|Princeton Personality By Jean Stratton|
Gillett Griffin, Curator of Pre-Columbian Collection, Has Had a Long Love Affair With Art
Artist. Collector. Teacher. Gillett Griffin is passionate about art. It is the foundation and fulfillment of his life, and not only does he derive great joy from its unique impact, it is his pleasure to share his singular knowledge and love of art with a wide range of individuals from all walks of life and all ages, students, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances.
His enthusiasm is contagious. Even those with only superficial exposure, understanding, experience, and interest in art come away with a new appreciation after time spent with Mr. Griffin.
His fascination began at an early age when he started painting at the age of 12, he recalls.
"My parents encouraged me. They were really amazingly nice about it. My father, who had been in the shoe business, had done some painting and collected, and they were receptive to my efforts."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1928, Gillett Good Griffin was the second son of Albert and Alma Griffin, and given his maternal grandmother's maiden name. His older brother, Albert, Jr. was later killed in World War II.
The family moved to Greenwich, Conn. before Gillett was a year old, and he later attended Greenwich Country Day School. He loved history, art, and classical music, but other than hiking and being outdoors, he had no liking for sports.
His interest in history was stimulated by his tremendous admiration for Abraham Lincoln, and the family's indirect association with the 16th President.
"Lincoln was such an extraordinary man, very, very important" remarks Mr. Griffin. "My mother's family had known him. Her family was from Illinois, and she had saved the newspaper announcing his assassination. Two people I shook hands with had actually shaken Lincoln's hand. I was thrilled!"
As a boy, Gillett also enjoyed the movies, and was a frequent spectator.
"I loved Westerns and historical, costume movies," he remembers. "But as a little kid, I was terrified by violence. My happiest memories are really of being able to go out in the woods. I liked the natural world."
This was reinforced when he entered Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts in 1942, and enjoyed exploring the New England countryside, as well as the Colonial houses so prevalent in the area.
"I was interested in the town and the people," he says. "I loved the 18th Century houses in Deerfield, and I dreamed of living in these houses without electricity or plumbing!"
Gillett continued to paint while at Deerfield, specializing in landscapes, as well as portraits and still life. His penchant for collecting was also kindled at Deerfield. When he found what he thought was a primer from 1845, he developed an interest in, and began to collect, early New England children's books printed before 1846.
Visits to museums were scheduled, and he remembers going to the gallery at Smith College. "We also investigated the Deerfield library with its collection of art books."
Entering Yale University in 1947, Gillett was accepted at the Yale School of Fine Arts, where he studied painting and graphic design. Normally restricted to graduate students, the School of Fine Arts offered him the opportunity to study there as an undergraduate because of his strong academic preparation at Deerfield and his background in painting. Many in his class were former G.I.s, back from the war, he recalls.
"I learned a lot at Yale," he says. "It was a very good education. I discovered art history, and I especially admired Professor Alvin Eisenman, who was the Yale University Press designer and very influential. He brought extraordinary people to our classes, and he also took every student to heart, trying to make sure that everyone did the right thing for their life."
Also at Yale, the first glimmer of interest in Pre-Columbian art appeared on Mr. Griffin's horizon. "I bought a tiny ancient head in New Haven for 25¢!" he remembers. "One of the things about collecting Pre-Columbian art was that it was very affordable."
Graduating in 1951 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, he was the first Yale student to major in graphic arts. He returned to Yale after graduation to continue his studies, and while there, he embarked on an intriguing venture, writing, illustrating, and printing a children's book: A Mouse's Tale.
"I had remembered my mother told me a story about mice in the attic, and one misbehaved," reports Mr. Griffin, smiling. "So, I wrote it all out, illustrated it, and printed it."
It was named one of the Fifty Best Designed Books of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in a nationwide contest.
Now, barely 24 years old, Mr. Griffin was about to head in still another direction, a journey that would bring him to Princeton and the start of a grand adventure. Timing is everything, and it turned out that Mr. Griffin was the right man in the right place at the right time!
As he remembers, "Professor Eisenman was in New York for a designing project, and met a Princeton colleague. It happened that Elmer Adler, the Curator of Graphic Design at the Princeton University Library was retiring, and they were looking for a replacement."
Mr. Griffin got the job, and in July, 1952, he found himself ensconced in a handsome, antiques-filled office at Firestone Library.
