The Burke Collection

History of the Collection

Japanese style and beauty first struck me when I saw my mother’s kimono, a padded winter one of black silk displaying at the knee a bold design of twisted pine branches covered with snow. She had gotten it in Japan as a young woman, just after the turn of the century. She wore it with the slim grace of the princess in James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863–65), which hangs in the famous Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Mother’s taste in clothes was elegant, and the kimono attained its striking effect not through brilliant color or intricate pattern, but by its dramatic white-on-black design. I can remember putting it on and letting it trail behind me; I believe a future collector of Japanese art was born then.

In considering this vivid memory of childhood, I realize that my taste has been influenced by a series of such ­family experiences associated with travel to and ideas from other countries. Cross-cultural currents shape the lives of many Americans. We look back to Europe, whence many of us came, but we also turn with great expectation and ­interest toward the Orient. In contemplating the activities of my immediate forebears, I have a sense of the movement, drive, and curiosity that linked them with cultures other than our own.

My maternal grandfather, Crawford Livingston, came from an old New York family.1 The founder of the Livingston family in America, Robert, was a Scotsman who arrived in this country in the early seventeenth century. He received a large land grant and the title Lord of the Manor from the British crown. Four generations later the American Revolu­tion put an end to the title. Livingstons served in that war and helped draft and sign the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They produced several eminent men in the fields of government, law, and commerce in the new United States of America.

Although he grew up in New York, Grandfather ­Livingston did not remain in the east. He went to Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1870, fourteen years after my paternal grand­father, Colonel Chauncy Griggs, had moved there from Connecticut. The Colonel had fought in the War Between the States on the Union side. The Griggs family, like the Livingstons, traced its roots in American history to the early seventeenth century. Both of my grandfathers were men of their time. Ambitious and in search of promising business opportunities, each one left the east coast where he was born in order to travel throughout the United States. They both married and raised large families in Saint Paul and established themselves in a variety of successful ventures, including lumber, railroading, and public utilities. Grandfather Livingston eventually returned to New York to help his only surviving son form a banking firm; Grandfather Griggs pressed on to the west coast to extend his lumbering interests in Tacoma, ­Washington.

While Grandfather Griggs attended to business, his wife and some of his children traveled abroad. Martha Ann ­Gallop Griggs, my grandmother, took two of her children — my father, Theodore, and a younger sister — to Germany. It was there that Father first studied art. He later learned to express himself in skillful black-and-white ink sketches of landscapes, animals, and people, delighting in caricatures of friends and relatives. His drawings helped sensitize me to the world of the great ink painters of Japan.

His mother — an active, cultured person and a good amateur painter —was a woman of independent mind. She is purported to have made a number of trips to the Orient, including Japan, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unfortunately, I know little of these adventures except for a possibly apocryphal but evidently typical story concerning one of her departures from Tacoma. She was about to board ship when her houseman rushed onto the dock with the news that the house was on fire. She calmly told him to return immediately and put out the fire, while she continued on her journey to Japan with a single-mindedness worthy of a Zen priest.

One of her four sons, my uncle Everett Griggs — who ­succeeded his father, the Colonel, as head of the Saint Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company — did visit Japan on a business trip after the destructive 1923 earthquake there. While at Yale, Everett had befriended two Japanese classmates. He and his wife, Grace, evidently stayed with these gentlemen and their families in Japan. These friendships must have grown closer during the visit, because soon after their return, the daughter of one Japanese friend came to visit them. She stayed, it is said, for two years and attended school in Tacoma. She brought with her a splendid fourteenth-century painting of a white-robed Kannon as a gift to my aunt and uncle. I have recently acquired this painting, which I had long admired, from the cousin to whom my aunt bequeathed it.

