nervous museum official who always seemed gripped by anxiety, vibrating, looking either behind his or her back to fend off assassination by a jealous peer, or around the room in  search of someone entirely more important to chat up.

None of that described Mr. Wood. He was a thoroughbred, ready for the chute to open and ready to gallop off on the next adventure. But more often than not, he grabbed you by the arm and took you with him, literally or figuratively, once you’d gained his trust.

Things bumped along at the Museum steadily but rather routinely. But then one night, and again another night not too long afterward, burglars penetrated glass and alarms and took off with small-in-scale works of art by Rodin, Remington and others. It was front-page news, newspaper real estate rarely occupied by art. Late one night, the City Desk at the newspaper received a tip from Police Headquarters that some of the material had been found. A clerk called me. I called Mr. Wood, who lived a few blocks away, and like a couple of Clark Kents we took off for downtown.

When we were ushered into the stolen property cage we were shown the Remington sculpture, a popular work called “The Bronco Buster,” which had appeared in a give-away box at the Goodwill Industries facility on Forest Park Avenue.

When he saw the sculpture, Mr. Wood’s heart sank. This is some kind of cheap fake, he said, and he was partly right, the sculpture indeed did look cheap and tacky. That was a result not of forgery or mass-production but of the application of silver-gray dusting powder, the better to reveal fingerprints. Because I probably had watched crime scene television while Mr. Wood was deep in his Gombrich, I explained the dusting business to him, and looked at a detective for confirmation.

The officer nodded affirmation. Mr. Wood looked again, changed his tune quickly and verified authenticity and ownership. We left the police station feeling as if we’d been in a movie. What fun! It was a touchstone of our friendship, a memory we replayed from time to time, as if it were a Super 8 film dancing on a screen, a visual recollection of all sorts of things, but chief among them camaraderie and derring do.

Eventually the Museum reclaimed all its missing sculptures, and eventually the Wood family – Jim, his wife Emese, and their daughters, Lenke and Rebecca, moved on to Chicago, where he’d been named head of the Art Institute.

In their years here, however, Mr. Wood had accomplished plenty. He set the Museum on a course of building renovation and expansion that continues to this day. He encouraged curators to collect aggressively and intuitively and fearlessly. He set a standard of vigorous and enlightened leadership that has not been achieved again.

He had a pal in New York – a photographer named Joel Meyerowitz, whose polish has never been brought to the sheen of Wood’s. They were quite a pair – the elegantly turned out Mr. Wood and the elegantly disheveled Mr. Meyerowitz. None of that superficial stuff got in the way of a resplendent friendship. The two spoke a parallel language, a language of urban aesthetics, a language of images keenly imagined, felt, framed and photographed. The Museum, led by Mr. Wood, won funding from the old St. Louis Union Trust Co. to accomplish something truly radical, the creation of a portfolio of pictures that drew inspiration both from the soaring optimism of the sculpture of the Arch and the abrading of a city’s built magnificence.   The group of pictures was made in color with a large-format camera, a descendant of the big cameras the 19th century masters hauled to the west. It has lost none of its impact through the years.

But the St. Louis pictures were not all he brought to us. In 1978, an exhibition that studied and presented work by Claude Monet done at his house at Giverny opened at the Metropolitan in New York. Mr. Wood was deeply involved in its organization. Like so much of his work – and indeed fundamental to his success as an intellectual and a showman – “Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism” involved the general public, which adored it, and satisfied the highest intellectual and scholarly standards. It remains one of the greatest, most informative and most influential exhibitions of the work of Claude Monet ever.

At the Met, it was unavoidably stunning. In St. Louis, it was transformative. The crowd-pleasing part was the display of masterpiece after masterpiece from the Giverny years, the ever-popular water lilies and reflections in the water: visual Debussy. But for posterity, for the deep and thrilling satisfaction that comes with revelation, “Giverny” limned the evolution of Monet’s vision at his place on the Seine, and revealed his evolution and growth as an artist and the increasing restlessness of his genius as his eyesight began to dim.

What was so entirely striking, shocking in fact, was to see in the very late work artistic ground being plowed and fertilized for the revolution that would come after World War II in gestural abstraction, painting so exuberant and involving that our visual culture and imaginative vocabularies could never be the same again.

Mr. Wood’s departure from the St. Louis Art Museum was great for the Chicago Art Institute, not so good for St. Louis. He left in 1980; in the three decades since, the Museum has never managed to rekindle the luminous excitement of the Wood years, a brief but truly golden age.

Mr. Wood retired in 2004 to Rhode Island, but that retirement didn’t last long, because, if my impression is correct, he was entirely too young, too vital and too addicted to the intellectual and visual charges that come from association with genius, as well as an appetite for public life.

In 2005, he became president of the board of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in Grand Center, on which he’d served as a member. He replaced Emily Rauh Pulitzer who became board chairman.

In an announcement of his selection, Pulitzer said, "Wood's wisdom and experience has made him a valuable member of the board, providing significant guidance in the establishment of this new institution. It gives us great pleasure that he has now agreed to take on the presidency of the board and lead us in the next steps of development.”

Matthias Watchek, director of the Foundation, said Sunday,  "Among the numerous contributions Jim made to the evolution of the Foundation was his introduction to the mission statement two key words: sanctuary and laboratory. These words now are guiding principals of the Foundation."

In 2006, Mr. Wood was named head of the Getty Trust, a position he held when he died.

Mr. Wood’s successor as president and director of the Art Institute is James Cuno. Saturday, in an emailed tribute, Cuno said this:

“Jim was both a close, personal friend and a professional mentor. He represented the best in our profession. He was dedicated to the public experience of the highest quality art, the most intelligent exhibitions, and the most original and lasting scholarship. He knew, without question, why and for whom we museum professionals work: for the public. He was clear about this. We are a public trust. In a democracy like ours, this means we are only successful if we broaden access to our collections and programs and work to include every curious person without prejudice. Instinctively Jim knew the power of museums in the construction of a civic identity. And he knew that this rested on the public's regard for the museum as an institution of integrity, unimpeachable integrity. And Jim Wood embodied that integrity.”

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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