Of Trinities, Mafias & Art

By Lewis, Michael J. | New Criterion, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Of Trinities, Mafias & Art


Lewis, Michael J., New Criterion


Every death is the shutting of a book, but when William H. Pierson, the prominent historian of architecture, died last December, it seemed more like the close of a geological era. He was the last survivor of that trio of extraordinary--and extraordinarily long-lived--Williams College professors who for a half century were major forces in the world of American art. All lived to be nonagenarians and remained professionally active to the end, not only Pierson (1911-2008) but Lane Faison (1907-2006) and Whitney Stoddard (1913-2003) as well. Through a travesty of language they were dubbed the "Holy Trinity," to their great chagrin, while their former students became known as the "Williams Art Mafia." The metaphors are grotesquely mixed: It hardly seems decent that a Puritan establishment like Williams should be trafficking in trinities and mafias. (To be sure, the more historically defensible "Williams Art Conventicle" does not pass trippingly over the tongue.)

Yet to describe the intensity of devotion and veneration inspired by those three professors seems to demand sacral language, even the blood loyalty of omerta. Collectively, they produced the most significant cohort of museum directors ever to come from one American institution of higher learning. Their students went on to run the Getty Trust and the Chicago Art Institute (James N. Wood), the National Gallery of Art (Earl A. Powell III), the Guggenheim (Tom Krens), and the Museum of Modern Art (Glenn Lowry). One must also count Kirk Varnedoe, who left his position as senior curator of MOMA and went on to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. Prominence does not equate with beneficence--Krens has come in for his fair share of criticism in these pages--but on the whole it is a remarkable roster.

It scarcely seems credible that a triumvirate of amiable and unassuming professors could wield such influence from an outpost in extreme northwestern Massachusetts. What, one yearns to know, was the secret of their success--was it what they taught, or was it who they were? The question is of more than sociological interest. Surprisingly, it has not yet been investigated, even cursorily, other than as a human-interest story. But now that the founders of Williams's benign "Mafia" have passed into history, one might begin asking--much as they would have--how this historical artifact came to be.

I certainly knew nothing about it when I began to teach at Williams College in 1993. In short order, I encountered what was surely the country's most idiosyncratic way of teaching the history of art. Over the course of a year, students were first given the history of Western sculpture, from classical antiquity to the present, then of architecture, and, finally, of painting. A student would encounter Michelangelo, for example, three times: in September as a sculptor, again in November as an architect, and for one last time in March as a painter. The whole system struck me, as it did every new instructor, as one of a convoluted and capricious weirdness, about as sensible as teaching a medical student the organs of the body in alphabetical order. But as I came to know the Trinity and the history of the program they created, I began to see things differently.

Before the 1930s, the history of art was barely taught in the United States, at least not as a subject of formal academic study. If taught at all, it was confined to women's colleges such as Vassar or to schools of art and architecture, where students were expected to have some passing knowledge of the history of their profession. Harvard, with a tradition of medieval studies, was something of an exception. The situation changed dramatically in 1933 with Hiders accession to power. There followed the exodus of Germany's Jewish art historians, many of whom made their way to the United States. The most brilliant, including Karl Lehmann, Walter Friedlaender, Richard Krautheimer, and the legendary Erwin Panofsky, were recruited by New York University to staff its recently founded Institute of Fine Art. …

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