My mother, Mary Livingston Griggs, was not the only member of her family to visit Japan. Accompanied by her mother, a sister, a brother, and two cousins, she went around the world in 1902. In Japan they stopped at Tokyo, Nikkō, and Kyoto, which she especially enjoyed. She went down the Kamo River to shoot the Hozu rapids. She watched cormorant fishing and attended a Noh play. Unfortunately, only her kimono remains to commemorate this early trip to Japan. I believe, however, that the beauty of the country and the spirit of its people affected her deeply. Certainly she loved its gardens. Many years later she built a rock garden with streams, rustic bridges, ferns, moss, and wild flowers in northern ­Wisconsin at the summer house inherited from her father, Crawford Livingston. This place in turn has meant much to me. Its tall, green pines and sparkling lakes instilled in me a deep love for nature. This feeling helped draw me in my collecting to Zen Buddhist landscape paintings of the Muromachi period that express the essence of natural things and man’s close harmony with them. These “landscapes of the soul,” which illustrate the quiet seclusion of a mountain retreat, were often used by Zen priests as aids in meditation.

Both of my grandfathers acquired large Victorian houses in Saint Paul that were situated on a hilltop boulevard with a commanding view of a magnificent bend in the Mississippi River. There exists a quaint 1867 print of Grandfather ­Living­ston’s house, built in 1862–63 by an entrepreneur of the transportation (both riverboat and stagecoach) industry. The print shows the house as a three-story gray-limestone mansion crowned by a low-pitched roof and wooden cupola. The bracketed cornice, round arched windows, and handsomely proportioned belvedere are typical of the villa style so popular in America between 1850 and 1870. Mother, the only one of Grandfather’s children to remain in Saint Paul, eventually took it over. My parents were married in this house and I grew up there.

Throughout Mother’s life she found much pleasure in collecting antiques, including complete, paneled eighteenth-century European rooms, which were installed cleverly and amazingly in this Victorian house. By the time my mother finished redoing it, the mid-nineteenth-century house contained such a variety of styles and objects from different cultures, including a few Chinese ceramics, that it was like living in a museum. It undoubtedly helped me to develop a respect for old, rare, and carefully crafted objects, and being surrounded by such a variety of interesting things probably gave me an eclectic taste. Collecting was in my blood.

Like Father, Mother was artistically oriented. Late in life she took up painting. She greatly admired the work of the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and some of her own pictures resembled that artist’s flower paintings. Miss O’Keeffe’s exposure to oriental art has manifested itself in her working process of executing a series of paintings on a single theme. Her deep awareness of the forces underlying nature and her adoption of a flat, decorative composition in strong colors also reflected this influence.

Mother was greatly attracted to Miss O’Keeffe’s paintings, and in the 1940s she gave me one called Black Place No. 1. I believe this painting, more than any other single work of art, has influenced the formation of my own taste.

Another painter who also had a profound influence on my growing aesthetic appreciation was Bradley Walker Tomlin. I studied with him at Sarah Lawrence College. He was an abstract expressionist of the New York School. Tomlin taught me how to look at and really understand a picture. He rejected stereotypes and could grasp the meaning of all true artists. He is purported to have studied Zen ink painting. He introduced me to the calligraphic line of the American action painters, whose brushstrokes resemble oriental calligraphy.

Tomlin inspired me to do some collecting in modern ­Western art. I acquired a few works by such artists as Maurice Utrillo and Aristide Maillol, as well as a fine example of a surrealist-cubist painting by Tomlin himself.

I studied art history at home and abroad and became more appreciative of modernism in art. The use of shadowless space and unrealistic but strong, clear color had become familiar to me through my acquaintance with the works of both O’Keeffe and Tomlin, as well as through the other modern painters I had collected. When I eventually did go to Japan, I was struck by certain similarities of approach in some traditional schools of Japanese art and some of contemporary Western art, but what impressed me most in Japanese painting was the use of line. In the Ukiyo-e prints and paintings it serves as a strong, black outline for the areas of color, while in ink painting it becomes an extremely sensitive and suggestive shorthand way of presenting both form and content.

