An occupational hazard of my advanced age has been a sense of sad obligation to post appreciative obits of associates with whom I’ve enjoyed warm professional relationships. In the interests of journalistic distance, I tend to keep my contacts at arms length, rather than befriending them. But I still take personally the loss of those who have worked with me and helped me gain useful information and valuable interpretive insights.
The colleague whose recent loss I most keenly felt (even though our geographical distance meant that I seldom saw him) was veteran art critic Kenneth Baker, 75, who died suddenly at his San Francisco home of congestive heart failure on Oct. 8.
By some strange quirk of fate (or uncanny prescience), Kenneth had posted, just two days before his death, this wry reply to someone else’s Twitter post about (im)mortality:
My and Kenneth’s paths frequently intersected on press trips to cover major museum events. We tended to gravitate towards each other, in part, because, unlike most, we often traveled with our spouses. (I never accepted paid trips, and I paid all my husband’s expenses—transportation, food, etc.—out-of-pocket.) Aside from being a congenial travel companion, Kenneth was a graceful, insightful writer. He now has the distinction of receiving a rare (for an art critic) post-mortem tribute from the directors of two museums that he regularly covered.
Here are excerpts from the obituary by Steven Winn published in the San Francisco Chronicle, for which Kenneth was art critic for three decades (1985-2015):
“Kenneth upheld the great tradition in this country of important art criticism published in local print media,” Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said in a statement. “He was knowledgeable, thoughtful and dedicated to his craft.”
And this from Lawrence Rinder, director emeritus the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive:
He was a true intellectual, and his critical frame of reference was extremely broad. At the same time he wasn’t overly heady and depended as much on his instinctive responses [emphasis added] as his cognitive understanding of a work.
The most remarkable thing that I remember about Kenneth was a video I saw of his walk through the Donald Fisher Collection, escorted by Fisher himself. The collector (who ultimately transferred his art to SFMOMA in a 100-year agreement) expressed astonishment at the critic’s perspicacity in understanding a subtle point about one of the works in his collection, saying that few people would have appreciated that. Baker matter-of-factly replied: “That’s what I do” (or words to that effect). Unfortunately, my own link and others’ links to that video no longer work—“PAGE NOT FOUND.” Also lost is my memory of the substance of what he and Fisher had discussed in that 2007 conversation. What I do remember is being arrested by Baker’s ability to wow a collector who prided himself on his own deep knowledge of his holdings.
Here are quick takes on two other artworld figures whose deaths recently saddened me with bittersweet memories:
—David Finn, 100, the mastermind Ruder Finn Arts & Communications, died on Oct. 18. His firm wrote the book on museum PR. Always knowledgeable and helpful, he gathered around him a group of well informed consultants who made our lives as journalist/critics easier by providing us with the information we wanted, without badgering us for a slant.
—Michael Sillerman, 75, who died on Sept. 25, was a land-use attorney who, like his law-firm partner, the late Sandy LIndenbaum, played a key role in cultural projects and was always forthcoming in discussing them with me. Michael paved the way for Jean Nouvel‘s mixed-use glass tower, with room at its base for the Museum of Modern Art’s (now completed) expansion (rendering below).
I had dubbed that project, “The MoMA Monster,” because the plans for which Sillerman argued would have made it as tall as the Empire State Building. He lost that argument and Nouvel was forced to lop off the top of his design. Not long after, several ghastly Manhattan supertalls won approval and now dwarf and obscure what had always been NYC’s signature skyscraper. Sillerman was also land-use attorney for expansions of Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum and the Morgan Library.
Now for some cheerful news: The much younger Brian Kelly, who was my widely knowledgeable and obsessively thorough copy editor when I was writing for the Wall Street Journal‘s “Art in Review” page, is recovering from Covid (as recounted on his Twitter feed, which at first had made things sound dire).
He looks forward to regaining his sense of taste by Thanksgiving!
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