The man, the myth, the gingham

Ben McCoubrey

Professor John Walsh’s, JE ’61, thoughtful gaze, quiet attention, and calming candor more immediately evoke the demeanor of an Ivy League intellectual in a cozy library armchair than the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Athenian appeal. The Getty, where Walsh served as director until 2000, is a sandstone and brushed steel acropolis that sits above the busy sprawl of Los Angeles. The experience of emerging from a Jetsons-esque funicular unto the heavenly-white complex epitomizes every element of new-age art museum experience. Yale, where Walsh now teaches, looks more like Disneyland’s magic castle in Anaheim than Walsh’s groundbreaking museum nestled in hills surrounding Brentwood.

Though the snowy gothic spires of Yale and the modern sandstone of the Getty represent two differ­ent eras and roles in Walsh’s career, his ability to bridge the two often-fragmented elements of the art world is what makes his career as an art histo­rian unique.

Like his trademark combination of a colorful but­ton-down and a dark-toned sweater, Walsh’s synthe­sis of comfy armchair professor and forward-looking curator allow him to provide a unique brand of Art History education to his students and the entire community served by the Yale University Art Gallery. This semester, Walsh is teaching a small, focused seminar, “17th Century Dutch Painting” and a mas­sive open lecture, “A History of Dutch Painting in Six Pictures.” At Yale and the YUAG, he continues to revolutionize a field as old as the works he stud­ies, making 17th Century Dutch painting an online hit through the YUAG’s website, while continuing to deliver extended and detailed lectures with the clarity of a van Eyck. Whatever their level, Walsh has made it his life’s work to “explore art and how to help people, whether students or the general public, to understand what they are looking at. Particularly, in my case, European paintings and [its] sub spe­cies, Dutch 17th Century Painting.”

Altogether, Walsh has dotted his resume with more Ivy than Morse and Stiles could ever have hoped to boast. Graduating from Yale College in 1961, Walsh earned his PhD in History of Art from Columbia. He taught at Columbia and Harvard, participated in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and is now teaching at Yale and the Yale University Art Gallery.

Walsh’s resume stretches from his position as director of the Getty to curator at the Metropoli­tan Museum of Art in New York, the nearby Frick Collection, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Though his career in curating is long and celebrated, Walsh told me that “teaching, for [him], has always been constant.” He demonstrates this commitment to education both by giving lectures and teaching courses at universities, and by sharing art with the public at museums across the country.

In 1982 Walsh turned down the job of director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to become the first director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. In Getty’s will, the oil magnate endowed the then-miniscule museum with over one billion dollars. This sudden influx transformed the Getty from the small personal collection of European artwork that belonged to its namesake into one of the world’s richest museums. In an unusual twist, the Getty had found itself with money and an eccentric billionaire’s villa, but no art.

A 1988 New York Times article dramatically de­scribes a younger Walsh tracing his hands along the Pacific horizon like a solemn, station-wagon-wield­ing mountaineer setting out to build a new Arcadia for art.

Which is what he did. In 1997, the massive 1.3 billion dollar Getty Center opened and offered a monumental collection of carefully curated paint­ings, photographs, sculptures, and other art objects. The Center, designed by Richard Meier, is only ac­cessible by “hovertrain funicular,” boasts beautiful views overlooking LA, and a 134,000 square foot garden including 500 different species of plants. When art historians die, they either get stuck in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or go to the Getty. It has a grotto.

Building a complex of the Getty’s massive size and unique location while simultaneously develop­ing a collection of art was a challenge. Walsh waded through mounds red tape, navigating the ambigui­ties and risks of auction houses, and literally moved mountains to build the museum. By 2000, Walsh felt he had done his job.

“The job I had at the Getty was spectacularly in­teresting and productive. I got to build a collection and in effect build a whole new museum,” Walsh told me. “But at the end of the time when we opened the new museum I thought, ‘I don’t need to do this all my life. There were other things I love—teaching.”

Much to Yale History of Art majors’ delight, Walsh returned to his alma mater after retiring from the Getty, teaching occasionally through the History of Art department, and actively through the YUAG.

At Yale, Walsh continues to change how muse­ums function within the world of Art History. Walsh heads up the Wurtele Gallery Teacher program along with Jessica Sack. Comprised of graduate students from all fields, it involves several months of inten­sive art historical training including what Walsh refers to as a “floating seminar,” where students bounce around the YUAG listening to Walsh and discussing paintings directly in front of the originals. The students are paid the equivalent of a Teaching Fellow’s salary, and go on to train gallery guides in the undergraduate program.

Walsh has not ceased in his mission to bring stu­dents and the population at large into close contact with original art objects. “I’m doing what I do now because when I was a student I had to write a pa­per in the gallery about a painting. That experience changed me,” he recalled. “That struggle to get into words what was in front of me—which by the way was a Van Gogh work of a park—just the act of mak­ing sense of the painting and placing it into words was a breakthrough moment for this artist. That mo­ment I said ‘Oh, I’d much rather do this than write about poetry.’”

This semester, he is leading a six-part lecture series at Yale on his specialty, 17th Century Dutch Painting. The series is accompanied by smaller “close-looking sessions” in the Department of Prints Drawings and Photographs, along with an under­graduate seminar of the same subject. Stephanie Wisowaty, TD ’16, head undergraduate gallery guide and a participant in Walsh’s seminar, reiterated Walsh’s focus on object-based study. She said that Walsh often emphasizes “if you are going to connect and communicate, you need to notice the details.” The mission of a museum is inherently to provide a space to look at original works of art, and some question the value of teaching these visual materi­als virtually. Walsh continues to push Art History ed­ucation into the future, however, offering his entire lecture series for free online. “As the quality of the playback and the sophistication of the technology is getting better, you will see arts taught in this way a good deal—more, and better,” Walsh said. The last of his series will be held in the YUAG’s amphi­theater Fri., Feb. 27th, but will remain online for semesters to come.

During my second semester at Yale, I scheduled myself a charcuterie board of the humanities. The sampling : History, Philosophy, English, German and Art History—all the contenders for my soon-to-be major going into sophomore year. The second week into Introduction to Decorative Art, I had already been convinced. When my TF placed a two thou­sand year-old piece of Greek pottery into my hands, I had my own Van Gogh moment. Professor Walsh has taught in the best art history programs in the world, and built one of the world’s best museums. (That’s like getting a job at Goldman AND Bain.)

Walsh’s greatest feat, however, can be found in his perspective. Regardless of where he worked or the job he held, he never lost sight of his goal to put art in the hands of the public, and students like me. Forget about poetry and Goldman for a second, head down to the YUAG, and just touch some pots.

One Response

  1. Nic says:

    Professor Walsh has taught in the best art history programs in the world, and built one of the world’s best museums. (That’s like getting a job at Goldman AND Bain.) wow

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