It was not until 1954, about thirty years after I coveted my mother’s splendid kimono, that I made my first trip to Japan, at the suggestion of the architect Walter Gropius. Becoming more and more involved with the modern movement in painting and architecture, I had decided to build a contemporary open-plan house on the north shore of Long Island near Oyster Bay, New York. For the job I had chosen The Architects Collaborative, or TAC, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of which Gropius was the head at that time.

He had just returned from a lecture tour in Japan and was full of enthusiasm for things Japanese. The kind of modernism he stood for had much in common with traditional Japanese architecture, epitomized by the Katsura Imperial Villa. Both he and Ben Thompson, the architect of TAC principally responsible for designing my house and its landscaping, thought that visiting the gardens of Japan would give me insight that might help them to create a perfect environment for my house.

Through the International House of Japan, I met the ­architect Junzō Yoshimura and in his company visited most of the important gardens of the time — both private and public. Mr. Yoshimura was of tremendous help to me in understanding Japanese aesthetics and architecture. We ­visited many of his buildings and those of other architects of the time, as well as old temples and palaces. We sat on the bamboo moon-viewing platform of the Katsura Imperial Villa and enjoyed looking out over the stroll garden with its lakes, winding paths, and teahouses. From this and other gardens I brought back not only ideas that helped capture some of the spirit of Japan for my own garden but also a profound interest in the entire approach to the arts in that country.

In 1954 the countryside of Japan was still strikingly ­beautiful. Patterned rice paddies and neat tea plantations surrounded the villages on the plains, covered the low hills, and even reached up to the craggy mountains. The old, dark, beautifully shaped farmhouses appeared to grow from the green fields, and the people who worked these fields in their dark-blue clothes and broad straw hats evoked a sense of belonging and harmony with the scene. Art played a large part in the daily lives of the people. The distinction between high art and craft was not so sharply drawn as in the West. Art seemed an indivisible whole embracing lacquer, ceramics, paintings, textiles, and much more. This aesthetic sensitivity showed in what the people wore, in the utensils they used for eating, and even in the arrangement of food on a plate, as well as in their architecture and masterpieces of sculpture and painting. Although modern development has done away with much of the picturesque quality of the scenery that I saw in ’54, this attitude toward art as a total way of life still prevails in Japan to the present day.

During that trip I fell in love with Japan, and I have continued to admire this country, its people, and its art. Although I was profoundly moved by the beauty of the paintings and the sculptures that I saw in museums and temples, unfortunately I acquired only a few attractive souvenirs — some modern ceramics — including a large plate by Hamada, which I gave away as a present, and a number of Meiji prints.

It was in the United States that I found my first important Japanese art object. In 1956 I bought at auction an Edo-period screen that had once belonged to Frank Lloyd Wright. It depicts six episodes from the early part of The Tale of Genji focusing on the Dance of the Blue Waves in chapter seven, “The Autumn Excursion.” Although my interest in Japanese art was growing, I had not yet read Lady Murasaki’s great novel or I would certainly have tried to acquire its mate, also offered at the auction.

A year earlier, in 1955, I had married Jackson Burke. ­Having lived in California for most of his life, he also had an interest in the Orient. We used the Edo-period screen first in our TAC-built house, where it suffered from too much sunlight, and later moved it to our New York apartment. We then acquired a few Chinese paintings of the Ming period, and some works of modern Japanese abstract calligraphy more appropriate for our modern house than old screens.

By this time, I was seriously studying Japanese art. I had joined both the Japan and Asia Societies in New York. I took courses at the Institute of Fine Arts and Columbia University in New York, where I met Professor Miyeko Murase, whose connoisseurship was an invaluable source of inspiration and help to me in matters of understanding and collecting Japanese art.

