Curating a Legacy

An expansive circle composed of intersecting lines levitates on a wall in the lobby of the Yale University Art Gallery. Close up, specks of white emerge from blackness like stars in a compacted night sky. Jock Reynolds will explain to anyone who walks into the Gallery that this wall drawing by Sol Lewitt includes ten-thousand straight black lines and ten-thousand not-straight black lines. Reynolds, who was a longtime friend of LeWitt’s, told me that each of LeWitt’s drawings comes with a “certificate” that “is a little bit like a musical score,” conducting the artists who execute the piece. Last December, the final not-straight lines were drawn by visitors invited to participate in the culmination of the installation.

On a January afternoon, Reynolds, the director of the museum, walks through its galleries with a swift, easy gait. He calls out animated greetings to passing curators and the security guards standing watch in the corners of the rooms. At seventy, he is tall and broad, with neatly trimmed white hair and a big, flushed face. Speaking quickly and fervently, he packs his sentences with fine detail, diving into a narration of his time at the Gallery before I can ask him a question. He moves excitedly from room to room, his warmth is accompanied by a sense of ownership: this three-building museum complex on Chapel Street is his masterpiece.

This spring, after two decades of leadership, Reynolds will step down as the director of the Gallery. Over the course of his tenure, he has led the museum’s transformation from a neglected institution with scattered holdings to a world-class collection of art displayed in elegantly renovated galleries. Under his tenure, the museum has added new departments, significantly increased its visitation, and solidified its status as a leading teaching museum. Today, the Gallery has 160 students involved in educational programs—as many as it has full-time employees. Reynolds has led the Gallery with a blend of personal warmth and a firm belief in its cause, proselytizing on the power of the Gallery’s art and the importance of its educational mission.

(The Yale University Art Gallery, photo by Elinor Hills)

Beginning in the early two-thousands, administrators asked students to put on programming and help configure rooms. “Students didn’t give us a bad suggestion, ever,” Reynolds told me. Students began co-curating exhibitions and recommended that the Gallery have a homey lobby space, which explains the curvy green chairs and spongy grey couches. Reynolds hopes that close engagement with students will teach them to think visually and innovatively. “You want to pass on your knowledge to younger people,” he said, so that they can “outdo you in every respect.”

Pausing in the main lobby of the Gallery, Reynolds reflects on the acuity of the architectural juxtaposition of LeWitt’s paintings and Louis Kahn’s windows. His voice lifts with raw zeal as he turns to me. “You’re here now. This museum is here with an incredible collection. And it’s yours! It’s here for you all!” His face is earnest and insistent, and for the moment I am totally sold, my skin prickling from the force of his democratic proclamation.

Reynolds grew up in Davis, California, where his mother was a botanist and his father was a microbiologist teaching at the University of California, Davis. He always liked making things: he remembers building cages and hen houses as a child, and had a miniature tool bench next to his dad’s. As a teenager at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he began to learn about art, studying the Josef Albers-Bauhaus school and frequently retreating to the Addison Gallery, Andover’s American art museum, to do his classwork. In between assignments, he enjoyed getting lost in famous American paintings.

But it wasn’t until he joined the inaugural class of UC Santa Cruz that Reynolds began developing his own artistic practice. As a senior influenced by visiting artists from the experimental Fluxus school, his work included a toothbrush with real teeth for bristles. After graduation, he enrolled in the MFA program at the UC Davis. There, his artwork explored biological life cycles, and he crafted process-oriented, ephemeral work using plants he grew on a small farm. In 1973, fresh out of graduate school, Reynolds joined the faculty of San Francisco State University. Over the next decade, he directed the University’s Center for Experimental and Interdisciplinary Art and delved into theatre, designing sets for plays and dance performances.

Even today, the term “Jockism” is playfully used to refer to the act of onboarding someone before they quite know what they are getting themselves into.

The nineteen-seventies, Reynolds says, was “a very yeasty and creative decade,” and living in California, he soon found himself in the thick of it all. He met Suzanne Hellmuth, a dancer, choreographer, and performance artist from Oberlin, while designing a set for a show she was involved with. The young couple married in 1977, after helping found 80 Langton Street, an alternative arts space in a defunct casket factory in San Francisco. The arts scene there was still small enough that most people knew each other, and the theatre, music and visual arts communities melded together. With institutional support hard to come by, the young artists worked day jobs—anything from teaching to carpentry—and collaborated in their studios, sharing space, resources, and ideas. Their scrimping soon paid off: by the late nineteen-seventies, Reynolds’ and Hellmuth’s work was being shown in galleries on the East Coast and in Europe.

In the early nineteen-eighties, Reynolds entered museum administration as director of the Washington Project for the Arts, an alternative art space in D.C. Richard J. Powell, who was the WPA’s director of programs during Reynolds’s last years there and now teaches art and art history at Duke University, says that at the WPA, Reynolds fostered a “collaborative, intellectually stimulating, and fun environment.”

After six years in Washington, Reynolds was recruited to return to the museum he had loved as a teenager, this time as its director. Over the next decade running Andover’s Addison Gallery, Reynolds oversaw what he later called a “mini version” of the expansion he would lead at Yale. Under Reynolds’s leadership, the Addison Gallery’s annual visitation numbers jumped from ten thousand to around sixty-five thousand, the collection and endowment grew, and community outreach programming expanded. Reynolds gained practice fundraising from a wealthy alumni pool, bringing in new art, and coordinating extensive outreach programs—all tasks he would scale up and master at Yale. Allison Kemmerer, a curatorial assistant at the Addison during Reynolds’ time, describes Reynolds as someone who routinely thinks big, and with so much enthusiasm that his ambitious plans actually become possible. Sometimes, this meant persuading colleagues to embark on projects they weren’t entirely sure of. Even today, in the offices of the Addison, the term “Jockism” is playfully used to refer to the act of onboarding someone before they quite know what they are getting themselves into.

