We cannot mention “loss” without thinking of S. Lane Faison, the influential art critic and teacher who died last month a few days shy of his ninety-ninth birthday. As art critic for The Nation in the early 1950s and as a teacher—at Yale in the 1930s and then at Williams College from 1936–1976—Faison was an immense and beneficent presence in the life of American art. He helped track down hordes of art looted by the Nazis and, in the early 1950s, helped to organize the first retrospective of work by Jackson Pollock. As a young assistant professor at Yale, Faison team-taught courses with the French scholars Marcel Aubert and Henri Focillon in alternate semesters. They spoke mostly in French, so Faison found himself translating for the students. Focillon’s classic La Vie des Formes (1934) made a deep impression on Faison. Indeed, its title—“the life of forms”—became a critical watchword, a definition of his vocation as a teacher and critic. Like Focillon, Faison always gave priority to the visual reality of the art object: to what we actually experience when looking. There is some irony in the fact that so many dubious figures from the contemporary museum world passed through Faison’s tutelage at Williams—we think, for example, of Thomas Krens, who labored mightily to transform the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum into the art world equivalent of Bloomingdales. But it would be unfair to judge Faison by his students—or, rather, it would be unfair to judge him by the most notorious of his students. As a corrective, consider this passage from Karen Wilkin’s in her introduction to Expressing Abstraction (Williams College), a collection of Faison’s writings which appeared only days before he died. Wilkin often accompanied Faison to art exhibitions when he came to New York.

As we move through the exhibition, Lane offers penetrating observations, based equally on his long experience of looking and his direct response to the works before him; I’m expected to add what I can. As anyone who’s heard him lecture knows, Lane is a splendid performer, with great anecdotes, and his intense visual interrogation of works of art is exciting and enlightening. But there is no escaping his often very difficult questions. Museum visits with him are always mind-stretching, never easy, no matter how well I know the material, and exhilarating.
It is always sad to register the passing of a great teacher. It is some consolation to know that, in the case of Lane Faison, his example lives on in the work of a new generation of critics.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 4, on page 3
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