Because of my husband’s failing health, we sometimes spent winters in Florida. In 1963 we attended an exhibition, held at the Society of the Four Arts, in Palm Beach, consisting of paintings — but no prints — of the Ukiyo-e school. We were captivated by the artists’ use of pattern, strong color, and line. These paintings mainly portrayed beauties of the ­Yoshiwara District and genre scenes. On November 22, 1963, a date I remember, as it was the day that President ­Kennedy was assassinated, we bought the entire collection of seventy works from the widow of Mr. Frank Hart, who had assembled them in Japan during the occupation. These paintings were to form the nucleus of our future collection.

In the following two years, 1964 and 1965, we became more adventurous, and while we never completely stopped collecting Ukiyo-e, we turned our attention to other areas of painting. We were fortunate to be able to purchase works by early Rinpa artists, most notably two charming album leaves with poems from the Kokin wakashū, done in Kōetsu’s fluid calligraphy on Sōtatsu-decorated paper, and a Hotei portrayed with a few deft strokes and patches of black ink by Kōrin. Later we acquired other, more important works by these masters of painting and calligraphy. During these early years we also found sculpture, paintings, and sutras from the Fujiwara and Kamakura periods, and were particularly ­fortunate in being able to acquire a large section of a ­Kamakura Inga kyō depicting the entire scene of the young Prince Siddhārtha (the future Buddha) tempted by a demon king. Its lively and brightly colored devils reminded me of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

At the encouragement of Professor Murase, I had at last read The Tale of Genji. This great and intricate novel, which has had a pervasive effect on Japanese culture, touched me deeply. I became aware of how important both prose and poetry are to the Japanese and how closely they are bound to the visual arts of painting and calligraphy. The collection contains many examples of screens, scrolls, albums, and other objects presenting episodes from The Tale of Genji.

As full-fledged collectors, my husband and I had begun to form friendships with other collectors, as well as with curators and directors of museums in the United States that possessed large holdings of oriental art. These included The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which in 1975 gave our collection a show that traveled to the Seattle Art Museum, and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. We had good relationships with the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University and, in particular, the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., whose former director, Philip Stern, was most helpful in advising us on some of our first purchases. When we began to collect in Japan, we were greatly helped by these friends, who introduced us to museum experts and noted scholars, among them the late Tanaka Ichimatsu. We met many knowledgeable dealers in both America and Japan. The assistance we received from all of these people is an important chapter in our collecting activities, but one too large to be covered in the present essay.

In 1965 my husband and I made a decision that gave me the incentive and encouragement to go to Japan for really serious collecting. As a printer, designer of books, and finally as director of typographic development for Mergenthaler Linotype Company in Brooklyn, New York, Jackson Burke had a strong sense of design. He was well known as a designer of typeface. A man of great taste and an inveterate collector himself, he built a library of rare books on printing. He ­realized that in order to display our treasures properly we needed not only more space but also properly designed space. In 1965 we acquired a special and separate apartment for the display of our paintings, sculptures, and objects. There we could share with others these beautiful things in an appropriate ambience that enhanced each work’s uniqueness. In our “mini-museum” we tried to approximate the simple and carefully proportioned space of a traditional Japanese house, in which a limited number of functional and beautiful objects are on view — ­ceramics, lacquer pieces, and paintings. While we did not produce a real Japanese living room, the Japanese sculptor and designer Yasuhide Kobashi helped create an architectural enframement in Japanese taste. This room of grass cloth and wood includes wall space for hanging scrolls, built-in platforms for screens, and a tokonoma for the display of scrolls and objects. Here my husband applied his fine sense of design and his training in graphic arts to put together small, exquisite exhibitions. In choosing fine objects, we tried to develop a mood to suit a particular season or to appeal to the taste of the guests who were to be entertained on a particular day.

Like the Japanese, we attempted to think in terms of the complete environment. We constantly changed and re­arranged our objects to form different and complete harmonies. In the years 1966–75, Jackson Burke selected 250 groups of objects to display for more than 1,600 visitors, among them scholars, friends, and students. Their delight and often ­sudden recognition of the beauty of an object in this ideal setting amply rewarded our efforts.

