Edward B. Henning, Chief Curator of Modern Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, 19221993


From where we stand on the promontory of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to appreciate the uphill battle Edward Burk Henning faced in the early 1960s and ’70s as the Cleveland Museum of Art’s first curator of contemporary art. 

If the casual visitor now takes it for granted that a serious art museum must contain important works produced in his or her own lifetime, it was not always thus. Appointed to the contemporary art curatorship in 1960, Henning faced a conservative board of trustees who saw little point in squandering acquisition funds on strange pieces whose value had yet to be established by the test of time.

Henning and the museum's new 44-year-old director, Sherman Lee, knew, however, that contemporary artists were producing work whose importance would eventually be more widely recognized—by which time prices would have skyrocketed. Somebody had to have the guts to decide who and what was significant, and acquire it now. In Henning, his 40-year-old associate curator of education, Lee believed he had found a stalwart champion.

A 1922 graduate of Cleveland’s West Technical High School, who had served in Patton’s Third Army at the Battle of the Bulge, Ed Henning was not one to run from a fight—and he was passionate about art, especially the art of the last 100 years.

Having trained as a painter at the Cleveland Institute of Art and as an art historian at Western Reserve University (B.S., magna cum laude, 1949; M.A., 1952) before taking a job in the museum's education department in 1952, Henning had also spent a year in Paris at the Academie Julien studying painting.

He could spot an important work while the paint was still wet. What was more, Henning could talk and write about art in lucid, common-sense language. Lee and he had worked closely together, even becoming regular poker-playing buddies, when Lee was the museum’s curator of oriental art; and when the museum’s board offered Lee the museum’s helm in 1958, one of his first acts was to make Henning assistant to the director.

Ed Henning’s growing reputation as an authority on art since 1940 lent credibility to his endeavors as contemporary art curator His articles and reviews were appearing in prestigious international publications, and in 1960 his Paths of Abstract Art, written to accompany the 1960 exhibition he organized for the Cleveland museum, was published by Abrams, a respected art publishing house. The esteem in which Henning was held by contemporary artists such as Joseph Cornell, Robert Motherwell and R.B. Kitaj—and dealers, as his discerning eye became legend—led him to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Bernice Davis loved to tell the story of how Henning spotted Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic as it was being crated up to be shipped off to Germany for sale and persuaded the museum's trustees to purchase it. Before he was done, Henning would be responsible for bringing in to the collection major works by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Hans Hofmann, David Smith and Isamu Noguchi.

If that were not enough of a legacy for one man, Henning also captured for the museum, as its first curator of modern art (1972-1985), key paintings by Picasso, Braque, de Chirico, Miro and Mondrian. Of the many exhibitions Henning mounted, he will be remembered especially for two outstanding shows, says curator of photography and longtime colleague Tom Hinson: Fifty Years of Modern Art (1966), mounted to mark the museum’s 50th anniversary, and The Spirit of Surrealism (1979), for both of which he wrote insightful accompanying books. 

Henning somehow also found time to run the museum’s film program, asserting that “film is the most important visual art form of the twentieth century.”  He was particularly knowledgeable about European and other foreign films, says Hinson, at a time when they were not easy to access in America. Henning's last museum exhibition was mounted in 1987. Also accompanied by a book,  Creativity in Art and Science, 1860-1960, explored the development of parallel ideas in those fields.

Henning left his mark on two generations of students at Case Western Reserve University, as a guest lecturer (196067) and adjunct professor (beginning in 1967) of art history. He also lectured on aesthetics at the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA). CIA president Joseph McCullough described him as “our voice in the wilderness,” introducing important living artists and their work to Cleveland when there were few places to see contemporary art. Henning sent “impassioned letters to newspapers,” remembered the Plain Dealer’s Dick Peery, “in response to what he considered uninformed attacks on contemporary art.”  People who reject the whole lot of it, wrote Henning in the PD in 1962, “are really falling into the same error as those who accept it in toto. The issue is quite simply quality versus mediocrity. And both are to be found in every period of history and every style and movement in art.”

He was never too busy to give helpful feedback and encouragement to area artists. “His phone and door were always accessible,” said sculptor David E. Davis at the memorial gathering held following Henning’s death in April 1993. Painter Ed Mieczkowski said Henning made him see “more than ever before that everything the artist does is . . . suspended in a matrix of things done by others.”Until 1973, Henning supervised the museum’s annual May Show, which recognized the best new work, in the museum’s judgment, by area artists.He also wrote about their work in major art magazines, advised them in their negotiations with art dealers and introduced them to local collectors.

It was because Henning himself as a young man had participated “in that special life that is a painter’s,” art historian Elizabeth McClelland believed, that he could enter so sympathetically “into the feelings and concepts of other artists.” “The first year that I won a [May Show] prize I was nearly crazy with anxiety,” Henning wrote in his introduction to the 1985 show. Though he’d eventually decided he could not pursue both own his art and his work as a curator and art historian with the passionate intensity each deserved, he never lost touch with the artist’s perspective. “This enabled him to penetrate their ideas,” said McClelland, “and to write about [their work] with exceptional lucidity. He was never guilty of using jargon nor of inflating the writing so that it overwhelmed the art.” That, to Ed Henning, would have been to miss the entire point.

—Dennis Dooley



“It is art that refuses to be a means to
some other end"

What do the words "modern art” mean? All art was once modern but twentieth century art is “modern” in another sense. It is art which is involved with the implications and expressive possibilities of form rather than story telling. It is art which creates its own form—its own language—as it goes along (the new inventions naturally being difficult to understand at first). Above all, it is art which refuses to be a means to some other end (e.g., political or social).

Do these artists really not care about communication? Are they really so involved with self-expression that they have forgotten about the rest of humanity? Such questions arise out of a basic misunderstanding. Artists do want and need understanding and appreciation. However, they must follow where their experiments lead. They do not seek isolation. They are often forced into it, however, through a basic loyalty to art. They do not create by beginning with an already developed idea about what other people think art should be.

The only road leading to a true understanding and appreciation of art lies, as always, through the immediate experience of works of art. It is an arduous and lonely road, but the rewards are well worth the journey.

—From a talk given by Henning


In Defense of Noguchi’s Portal

Two major concerns of Noguchi are his awareness of the total environment for his work and (in the tradition of Brancusi) that the form of the sculpture should be purged of all purely decorative or descriptive details to have it express, as poignantly as possible, the essence of an idea or experience.

On the plaza facing Ontario St. it was essential to create something for an extremely large space in front of an enormous architectural structure. It had to be monumental in scale; relatively light in weight (there is a garage beneath the spot on which it rests);  . . . it had to work with the building behind it in terms of design, yet contrast with it so that it could be easily discerned against that background; and it had to express something appropriate for the Justice Center. . . .

Portal [a rough translation of the Japanese word for the lintel supported by two posts that usually forms the entry way into a Shinto shrine] is the culmination of an idea that has concerned Noguchi for several years. Close study reveals that it is deceptively simple. In fact, it is a very subtle design that that is difficult to reproduce, even in a drawing. It repeats the strong verticals and horizontals of the building but with some curved and diagonal variations that (along with the matte black surface) also contrast with the building.

The somber effect, achieved by the light-absorbing matte black paint, was deliberate. He pointed out that since many people would be entering the building facing one of the great crises of their lives, a light and frivolous appearance would be inappropriate. . . .

Impressions one gains from the sculpture include somberness, openness and action. . . .

—“One Person’s Lunatic is Another’s Genius,” The Plain Dealer, October 2, 1976

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