“You Have to Look!”: Elisabeth French on Her Massive Collection
"I never thought of myself as a collector" says Elisabeth French.
"Duncan Phillips was really what I would call a collector," she says. "Duncan had a real philosophy about art. I don't! I mean: Look!" She gestures to her collection, currently on exhibit in the American University Museum. Acquired over the last five decades, the collection includes more than 200 works by mostly Washington artists.
The exhibition came about when French's friend Alice Denney, founder of the Washington Project for the Arts, suggested Elisabeth exhibit her collection. "She has been discussing wanting to show people's collections with just everything," says French. "Not just the name things or the bigger pieces, just everything. I think she thinks that it is a way of promoting and getting interested in the work of artists." Perhaps there's some truth to that, but there's more to generating interest in supporting local art than displaying it on a wall. In the case of French, some background helps.
French was born and raised in Western Michigan and worked on the county-seat newspaper owned by her family while growing up. Before her professional career, her only art education was an art history course at Albion College. "I probably would have benefited from understanding technique," she says.
With an interest in traveling, French enrolled after college in secretarial school in New York, which eventually lead to a job with the CIA. That job took her to the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. But before she returned to the U.S. she embarked on a four-month tour of Europe, during which she hit every gallery and museum she could between Istanbul and Ireland. "I don't think it was appreciated by the headquarters," says French. "I look on that as my masters degree in art."
After five years with the CIA, French left in 1955 and returned to New York, where she worked for the Japan mission to the United Nations as a social secretary from 1957 to 1965. Among her many responsibilities with the Japanese delegation, she was required to visit galleries and purchase Japanese prints for guests at events.
It wasn't until moving to D.C. in 1965—to work on a nascent Washingtonian magazine—that she started to buy art for herself. "I never had a proper apartment in New York; I usually shared an apartment or had some other living situation…I never had a place to hang [art] and never got into homemaking until I got to Washington." Within six months she bought her first piece of art, a Japanese print, from Esther Stuttman's gallery on Connecticut Avenue, to go with the other Japanese prints she received as gifts during her time at the Japanese mission. Soon her tastes started to expand.
Washinton's gallerists were her tutors. Stuttman once told her, "It is asking a lot of the picture to look at it every day," French says. The resulting education is a collection that cannot be classified by genre or style. The works are abstract and abstract-expressionist, color field, representational, Western, Far Eastern, minimal, Pop, folk, and so on. Though there are the few odds and ends of notable art history in her collection—prints by Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Piranesi—and a few works by forgotten artists acquired during travels, French's collection is an astounding Who's Who of late 20th Century D.C. artists: Wayne Edson Bryan, Steve Cushner, Robert Gates, Helene Herzbrun, Walter Kravitz, Ed McGowan, Howard Mehring, Linn Meyers, Maggie Michael, and William Willis. What astounds when walking through the American University Museum is this: that it all fits onto the wall space of an apartment roughly half the size of the exhibition space.
While some see art collecting as investment, that idea makes French uncomfortable. Her collection centers around works that are simple, elegant, and expressive. She enjoys knowing more about the artist and about the body of work as a whole, not simply the piece she owns. "Ultimately you have to look on your own. You have to look! That is something I read that Henry Geldzahler said. He said it's something they don't teach you at Yale. For two years after he left Yale he did nothing but look at art. It is the only way to determine or sense what the integrity of the artist is."
For now, she spends her time blocking out the bare walls in her apartment. "There is nothing on the wall except hooks. And there are many, as you can imagine, to hang all of this stuff." She adds, "They are like little warts all over the place."
"GOOD THINGS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES: THE COLLECTION OF ELISABETH FRENCH" IS ON VIEW 11 A.M. TO 4 P.M. TUESDAY TO SUNDAY TO AUGUST 15 AT THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY MUSEUM KATZEN ARTS CENTER, 4400 MASSACHUSETTS AVE. NW. FREE. (202) 885-1300