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Covid Obit: William Gerdts, 91, Distinguished Scholar of American Art (& my tipster)

Because of my bent for investigative reporting, I’ve received some confidential leads over the years from major (and minor) figures seeking to expose artworld transgressions. William Gerdts, a consummate scholar of American art (who died on Apr. 14), was one of CultureGrrl‘s most illustrious tipsters. (Another was art historian Leo Steinberg, who died at 90 in 2011.)

William Gerdts
Photo: Courtesy of Newark Museum of Art

As also happened with another important recently deceased art scholar/curator—Alan Shestack—Gerdts’ passing went largely unnoticed in the press (one modest exception that I know of—Art Fix Daily). According to his classified-ad obit, Gerdts died “of complications of COVID-19.” So did Germano Celant, 80, the Guggenheim Museum’s former curator and champion of arte povera, whose death today has already been more widely reported in the art press. (Celant had organized the Guggenheim’s highly controversial Armani show.)

But back to Gerdts: He was the author of more than 20 books on American art, notably his three-volume magnum opus, Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting 1710-1920 (Abbeville Press, 1990):

He was a renowned expert on American Impressionism and 19th-century American still-life painting (the latter of which he collected). A professor emeritus of the City University of New York Graduate Center at the time of his death, he was a former curator of paintings and sculpture at the Newark Museum (1954-1966).

Here’s a photo from his early Newark days:

William Gerdts, 1959
Photo: Courtesy of Newark Museum of Art, Library and Archives

In August 2018, the last time that I had heard from him (via his nom de email, “henryinman”), Gerdts and his wife Abigail (who survives him) had moved from their Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan to the Osborn Senior Living Community, Rye, NY.

When I had asked him by email, almost five years ago, “What are you doing these days?” he replied, “Actually, not too much,” and then proceeded to enumerate various projects:

Just completed a major book/catalogue on a private collection of still-life painting for a Houston collector—will be out next year. Otherwise, collectors, dealers, auction galleries come to me a) for authentications, b) for short write-ups. Possibility in next few months of two museums hiring me to research their American art collection.

I have (he said modestly) [his tongue-in-cheek aside, not mine] the finest American art library in the world, and also have some (secret) Internet accesses that very, very few others have available.

His “finest American art library” was given to the National Gallery, Washington, in 2018, along with a group of paintings and drawings he owned.

Here’s one example:

Henry Inman, “Rip Van Winkle Awakening from his Long Sleep,” 1823
National Gallery, Gift of William and Abigail Gerdts

In his Washington Post review of the National Portrait Gallery’s 1987 Inman exhibition, Paul Richard wrote this about Gerdts, who had organized that show:

He is like an encyclopedia. I know no other scholar who can match his arcane knowledge of America’s art history. He already has arranged some 50 exhibitions.

Writing catalogue entries for the Inman show was Carrie Rebora, then one of Professor Gerdts’ graduate assistants, who later (as Carrie Rebora Barratt) became the Metropolitan Museum’s American art curator (featured in this CultureGrrl post) and then the Met’s deputy director. (She is now CEO and president of the NY Botanical Garden.)

But now (as in my recent Shestack obit), let’s give the late art scholar and esteemed mentor the last word: In the course of a published 2007 conversation with Brian Cole, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Gerdts had declared that “there are an awful lot of art historians who don’t have an eye. You know, like being tone deaf, I think you can be eye deaf.”

That provocation led to this telling exchange:

Cole: What does it mean to have an eye?

Gerdts: It’s the ability to see quality in works of art that might not ordinarily appeal to even the average art historian. It has to do with being able to recognize the hand of an artist, even when they’re not at their most typical.

It means being able to enjoy the richness, the color, the forms, to get an idea of what the artist was thinking when the artist did the picture. Why the artist put the line there, rather than here. And this color there, rather than that color there.

What he didn’t reveal is whether a “good eye” is innate, or whether vision can be sharpened by an exceptional mentor. Only Bill’s students can tell…

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