Stalwart Lois Orswell Allowed David Smith His Great Career

Among the really dedicated art collectors I have known, the late Lois Orswell (1904-1998) was the most unusual. She was certainly the most insistent in avoiding the limelight. Beyond the short list of living American artists whose work she acquired and a shorter list of the dealers she bought from, few people in the art world even knew her name. She was an independent spirit, adventurous in her enthusiasms, secure in her taste, jealous of her privacy, and utterly indifferent to the social tides that, in the later decades of the 20th century, were turning the New York art scene into a spectacle of media hype and trendy consumption.

The wonderful exhibition that Marjorie Cohn has now organized in Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art , at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, is also unusual, both in its high aesthetic quality and in its personal character. It’s not a show that Orswell herself would have permitted in her lifetime, and the same might be said of the extraordinary catalog that Ms. Cohn has produced to accompany the show. Yet I think I’m in a position to say that she would have heartily approved of the standards that have been met in both of these endeavors. Orswell was a stickler for getting things exactly right, and Ms. Cohn and her colleagues at the Fogg have been scrupulous in their devotion to the kind of intellectual probity that characterized Orswell’s own career as a collector and connoisseur of the art she so much admired.

In writing about Lois Orswell and her collection, however, I’m obliged to acknowledge a personal interest. As the title of the exhibition indicates, the art of the American sculptor David Smith (1906-65) occupies an important place in the Orswell Collection, and it was through my own friendship with Smith that I first met Lois Orswell. This was in the summer of 1957. I was spending a few weeks at Yaddo, a retreat for artists and writers in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Smith lived and worked further north, just above Lake George, at Bolton Landing, where his studio, the Terminal Iron Works, was already something of a legend in the New York art world. When he heard that I was at Yaddo, Smith invited me to visit him and see his new work.

On the day I arrived, Smith promptly announced that he was expecting another visitor that day-a “lady,” as he said, who was coming to pick up a sculpture she was acquiring for her collection. I think it was Flight (1951). When the “lady” in question arrived a short time later-she had driven all the way from her home in Pomfret, Conn.-the figure who emerged from her fancy station wagon looked, to my eye, like something out of a portrait by John Singer Sargent, complete with beribboned, broad-brimmed straw hat and flowing, diaphanous garments shimmering in the summer breeze. She was gracious, respectful, amusing and very smart; it didn’t take long to discover that Orswell had a mind of her own and a will of iron.

It has to be understood that in the 1950′s, Smith was already a famous sculptor (in America, anyway) but still had very few sales. His principal income in those days came from teaching stints at colleges and universities. The bulk of the work he had produced since the early 1930′s was still in his possession at Bolton Landing. He had a young wife and two daughters to support. This was his situation when Lois Orswell became, in effect, his principal patron.

The story of their unusual friendship-and it was a friendship, and not a romance in the usual sense-is beautifully documented in the section of the exhibition catalog devoted to “The Lois Orswell/David Smith Correspondence,” edited by Sarah B. Kianovsky and covering the period from 1956 to 1965, the year of Smith’s death in an auto crash. This section also contains Orswell’s long letter to the director of the Fogg Art Museum, written in 1984, describing her friendship and professional relationship with Smith. As I say, she was a stickler for getting things exactly right.

It was by her own choice that she lived alone for much of her adult life in the Connecticut countryside, a safe distance from the hurly-burly of Manhattan art life. There she lived in modest splendor, surrounded by the works of art she cherished, the garden she herself created and tended, and the animals she looked after. It clearly pleased her to have at last achieved the freedom and isolation of a solitary life after the ordeals that had marked her earlier years: a tyrannical mother, a beloved but distant father, a failed romance with a Harvard boy, and a disastrous marriage to a man who despised all the things she cared the most about-art and poetry and other realms of high creative endeavor.

In the late 1930′s and early 40′s, Orswell tried her hand at painting, and some of her pictures were shown in the annual exhibitions of the Rhode Island School of Design. It was as a collector, however, that she found her true vocation. Besides the large number of sculptures, paintings and drawings by Smith in the collection-66 in all-the other artist represented in depth is the French-born American sculptor Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), with 44 works. Smith had told me about Orswell’s great Lachaise collection, and it was he who arranged for me to visit Orswell in Connecticut in order to see it. This led to further visits, and in 1961, when I was working as an editor of Arts Magazine , I devoted a 13-page feature “Lachaise and Others: The Orswell Collection,” with photographs of the collection by Rudy Burckhardt, in Arts Yearbook 4 . Needless to say, I cannot pretend to be a disinterested critic of Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art , which also includes, among much else, one of Max Beckmann’s greatest triptychs, The Actors (1941-42); Cézanne’s Study of Trees (circa 1904), the most “abstract” of all his late landscapes; a great Rodin; a great Brancusi; some of Jacques Lipchitz’s finest sculptures; and a mini-retrospective of paintings and drawings by the Abstract Expressionists. The “lady” liked gutsy art, and she was pretty gutsy herself.

Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art remains on view at the Fogg Art Museum, on campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., through Feb. 16. Its contents will thereafter remain as part of the Fogg Museum’s permanent collection.