Sherman E. Lee Director, Cleveland Museum of Art, 19182008


Sherman Lee believed that to really experience art, you had to engage it with all your senses. Encountering masterpieces only through books—no matter how fine the reproduction and how faithful the colors—was never enough, any more than reading about them—no matter how eloquent or insightful the author. There were things to be learned about art in these ways, to be sure, but to really grasp what makes a work special and unique, you had to encounter it in, as it were, the flesh.

His teacher, Professor James Marshall Plumer, with whom he had studied at the University of Michigan before World War II, would cover Chinese ceramic pieces with a blanket, training Lee and his classmates to identify works of different types or periods by the feel of the shapes and glazes—a skill that would later win Lee the hushed respect of scholars and curators in post-war Japan. During his years as director of the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), he regularly stunned visitors and companions by casually stroking or caressing sculptures they had paused to contemplate. You sensed that he knew these works in ways you never would.

Of course, not all the objects in museums are meant (or allowed) to be touched. Lee’s advice was to look and look and look—at the originals whenever possible—and to compare each work to similar works or works of the same period or culture. This was the only way, he maintained, that you would ever come to understand what made one work of art “better” than another and what made some masterpieces. “Until one is familiar with an extensive series of works by the same artist, or objects of the same type,” he said, “one cannot place any one work within the hierarchies of importance, rarity, or quality.”

Once, finding himself in a position to buy a “picture” (his preferred term) his gut told him was by Velázquez—though most of the experts disputed the attribution—Lee hopped a plane to London to examine it for himself, then traveled on to Madrid to refresh his memory of other works by that 17th-century master. Deciding to trust his own eye, he dashed back to London, where he “waltzed away”—as Diana Tittle tells the story in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Sherman E. Lee,” the first of her two superb profiles of Lee*—“with what indeed turned out to be a rare early Velázquez”: Portrait of the Jester Calabazas.

A list of other important European and American works that now hang in the Cleveland Museum of Art thanks to his extraordinary eye—and shrewd market instincts—would include: David’s Cupid and Psyche; Monet’s Water Lilies; Rubens’ Diana and Her Nymphs Departing for the Hunt; Poussin’s The Holy Family on the Steps; Zurbaran’s heartbreaking Christ and the Virgin in the House at Nazareth, with its poignant foreshadowing of the crucifixion; Frederic Edwin Church’s iconic Twilight in the Wilderness; Picasso’s Harlequin with Violin; Piet Mondrian’s groundbreaking 1927 Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue; Athlete Making an Offering (by an unknown Greek sculptor, c. 450-425 B.C.), and Meissonnier’s lush Tureen and Platter (1735-1738), by general agreement the most important work in silver made in Europe since the Renaissance.

Lee’s persuasive powers were also legend. Again and again he talked his board of trustees, several of whom were notoriously stodgy when it came to what they would tolerate in art, into approving his “recommendations,” especially in the case of 20th-century art. By the same token, he was known to “pass” on a work, even by an old master, that he considered beneath his museum’s aspirations. ("Why buy a fifth-rate Rubens,” he once told the author of this profile, “when we already have a more powerful example of that artist’s work?”)

“It is one of the great distinctions of the Cleveland Museum of Art,” wrote New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, “that its collections strike us as having been assembled, object by object, with this question of quality as the foremost consideration. . . . An extraordinary standard is upheld wherever one turns one’s scrutiny.” “We don’t just take any object that people want to sell or give us,” museum trustee Frances Taft once explained. “Lee selects the absolute finest pieces of any period or style or artist’s work.”

He turned down a chance to host the blockbuster traveling exhibition The Treasures of Tutankhamun—infuriating some in the museum’s circle—because, he said, it was decadent Egyptian art that would distort people’s view of a glorious tradition. Art museums should raise the level of mass taste, he told Tittle, not play down to it.

Don’t know how to look at art? Lee was blunt: “You can’t just walk into a museum and expect, right off, to understand everything you see,” he liked to say, “any more than a foreigner at his first baseball game.  People get tutored in bridge or golf, but aren’t willing to invest some time into learning how to look at art.” Think museums are elitist or undemocratic? Works of art “don’t look differently at a black, a white, or yellow person, at rich or poor. They are there.” In fact Lee believed that an art museum is essentially a subversive institution because it makes one “dissatisfied with the world outside.”

It was, however, his transformation of CMA’s collection of Asian Art into one of the finest in the world that may have been Lee’s proudest accomplishment. Born during the last months of World War I in Seattle, Washington, but raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Lee was educated at the American University (B.A. 1938, M.A. 1939), where he met and married his life partner Ruth Ward. (“My wife civilized me,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1983. “I was on the tennis team and the basketball team, and was eating candy bars for breakfast.”)

He began his career as curator of Far Eastern Art at the Detroit Institute, later earning his Ph.D. from Cleveland’s Western Reserve University (1941).  It was his great luck, after serving with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, to be stationed in post-war Tokyo, where he became an Advisor to the Collections, Arts and Monuments Division of the Allied Supreme Command as it sought to rescue important works from the rubble.  It was as a result of this two-year undertaking, and subsequent trips back to Japan and China, that Lee won the respect of oriental art experts, made lifelong connections and became a world-renowned authority on Asian art.

In 1948, he took a position as assistant director of the Seattle Art Museum, but when he was invited to join the Cleveland Museum of Art as Curator of Oriental Art in 1952, he seized the opportunity. By 1956 Lee was also serving as as assistant to the museum's director William Milliken, then as associate director. In 1958, he was named Milliken's successor, serving brilliantly in that capacity until his retirement in 1982. In addition to mounting a number of landmark exhibitions, including his valedictory show, Reflections of Reality in Japanese Art (1982); Circa 1492, which he curated for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., for the anniversary of the European discovery of America; and China 5,000 Years, for the Guggenheim in 1998.

Lee wrote or co-authored several books recognized as scholarly landmarks: Streams and Mountains Without End (1953), his look at Chinese landscape painting of the 12th century, a History of Far Eastern Art (1963), Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting (1980), and Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1968), which he co-authored with the museum’s curator of Asian Art, 
W. K. Ho (leading irreverent staffers to refer to the tome as the “Ho-Lee” Bible).

“Lee did for the Cleveland Museum of Art,” summed up Plain Dealer art critic Steven Litt on Lee’s death in 2008 at the age of 90 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, “what George Szell . . . did for the Cleveland Orchestra: He cemented its reputation as an internationally famous institution.” Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was even more glowing: “Sherman Lee was one of the greatest museum directors that America has known.”

Dennis Dooley

* For two indepth portraits of the life and career of Sherman Lee, see 1997 CAP winner Diana Tittle’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Sherman E. Lee,” Cleveland Magazine, January 1979, and “Streams and Mountains Without End,” Northern Ohio Live, March 1983. The 35th Anniversary issue of Orientations, the Magazine for Collectors and Connoisseurs of Asian Art (February 2005), is devoted to Lee’s career and major Asian acquisitions.

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