Commentary Magazine

An Art Teacher's Art Teacher

Last November, a few days be fore his ninety-ninth birthday, my colleague and friend Lane Faison died in his Williamstown, Massachusetts apartment. He had hoped to live on into the new year so that his tombstone would read 1907-2007, but fate dictated otherwise.

Faison’s 70-year career as a professor of art history at Williams College was the subject of a lengthy and respectful obituary in the New York Times. Its focus, inevitably, was the “Williams Art Mafia”—a jocular term for those of Faison’s students who went on to lead the nation’s principal museums of art. The roster is prodigious: Glenn Lowry (Museum of Modern Art), Earl A. Powell III (the National Gallery of Art), James N. Wood (the Getty Trust and formerly the Chicago Art Institute), and many others. It also includes Kirk Varnedoe, the prominent curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York who before his death went on to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. To have placed so many students so well, and for them to dominate a major American institution, is indeed little short of astonishing.

The obituary in the Times highlighted another achievement: during and right after World War II, Faison served in the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services), where he helped to inventory the Nazi art plunder that had been stored in the salt mines at Alt Aussee. His bailiwick was Hitler’s own personal collection—what he took, how he took it, and what it meant. The obituary ended whimsically with his verdict on Hitler’s own artistic ability: “His early watercolor paintings had a certain nice quality to them.”

Yet I could not help feeling that the Times had missed something essential about my colleague, that it had presented as a résumé what was in fact a mystery. College teachers do not normally develop such a strong body of followers, with such a strong corporate sense of themselves. It is graduate study that typically molds the scholar at the start of his career path. For an undergraduate to be shaped so decisively at so early a point suggests large forces at play.

Whatever these forces might have been, they did not involve academic scholarship of the traditional sort. Faison authored no scholarly books of note, and his only sustained bout of writing was as the art critic of the Nation in the early 1950’s (a credential strangely omitted from the Times obituary). Perhaps, then, his influence was merely a natural consequence of his position at one of America’s elite liberal-arts colleges, and one intimately connected to the establishment power structure? “Ah, Williams College,” an eminent colleague once said to me winkingly, upon hearing my name and affiliation: “the last bastion of Gentile art history.”

Faison’s death inevitably brought this line to mind once more. His program at Williams was the last bastion of something—but not necessarily what my colleague intended to suggest.



When I first met S. Lane Faison, Jr. in 1994, he was already in old age, having retired two decades earlier. He asked if he might audit a course of mine at Williams, where I had recently arrived, and I agreed on condition that he offer suggestions and corrections, either in class or afterward. In the ensuing weeks I gradually learned the particulars of his life.

He was the son of Samson Lane Faison, Sr., a career army officer who had graduated from West Point in 1883 and married late in life. A photograph of 1886 shows the senior Faison as a young lieutenant, standing alongside the Apache warrior Geronimo at the time of the latter’s capture and surrender. By World War I he had risen to the rank of brigadier general, commanding a division in France. Although a military career loomed for his son as well, the father’s poor health took the family to Europe in 1924 for a campaign of spa treatment. This gave young Faison, who had just graduated from Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, a year of grace before deciding on college or West Point.

In the interim, he discovered art. A family friend, then on holiday in Europe, took the boy under his wing and set about showing him the highlights of French culture. At Chartres Cathedral, the friend instructed him to go inside and look around by himself: “I won’t tell you anything about it unless you ask me some questions.” In later life Faison would refer to this solitary encounter with Chartres as his conversion experience. It certainly was the origin of his own teaching method, in which nothing was to compromise the primacy of the sensory experience—no expectations, no anecdotes, no punchlines. In later years, whenever he took students or family to Chartres, they too would be sent in to make their way alone.

Now set on art, Faison enrolled in 1925 at Williams, where Karl Weston had set up a one-man program in art history. Such was the provisional nature of the field at the time that a professor of Romance languages like Weston could drift into it in mid-career. As for graduate courses, only Harvard and Princeton had programs of any note; Faison would eventually study at each in turn. Since Princeton in those years did not offer a Ph.D., he never wrote a dissertation.

