'Alone' comes to BMA from private collection

January 01, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

In John Wilson's "Street Car Scene," a strapping young man sits quietly on the streetcar, hands folded on top of his lunch pail, and looks straight out at you. All around him, people fill the seats, but there's one difference between them and him. They are all white. He's black.

He's "Alone in a Crowd," the title of the show from which this image comes. Opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Wednesday, the show features more than 100 prints by 42 African-American artists of the 1930s and 1940s.

That's a lot of prints, but this African-American selection is only one tiny fraction of one of the world's most phenomenal collections of American prints of all kinds.

It's housed in a sleek midtown Manhattan skyscraper, on the several floors occupied by Alliance Capital Management, a pension and mutual-fund management firm. There, everywhere you go, gray walls provide a neutral background for prints by American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries -- not dozens or hundreds of prints, but thousands of prints.

At any one time, there are about 2,000 prints on the walls of this corporate headquarters, and that represents less than half of the more than 4,000 prints by 1,000 artists in the collection. It's not the corporate collection, but the personal collection of its chairman, Dave Williams, and his wife, Reba, the firm's director of special projects.

It spans the history of American printmaking, taking in such aspects as the 19th-century etching revival, the WPA artists of the 1930s, impressionism and expressionism, regionalism, abstract art and up-to-the-minute contemporary work. It concentrates largely on black and white work, but there are also segments of color screen-prints and color woodcuts.

It encompasses the well-known names, of course, from Winslow Homer and George Bellows to Ralston Crawford, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and Ellsworth Kelly. But the Williamses particularly like the thrill of discovering artists who are not well-known, so there are a lot of names few other people have heard of: Kyra Markham, W. S. Rice, George Lawrence Nelson, E. Sophonisba Hergesheimer, Fred Becker, Luigi Rist.

"I think it's probably the most important private collection of American prints," says David Kiehl, adjunct curator of prints at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.

Mary Ryan, a New York dealer specializing in prints, agrees. "Their collection is more substantial and wide-ranging than almost any museum collection," she says.

"It's unimaginable that any other private collection has that depth," says BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs Jay M. Fisher, who took the museum's print and drawing society to New York two years ago to see the collection.

The Williamses -- she's 58, he's 62 -- have put it together over the past two decades, and they are not your usual collectors. Your usual collector will tell you she just bought a picture here and a picture there and a picture somewhere else until my gosh -- one day she realized she was a collector.

Not the Williamses. Soon after their marriage in 1975, they set out single-mindedly to do exactly what they have done. "We were both working in Wall Street, and typically if you have that sort of situation, people become very narrow in their focus, and that's all they ever talk about," says Mrs. Williams, sitting in her spacious office with her back to the spectacular view of Central Park a few blocks north.

"We were both interested in art and were museum-goers, and we decided that we would build a great collection. One of the reasons is we both knew we were kind of obsessive, and we

both enjoy research, and we thought it would be fun to set out to do something like this."

They settled on prints for a couple of reasons. "We decided we'd try to do something that nobody else was doing. Many people were collecting contemporary prints, but we decided to build a collection that kind of spanned the history of American prints."

But they also love what prints have to say. "I have this story which I tell, which is that if you are looking for truth, look at &L prints, because nobody has ever compelled people to put some kind of images in prints. Murals were often idealized views of a world that did not exist. Easel paintings are frequently commissions, and I can ask you to give me blue eyes or blond hair or whatever I like. But nobody was doing that about prints.

"If you look at prints that have to do with history, you may not understand it immediately, but if you spend enough time on it and figure out what's going on, you can learn a lot."

And learn a lot the Williamses have done. They've bought, through a network of some 50 dealers, but they've also researched assiduously. Mrs. Williams is working on the dissertation for her Ph.D. in art history from City University of New York, and the two have published articles and written catalog essays in connection with the exhibits of selections from their collection that they have sent to museums across the country and beyond.

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