It has been reported that Walt Reed died Wednesday (March 18, 2015) at the age of 97. I got the news from Roger Reed on Walt's Facebook page, and word has caromed around the illustration research community since. I am sorely disappointed that my old friend and colleague Jeff Pike is in Italy, because we would be toasting Walt together. That ceremony will have to wait for his return.
Walt Reed was known for many years by his work as an historian and art dealer in the world of “illustration art.” Practitioner, author, curator and meticulous compiler, he had a tremendous impact on public awareness of illustration, and left a large trove of materials to occupy future researchers. I met him once, in 2007 or ’08, at the kickoff event for the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, when he would have been 90. A little stooped, open-faced and faintly elfin, he spoke generously of the contributions of other writers, when his own work stood out among attendees.
Reed was born in Texas, raised in Michigan, and moved to New York as a young man to make his way in the world as a illustrator. He gained some schooling at Pratt, then established the beginnings
of a career. When the U.S. finally entered World War Two, Reed sought and was ultimately granted conscientious objector status. He labored in the Dakotas doing government work in the war years, then traveled to Europe to aid reconstruction efforts. He ended up back in New York to restart his career in the late 40s. (David Saunders wrote a biography of Reed for Illustration Magazine [#35, 2012] which expands on the preceding and delivers a great deal more. A copy of that feature is accessible on the Walt Reed Facebook page; I recommend it.)
Reed established a journeyman practice, securing consistent freelance work, and on that basis–as well as sociability among his peers–found himself engaged as an instructor at the Famous Artists School, brainchild of Albert Dorne. The Famous Artists School cries out for sustained critical engagement: another day, but a fantastic cultural contraption. A middle-class art ideology and homely foil to abstract expressionism; a classic self-improvement program; an earnest enterprise with a streak of hucksterism. Pure Americana.
But Walt was the furthest thing from a huckster. Kind, perceptive, industrious and abidingly decent, he built strong relationships among Westport’s illustrators, and in time began to play a role as a informal historian and gallerist of illustration art. Those twinned preoccupations intensified and deepened, becoming the basis for Walt’s legacy: foremost chronicler and resource on the history of American illustration, auction house founder (Illustration House, 1974) and author of the foundational reference work The Illustrator in America in several editions, as well as monographs on John Clement Coll, Harold Von Schmidt, Harvey Dunn and others.
Illustration and illustrators have been alienated from high visual culture nearly from the beginning of the profession in the last third of the nineteenth century. Michele Bogart narrated the divergence of fine art and illustration in her book Artists, Advertising and the Borders of Art (1997). As the 20th century unfolded illustrators lived increasingly on a cultural island, supported by audiences of magazine readers, floated by advertising dollars, but marooned–isolated, that is, from high cultural actors and institutions: museums, art publishers, academic interpreters. That’s the context in which Walt Reed found himself in the 1960s and 70s. Aside from the Society of Illustrators and custodial collections of the Brandywine era (the Delaware Museum, the Brandywine) there wasn’t much institutional tissue for illustration. So he began to assemble one, in his way, to support the activities of Illustration House, but also to honor, describe and interpret the field. He helped shape the New Britain Museum’s efforts to collect illustration by advising and donating works.
I am not of illustration, in the sense that I wasn’t trained in the field as a student. I started as a printmaker, because at my small college (as at most) there was only an art department, and “applied art” was simply never discussed. I wasn’t really of “fine art” either, as I found the discussions of student work in my courses somewhat tedious, and I left to go read books. Even after I wended my way back to image-making and graduate study and professional practice (to say nothing of the professoriate), I have always looked at the art enterprise as if from afar, like an anthropologist of sorts. When through the dumbest of luck I was present when Kit Parker, Al Parker’s youngest son, sought to donate his father’s work to Washington University, I began to confront a new set of artifacts that puzzled me: romance fiction illustrations from women’s magazines, circa 1940 to 1960. What the hell, I wondered, are these things, and how do you look at them?
More than a decade later, I assumed the faculty directorship of something called the Modern Graphic History Library, which we created to house the Parker Collection and the steady stream of things that came to us in the aftermath of taking in that collection. I’m honored to say that over a period of years, I was involved in discussions with Roger Reed about the disposition of his father’s research archive, which to understate the case was and is substantial.
Those discussions were concluded successfully, and the Walt Reed Illustration Archive came to Washington University several years ago. (I am in the process of pulling out the remarks I made at the event marking that acquisition and will post them here soon.) And now I have the privilege of working with the materials–books, magazines, upwards of a quarter-million tear sheets indexed by illustrator–that Walt and sons acquired to support the curatorial, editorial and scholarly enterprise of Illustration House (still in business under Roger’s leadership as an auction house and consultancy). So I feel as if I get to spend time with Walt, indirectly and across time. I have posted some images scanned from books and tear sheets in the archive, by way of example.
I observed that I am not of illustration because I’ve never felt in thrall to it. Things are just things. People value some items over others for economic reasons, or sentiment, or alleged significance. But it’s only stuff, and it will all be gone when the sun swells up and burns the inner planets to a crisp some zillion years hence. What matters, ultimately, is why we value things. Walt Reed became a connoisseur of pictures, and a chronicler of people, that others in the culture industry dismissed. He didn’t light the flame, exactly (as Jaleen Grove has observed, Helen Card preceded him) but he nurtured it, caused it to burn brighter, and held it up higher for others to see. His keen eye and deep curiosity will continue to yield fresh insights; the stockpile of research he built up will nourish students of visual culture for many decades to come.
But like everything else, the illustration business is a mixed bag. Some of it is fabulous; some of it is dreck. Connoisseurship has its limits. Hence we come back to the values which animate the things. And this, for me, is where Walt Reed matters most. In a time when our culture stinks of money and privilege like none since the Gilded Age; when price equals worth, and Cadillac sells cars using images of aristocrats in carriages; when Art has become a commodity distributed at global fairs for the super-rich: at such a moment, ponder the work of Walt Reed. How well to have spent a life, cultivating public appreciation for the brick-in-the-wall work of the illustrators, who made images for everyday people, giving form to dreams, shaping news of the world, brightening doldrums on gray days. Their work has mattered more and differently than we have realized. Over the course of a long career, Walt Reed honored them and the work they did like no one else. They–and we–are in his debt.