In 1932, Faison was hired by Yale under highly unusual circumstances. The university had just established a graduate program in medieval art, to be administered by two of France’s leading scholars—Marcel Aubert, a curator at the Louvre, and Henri Focillon, a professor at the Collège de France—neither of whom spoke English. They were to teach in alternate semesters; Faison’s job was to teach in the interval between their terms, to supervise the running of the course, and to “translate when necessary”—no small matter, since his own French never rose above the serviceable.

Despite their nominal subject matter, the ethos of Aubert and Focillon was modernist and progressive. Works of art were to be judged not on grounds of archaeological fidelity, or of political or social utility, but rather on their intrinsic and abstract qualities—their lines and masses, their rhythms and textures. This approach was codified in Focillon’s book La Vie des formes (1934), which Faison helped to translate into English as The Life of Forms, a phrase that can serve as the leitmotif of his own teaching. Whatever these four years with Focillon and Aubert meant for the students of Yale, for Faison they were an extraordinary course of independent graduate study with the leaders of French art history.



He returned in 1936 to Williams, where he soon developed a reputation as a quirky teacher. Professional bombast suited neither his temperament nor his soft voice; for him, the pyrotechnics of performance held no great charm. He functioned better as a conversationalist and interlocutor. His teaching style depended not on the aria but—to mix metaphors—the volley-and-serve: the leading question, asked over alert and twinkling eyes; the puckish smile, when you fell helplessly into the snare of logic he had set for you; then the chuckling explanation that forgave all and set you free.

On the first day of a typical class, students would be shown a slide of the celebrated Degas painting in which a ballerina limbers up at the balance beam in a nearly empty dance studio, at the far end of which there stands a solitary watering can. “Why the watering can?” he would ask. Invariably one student with dance experience would know that the floor had to be kept slightly damp to maintain the proper degree of friction. True, Lane would reply, but insufficient; the pitcher was there because it exactly mimicked the stance of the dancer, two upright forms with gracefully tapered appendages, an elegant echoing of form that made the spare composition unforgettable. “Americans,” he liked to insist, “don’t see shape but rather function.” The burden of his teaching was first and foremost to make the encounter with art a visual experience, in which the story told or the moral taught played no greater part than in the enjoyment of a succulent meal.

To do this, Faison cultivated several idiosyncrasies, none more bewildering to beginners than his peremptory command that the projectionist turn a slide upside down. Only in this way could the distraction of subject matter be dispensed with, and the composition be appreciated in the abstract. Several years ago he audited a course of mine in which I showed Grant Wood’s American Gothic. As I was attempting to make clear its tightly interlocking composition, he called out to me from the back row to invert the slide. The painting is probably the single most familiar one in all of American art history, and yet I had never noticed that the taut pitchfork of the farmer is neatly replicated, line for line, in his overalls.

Faison was at his best in the weekly criticism class that met around the coffee table in his modernist house, dubbed by students the Maison Faison. For each meeting they would each write a short review, the first sentence of which would be read aloud; then a vote would be held on which essay the class wanted to hear in its entirety. By this means students were spurred to condense their thoughts into a single succinct statement and to make it provocative, pungent, and, if possible, memorable.

As the program burgeoned, Faison quickly recruited two former classmates: Whitney Stoddard, a Williams graduate who had become a medievalist, and William H. Pierson, who had studied painting at Yale. Both were first-rate scholars in their own right; Stoddard was the author of Art and Architecture in Medieval France while Pierson founded and wrote two volumes in the series American Buildings and Their Architects. The three of them constituted what in time came to be called “the triumvirate,” dominating the college’s program for over a half-century, a continuity without parallel in higher education.



For Faison himself, however, the major books did not come. There was a brief catalogue of Eduard Manet and two splendid guides to the museums of New England and New York State. Each was exquisite, but an inventory rather than an argument. For decades he flirted with the idea of a book on the South German baroque and rococo architecture he had first encountered during his investigation of Nazi art looting—a spatially intricate local form that he dubbed “barococo.” But the manuscript never materialized.

