Saturday, March 5, 2011

Charles Ryskamp

In January we received the Sotheby's catalogue for the auction of Charles Ryskamp's estate, handsomely illustrated and deeply melancholy and still something of a shock, this thick, elegant publication. Charles died almost a year ago now, on Friday the 26th of March 2010 and quite suddenly, as he had kept the true nature of his fatal illness from his friends, so typical of him, not wishing to cause a morbid fuss in his final days.

To see his drawings for sale wasn't discomfiting; he always said that art should go back into the world to benefit younger generations, but it was a curious feeling to see illustrated—and know that you could purchase—the crystal tumblers that he served gin and tonics in, or the silver plate that held the cheddar crackers that went with them, or the cherrywood cocktail table that it stood upon, or the armchair on which he sat when we visited, or the delicate painted wood sculpture of a pear that he had placed on the side table (he had a great fondness for pears and had several drawings of them as well). All those personal things that were so much a reflection of him, even if simply inanimate objects—one better understands why the Pharoahs were entombed with their possessions.

Needless to say, though it must be said, the news of his death came as a terrible shock and remains a great loss. Charles was also an authority on Elizabethan poetry (particularly Cowper) and a professor of English while I majored in English at Princeton, and we turned to him when we conceived our first large exhibition, of French garden architecture. We visited him at his then-home in Princeton and spread out the first half-dozen watercolors on the living room floor and he studied them and said it would be a wonderful exhibition to be sponsored by The Frick Collection (he was then its director) and he put us in touch with Hervé Aaron and Alan Salz at Didier Aaron and well, that pretty much was that, our careers were decided there and then.

Charles was patron of our first two exhibitions at Didier Aaron, which in part benefited The Frick Art Reference Library, for which he worked tirelessly. He also authored the preface to Pleasure Pavilions and Follies, our first book, and we always sought and relied on his advice when planning our exhibitions. But he was first and foremost a friend of rare fidelity and generosity of spirit.

Charles had a nearly unique ability to make the world a finer, richer, more interesting place simply by being in his presence—a place of abundance and fascination. We've met only two others with this rare gift and it is certainly the reason for his remarkable life and career. But we've also rarely laughed so hard with anyone, and remember wiping away an evening's worth of tears when he impishly took us to a curious cabaret on the outskirts of Vienna dedicated to an old-fashioned and sentimental local folk music known as Schrammermusik, a Surrealist's dream frozen in time that simply had to be experienced to be believed. During that trip there was also stifled laughter echoing down the dim, imposing and surprisingly vacant corridors of the Vienna Academy from a corner room in which hung a massive Hieronymus Bosch, though we weren't laughing at the Bosch but something it somehow provoked that we spun out having to do with the medieval relic trade. (Well, we'd just seen room after room of Habsburg relics that morning at the Imperial Treasury and as the saying goes, you had to be there.)
We've always been interested in garden vases; they were the subject of our earliest exhibition and we later published a book dedicated to them. Once we'd sent him a small sketch of one made into a birthday card and he liked it so much that he commissioned another and, typically of Charles, requested it hold an orange tree (as they did at Versailles) "to give it life." We'd never thought of that and did as he asked and mailed it off to him in New York. The day it arrived he was with a curator from the Morgan Library, selecting drawings for the exhibition of his collection that they were then preparing. He could not wait until the curator had left to open the parcel (a framed cartoon hung in his hall showing a man clutching a book in one hand and pushing someone off a cliff with the other and was captioned "the collector") so they first saw it together and that is how we came to have the rare honor of having a work exhibited at the Morgan, and to discover a theme that we pursued with several watercolors that remain favorites to this day.

That watercolor and several others of ours in his collection appeared in the Sotheby's sale and a friend and collector from the other end of the country wrote soon after to inform us that she had purchased the vase and had also once met Charles when visiting New York and that he had given her and her husband a personal tour of the Frick that she would never forget, and that the watercolor would remind her of him and the day. Certainly all this is nothing of more than personal note; simply a train of small, fortuitous events more than coincidence that Charles, simply by being Charles, enabled; a small circle closed as his drawing, just as he had wished, found its new home.

(The photograph is of Charles in his office at The Frick Collection, the holders of its copyright)

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