Published: November 7, 2000
NEW YORK CITY – When we recently caught up with Cy Nelson, he was carrying a battered Metropolitan Museum of Art shopping bag. An editor for more than half a century, Nelson had just come from his office at Penguin Putnam Inc. on Hudson Street. We had been warned about the shopping bags. Over the past 26 years, Nelson, a trustee of the Museum of American Folk Art since 1974, has frequently arrived at board meetings similarly equipped. The bulging parcels have often contained gifts, some of them among the museum’s great treasures.
Like the bright blue bag with the Metropolitan logo, Cyril Irwin Nelson is durable and understated, his rarified content hidden from view. He has the easy elegance of a gentleman but is formidably reserved. It can take years to get to know him. Those who have earned Nelson’s affection have secured a devoted friend and thoughtful companion.
Through January 7, Nelson’s gifts to the Museum of American Folk Art are showcased in “.” Consulting curator Elizabeth V. Warren, who has worked with Nelson on other projects over the years, culled 60 prime examples reflecting the collector’s refined taste in paint-decorated furniture, folk paintings, and sculpture of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Quilts and textiles, Nelson’s great love, form more than half of the show.
There is a quaintness about “” that only partially stems from its old-fashioned predilection for delicate watercolors, pastoral views, schoolgirl art, and women’s handiwork. These days, the show seems almost a novelty in a gallery that just as often leads the way with challenging displays of contemporary work by untutored artists.
“” hearkens to a time when collectors prized antiques for their sentimental associations. Nelson grew up with a reverence for the old, familiar objects that had been part of his family’s distinguished heritage. As an adult, his love of antiques was further encouraged by the late Robert Bishop, a one-time antiques dealer who was the Museum of American Folk Art’s director from 1977 to 1991. Nelson has underscored the deeply personal nature of aesthetic enjoyment by dedicating many of his gifts to the museum to friends and family. Its humanity readily accessible, traditional folk art seems especially well suited to the task.
The show’s title, “,” alludes to Nelson’s career in publishing. The editor’s annual Quilt Engagement Calendars are among the roughly 200 titles that he has shepherded to press. Since 1975, these popular desktop references have informally introduced millions to quilting’s colorful variety.
Fresh from Princeton, where he received his degree in English literature, Nelson joined E.P. Dutton, Inc., in New York in November, 1948. His introduction to the company was through a family friend, Merton Yewdale, himself a Dutton editor and an amateur graphologist. Decades later, Nelson still recalls a colleague asking Yewdale to analyze the handwriting of a friend. “It was so utterly true that she didn’t dare show it to him,” he says with a chuckle.
Dutton survived the Great Depression with the help of Winnie-the-Pooh. Since 1924, the company has sold more than twenty million copies of four books about the lovable bear to American readers. Dutton has also been the publisher of Pirandello and VanWyck Brooks.
“When I first joined Dutton, I was simply there as an assistant in the library and education department,” Nelson recalls. The following year, he was assigned to Everyman’s Library, the earliest reprint series in this country, dating to 1906. When the Everyman classics came out in paperback in 1957, Nelson became their editor and art director. “I am deeply grateful for that experience,” he notes. “I had the privilege of working with great illustrators, among them Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, James McMullan, and Paul Davis.”
The Museum of American Folk Art was founded in 1961. Nelson attended the museum’s debut exhibition, curated by Mary Allis and Herbert Hemphill, at the Time-Life Building in the fall of 1962. “As a folk art collector, that was the very first thing for me,” he says. “I was fascinated by what I saw. It subsequently got me to go to MAFA’s little one-room museum on 53rd Street.” On one such visit, Nelson brought a family heirloom to show to the museum’s director, Mary Black. Depicting members of Nelson’s family, the delicate profile rendering in watercolor, pencil, and ink came from his grandmother’s birthplace in Deerfield, N.H., and had long hung in the family’s summer home on Monhegan Island in Maine.
Black studied the double portrait and concluded that it was the work of J. Evans. Chosen by Alice Winchester and Jean Lipman for the landmark 1974 exhibition “The Flowering of American Folk Art,” “Mother and Daughter of the Chase Family” occupies an important place in the current show.
Cy Nelson met Bob Bishop in 1963, at an antiques show in Manhattan where the young dealer was exhibiting. “I asked him to let me know if something special came along. I saw him at another show with a little Sheraton chair that interested me. Then he came up with a beautiful Queen Anne table that’s in my office now. A few months later he called to say, ‘I think I have a painting you might be interested in.'” Nelson purchased “The White House at Sunset,” a Pennsylvania idyll of circa 1855, from Bishop for $395, giving it to the museum not long after his friend’s early death in 1991.
“I don’t think I’ve ever tried to publish in a hot area,” Nelson says. “I was publishing for the sake of illuminating something that interested me and hoped that it would interest a very much wider public. I am really rather surprised that Dutton, which was a small firm, allowed me to do American Painted Furniture 1660-1880 or America’s Quilts and Coverlets.”
