Thursday, March 19, 2015
WALT REED'S TRIUMPH
My good friend Walt Reed passed away this morning at age 97.
Illustrator Tom Lovell once said: "It was Walt Reed that single-handedly preserved illustration as art." Walt was the founding father of the study of American illustration. Also its chief archivist and its patron saint. There was never anyone who loved illustration more, or with greater purity.
Through his many excellent books and articles, and his founding of the Illustration House gallery, Walt built a platform for everyone who followed.
As illustration art-- once scorned in "legitimate" art circles-- became more accepted it attracted a different breed of dealer-- sharpsters and profiteers who lacked Walt's expertise, ethics or taste but who smelled an opportunity for profit. They produced glossy books with inferior scholarship. They scooped up Walt's inventory and resold it at inflated prices to unwary Hollywood celebrities. One opened a glittering palace of illustration in Rhode Island, modeled after Versailles. Another ran an illustration empire from Miami.
Walt remained unfazed as the art market heated up around him. Humble, plodding, steadfast and scrupulously honest, he focused on the art he loved, rather than aggressive marketing. In 97 years, he never did learn to squeeze the maximum profit from selling originals, but he always found time to talk to students like me who didn't have two nickels to rub together.
I thought about this recently when I visited Walt in his small, sparse home. All of the big oil paintings by Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth that Walt once sold for a pittance had long ago passed on to other hands, and on his wall remained one lone ink drawing by Edwin Austin Abbey. It seemed unjust that aggressive marketers had monetized Walt's early vision and were now living in luxury, while Walt remained behind in a threadbare sweater. But it turned out that Walt had one more lesson to teach me, perhaps the most important lesson of all
He insisted on showing me something in the drawing on his wall. He scared the hell out of me as he struggled to his feet and teetered on wobbly legs. I stood ready to catch him at any second, but he made it to the wall, took the drawing down and (with much effort) carried it to the window so we could admire the penwork together. Once there, he pointed out things I wouldn't have noticed on my own. He talked with such excitement and enthusiasm about the drawing, it was clear he was still thrilled by the beauty of the art. I never heard his prosperous competitors talk with such excitement about anything except a commercial transaction.
And I realized Walt's threadbare sweater didn't matter a damn. He had triumphed over all of them. He understood and appreciated the beauty of this slender drawing in a way that his carnivorous competition never would. And in doing so, he gained the best of what art has to offer. As I think and write about this kind of art, I do my best to remember the nature of Walt's great victory and to follow that path myself.