Joseph Rishel, the brilliant, resourceful Philly-based curator of memorable exhibitions including Cézanne and Beyond, has left us for the Great Beyond. He was “brilliant” in making evocative connections and sharing deep insights regarding major works that we had thought we already knew; “resourceful” because he knew where all the hidden pictures were buried, and he had the charm and diplomatic skills to induce their private owners to unearth them for his worthy purposes.
Here’s one of his collector-wooing strategems, as he had described it to me over lunch during the “Cézanne and Beyond” press preview at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA):
In a gambit he’d never tried before, he created “playing cards” that graphically demonstrated to a potential lender how his work would fit in with the others around it. He persuasively made the case that the coveted missing card was essential to the game.
One wooed in this manner was Steve Wynn, whose elbowed Picasso portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter (not lent to the Museum of Modern Art) was dispatched to Philly to cohabit with Madame Cézanne, likewise ensconced in a red armchair, with hands folded:
L: Picasso, “Le Rêve,” 1932
R: Cézanne, “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,” c. 1877, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum
When I asked Rishel why his must-see show was not going to travel, he answered as I had anticipated: Many lenders could not be induced to part with their closely held treasures for more than three months…only for Joe.
I was among the legions of admirers captivated by both the Philadelphia Museum senior curator’s serious exhibitions and his humorous quips. The only times his customary joie de vivre faded from his face were when his thoughts turned to his beloved, deeply missed partner in both life and work—Anne d’Harnoncourt, his “boss” as director of the PMA (to whom his “Cézanne and Beyond” catalogue was dedicated). After she died unexpectedly in 2008, I wrote this appreciation of her for the Philadelphia Inquirer, in which I praised her “irresistible charm, intelligence and good humor”—words that could be applied equally to her spouse.
Art writer Stephan Salisbury, in his admiring Philadelphia Inquirer obit for Rishel (who died on Thursday of complications from Parkinson’s disease), eulogized him as “a legend,” beloved for his “elliptical, shaggily unwinding anecdotes, indefatigable curatorial efforts, and unwavering support of colleagues.” Salisbury quoted Timothy Rub, the PMA’s current director, extolling Joe as “one of the great makers of exhibitions in our history”—an assessment that I’d heartily endorse.
He tried to learn something from everyone with whom he came in contact—even me: When we sat together at a 2008 New York press lunch, he pumped me for information about what he should see while in town, and was seemingly delighted by my suggestions. They were inadequate payback for the pleasure and knowledge that his own exhibitions and elucidations had provided to me and countless other art lovers over his 45 years at the Philadelphia Museum.
A NOTE TO MY READERS: The PMA has set up a donation page for gifts in Joe’s memory, with contributions going towards the Joseph J. Rishel Fund for Excellence in European Painting and Sculpture, and the Philadelphia Museum’s endowment.