The American-ness of American Art

Terzameron Day 17
April 6, 2020

Tim Martin


Willem de Kooning, “Attic”, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”—Oscar Wilde


A few years after I put my nose to the Shrubsole grindstone, I received an invitation to view one of the great collections of American silver in New York. I gladly went, and, somewhat to my surprise, spent about 2 1/2 hours with the owner. He had a detailed knowledge of nearly every piece he owned: the date, the maker, why it was unusual, who it had been made for, what that person had done, where they had lived—all these radiating tendrils of interest. He also really enjoyed the look and feel of the objects in his collection. He picked them up and held them in the light by the window, admiring this or that aspect and enumerating its merits and flaws: weight, color, form, engraving, etc. The morning was punctuated with expressions of enthusiasm: “oh, now look at this…isn’t that beautiful?..this one has the initials of so-and-so… this guy almost got hanged…New York in 1710, imagine”…and so on.


My visit wound down, and as we walked out, we stopped in the foyer. Hanging on the wall was an immense and instantly recognizable abstract expressionist painting. My host put his hand on my arm, gestured to the painting and said: “you know, Tim, the funny thing is: all the silver which we just spent so much time looking at, and which I love so much, is not anywhere near as valuable as this painting.” He paused “This painting is by a very important modern artist.” He paused again, as I tried very hard to not say something along the lines of “no shit,” and then, laughing at himself: “I can’t remember his name right now but he’s a big artist and… Willem de Kooning, that’s who it is. Willem de Kooning, but…you know, I look at it, and I can admire it, and I think it’s interesting, and I know it’s very valuable, but,” with a shrug, “it doesn’t speak to me the way the silver does.



I ruminated on this exchange as I walked back to the shop. I shouldn’t talk, because I have times when I can’t remember my middle name, but, after seeing his deep knowledge and love of American silver, I was slightly shocked he would be so blasé about de Kooning. But, I came to think, accentuating the positive: isn’t that actually evidence of self-confidence? And isn’t his candor about it, his charming, laughing indifference, just a testament to his comfort with his taste? He is the antithesis of Oscar Wilde’s cynic, for he is “a man who knows the price of everything,” but he also knows the value—to himself, for his life—of everything. And he values the silver more.


I find the story particularly compelling. This collector embodies an American story. He was born in a small, depressed New England mill town. He worked hard in a family business. He went to a state university. Encouraged by his success there, he struck out for the city. He joined a major finance firm and worked his way to the top. At some point along that road, he bought a piece of silver from Jonathan Trace, paying it off over time. I’d say there is a reason that he bought it, and then kept buying more. Colonial American silver—especially seen next to English silver—has a rudimentary simplicity, a best-effort honesty, a slight toughness. It is never grand. It speaks of small luxuries and economies in the face of hardship and struggle. With his personal story, his personal values, it makes perfect sense that one day, without even expecting it, this man would find kinship with this particular craft.

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