"I finished at Yale on Sunday, and started at Princeton on Monday," he laughs. "It was heaven! Like a child going into a toy store every day, and everyone was incredibly nice to me.
"It was a great collection of printing materials, type, paper, bindings, the history of the book, photography, etc., and my job was to add to the collection, as well as to prepare exhibitions and get people interested in books, collecting, and prints. It was hard work. They gave me only a little, $1,000 a year, to spend on buying things, so it was a challenge."
During his tenure as curator, Mr. Griffin met a fellow graphic arts enthusiast, who was to become a close friend. Dale Roylance, now of Princeton Junction, recalls their association.
"Well over 50 years ago, it was my great good fortune to meet and become good friends with Gillett Griffin. At that time, Gillett was the new, very young curator of one of Princeton University Library's most remarkable divisions ? the Graphic Arts Collection.
"Newly arrived in Princeton in 1955, I became Gillett's assistant in graphic arts, thus embarking on my own life story, eventually becoming curator of the Arts of the Book at Yale, then happily returning to Princeton to become the Curator of the Graphic Arts Collection until recent years.
"In all that time, the influence of my first mentor, Gillett Good Griffin, was constant and inspirational. Few people in my experience can match his enthusiasm for the arts or his discernment for quality in the visual arts."
Mr. Griffin's influence on others is also strongly acknowledged by long-time friends Dianne Dubler and John Bigelow Taylor. They point out that Mr. Taylor's career as a still life photographer of art, antiquities, and architecture is due to Mr. Griffin's encouragement and guidance.
"As a result of Gillett's ability to inspire, he has given many people their career. He takes great delight in all the things and people he is involved with, and that delight is infectious. He has a genuine relationship with his subject and with people he encounters. He is a completely committed and actualized human being, who really lives his life to the fullest.
"Also, we have to say he has the greatest eye for art, cross-cultural and throughout time, and is the greatest lover of beauty for its own sake of anybody involved in the arts we have ever known. He also has one of the greatest reverences for the past of anyone we have ever met.
"He has been our closest friend and our mentor for 30-plus years. There are not enough good things we can say about him."
In 1957, Mr. Griffin took a leave of absence as curator to design books for Princeton University Press, one of which was given a Fifty Book Award. Also during this time, he wrote articles dealing with the history of print-making and related graphic themes.
Although he enjoyed his work and life in Princeton, Mr. Griffin was dismayed at the absence of creative arts opportunities at the University. During the early 1960's, this became an issue that sparked his indignation and protest.
As he explains, "In 1965 and '66, I got exercised! I was angry that while there were art history classes for credit, there was no place at Princeton with an outlet for creativity in art. I sat in on a debate on whether students would get credit for creative arts classes, they didn't. I wrote an eight-page letter to President (William) Goheen, saying this was outrageous. Eventually, he allocated the building at 185 Nassau Street for creative arts classes."
Nevertheless, Mr. Griffin felt it was time for a change. The University's art policy and his own continuing interest in painting led him to relinquish his position as curator in 1966 and travel to Mexico for a year and a half of painting, exploring, and writing.
It was also at this time that his interest in Pre-Columbian Art, that is, art created in Mexico and Central America prior to 1492 ? began to intensify. His stay in Mexico is an experience he looks back on with great pleasure.
While there, he co-authored a guide book on archaeological sites in Mexico, and was co-discoverer of Olmec paintings deep in a Juxtlahuaca cave in central Guerrero. The Olmec people established the first civilization in Mexico 1200 B.C. to 600-500 B.C.
"We saw the oldest-known paintings in a cave dating to 800-1000 B.C.," says Mr. Griffin. "It was both thrilling and nerve-wracking. We had to walk a mile underground in the dark through very narrow places just to get to it."
On subsequent trips to Mexico, he worked exploring and mapping the highland Olmec site of Chalcatzingo, Morelos.
Despite the lure of ancient places and civilizations, Mr. Griffin returned to Princeton in 1967, with still another offer too good to refuse: Curator of Pre-Columbian and Primitive Art at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Established in 1882, Princeton's Art Museum is one of the oldest American university art museums, notes Mr. Griffin. It now offers a collection of more than 60,000 objects from all over the world in time periods from prehistoric to contemporary.
At the time of his arrival, however, it was just on the verge of making a significant statement, explains Mr. Griffin.
