First Curator of 20th Century Art, High Museum of Art, Atlanta
February 21, 2005
It is an honor to be here today. It was not the least of Judith Alexander’s skills to make me feel, when I saw her in New York, that neither of us had ever left Atlanta, that the need for the validation, affirmation and material support for artists in the Deep South was as pressing as ever, and that it remained one of my obligations.
I will talk about Judith as a dealer, as a connoisseur, and as a friend.
Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about grief that seems apt: She wrote,
“Each that we lose
Takes part of us –
A crescent still abides
Which like the moon, some turbid night
Is summoned by the tides.
They say that time assuages;
Time never did assuage –
An actual suffering strengthens
As sinews do, with age.
Time is a test of trouble
But not a remedy.
If such it proves , it proves too
There was no malady.”
Emily Dickinson does not provide comfort. She provides realism. Grief doesn’t really go away, she tells us. But Emily Dickinson’s poem poses a question that it is important to answer – what is the “crescent that still abides”? What are the lessons of Judith’s life for those of us who were so extraordinarily fortunate to have known her?
Judith’s death came far too soon and too unexpectedly. Her death was at least consistent with her life, in that it was a surprise. Judith was always full of surprises that she shared with us, from new artists she had come across to an extraordinary variety of diet foods. In thinking about the pathway of Judith’s life, I thought instantly of Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, in which the great Bauhaus master imagines a line taking itself for a walk, “ a walk for a walk’s sake”, accompanied by complementary forms, circumscribing itself, doubling itself and moving around an imaginary main line, eventually creating planes, energy fields, quantitative and material structures. Judith’s life had an enormous impact, but Judith was not an easy traveler in the world. Judith’s path and her methods were not straight-line linear. They were more like the whimsical and serendipitous paths in Paul Klee’s book and in his art and in the art of Nellie Mae Rowe as well. As a gallery owner and as an art dealer, Judith was self-employed – a position for which she was eminently qualified. As a negotiator and a businessperson she sometimes chose to be unencumbered by the facts, and to be steadfast in not taking yes for an answer. The YES she wanted was sometimes louder than we could provide. But she was always, always convincing, exhorting, crusading, proselytizing for the artists she believed in. Her methods were not traditional, but her efficacy in her sphere was as great as any Ambrose Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler or Leo Castelli.
How she made things happen is not clear, at least not to me, but there can be little doubt about the fact that she made things happen. She probed, she questioned, she made us think deeply, and she ended up helping us to see the world and works of art through her eyes. It seems to me that that is Judith’s first lesson to us – “the crescent that still abides” – is to be unswerving in our dedication to what we believe in, to do whatever we can make a difference in the world. Judith was truly an exemplar of “Tikkun Olam,” the ancient Jewish call to action to heal the world.
The simple truth and essence of the matter is that great people emerge at a time and a place for a reason. To make a difference. That reason for Judith early in her career was to bring the art of the world to Atlanta, and in turn, later in life, to bring attention to the trained and untrained artists of the South that they so richly deserved from the world at large.
Judith’s role as a dealer is inseparable from her role as a connoisseur. She had a great eye. Looking at art with Judith was both good fun and hard work. She looked until she saw and she saw until she beheld. Her mode of seeing was to peer – head forward, glasses in place. She beheld with great powers of empathy, intuition and imagination, and with profound respect for the creative people in our midst. Did you ever notice that when Judith took her glasses off it was with a sense of relief? You could observe the relaxation travel through her neck, shoulders and back. The visual world and the world of art, gave her life meaning and context. She was serious about finding answers. She knew that answers are troublesome. Her contemplation of art occasionally elicited what I sensed to be an inner core of concealed sadness, but more often, real joy, real joy in connecting with the powers of human imagination and creativity. She never stopped beholding and finding meaning in the visual. It was a theme that animated her life and gave it moral purpose. In our last conversation, she exulted in her newfound pleasure in drawing from the figure at the Art Students League. Visual understanding was her goal, not her own artistic competency. And this is the second “crescent that still abides” – the second lesson that Judith gave us: the struggle for understanding Old Masters and Contemporary art and everything in between, is its own reward and a very great reward. Understanding the visual world and world of art is a means to transcendence in our lives. That was Judith’s second great lesson.
For me, Judith’s third “crescent that still abides” in Emily Dickinson’s language, is not just about art but about how to be in the world artfully, with optimism, zest for life, humor and kindness, and with a truly memorable gift for friendship. It can be said of many great people that the voice they would have liked most to have heard at their memorial service would be their own. Not Judith. She preferred to be out of the spotlight. It was a part of her gift for friendship that Judith could make you feel as if you were the most fascinating and entertaining person in the world. She delighted us in convincing us that our visit or our phone call was providing her with delight. She convinced us that the only thing missing in our lives was one of the other people in her circle who had a show we should see or a studio we should visit, and couldn’t we just skip that meeting with the foundation on the Upper East Side that had taken two months to schedule? Honest debate about things that really mattered was one aspect of Judith’s gift of friendship but another was an extension of her ability as a dealer and as a connoisseur, to try to bring all of us into Judith’s ever-widening circle of talented friends.
The transition from friendship to love was an easy one for Judith, one that is clearly demonstrated by her devotion to her sister Becky in her extended illness, and her devotion to Nellie Mae Rowe and to Nellie’s enduring reputation. Generosity was another aspect of Judith’s friendship, and that generosity has been felt by many of us here and many art museums, most of all the High, but also The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, the Ogden Museum of Art in New Orleans, the Morris Museum in Augusta, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the American Folk Art Museum, among others.
I will miss Judith deeply, “time is a test of trouble, but not a remedy,” Emily Dickinson tells us – but I take comfort in the lessons she provided, of devotion to one’s cause, belief in the transcendence provided in the visual arts and the model of how to be a friend. I also take comfort through the many pictures that Nellie Mae Rowe gave us of Nellie Mae and Judith’s celestial home together. The angels and archangels, the cherubim and the seraphim and all of the heavenly hosts got a lot to get used to. I imagine Judith and Nellie Mae’s playhouse to be the most singular of heaven’s many mansions, with a yard abounding with brilliantly hued birds, winged dogs and cats, pink donkeys and multi-colored pigs, extravagant and fantastic flowering fruits and vegetables, children and wrestlers playing and floating by in bubbles, and Nellie’s dolls brought to life. That mental picture, based on Nellie Mae’s art, is a reminder that our partial apprehension of the divine can come through the models of devotion in great friendships and through the highest products of the human imagination.