Both were published in 1972, representing Nelson’s entry into the literary niche for which he is best known, American vernacular art and architecture. “It all began with American Painted Furniture,” notes the editor. “I had gotten hold of Dean A. Fales, Jr, who had been registrar and secretary at Winterthur Museum and director of the Essex Institute. It was Nina Fletcher Little who suggested Fales as an author. I put him together with Bob, who served as the illustrations and design editor for the book.”
America’s Quilts and Coverlets by Carleton L. Safford and Robert Bishop resulted from a casual conversation Nelson had with Dutton’s then editor-in-chief. In 1971, Nelson had just seen Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof’s “Abstract Design in American Quilts” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Nelson was favorably enough impressed to mention it to his superior, who encouraged him to develop a book along the same lines.
At the time, Bishop was publications editor and acting curator of Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum in Deerfield, Mich. Working together, Nelson and Bishop brought out a third book in 1972, Centuries and Styles of the American Chair, 1640-1970, while Nelson unveiled the Encyclopedia of Modern Drama. “How I ever survived it all I will never know,” he sighs.
In a new era of broad and highly illustrated volumes, Nelson’s books on antiques sold well but not explosively. Many, including American Painted Furniture and America’s Quilts and Coverlets, were notable for being the first major books on their subjects published after World War II. “That was the reason for doing it and I was lucky the company was willing,” Nelson explains. The popularity of quilts skyrocketed in the 1980s, decades after the similar discovery of folk paintings and sculpture, and years after the publication of America’s Quilts and Coverlets.
Nelson also broke new ground with Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists by Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr, and Julia Weissman. Published in 1974, the book picked up where modern art dealer Sidney Janis, who coined the term “self-taught,” left off in 1942 with They Taught Themselves. Based on the 1970 exhibit of the same name, the volume marked the beginning of an era of sustained interest in contemporary work by untutored artists.
In 1975, Nelson delivered New Discoveries In American Quilts, a follow-up to America’s Quilts and Coverlets. A Gallery of Amish Quilts, by Robert Bishop and Elizabeth Safanda, came out in 1976. “It was the first book on the subject and it caused a very real stir,” the editor says. Having moved from the general to the specific, Nelson continued in the 1980s with publications on crib quilts and Twentieth Century quilts by the Manhattan dealers Thomas K. Woodard and Blanche Greenstein. Toward the end of the decade, Nelson explored the contemporary quilting movement, recruiting authorities Carter Houck, Karey Bresenhan, and Bonnie Leman as authors.
Several collaborations between Dutton and the Museum of American Folk Art followed Nelson’s appointment to the museum’s board in 1974. The first, in 1978, was A Gallery of American Samplers, a catalogue of the Theodore Kapnek collection written by Glee Krueger. Nelson also edited Artists In Aprons: Folk Art By American Women (1979) by C. Kurt Dewhurst, Betty MacDowell, and Marsha MacDowell; Quilts of the Indiana Amish (1983), by the Indiana dealer David Pottinger; and All Flags Flying: American Patriotic Quilts as Expressions of Liberty, published in 1986 to commemorate the museum’s “Great American Quilt Contest” and the Statue of Liberty centennial.
“If one looks at the frequent references to these books in descriptions of works for sale, you realize how central they are. Cy’s books came out of a great and abiding love for the material, a love which has everything to do with his deep family roots and his sense of being part of the heritage of New England, the heritage of the museum, and that of the antiques field,” says Gerard Wertkin, director of the Museum of American Folk Art.
As part of his research, Nelson often called on collectors, sometimes with Bob Bishop at his side. He met the folk art enthusiasts Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little for the first time in March, 1968, at their Essex, Mass., retreat, Cogswell’s Grant. “I am a fairly formal person and it was quite a bit later that I had the occasion to stay the night,” Nelson confesses. “When I saw that Nina and my mother had chosen the same wallpaper, I knew that the Littles and I were going to be very good friends. And we were, God bless them both.
“One weekend at Cogswell’s Grant I was roaming around enjoying all the beautiful things when Nina asked me what I was doing. I told her I was imagining a book on their collection and was hoping that she would write it. ‘Oh, my goodness!’ she exclaimed. ‘Are you serious?'” Dutton published Little by Little: Six Decades of Collecting American Decorative Art in 1984 and it remains one of the field’s great classics. To his infinite satisfaction, Nelson worked with Nina Little on several other volumes, including Country Arts in Early American Homes (1975) and Neat and Tidy: Boxes and their Contents Used in Early American Households (1980).
A shelf in Nelson’s bedroom is a pedestal for one of his greatest treasures, a blue transferware bowl with a view of Niagara Falls. Having read N. Hudson Moore’s Old China Book of 1903, Nina was inspired to collect Staffordshire but was uncertain where to find it. As she recorded in Little by Little, “One day in the spring I visited a small shop in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and caught a flash of blue in a shadowy corner. After hesitant investigation, I emerged triumphantly bearing a shallow bowl… This prize cost me $17.50, even then a modest price. The bowl was the precursor of many other blue Staffordshire treasures that came my way during the next few years.” Almost 70 years after, Nelson paid $1,200 plus premium at Sotheby’s for the bowl that launched Little as a collector. “I was determined to get it, and I did, but I could almost hear Nina saying, ‘Cy, you paid too much.'” Nelson and the Littles’ son Jack later learned they had been bidding against each other.