One might be tempted to think of Faison not as an intellectual— in the active, questing sense—but rather as an amiable and charming tour guide through the history of art. But he was taken seriously by his intellectual contemporaries, particularly Clement Greenberg, one of the most formidable figures of the era to turn his mind to art. In many respects the friendship of these two men was unlikely—the courtly Episcopalian from the South (where his family had founded Faison, North Carolina) and the obstreperous New York Jewish intellectual who spent a dozen years as associate editor of COMMENTARY.

As disparate as were their personal styles, though, their approach to art was similar, each insisting on the primacy of formal values over all other considerations. They came to this position through rather different paths. Greenberg had passed through a period of youthful Trotskyism and brought to art history certain Marxist habits of mind, particularly the notion that history develops according to inexorable laws. Faison was not terribly interested in historical inevitability. But he was concerned about what constituted the best and most vital art of his own time, and here he and Greenberg were in agreement.

The two met around 1949, just as Greenberg had relinquished his eventful tenure as art critic for the Nation, where he single-handedly brought Jackson Pollock to national prominence.1 They quickly hit it off, and Greenberg proposed Faison as his successor. When Faison expressed misgivings at pronouncing judgment on contemporary art, Greenberg replied, “you look for the same things in the art of your own time that you do in the Old Masters. Come to New York for a long weekend, and I will show you around.” The long weekend ran from Thursday to Tuesday, taking in every gallery. Out of this spree came the impulse for the first retro-spective exhibition of Pollock, organized jointly by Faison and Greenberg and held at Bennington College and Williams.



Faison began writing book reviews for the Nation in 1950 and two years later became its art critic. His writings showed much continuity with Greenberg’s, not only in their air of confident authority but even in their aesthetic evaluations. Both were ambivalent, for example, about the later work of Pollock; in a review of a 1954 exhibition, Faison noted that some of the pieces struck him “more as pastiches than as transformations,” a judgment that seems prescient today.

Perhaps in acknowledgment of Greenberg’s reputation for occasionally vicious reviews, Faison explained in an early essay his own rules of engagement. He would stress “promising new work” but ignore the mediocre, “unless the artist already has an established reputation”; he also assured readers he would “not hesitate to attack an inflated reputation.” When it came time to deflate, however, he was no bully, acting not as a tire-slasher but as a surgeon of forensic efficiency:

Archipenko’s Exaltation struck me as so little exalted that I cannot forbear comment; it is merely a little larger than some of the other paperweights in the show. There is something doubly depressing about bad sculpture: the time, the trouble, the expense, and, saddest of all, the permanence.

As this suggests, Faison was a gifted epigrammist, expressing himself in crisp but colloquial language. (In an aside, he once mentioned that “understanding modern art begins at the precise moment Cézanne’s pears stop rolling off the table.”) His flair was the succinct and vivid image. This he practiced at the family dinner table, for instance by asking those present to plan a meal for their worst enemy. His own suggestion for a first course was a warm martini with a hair in it.

Like Greenberg before him, Faison eventually came to grief over the Nation’s editorial policy—although in his case it was his aesthetic rather than his political integrity that was challenged. After spending three years as chief critic, he was invited by the editor, Freda Kirchwey, to a cordial lunch in the Harvard Club where she proposed a series of highly unwelcome topics, including the official art at the United Nations. Faison replied that such a review would have to be “a bad review—bad in the sense of unfavorable.” They parted amicably, he was given a few more book reviews to write, and the association ended in 1956.2 So ended, too, Faison’s involvement in public life beyond academia. Marriage, the raising of four sons, and his long stint as the director of the Williams College Museum of Art seemed a sufficient outlet for his energies when he was not in the classroom.



The tradition represented by Faison was quite distinct from the mainstream of American art history. In other words, it was not German. In America, as I have noted, the field was late in developing; it did not achieve critical mass until well into the 1930’s with the arrival of a cohort of art historians, most of them Jewish, fleeing Nazi persecution. Most prominent was Erwin Panofsky, who escaped in 1933 and two years later, along with Albert Einstein, joined the newly formed Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. He brought along his pupil H.W. Janson, who came to head New York University’s famed Institute for Fine Arts—America’s most prestigious and perhaps most rigorous school of art history. The Institute was also led for a time by Richard Krautheimer, the distinguished medievalist whose cousin Ernst Kitzinger taught the same subject at Harvard. By the 1950’s, art history in America was essentially a German importation.