(Jock Reynolds, photo by Elinor Hills)

By the mid-nineteen-nineties, former University President Richard Levin began lobbying Reynolds to come to Yale. Since 1995, Levin had been putting together a master plan to renovate the art gallery. One of the Gallery’s buildings was partially roofless, and Levin hoped to renovate and expand its facilities. He had heard about Reynolds’ work at the Addison; Reynolds remembers Levin telling him, “This is what we need in New Haven—come on down!” Reynolds already had some friends at Yale, including then-Dean of Yale College Dick Brodhead, who had been a year ahead of Reynolds at Andover, when he signed on as Director in 1998. Between 2004 and 2012 all three buildings were renovated, Reynolds proudly reports, “without closing the museum for a single day.” Today, Reynolds takes evident delight in pointing out the high-tech hidden ventilation system in the Chapel Street building, which heats and cools the John Trumbull paintings that formed the Gallery’s founding collection in 1832.

Reynolds has also overseen huge expansions in the scope of the Gallery’s permanent collections, helping to create new departments in Photography, African Art, and Indo-Pacific Art. Ruth Barnes, who has been the Curator of Indo-Pacific Art since the department was established in 2010, describes Reynolds as an exceptionally supportive director, albeit one with high expectations. They worked closely together when the department recently decided to accept a large donation of Indonesian puppets, which, Barnes told me, “with one stroke makes the Yale Art Gallery the world’s leading center for Indonesian performance studies.” Barnes also noted that Reynolds expects his curators to work closely with donors and to accommodate their wishes. “He would land like a ton of bricks” on a curator who failed to do so, Barnes said. Although she is frustrated at times by ego-driven donors, Barnes thinks Reynolds’s emphasis on patronage helps the Gallery stay relevant.

Now Reynolds is speaking out against censorship from a different angle.

All four exhibitions opening in March pay homage to Reynolds, three of them for his personal relationships with the artists. Pamela Franks was working in Joel Shapiro’s studio in the nineteen-nineties when Reynolds visited the sculptor for an exhibition, and she remembers his attentive interest in the artist and his craft. Reynolds spent hours in Shapiro’s studio and digging through storage to look at old work, beginning a friendship that decades later has brought Shapiro’s work to the Gallery. Now a curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Gallery, Franks is curating “Joel Shapiro: Plaster, Paper, Wood, and Wire,” which builds on the Shapiro exhibition Reynolds originally curated and includes sculptures the artist made in response to that earlier work. Franks values the Gallery’s focus on the primacy of artists, which she says is a key part of Reynolds’s legacy: his emphasis on “the creative impulse, the ideas, and the generative aspect of what artists do.” Besides Shapiro, there will also be exhibitions of wall drawings by Sol LeWitt, sculpture by Reynolds’s beloved grad-school mentor Manuel Neri, and photographs and other art of the ruins of Pompeii.

Reynolds’s commitment to making art available to a broad audience has led him to speak up when political debates have questioned whether controversial artwork should be shown freely. In 1989, towards the end of his time directing the Washington Project for the Arts, Reynolds made a decisive move in a moment of national controversy. Afraid of losing federal funding, the Corcoran Gallery of Contemporary Art in D.C. had backed out of showing a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective that congressional Republicans were calling “lewd” and “indecent.” Reynolds led the WPA in providing a space for the show. Thirty years later, he still gets fired up about the “culture wars.” “That was the easiest decision,” he told me. Mapplethorpe had died of AIDS earlier that year, and Reynolds still has a bone to pick with the politicians who wanted to censor the artwork for what he viewed as homophobic reasons.

Now, Reynolds is speaking out against censorship from a different angle. In late January, when the National Gallery of Art indefinitely postponed a Chuck Close exhibition following allegations that the artist sexually harassed some of his models, Reynolds weighed in once again. Quoted in The New York Times as the leader of an institution that collects Close’s work, Reynolds argued that the artwork should not be withheld from public view. He reflected that Picasso’s work is freely shown in spite of his deplorable history with women. “If that goes too far,” Reynolds told me, “there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to be taken out of cultural discussion and display,” adding that he thinks things might be getting “a little bit out of control.” But Reynolds, who is a friend of Close’s, encouraged criticism of artists’ behavior and said he thinks it is important to situate their work in the context of their lives.

On the eve of his retirement, Reynolds is bringing in a large gift of drawings from Sol LeWitt, another artist friend. Three floors above the teaser drawing in the Gallery’s lobby, graduate students study certificates to install “Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings: Expanding a Legacy,” an exhibition opening March 2. Reynolds asks one student, who has just added a very long graphite line to a grid covering one huge wall, why the work interests her. She loves the physicality of it, she tells our assembly of onlookers haltingly. It’s clear that she’s a bit shaken by the sudden audience: Reynolds has a habit of putting people on the spot like this, catching them unawares but giving them a flattering stage. He picks up when she stops talking, to sing praises of such serious student involvement in the Gallery. “He’s made 1,350 of these,” Reynolds marvels, “none of which look the same. He just keeps finding ways to innovate.” Reynolds asks another assistant to read out the words of this wall’s certificate, for all to hear.

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