"The museum didn't really grow until the 1970s under Director Allen Rosenbaum. He brought it from a provincial to a world class museum. Princeton generally was very Eurocentric when I came in 1952, but the ancient American collection is now as good as any across the board. The sculpture in the ancient American gallery is as fine as anything anywhere."
So much of this is due to Mr. Griffin's knowledge and expertise, and certainly one of his proudest achievements has been to help create a collection rising to its current standard of excellence.
Many pieces in the collection are gifts or are on loan from Mr. Griffin. As his own interest in the period increased, he continued to add to his personal collection, and as he says of his job, "In a way, it was like being curator of my own collection."
His generosity and knowledge are recognized by many, including Princeton Art Museum Director Emeritus Allen Rosenbaum.
"Gillett really opened up the whole world of Pre-Columbian art to me, and through his eyes and infectious enthusiasm, I came to love it. We worked very closely together, became close friends, and Gillett is one of the principal reasons my job and my life at Princeton were so wonderfully rich.
"The very important collection of Pre-Columbian art at the museum is Gillett's, in part given and promised to Princeton. His generosity is all the more remarkable as Gillet didn't go to Princeton. But no alumnus has been more generous to the museum, and that includes not only through his gifts of Pre-Columbian art but in other areas as well.
"Here is just one example of Gillet's great generosity," continues Mr. Rosenbaum. "We have a great Aztec wooden mask, which we were going to illustrate in the museum's Record. The mask was always exhibited with a very suggestive sacrificial knife, which belonged to Gillett and was only on loan to the museum..
"He asked why we weren't illustrating the knife with the mask. I explained that we were including only objects in the collection, and he spontaneously said, 'I'll give the knife to the museum.'
"This is a very characteristic example of his extraordinary generosity to the museum. But he is open and generous in all respects, especially in his friendships.
"On the occasion of his 70th birthday, we gave him a party, and the museum also acquired a magnificent Pre-Columbian terra cotta figurine in Gillett's honor. Some years later, Gillett acquired another extraordinary Jaina figurine, and gave it to the museum in my honor. They are now exhibited together, and our names linked, which means a great deal to me."
Another who is well aware of Mr. Griffin's contributions to art in Princeton is retired physician Harvey Rothberg, currently a docent at the art museum.
"I have been privileged to know Gillett Griffin for more than 30 years. He is a true Renaissance man: artist, collector and lifelong student of the art and culture of Mexico and Central America. Best of all, he is an enthusiastic teacher, who loves sharing his knowledge."
During his 37 years as curator, Mr. Griffin has acquired major new pieces, organized exhibitions, delivered papers, written articles, and chaired conferences.
While serving as an advisor on a Channel 13 special on the Maya, produced by Princeton film-makers Hugh and Suzanne Johnston, he was co-discoverer of Temple B at Rio Bec, an archetypal Maya palace structure, which had eluded searchers since it had been lost after its discovery in 1912, lost for 61 years!
Importantly, Mr. Griffin's love and enthusiasm for this ancient art has attracted new adherents. He very much wants it to extend from the Ivory Tower to the world beyond, for all to enjoy. As he explains, "I want to reach many people and introduce them to this art, especially the Latinos in town. This is their heritage."
Mr. Griffin has also taught Pre-Columbian art at Princeton University for the past 30 years, an activity dear to his heart.
"I love teaching Pre-Columbian art to undergraduates," he says. "It is a privilege. I try in my teaching to bring in other things from other places in the world to compare to Pre-Columbian. The students often seem to prefer the Pre-Columbian art."
While Pre-Columbian is his focus, Mr. Griffin's interests in art are wide-ranging. His personal collection includes pieces from all over the world, encompassing many time periods. He continues to paint in acrylics, especially scenes of New England, including Massachusetts, where he has a second home.
A bachelor, Mr. Griffin has lived in his 18th Century Princeton house for 40 years, and enjoys the friendship and affection of his many friends and colleagues, in and out of the art world. All who know him comment on his legendary hospitality. Friends Michael Dawson and Robert Tomaselli of Hopewell note, "We often remark that Gillett is probably the most extraordinary person that we will ever know. He has led a life of richly varied experiences and has known a staggering array of people. Over the years, a casual call to his house to suggest getting together could easily land us at dinner that same evening with him, an artist, a scholar, a milkman, or the Peruvian Ambassador!"
