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    My Eye
by Thomas Hoving
The catalogue for the
Mary Griggs Burke gift
at the Met
Ibakari folding screen
by Shibata Zeshin
Blossoming Cherry Trees
by Sakai Hoits
Cypress Trees
by Ikeda Koson
mid-19th century
Tagasode (Whose Sleeves?)
early 17th century
Jubako with "Tagasode"
18th century
Landscapes of the Four Seasons
by Kano Tan'yu
Fujiwara Teika: From the "Ikkasen isshubon"
early 14th century
Standing Bishamonten
1st half of 13th century
Utagawa Hiroshige
Yoroi Ferry
at the Brooklyn Museum
The Nelson-Atkins Museum with Claus Oldenberg's Shuttlecocks
Edward Hopper
Cape Cod Morning
at the Bruce Museum
The Mary Griggs Burke gift and show at the Met, a blockbuster to cherish
Years ago I looked at Mary Griggs Burke and her late husband Jackson as a pair of class-act will-danglers. Before they would even hint at giving to the Metropolitan Museum anything from their immense and dazzling Japanese collection, I -- and the trustees -- had to prove we really wanted to build up the Oriental collection and especially the Japanese part of it.

I soon learned that they weren't will-dangling, just goosing us along into doing something right in a department that had been neglected for decades.

We hired the cocksure, elegant, super-knowledgeable and controversial Wen Fong as consultative chairman of the Oriental department, and with the lockjaw dedication and partnership of president Douglas Dillon I set Wen loose to buy and wheedle, cajole, beg and all but steal.

What a wheedler Wen Fong turned out to be!

First came the incomparable David Packard collection of Japanese Art which was swept up for a mere $5 million. To get the purchase money, I called all the curators together and asked them to vote (secret ballot) on whether they should forego five years of acquisitions money in favor of snagging the Packard collection. Asking a curator not to buy for that long is like getting a politician to respect term limits. But the vote was virtually unanimous. (Luckily, we raised enough dough so that the temperance period was near zero.)

During the past 30 years that Wen Fong has ruled the Oriental department like an emperor (he's retiring in months), it has experienced the most dynamic, quality-charged growth of any in the country. And, for sure, because of his unique efforts, Mary Griggs Burke recently promised to bless the Met with her sensational Japanese holdings.

What holdings, too! They fit in so perfectly with what the museum already owns that their coming is triply blessed. The current show -- "Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art," Mar. 28-June 25, 2000 -- contains nearly 200 works ranging from Neolithic pots, large Buddhist sculptures, calligraphy, hand scrolls and a welter of eye-pleasing Momoyama and Edo painted screens.

I started through the exhibition from gallery one -- the earliest material -- and, frankly, got confused trying to sort out so many historical periods over 4,000 years. So I went in the back way and by the time I got to that first gallery I was cooking.

My best of the best Burke stuff:

  • The first sight as you enter the show going back to front is a folding screen by the Meiji period painter, Shibata Zeshin (don't miss his great stuff in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth), that is as whammo as an Abstract Expressionist work, the flying demon who devours folks at the city gate.
  • Blossoming Cherry Trees by Sakai Hoitsu, an Edo period six-panel folding screen which is rich, tantalizing, subtle and lyrical.
  • The breathtaking Edo period double screen by Ikeda Koson showing gaunt and poetic Cypress Trees in the mists -- what isn't painted is almost more captivating that what is!
  • Edo period six-panel folding screen with what's called Tagasode or "Whose Sleeves" displayed with the tense perfection of a Greek temple.
  • The lacquer food box, a so-called Jubako with another representation of that "Whose Sleeves?" theme, showing kimonos hanging over a clothes rack standing for the absent owner.
  • The sensational, atmospheric pair of six-panel folding screens, the Edo period Landscapes of the Four Seasons, by Kano Tan'yu, who was a pivotal figure in Japanese painting. This is crinkly, abrupt, forcible yet subtle and mysterious at the same time. The fogs and mists are almost not there, which is why the work is so moving.
  • The blazing red lacquer washbasin called a Tarai of the Muromachi period is breathtaking.
  • The fragment of a handscroll of the Kamakura period showing a nobleman facing a poem is a superior combo of figure painting, poetry and calligraphy, one of only a dozen surviving fragments.
  • One of the best of the sculptures is a 16-inch-tall Standing Bishamonten of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), which is softer but no less thrilling than the outrageous and raw works by the grand master of the period, Unkei.
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KC scores big time
One of my favorite museums in the land is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., with its incomparable Oriental works and fine American paintings. The place is finally making renovation and expansion moves and in my experience, once the planning begins in earnest gifts seem to fly in over the transom. The Hall Foundation has announced a vitally important one of 84 works, mostly 20th-century sculpture from the foundation created by the Hall family, the heirs of the founder of Hallmark Cards Inc. Big names and superior pieces too. Noguchi, Calder, Oldenburg, Mark di Suvero and over 50 Henry Moores.

Except for its timing, which is bound to be a major spark in the current fundraising travail, the gift wasn't out of the blue. Back in 1989, on city-owned land surrounding its building, the museum cultivated a 17-acre sculpture park, still the largest of any museum's in the USA. The Hall Family Foundation, formed by assets given by Joyce C. Hall and his wife, Elizabeth, bought a host of sculptures and loaned them to the Nelson-Atkins. The foundation hired a hot connoisseur, Martin Friedman, former director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to help on acquisitions.

The Moores are grandiose -- 12 monumental pieces, among them some of his most successful endeavors. The Hall Foundation has proven to be a faultless Maecenas and has also handed over a substantial sum to the $80 million building program. Someday the Nelson-Atkins is going to look like virtually nothing on earth, for there's the dream that the sculpture garden will encompass over 50 acres. Maybe they can tie it into a huge badminton court for those immense Oldenburg shuttlecocks to whip around on.

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Exceptional Roman glass show
Make your way to the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts at 18 West 86th in Manhattan, where a couple hundred pieces of excellent Roman and Byzantine glass are on view through June 11th. I've always been a sucker for Roman glass and here you'll find some rare beauties that are equal to some of the treasures of the British Museum and the Corning Museum.
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Bravo! to the Smithsonian
Not long ago I grumped about how America's largest northeast museums had never gotten their act together in loaning under a new domestic indemnity act some of the treasures in storage or holed up somewhere during massive renovations. I got a letter back at once from the Smithsonian saying they're DOING it, man!

So, a sizeable array of paintings and sculptures by Americans working in the first half of the 20th century -- the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, William Glackens, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Jacob Lawrence, Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood and Andrew Wyeth, are now on loan through May 28 at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences in Greenwich, Conn. The show's title is: "Scenes of American Life: Treasures From the Smithsonian American Art Museum," and it's on tour until refurbishment is completed down in DC.

THOMAS HOVING is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.