Editor’s Letter, March/April 2012

Editorial Staff Opinion

There are days when I am sure that there is a constant worldwide conspiracy out there to pretend that the past does not exist. Fortunately I leave the office occasionally and find that this may not be true. I recently toured Camera Solo, the exhibition of Patti Smith’s photographs at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford with Susan Talbott, the museum’s director. You might think that showing a rock goddess’s tiny black-and-white pictures at a major museum would stir up my paranoia (pandering! selling out!) but you would be wrong. Patti Smith is devoted to the art and literature of bygone times, something I already knew from reading Just Kids, her old-fashioned memoir about stalking punk rock stardom in 1970s New York. Her photographs of Duncan Grant’s studio, Victor Hugo’s bed, Percy Shelley’s grave, and Virginia Woolf’s cane do not claim to be high art. Their mission is more humble: to let objects summon the spirits of the artists who live on in her work. And, yes, Smith also gave a concert in tandem with the exhibition’s opening, drawing the attention of a great many people who just might acquire the habit of visiting the past. What a good thing for the Atheneum to have done.    

So, let the healthy push and pull between past and present continue. I am happy to say it finds its way into this issue in articles about the decorative arts at the World’s Fairs, where this tension was the main event; in experiments by contemporary landscape designers like Isabelle Greene (a descendant of Greene and Greene architects, as it happens) at Pierre S. du Pont’s venerable Longwood Gardens; in the painterly photographs of Heinrich Kühn; and especially in William Nathaniel Banks’s graceful reading of the architecture of Oxford, Mississippi through the works of its most talented son, William Faulkner. (Praise for the contributions of Banks to this magazine, especially in his History in Towns series, over nearly five decades are, by the way, long overdue.) And then there is the intrepid collector Paul Walter whose only criterion for the assemblage of centuries, continents, and styles in a single room is his own unique taste. 

Since this is the issue that appears during the Philadelphia Antiques Show (thus the article on Longwood Gardens, which will then be at its peak and is not to be missed), perhaps it is good time to suggest a different approach to the loan shows that accompany the event: why not a series of exhibitions on tradition and innovation that couple a twentieth-century modernist like furniture maker Wharton Esherick or Phillip Powell with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pieces they looked to for inspiration? I have chosen figures from the Philadelphia area for the obvious connection; there are certainly plenty more of them-the great ceramist Rudy Staffel, for instance, or the ironworker Samuel Yellin. The distant past does not need to be rescued by the present, but it would be nice to have them both as permanent parts of our conversation.