Philadelphia collects: The torch bearer

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2013 |

This issue celebrates the long history of Philadelphia as the city of great artist-artisans. That history would be even more impressive had there been a Helen Drutt on the scene in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to make sure that absolutely nothing of value was lost to posterity. What Drutt has done for craft in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is to discover, preserve, and promote every significant craftsperson both domestic and foreign that she has run across. And she has run across most of them…on five continents. But let us stay within the city’s limits and focus on Drutt’s two adjoining town houses, where she has lived for forty-nine years and which she shares with her husband, H. Peter Stern, co-founder and chairman of the Storm King Art Center, and with a parade of scholars and artists who pass through to use her vast archive.

  • Fig. 4. Helen Drutt stands beside her husband, H. Peter Stern, co-founder and chairman of the Storm King Art Center.
  • Fig. 1. The floating shelves in the hallway are by Phillip Lloyd Powell, c. 1957; among the objects on them are six ceramic pots by Robert C. Turner, 1974-1982. Wooden postcards by Jenny Holzer and Joseph Beuys sit on the top shelf in front of a photograph by Annelies Štrba; the box at the far right of the top shelf is by Wendell Castle. Three studies by Claus Bury hang above it. To their left is an Edna Andrade line drawing, next to a Gijs Bakker drawing of two dancers from the 1960s. At the far left are Lenore Tawney collages. Ashworth photograph.
  • Fig. 2. The Paul Evans table in the living room dates to c. 1965. On it are Devil, a large ceramic figure by Nancy Carman, 1979; a salt glaze bowl by Karen Karnes, c. 1975; and three ceramic forms by Toshiko Takaezu, c. 1980. The garden seat on the floor is also by Takaezu, while the black and white figures are by Carman, 1984. On the wall two Warren Rohrer works hang above one by David Aylsworth. Ashworth photograph.
  • Fig. 3. The dining room will be exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg in 2015. The table is by T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, c. 1953; the tall chairs are by Jere Osgood and the shorter ones by George Nakashima; the large bowl in the center is by Wayne Higby; the chargers are by Robert Winokur. On the far wall hangs a large porcelain piece by Ruth Duckworth, c. 1978; beneath it are Robert Arneson’s ceramic Trophies, also c. 1978. The standing desk at the left is by Daniel Jackson. In the left foreground the metal box is by Ann Hamilton. The table to the right is by Michael Hurwitz,  the turned wooden bowl on it, by Edward Moulthrop. Beyond is a plant in a William Daley pot. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

Sometime in the 1950s Drutt acquired an eye for handmade objects, and among her first acquisitions were shelves (Fig. 3) by the soulful local woodworker Phillip Lloyd Powell. She still has them, as she does examples of the work of Samuel Yellin, Paul Evans, George Nakashima, Wharton Esh­erick, and Rudolf Staffel, to name just a few of the local figures discussed by David Barquist and Elizabeth Agro in this issue and just a tiny proportion of the vast number of artists represented in her rooms.

By the 1960s the city’s craft scene warranted a Council of Professional Craftsmen, of which Drutt was a founding member, and a course on the history of modern craft at the Philadelphia College of Art, for which she wrote the syllabus and subsequently taught. In the 1970s she opened the Helen Drutt gallery on Spruce Street in Center City, an event that has been compared in its influence on the craft movement to what Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery did for fine art photography at the turn of the last century. As other galleries began showing studio furniture and art glass in the 1970s Drutt narrowed her focus to ceramics and metal, eventually moving to Walnut Street-with a brief foray in Manhattan in the late 1980s. Along the way she assembled a collection of jewelry by contemporary makers that toured internationally, introducing European, Asian, and American artists to each other. It is now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

What you see in her rooms is not collecting as we usually understand that term. Instead it is a kind of caretaking, a securing of history for the artists who have come under her wing and for whom she organizes exhibitions, obtains grants, writes catalogues, arranges for bequests to museums, and bestows countless other benefits. Their works live in her house as signposts for what she has seen, loved, and supported, without, it must be said, profiting much in the process. Robert Aibel of the Moderne Gallery describes her as “the best representative an artist could ever have. When she took someone on,” he says, “she was totally committed. She pulled out all the stops on their behalf.” And she took on everyone who was anyone, or became anyone.

“My great greed is to see, to be able to look,” Drutt says. It is also to make others see what she does. Zealots move the world and they generally don’t mind moving you if you are stumbling around in the way. Helen Drutt is a zealot, but she invariably gives credit where credit is due. Her rooms radiate respect for artists and their artistry.