OBITUARY: Eleanor Green

Emily Green
Monday 11 September 1995 23:02

During the Sixties and Seventies, it was common knowledge in the American art world that Eleanor and Sue Green were one and the same. Eleanor is the name given when she was born to orange growers in southern California in 1928, and to which her museum work and writing are credited, and Sue is what, by family quirk, she was called - the short, neat name that so suited her and her era.

When she moved from California to Washington DC in 1964, the socially acceptable thing for her to have done would have been to become a housewife. She had other ideas. Born Eleanor Samuels in 1928, she had graduated from Vassar, Class of '49, with a degree in art history. She joined the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1966, at the time a lively upstart which introduced modern art to a stuffy capital. A victim of its own success, the following year it was taken over by the Corcoran Gallery, an old and powerful institution. Here she became curator of contemporary art, and organised a show that, arguably, the gallery has never surpassed. "Scale as Content" combined the budgets for three small exhibitions in favour of a single large one. For it, she sought three sculptors: Barnett Newman, Ronald Bladen and Tony Smith.

The resulting works were vast: Ronald Bladen's The X scarcely cleared the top of the atrium's Doric pillars. This provoked the report "US Museums Go Mod" in Newsweek. The work by Tony Smith, a former assistant to Frank Lloyd Wright, had even greater impact. His sculpture Smoke, which was 45ft long, 33ft wide and 22ft high, made the cover of Time magazine. He had, the magazine reported, "discarded modelling clay in favour of blueprints, the chisel in favour of the welding torch".

Following the "Scale and Content" show, Green and Smith remained lifelong friends, so eerily close that, when he died, she dreamt it.

In the late Sixties she bought a dilapidated, but alarmingly fast 1959 XK150, a racing Jag; behind the wheel, she thought nothing of popping up to New York from Washington, a trip of 200 miles; to cruise studios for the afternoon. The artists she showed or befriended included the sculptors Mark di Suvero, and Richard Sera; the painters Josef Albers, Willem de Looper, Al Held, Ray Parker and Gene Davis.

While at the Corcoran she took a Master's degree and doctorate in art history at George Washington University. So began what gallery friends call her "scholarship phase". This took her to Britain, which she loved, where she prepared a thesis about the Victorian English painter C.R. Leslie remarkable for his lyrical portraiture.

Yet it was by no means the end of her gallery phase. In 1972, when she was appointed director of the University of Maryland Art Gallery, she was one of the first women, if not the first, to attain such a post in the United States.

She spent the better part of the Seventies at Maryland. Here she became interested in the work of young photographers. It is telling that, a decade before John Baldessari, Les Krims and William Wegman became internationally famous, their work had been exhibited at Maryland. The Phillips Collection, in Washington DC, was convinced to loan its precious collection of paintings by the Twenties abstract artist Augustus Vincent Tack. Her catalogues were immaculately produced: woe betide the printer whose colour reproduction was found wanting. The great achievement of the Maryland years was an authoritative catalogue and travelling show of the luscious works of the American Impressionist Maurice Prendergast.

During the Eighties, exhaustion had begun to take its toll: the woman whose entry might have looked so tidy in Who's Who had also raised three children (my brothers and me) in an era hostile to working women. Her tendency to treat tiredness with drink rather than sleep eventually ravaged her.

She slowed down, working only occasionally back in Washington DC proper as a guest curator for the Phillips Collection. In addition to a retrospective of the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, the John Graham show, which travelled the United States in 1987-88, may have been her best. It brought to public notice the Phillips Collection's amazing stock of Grahams, amassed when its founder, Duncan Phillips, first supported the painter in the Twenties; and it showed Sue Green at her most scholarly, entertaining and perceptive.

Graham, born in Kiev, named at birth Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowski, may have emigrated to America, where he influenced Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, but his world was that of an egocentric fabulist. Consider his warning to potential biographers: "Quand vous voudriez savoir who I am do not ask anyone, unless my maker, who will answer that you may be a very charming person, but that He does not choose to divulge a secret of this magnitude."

However, Sue Green had just the humour to enjoy his pranks and the diligence to winkle out the facts; in her book John Graham: artist and avatar (1987), she did just that. The impossible was her sort of challenge.

Eleanor Broome Samuels, curator and art historian; born Covina, California 3 June 1928; married 1951 Leon Green Jnr (two sons, one daughter); died Covina 24 August 1995.

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