These refugee scholars brought German rigor and method to American art history, but also a certain German predilection for intellectual system-building. Panofsky was an iconographer, and he specialized in unpeeling the layered strata of signs and symbols within a work of art—especially the art of the Christian Middle Ages. For the German-trained scholars and their American disciples, iconography was virtually the summit of art history, demanding the greatest range of learning and a cultured familiarity with all things historical, linguistic, theological, philosophical.

But iconography looked for the meaning, rather than the pleasure, of art. And Faison’s approach, which stressed the aesthetic life of the object, was in this respect rather un-German. In fact, one might say that his approach, indeed his entire sensibility, was thoroughly French, so much so that he seems to have been rather unaware of it.

Faison never made an effort to enlist a work of art into a grand historical system. Each work was its own autonomous entity, a thing of intrinsic delight. To draw works together into a grand sequence, to subordinate their aesthetic properties to a narrative, to make them “episodes”—this he instinctively refused to do. Perhaps that was why, unlike his colleagues Stoddard and Pierson, he never deigned to write a synthetic survey—but then, those two had been trained by Germans.

Also thoroughly French was Faison’s personal taste. When I recall the art that especially charmed him—the delicate watercolors of Demuth, the lacy filigree of the rococo vaults of François Cuvilliés’ Amalienburg Palace in Munich, the archaic bronze griffin that he always paused to inspect whenever visiting the Metropolitan Museum—it invariably had that most French of qualities, a spirited and graceful line.



By the time of his retirement, Faison’s teaching was of another age, a survival of the era of connoisseurship. But his connoisseurship was the stuff of legend. Hilton Kramer, the critic and founder of the New Criterion, tells an anecdote about meeting Faison at the home of a wealthy oil millionaire whose budget for buying art greatly exceeded his knowledge of it. Finding themselves alone in a gallery devoted to the early-20th-century modernist Utrillo, the two visitors inspected the works separately and only paused to chat at the door. Kramer quietly pointed out that, as far as he could tell, every painting in the room was a fake. “They are,” said Faison, “but they’re much more interesting than that. They’re fakes based on other fakes.” That was connoisseurship.

By the late 1960’s, precisely this fine sensitivity to the nuances of hand and touch had come to be sneered at as pretentious at best and insidious at worst. As the Vietnam war brought about a general politicization of American culture, any approach to art that boasted of its independence from political agendas was felt to be an abdication of civic if not moral responsibility. Of course, mixed into the disdain for connoisseurship was a certain amount of envy—the envy of those who categorize art from the sidelines, as it were, but do not enter into the arena with it; the envy of the zookeeper for the lion tamer.

Fortunately, while the politics of art were embraced by artists and historians, most of the nation’s museums still presented their collections on aesthetic terms, primarily to delight, secondarily to teach. Under the circumstances, it is not difficult to see how a generation of students taught to value art by a mentor of ferocious but gentle intelligence would go far in the museum world. That they eventually found their ways to job interviews may have had much to do with the establishment status of Williams College; that they would clinch these jobs had everything to do with Faison.

Whatever it was that Lane Faison was the last bastion of—connoisseurship, modern French formalism, or even “Gentile art history”—he lived long enough to see many of the intellectual barricades and bulwarks that had been drawn up against it begin, however slowly and tentatively, to teeter and crumble. In the end, he was lucky enough to have only friends, and no enemy left to whom to offer a warm martini.


1 See my article “Art, Politics, and Clement Greenberg”
in the June 1998 COMMENTARY.

2 Faison’s stint at the magazine is entirely missing from the Nation’s otherwise exhaustive anthology of its art criticism; see my review of Brushes With History: Art Criticism from the “Nation” in the July-August 2002 COMMENTARY.

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