Published: April 21, 2020
By Glenn Adamson
Dr John Driscoll (1949-2020)
A giant has passed from the art world – a world that he loved so well, with an intensity and integrity rare to find. John Paul Driscoll died of COVID-19 on Friday, April 10. The dimensions of this tragedy are hard to grasp, measurable only by the scale of the man’s achievements and the vast scope of his knowledge, learning and generosity. Only a year ago, on accepting the inaugural Service Award from the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University, John said, “I’m planning on being here a good while longer.” He had so much left to do, to discover and to teach.
John’s affinity to art and artists began early. He was almost literally a born collector and dealer – he began to acquire and trade early American coins at the age of ten, and discovered his inclination to wonder, to marvel, at the narratives contained in things. It only grew in him over the years. One of the great connoisseurs of his generation, he nonetheless thought of “quality,” narrowly conceived, as only part of a bigger story. For he was above all a storyteller, who saw artworks as an ever-shifting, infinitely charismatic cast of characters, and certain objects as gathering-points for whole universes.
Fortunately for the rest of us, John found a vocation that allowed him to share his insights. After undergraduate study at the University of Minnesota, he went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in art history at Penn State, writing theses on Charles Sheeler and Edwin Dickinson. He had his first professional museum experience at Penn State, followed by positions at the William H. Lane Foundation in Massachusetts and the Worcester Art Museum, before establishing his own art gallery in Boston. In 1987 he acquired Babcock Galleries, renaming the business Driscoll Babcock in 2012. Under his leadership, the gallery has continued and expanded its significant role as a leader in the field of American art. This year marks the gallery’s 168th year, making it New York City’s oldest art gallery.
While still at Penn State, John had become close with museum director Bill Hull, who introduced him to the discipline of modern ceramics. This became a lifelong passion. And so, it was that, even as he spent his days becoming an authority on American paintings and works on paper, John steadily built America’s finest private collection of British studio pottery. Decades in the making, it includes exceptional works by Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Ewan Henderson, Elizabeth Fritsch and many others, as well as pots by the gifted West African potter Ladi Kwali, and American exponents such as Warren MacKenzie. To see him hold a pot in his hand, just as to be in company with him and a painting, was to see a man communing with a dear friend.
Neither British ceramics nor early American art were necessarily fashionable during the years that John honed his eye and expertise on them. He placed important works in the collections of major museum collections across the United States and abroad, notably advising Mr and Mrs Edward Sheen in their creation of a fine assemblage of American Modernist masterworks – a collection which was the subject of a major book and exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 2010. He has placed major works by Asher B. Durand, Thomas Eakins, Stuart Davis, Andrew Wyeth, Franz Kline, John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, Paul CÃ©zanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in major private and public collections across America. John was a foremost authority on the Hudson River School, particularly the artist John F. Kensett, a key figure of whose luminous works were themselves illuminated by John’s words and thought.
His prolific and wide-ranging scholarship and curatorial work also informed exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art, the National Academy of Design and more than 20 other museums. He taught and lectured at the University of Minnesota, the Pennsylvania State University, New York University and Yale University. And he was the keystone lender (and a key intellectual partner) for the exhibition, “Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery,” a major exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art and the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University in 2017. John maintained his deep connection to Penn State, serving twice as the chair of the University’s Palmer Museum of Art Advisory Board, and giving that institution an expansive and transformational gift in 2018, helping to foster the study of American art for generations to come.
Alongside all these many accomplishments, John was a profoundly humane person, alive with quicksilver humor, yet gentle and generous. In his perceptive blue eyes, you felt truly and deeply seen. He was a remarkable and profound conversationalist; as his daughter Emily puts it, “When he answered a question, it was as if he had been thinking about it long before you asked it.” His home in Garrison, N.Y., is a place of abiding beauty and quiet resonance, filled with pottery and artworks, surrounded by a well-tended and sculptural garden, and animated by his aesthetic commitment. He shared this beautiful living environment with his wife, the artist Marylyn Dintenfass. John is also survived by his daughter Emily Driscoll and son-in-law Srineel Jalagani; daughter Gillian Driscoll; stepchildren Robert Katz and Elana Amsterdam; grandsons Jacob and Ethan Katz; stepchildren Marc and Sharon Katz and grandchildren Shaina, Noam and Ami Katz; brother Charles and sister-in-law Jean Driscoll; and brother, Robert Driscoll.
Despite all that he did and all he knew, John was modest, and disliked talking too much about himself. Yet he was also extraordinarily articulate. And so, it feels right to give him the last word. When receiving the James and Barbara Palmer Service Award last year, he told a wonderful story from his childhood – one that says a lot about the life he would go on to lead. He was brought by his parents to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, driving almost four hours “past corn fields and wheat fields and bean fields.” It was, he said, the first time he’d been in an art museum – the first time he’d even been in a big building. Best leave the rest of the story to John, as only he could tell it:
“Truth be told, I found the whole experience a little tedious. But I did, in my tedium, break away from the family and wander around through the galleries, looking mostly at the size of the stones that were in the floor. I’ve never seen such big stones, and they were in the floor. But then there was a magic moment, a moment in which I suddenly looked up at a wall and I saw a painting. It’s the first recollection I have of seeing a real painting in an art museum.
And I can tell you right now that painting went through me like a freight train. I don’t know if I was shaking on the outside, but I was shaking on the inside. I was mesmerized. I just couldn’t handle what was going on. This was an experience I had never had before. [Only later did I find out that] by the sheer work of all of the forces of the universe coming together and putting me in front of that painting, it was probably the single greatest Old Master painting on the North American continent, Rembrandt’s “Lucretia…”
And then all of a sudden there was a tugging on my arm, and my mother was pulling me back and mumbling something about wandering off by myself. I found myself being jerked from this new reality that I experienced, back into the reality of my everyday 10-year-old life, and I knew something at the moment. I didn’t know what had happened. But I did know this: I knew that the experience that I had just had was real. I knew that it was good. And I knew I wanted more of that.”
-Submitted by Driscoll Babcock
January 17, 2023
January 3, 2023
November 22, 2022
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