The completion in 1966 of our mini-museum was definitely a stimulant to our collecting activities. We felt more secure in acquiring rare and beautiful objects to display in that environment, which was properly controlled with respect to temperature and humidification levels. When I returned from Japan with the art objects, Jackson Burke could easily organize and catalogue them in this new space.

During the years 1966 through 1973 the bulk of the collection was acquired and our range of interest expanded to include all the categories represented in this exhibition. We continued to increase our holdings in Buddhist and Shinto sculpture and painting and began to collect new categories, including early Yamato-e, calligraphy, and ink painting. To the paintings we already had of the Rinpa, Tosa, and Ukiyo-e schools from the Momoyama, Edo, and Meiji periods, we added works from the Kano, Shijō, and Nanga schools. We also acquired ceramics, lacquer, and metal objects from all periods. I cannot say that we consciously made a decision to amass examples from every area of Japanese art; certain ­categories of items popular with many collectors, such as prints, inrō, haniwa, and decorative porcelains, are either completely lacking or represented by only a few examples.

As I learned more about Japanese art and its variety, I not only developed more definite preferences for certain areas, but also became more discriminating and able to choose the best from among the paintings and objects available to me. Although I was and still am most deeply moved by Muromachi ink paintings, which I started to collect in 1967 under the guidance of Professor Murase, their number in the collection is small because of their rarity and their value to the Japanese.

The factor of luck — being in the right place at the right time — accounts to some degree for the fact that thirty percent of the collection consists of works from two Edo-period schools, Ukiyo-e and Nanga. We had acquired the entire Hart Collection of Ukiyo-e in 1963 and a large number of Nanga paintings in 1967 and 1968. Those two categories of paintings make good foils for each other. The robust, colorful, town-oriented Ukiyo-e we first admired found their complement in the Chinese-inspired, literary, and nature-celebrating Nanga works. The collection possesses screens by two of the most famous Nanga artists —The Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion and Autumn Festival by Taiga, and Travels through Mountains and Fields by Buson.

During the 1960s and early 1970s I was able to pick up bargains in both the United States and Japan, because at that time only a few serious collectors of Japanese art existed in America and there was a lull in the art market in Japan. I believe that if we had not built the special gallery to display our treasures, the collection would not have grown so rapidly and successfully during these years of golden opportunity. It was a wonderfully happy and fruitful period of my life for which I shall always remain grateful.

When my husband died in 1975, I did not stop collecting. Although I missed both his good taste and his capacity for organization, there was something still within me that found release only through continuing to seek out the beautiful and enjoy it with others. Perhaps that need to collect and share my treasures became even stronger after I lost him.

My husband and I had always possessed religious works, but after his death I bought more of them. In 1979 it became necessary for the designer Kobashi to add another small ­gallery to the mini-museum in order to display religious objects, sculpture, and painting — both Shinto and ­Buddhist. Again the aim was not to produce an authentic setting. Instead of a temple, Kobashi created an atmosphere of calm simplicity in which religious icons would look at home.

The largest statue in the collection — which occupies a special niche in my New York gallery for religious objects —depicts the deity Fudō Myōō. This figure has helped me to gain some insight into the rituals of Shingon, the esoteric sect of Buddhism. The disparity between his fierce face and gentle, childlike body underscores the mystic nature of his power. I know he is a force for good, not evil.

Two depictions of the bodhisattva Jizō also increased my appreciation and understanding of certain aspects of Japanese Buddhism. The small Kamakura-period icon, which I found in Paris in 1970, presents Jizō as a sympathetic and accessible deity as well as a beautiful one. The Edo painting of Jizō by Kano Tan’yū acquired in 1981 is a delightful and humorous version. In this painting Jizō sails along on a cloud wearing a charming floppy lotus hat and playing a flute. In spite of a certain lack of dignity, I find this image very moving in its fluidity of line and lightness of spirit. It fills me with joy and hope.

