by Mark Francis

John Caldwell (1941-1993) was the much-loved curator of contemporary art at Carnegie Museum of Art from 1983 until 1989. During that period of his life and career in Pittsburgh, he transformed the landscape of contemporary art in this city and in the museum itself, taking it out of the doldrums into which its program had fallen by the early 1980s and energetically revitalizing the Carnegie International exhibition in 1985 and again in 1988.

Until now, his legacy has been visible principally in the exceptional series of acquisitions he made for the museum, including great works by artists such as Richard Serra, whose Carnegie steel monument stands outside the entrance to the museum; Lothar Baumgarten, whose The Tongue of the Cherokee adorns the ceiling of the Hall of Sculpture; and others including Sigmar Polke, Bruce Nauman, Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer and Richard Deacon. No other American museum can be said to have made such an astute selection of American and European works by the defining artists of their time.

Recently, another quality of John's great skill in presenting and interpreting contemporary art has become more widely available. His writings on art have been posthumously published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, edited by Thea Westreich. John was known as urbane, articulate and passionate about contemporary art, and about many other things in life. But until his writings were brought together in this beautifully designed and produced volume, few people knew how clearly and directly he expressed his views and positions.

His writing skills were developed during a stint at the New York Times in the early 1980s, when he wrote art reviews on a wide variety of subjects not restricted to contemporary art. Previously, he had studied at Yale and Harvard and at Hunter College in New York, and then worked in the department of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum. His description of a painting by Thomas Eakins, from one of his New York Times reviews in 1982, already gives a sense of his descriptive powers and of his special ability to connect art both with everyday life and with a spiritual quality of heightened awareness:

As the light in Eakins's paintings picks out the faces and shoulders of the rowers, we experience it not as an artistic device but as both a fact and as something in the nature of a miracle. Eakins's light is simultaneously objective and adoring; it almost trembles as it touches the wrinkled shirt of the front oarsman and revels in the unexpected magenta of their caps and the red oarlock of their boat.

This is the expression of someone who really looks at a painting, and who can describe why the subject, and the human activity of painting itself, continue to be of such importance to our understanding of the world.

During his years in Pittsburgh, John actually wrote less prolifically, as the demands of preparing the enormous International exhibition, and especially the amount of travel required, precluded the contemplation necessary for writing. But it is clear, even a decade later, that John's taste, charm and verbal powers of persuasion had a dramatic impact on artists and collectors in the city. He and Jack Lane, the former director of the Museum of Art, were highly influential in encouraging collectors of modern and contemporary art, and the trustees of the museum pursued an innovative and exciting program, building on the proper strengths of the museum.

In 1987 Jack Lane left for San Francisco, and shortly thereafter Caldwell followed to become curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There, in the years before his untimely death at the age of 51 in 1993, John was in his prime, and the evidence from this book indicates that his exceptionally generous and curious nature was at full stretch. Not many other American curators could have put on exhibitions of Lawrence Weiner, Luciano Fabro and Jeff Koons. Each of those artists has a visceral sense of sculptural materiality and a refined, even arcane, set of references and yet they are otherwise poles apart. John writes about each of them as though their work is located in the experience of the spectator-an intelligent, adult viewer who can appreciate the comic or elegiac quality in Koons's images derived from popular culture, but also a viewer with the sense of freshness and wonder which we associate with children. With both Weiner and Fabro, Caldwell describes his discovery of their work, as he walks around a garden on the coast of California or a sculpture park in the Netherlands, as a form of revelation.

Towards the end of his life he wrote one of his most sustained texts on contemporary art, hitherto unpublished. It amounts to a serious analysis of the work of a younger generation of New York artists in whom Caldwell took an intense interest, including Christopher Wool, Cady Noland and Matthew Barney. At first he discusses artists of a slightly earlier generation (Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman) in order to locate the younger Americans on the spectrum of art history. Then Caldwell exposes the raw and violent aspects of life which each artist reveals-the apocalyptic texts of Wool's paintings, the traumatic memories evoked by Robert Gober's drains and sinks, the disturbing perversity choreographed by Matthew Barney. Finally, this long piece of writing, done for unknown purposes, adopts the clarity and decisiveness of a manifesto. Of these new and provocative works of art, Caldwell writes that "they take on to a certain degree the quality of immanence, the beauty that things in this world have when looked at carefully and receptively." John's legacy remains precisely in the number of people who now recognize this quality.

Mark Francis was John Caldwell's successor as curator of contemporary art at Carnegie Museum of Art. He is now curator of The Andy Warhol Museum.

Reviewed books are available at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.