Broad and Deep
Adds Allen Rosenbaum: "So many people love and respect Gillett that when you become his friend you are included in a very extensive extended family. He is also a very gifted graphic artist, and his letters are especially prized for the delightfully witty illustrations with which they are always annotated."
Mr. Griffin's range of friendships, not the least of which was his association with Albert Einstein in the 1950s, is both broad and deep.
"You certainly can meet all kinds of people here," reports Mr. Griffin. "I knew Einstein in the year or so before his death. We became friends and often had dinner together.
The friendship developed when Einstein's stepdaughter regularly visited the Graphic Arts department in the library, recalls Mr. Griffin.
"She invited me to Einstein's home for dinner. We spoke about music and had a nice time. After dinner, he excused himself, and I offered to help with the dishes. Then, his housekeeper asked me if the professor had shown me his bird. Einstein came shuffling down in his slippers, and pulled out a plastic dickey bird, which I admired."
That cemented the bond, says Mr. Griffin, with a smile. "The next day they called and said, 'Consider yourself part of the family!'
"He was a charming person," continues Mr. Griffin. "He liked to play with that little toy in which you have to get tiny balls into the holes."
Their shared enjoyment of music struck a chord between them, but one time, it almost led to a misunderstanding, reports Mr. Griffin.
"I had heard that the Institute for Advanced Study wanted to give him a major present for his 75th birthday, a state-of-the-art hi fi system. So, I gave him a record of a Bach cantata. Later, he seemed a bit distant, and I learned that he had read the record notes and thought I wanted to convert him to Christianity! I assured him I just hoped he would enjoy the music.
This was the height of the Joseph McCarthy era, a time not noted for humor, adds Mr. Griffin, and he remembers that "once Einstein brought out a book of Daumier cartoons. He said he had come to America because he thought Americans had a sense of humor.
"I think our friendship developed because I was not using him in any way," continues Mr. Griffin. "We liked the same music, including Vivaldi before he was popular, and we had interesting conversations. He could relax with me."
A world traveler, who has an aversion to airports, Mr. Griffin is a sought-after traveling companion, report Dianne Dubler and John Bigelow Taylor. "We have traveled with him in numerous parts of the world, and he is a wonderful traveler."
When not "on the road", Mr. Griffin is happy to have found as congenial a place as Princeton to spend his time.
Although it has changed substantially since he arrived in 1952, Princeton still has much to admire, including its diversity and its "conscience," says Mr. Griffin.
"The town has always had people with a conscience, and this was important. I am also delighted that the central part of town has kept its character and that there are still restaurants like The Annex, with affordable, good food."
Mr. Griffin plans to retire from the art museum in June, he says, although he will continue as a consultant.
"I could not be more pleased with my successor, John Pohl," he remarks. "Number one, he is is an artist, number two, he's a teacher, and number three, he has a sense of humor."
A sense of humor is obviously important to Mr. Griffin, and his surfaces most notoriously in his agile way with a pun, for which he is known far and wide.
Says Dr. Rothberg: "He tells the most outrageous puns of anyone I know!"
Dale Roylance adds: "Few are as memorable as Griffin for his endless supply of wordplay nonsense, delightfully overturning all attempts at serious conversation and any solemn talks with Gillett into his own slightly mad tea party."
And points out Michael Dawson: "As Gillett likes to say, 'Who can tell without a program?' Well, there are a number of things about Gillett you can always count on, with or without a program: he will be cheerful, there will be great stories, and he will get in more puns in one evening than you or I will manage in a lifetime."
Looking back on his long career, Mr. Griffin is struck by the variety and richness of his own journey and the amazing continuity of the human spirit as expressed in creative, imaginative activity.
"I have met extraordinary people, gone to extraordinary places, and made discoveries. I have explored ancient places in Mexico and Guatemala," he reflects.
"I look at the old world art and see that the human being is the only animal to make a picture, and from that comes writing, and eventually going to the moon.
"We see things that are 2000 years old or even older, and they often show a sense of humor and have been done with great care and love. Depending on their culture, the artists express themselves in different ways and in different materials, perhaps stone, clay, or shell. But they are all so original and have such a sense of humanity, you cannot help but be inspired and moved."
Mr. Griffin's great gift is his willingness and ability to share that inspiration and emotion with the rest of us.