“” contains two spectacular paint-decorated blanket chests. One, from the Hudson River Valley, has grisaille decoration in imitation of Dutch furniture. The other is from Massachusetts. Both were given to the museum in Nelson’s honor by Jean Lipman. Nelson met the late editor of Art in America, also a noted collector of folk art, painted furniture, and modern art, in 1968, when he was acquiring illustrations for American Painted Furniture. To his regret, he narrowly missed the opportunity to publish the unusual New York chest. It remained overlooked in Lipman’s barn.
Her acquaintance made, Nelson subsequently edited several of Lipman’s books. Published in 1976 to coincide with the Bicentennial, Bright Stars: American Painting and Sculpture Since 1776 surveyed American art from Edward Hicks to Jasper Johns. In Provocative Parallels: Naive Early Americans/International Sophisticates (1975), Lipman elaborated on her long-held belief that American academic and vernacular art shared fundamental qualities. Calder’s Circus (1972) was a playful look at the wire menagerie created by her inventive friend, the artist Alexander Calder.
Some of Nelson’s best-selling books have been about architecture. His four Painted Ladies books, which colorized Victorian gingerbread from coast to coast, have sold 450,000 copies since 1978. Sales of three subsequent books on Bungalow architecture have reached 130,000 copies. “Robert Bishop was responsible for bringing my attention to South Beach in Miami. He brought me together with Barbara Capitman, whose Deco Delights (1981) is now up to around 80,000 copies,” the editor says. In April, he published The Vanishing American Outhouse.
Nelson’s interests are hardly limited to folk art and popular architecture. If anything, his many years as an editor have broadened his taste for subjects as varied as Cubist painting, historic French interiors, and American silver. An affinity for Japanese design led to his successful collaboration with Jill Liddell, author of Japanese Quilts (1988) and Story of the Kimono (1989). In August, he introduced a book on the Duchess of Devonshire’s gardens at Chatsworth and is currently working on a guide to the Gothic cathedrals of France. At 73, Nelson has no plans to retire.
“Cy has always been noted for his independence,” says Gerard Werktin. “Even within his publishing firm, he has been thought of as a company within a company. Publishers’ Weekly once did a very thoughtful little piece, pointing out that this quiet, courtly gentleman was responsible in the most wonderful way for every aspect of the books he edited.”
In two decades, Nelson has given the Museum of American Folk Art 113 objects dating from the late Eighteenth Century to the mid-Twentieth Century. “It’s a classical folk art orientation overall,” notes Elizabeth Warren. “In terms of the textiles, he has been especially interested in the earlier pieces and in calimanco, chintz, and whitework. It’s a very sophisticated taste. It’s not always the graphic design that hits you. You really have to appreciate the stitchery.”
One early piece is the bed rug that occupies the most visible spot in the show. Dated 1803 and attributed to the mother of Reverend Drury Fairbanks of Littleton, N.H., it was purchased from Joel and Kate Kopp of America Hurrah in New York. “The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford had the great exhibition of bed rugs in 1972,” says Nelson. “I was absolutely fascinated, and we reproduced several of them in the second book on American quilts.”
“” is, quite literally, a gathering of old friends. An indigo calimanco quilt of circa 1800 and the 1837 “Lady of the Lake” quilt were given in honor of the Kopps. The boldly abstract “Harlequin Medallion” quilt of glazed wool, circa 1800-1820, came from George Schoellkopf. Cora Ginsburg sold Nelson the turn-of-the-century “Indian Pine” quilt. A “Center Medallion and Flying Geese” quilt bears the name of Thomas Woodard and Blanche Greenstein. Jolie Kelter and Michael Malce are remembered by the “Pot of Flowers” hooked rug, and the “Turkey Tracks” trapunto quilt is dedicated to Laura Fisher. “Cy is remarkable. He is one of the few people who has ever written to tell me how much pleasure the piece that he bought from me gave him,” says the New York dealer.
“I’ve been deeply lucky in having had the fun of purchasing things from the dealers, who have been just great. On that point, I made it very clear that the collection is just as much theirs as mine,” Nelson responds.
No wonder the collector received prolonged applause at an opening night party in his honor on September 12. Nelson, a quiet man with an acute ear, has amplified the voices of others with his many books. With an editor’s talent for brevity, he has underscored the humanity of art whose beauty is more than skin deep.
“: Cyril I. Nelson’s Gifts to the Museum of American Folk Art” is on view through January 7, 2001. The Museum of American Folk Art is at Two Lincoln Square between 65 and 66th Street. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 am to 7:30 pm. Closed Monday. Telephone 212/595-9533.
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