a quiet realist
by Douglas Messerli
Our friends Brian Kavanagh and Rosemary De Rosa called us from Washington, D.C. on Friday to tell us that the former director of the Hirshhorn Museum, Abram Lerner, had died on October 31. Howard had heard of the death earlier in the day from Lerner’s life-long friend, Roz Leader, who serves as a volunteer in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s offices.
Lerner, born in 1913, was the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s first director, and oversaw the research, conservation, and installation of the more than 6,000 objects from its donor, Joseph Hirshhorn, whose collection was located in his Greenwich, Connecticut mansion and warehouses in New York.
The museum opened in its new space, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, in 1974. Howard and I attended the museum that first year, and Howard expressed the premonition that somehow his life would be tied up with this museum. In fact, just a year later, Howard was hired by Abram Lerner to be an assistant to Cynthia Jaffee MacCabe, curator of the museum’s bicentennial exhibition on American immigrant artists, The Golden Door. With his background in English and American Studies—and with a concentration in American Art—Howard would seem to have been the perfect choice. I’ll never forgot his elation at hearing that he had received the job, news of which he heard in a phone booth at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which we were visiting that day.
Soon after, Howard began his rise as an assistant curator and later, full curator, doing important shows of contemporary art from 1976 on until our move to Los Angeles in 1985. One of the first of these shows was a retrospective of the art of Gregory Gillespie (an artist who painted eerily realist Italian and American landscapes until his death by suicide in 2000), a 1977 show curated by Lerner, with Howard as his assistant; together they interviewed Gillespie for the catalogue essay. That show brought Lerner and Howard closer together, and I believe from that point on the director served not only as Howard’s museum supporter, encouraging him to make proposals for shows of his own and to develop his curatorial abilities, but also serving as a kind of father figure for Howard.
That is not to say that Lerner wasn’t, at times, a demanding “father”—far less expressive in love than Howard’s real father. A fastidious individual, Lerner once closed down the office kitchen for several days due to its untidiness. Our friend Brian reminds us that for every suit he owned, Lerner had a matching pair of pants so that if we had to wear the suit during the day time, he would have a pair of newly pressed pants at night (Lerner’s father, interestingly enough, worked as a presser in the Garment District of New York). Lerner also had a great sense of moral responsibility, commenting openly on the lack of moral integrity of a few of his colleagues. He was also a man of learning and wit, which served him well, I suspect, as a sort of buffer to the wasp mentality of the upper echelons of the Smithsonian world—with figures such as S. Dillon Ripley, J. Carter Brown, and Paul Mellon—in which he had to function.
Speaking at his farewell dinner, Lerner expressed his feelings that while he certainly had great joy as the head of the museum, he had also suffered some regrets, telling the story about a woman swimming in the ocean with her young son.
“Suddenly a strong wave rolls in taking the boy with it. ‘Ohhh!’ she cries out in horror. ‘Oh G-d, please save my son. I’ll do anything for you if you only save my son!’ Suddenly a new wave comes crashing to shore returning the boy with it. The woman scoops up her child, looking once again to the heavens: ‘So what happened to his hat?’”
Upon discovering that his curator Cynthia MacCabe, divorced from her first husband, was now pregnant, he asked her who the father was. “He doesn’t have a father!” she proclaimed. “Well she wouldn’t be the first Jewish girl to have a virgin birth!” he later quipped.
I remember Abram Lerner as a gentle mentor to Howard and a friend to me. He and his wife Pauline, like Olga Hirshhorn after her husband’s death, were solicitous of the museum staff, on a first name basis with many of the museum’s employees. One afternoon and evening Howard and I were invited with a couple of others for a quiet dinner at the Lerner’s apartment. And I am sure the Lerners often had such intimate gatherings with other staff members as well.
During his last years, Al returned to his first love, painting. “I know the kind of realist painting I do would never be shown in museums today,” he once reportedly said, “but this is the art I love.”
Los Angeles, November 5, 2007
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (February 2008).