Extra space was needed to accommodate not only the religious art, but also the significant growth in other categories of the collection. Fine Momoyama tea ceramics were being acquired and in 1980 a more serious attempt to collect both calligraphy and lacquer was fostered by our curator, Andrew Pekarik, who had taken over the care of the collection in 1973, two years before my husband died. Mr. Pekarik helped me maintain and expand the collection for ten years, until he became the director of the Asia Society Galleries in 1984. (Since that time, the collection has been cared for by Gratia Williams Nakahashi, Curator, and Stephanie Wada, Associate Curator, who keep the collection in pristine condition, set up small exhibitions for visiting scholars and friends, and serve as registrars for objects on loan. They are invaluable.)

As a student of Heian literature, Mr. Pekarik has knowledge of and a deep interest in calligraphy. He is also a scholar of lacquer ware. Because of this expertise, he advised me on several collection trips to Japan. As a tea master, he made good use of the collection’s fine tea ceramics in the tea room that Kobashi had also designed. From 1979 until May 1984 Andrew Pekarik ­performed 167 tea ceremonies, including the occasional serving of a complete tea meal.

In keeping with its museum function, this tea room could not be completely orthodox. Instead of the usual single one, it possesses two tokonomas, in which attractive groupings of scrolls, objects, and flower arrangements can be made. The fact that Mr. Pekarik held many tea ceremonies in this room for a variety of students and devotees of Japanese art has added a new dimension to the showing of the collection. It demonstrates the way the Japanese share their pleasure in many of the beautiful objects that they collect — flower vases, scrolls of calligraphy and painting, fine ceramics, and lacquer ware — by using them in the tea ceremony. The Japanese are great collectors, and they have a long history of enjoying their collections with others in an intimate and personal way.

The success of this tea room in New York in helping people to appreciate Japanese art has made me think seriously about the future home of these works of art. There are many fine museums in the United States that could care for them properly, but I keep thinking back to my first visit to Japan. I became aware then of the similarity between the Bauhaus theory that inspired my country house and the traditional Japanese approach to art, in which all types of aesthetic manifestations are considered as a creative whole. The traditional Japanese buildings that I visited with the architect Junzō Yoshimura so many years ago had simple, restful interior spaces containing a minimum of carefully crafted furniture and objets d’art. These buildings were set in beautifully and appropriately designed gardens. I have often discussed with Mr. Yoshimura the fact that Japanese art deserves — in fact needs — to be shown in a sympathetic ambience in order to reveal all the nuances of its beauty. This ambience establishes a completeness and wholeness of design in which all of the components, from the smallest to the largest, fit perfectly together. Such a concept exists at the present time as it has in the past. Fortunately, it is seen in Japan not only in the fast-­disappearing traditional Japanese buildings but also in a ­number of fine modern ones, including museums.

Mr. Yoshimura recently made a plan of a museum to house the collection that exemplifies this concept. He combined the best of traditional Japanese architectural ideas with modern technique to create an open, low building that incorporates a garden and a teahouse. This plan includes all the practical modern assets that such a museum must have to protect and display fragile artworks, but it also provides a way to experience and interact with these objects that conveys a sense of their past cultural context. If such a plan were to be realized in a garden near an urban center in the United States, it would have great impact on the way in which Americans perceive Japanese art. It would certainly make a stronger statement than a Japanese setting implanted in a larger, completely Western-style museum. A freestanding museum dedicated entirely to Japanese art and designed by a Japanese architect does not exist in America at the present time. It is still only a dream but perhaps not an impossible one.

This essay is reprinted, in modified form, from A Selection of Japanese Art from the Mary and Jackson Burke Collection (New York, 1985) with the kind permission of the Chunichi Shimbun, Nagoya, Japan.