Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2019
Freyda Spira and Peter Parshall The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. 192 pp.; 169 color ills. Paperback $35.00 (9781588395856)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, January 26–May 22, 2016
The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, January 26–May 22, 2016

In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art marked the centennial of its Department of Prints (later the Department of Prints and Photographs and today the Department of Drawings and Prints) with an exhibition and publication celebrating the museum’s first two print curators, William M. Ivins (1881–1961) and A. Hyatt Mayor (1901–1980). Familiar to print specialists for their respective authorship of the seminal studies Prints and Visual Communication (1953) and Prints and People: A Social History of Printed Pictures (1971), Ivins and Mayor spent a combined fifty years developing the Met’s initial print holdings of a few thousand works into a collection that today numbers more than 1.5 million objects that range from the earliest books with printed illustrations to recent works by living artists. Organized chronologically, the exhibition of more than one hundred works acquired during Ivins’s and Mayor’s tenures proceeded from the Renaissance through the early twentieth century and featured touchstones of artistic printmaking by Andrea Mantegna, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, and Francisco Goya as well as early illustrated treatises on medicine, perspective, geography, and mass-produced prints such as playing cards and postcards. As elaborated in the fine catalogue by Freyda Spira, associate curator of drawings and prints, and Peter Parshall, retired curator and head of the department of old master prints at the National Gallery of Art, the selection reflects Ivins and Mayor’s strong interest in particular artists and particular categories of prints while also illuminating their belief in the unique status of prints as vehicles for both pictorial expression and the communication of information.

Following a succinct introduction by Spira that provides an overview of the Met’s print collection as built by Ivins and Mayor, essays and biographical chronologies for each man comprise the first part of The Power of Prints, with the second half devoted to an illustrated catalogue of the prints presented in the exhibition. Organized first by medium and then by chronology, the catalogue entries frequently include or reference commentary by Ivins and Mayor on individual works. The essays—by Parshall on Ivins and Spira on Mayor—provide lively professional biographies based on the two curators’ prolific writings as well as extensive research in the Met’s institutional records and the Archives of American Art. Ivins and Mayor published widely for both scholarly and general audiences, writing frequent notices for the museum’s Bulletin and other art publications in addition to their general, now-classic studies of pictorial prints that remain among the most accessible introductions to the field. The engaging prose and clear presentation of information in The Power of Prints evokes those aspects of Ivins and Mayor’s own writing while demonstrating their precocious interdisciplinary and humanistic approaches to the study of prints. The welcome inclusion of individual catalogue entries—largely dispensed with in exhibition catalogues over the last several years—honors Mayor’s priorities for his own publications that “juxtaposed large, readable images with evocative but brief texts, to reach the broadest possible audience and to inspire a new understanding of prints as critical to the stories of both art, and more widely, humankind” (32). In its emulation of Ivins and Mayor’s scholarship in both form and content, The Power of Prints serves as both a thoughtful evaluation of their careers and contributions to the print field as well as a broadly drawn account of taste, scholarship, and museum work during the first half of the twentieth century.

Ivins’s and Mayor’s paths to their curatorial careers were certainly paved by privilege: both men came from comfortable, cultured backgrounds, received rigorous liberal arts educations, and cultivated intellectual social circles. Neither formally studied art history or had worked in a museum before landing their positions at the Met. Ivins’s study and collecting of prints began during his undergraduate years at Harvard and continued while he pursued his law degree and subsequent work as an attorney in New York. He joined the museum’s curatorial staff in 1916 after being recommended for the post by his college friend Paul J. Sachs, a pioneer of curatorial training in the United States, who was then the recently appointed assistant director at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. In “The Education of a Curator: William M. Ivins at the Met,” Parshall lucidly portrays Ivins as a passionate and rigorous, if anti-academic, scholar whose belief that prints “gave vast and subtle access to the history of human experience” (15) informed the broad agenda for the museum’s print department that his protégé and successor Mayor also would pursue. With the disclaimer that “Ivins thus stands within a long tradition of museum curators who began learning their subject as private collectors and independent scholars” (14), Parshall devotes much of his essay to examining and contextualizing Ivins’s intellectual engagement with the art and craft of printmaking, noting his empirical approaches informed by history, philosophy, and the social sciences. Parshall also provides a glimpse of Ivins’s work at the museum beyond the print collection, noting his attention to museum education and his service as acting director for two years.

In 1932, Ivins hired Mayor, who had until then pursued acting, teaching, and writing, and Mayor was promoted when Ivins retired in 1946, serving as head of the department until 1966. Both Mayor’s mother and aunt were sculptors, and this early and regular exposure to art was supplemented by his family’s extensive travels. Mayor studied modern languages at Princeton, graduating in 1922, and before landing at the Met spent several years abroad continuing his education in England, Italy, and Greece before returning to New York and working primarily as an arts educator and critic. Emphasizing his “prodigious appetite for knowledge” and his inspired teaching in her essay “A. Hyatt Mayor’s Life in Art and Letters,” Spira shows Mayor building on Ivins’s collection development work, seizing opportunities to add significant numbers of reproductive engravings as well as major collections of printed ephemera to the Met’s holdings. Spira provides some information about Mayor’s acquisitions, noting the purchases of engravings from the Albertina and through the dealer P. & D. Colnaghi and the gift of trade cards and postcards from Jefferson R. Burdick. Further details about some acquisitions can be gleaned from the two biographical chronologies and the essays and entries on the exhibition objects, but readers curious about Ivins and Mayor’s discovery and pursuit of the works that ultimately entered the Met’s print collection will not have their questions answered here.

As an exhibition and publication celebrating the two architects of the Met’s great print collection, The Power of Prints keeps its focus squarely on Ivins and Mayor and their individual minds and motivationsThere is little sense of how they or the print department related to the rest of the museum either on a collegial or institutional level. With the exception of noting Ivins’s upholding of the British Museum’s print collection as a model, no comparisons are made between Ivins and Mayor’s collection-building activity with any contemporary efforts at other American museums. For readers less familiar with museum print departments, relating Ivins’s and Mayor’s activities to those of their curatorial colleagues at the Met or other museums might have bolstered the authors’ already strong case for their contributions both to their museum and the larger print field.   

As presented in The Power of Prints, Ivins’s and Mayor’s remarkable careers belong to a bygone era of museums and curatorial work, for better or for worse. Seizing their opportunities at that historical moment, Ivins and Mayor established wide berths for their collection building and object-based research to introduce and promote pictorial prints of all types. Indeed, current and aspiring curators will marvel at Ivins and Mayor’s prescience in setting a broad mandate for their development of the Met’s print collection. As twenty-first century museums seek to engage with contemporary social issues in their exhibitions and programs and to create collections reflecting a greater diversity of people, places, and ideas, Ivins and Mayor’s serious consideration of overlooked or marginalized aspects of prints offers a historical precedent for such curatorial activity. Their interdisciplinary scholarly interests anticipate the current emphasis of such projects in museums, and their conviction that prints are the best vehicle to tell the story of the time and place in which they were made could underpin the now-popular presentations combining historical and contemporary artworks. Whether Ivins or Mayor could have anticipated the shift away from media-based curatorial departments occurring in many museums, it is certain that either one would lead the charge in defense of prints.

Christine Giviskos
Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art, Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University