Artist Richard “Rick” Cleaver is showing me the childhood snapshots of his husband, curatorial powerhouse George Ciscle, that he keeps pinned to the door of his home studio. “Why on earth is he holding a gun? We have no idea,” Cleaver says. “I love these photos because George still dresses exactly like this.”
We both laugh, because it’s true. Decades later, Ciscle still kinda dresses like a cowboy with an affinity for bold prints. Both men still sport boyish grins and mischievous twinkles in their eyes, as if the 30 years they’ve spent together (and their considerably longer respective careers) had been some great summer camp adventure they’ve somehow gotten away with. In Cleaver’s studio, jam-packed with his obsessively detailed ceramic figures, a tiny statuette of Ciscle is immediately identifiable for its uncanny characterization of those qualities. “You can tell he was an only child—look at all the stuff he has!” Cleaver grins as he gestures to a tree overflowing with presents in a Christmas morning snapshot of Ciscle. “Is there a doll in there? I’m going to have to ask him about that.”
Ciscle’s enduring penchant for having a lot of stuff—a jaw-dropping collection of art and design amassed through his interwoven careers as student, gallerist, curator, founder/director of the Contemporary Museum, and educator who established the nation’s first MFA in Curatorial Practice at MICA—has brought me to the couple’s equally stunning highrise home. This diverse collection spans Romare Bearden, the Danish modern ceramicist Axel Salto, the Inuit printmaker Kenojuak Ashevak, and what is quite possibly the loveliest piece by AfriCOBRA iconoclast Frank Smith I have ever seen.
It is a beautiful irony that one of the best private collections of contemporary art in the city owes its existence to the man who rose to international recognition for founding a non-collecting museum. Ciscle beams when he shows me the maquette the artist Alison Saar made for the 1993 project Catfish Dreaming. Inspired by Baltimore’s Arabber culture, the mobile installation traversed the city in the back of a truck. The model sitting in Ciscle’s home office was the “sketch” the Contemporary submitted to the NEA for funding in 1993. The project got a grant, “which said to the world that we were recognized as ‘a museum’ and that this work could be considered ‘an exhibition.’”
The legacy of the mostly nomadic museum has settled in well to Ciscle and Cleaver’s digs. “Nine-tenths of the things we live with are related to an archive of the Contemporary and MICA Curatorial Practice—artists I’ve loved and worked with and followed,” Ciscle says. But it would be impossible to not consider the condo itself as a part of the couple’s collection, a rare and sought-after three-bedroom in legendary Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe’s 1964 tower, Highfield House. The couple moved in 11 years ago, around the same time the building became one of the youngest landmarks to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“You like to think of it as a piece of sculpture we happen to be living in,” Cleaver teases Ciscle. We’re sitting in the well-curated living room of their aerie, high above the surprisingly dense tree canopy of North Baltimore. I realize I have just put my coffee down on an authentic Isamu Noguchi coffee table, which is probably the first time I’ve physically interacted with one. Like everything in the home, the table has a story linking the deeply personal to art history. It was an anniversary gift from Cleaver to Ciscle, who studied under Noguchi in the 1960s and early ‘70s. “Personally, this is all a little formal for me,” Cleaver gestures around the apartment. “But I gave in.”
This sense of compromise between two people who have loved each other for a long time defines the home and its ability to function as both an important local cache of art history and a vibrant live-work space. The couple have taken the smaller of the three bedrooms as the master, leaving the largest as a combination library/office/guest room for visits from Ciscle’s adult son, and the one closest to the apartment’s communal spaces as a studio for Cleaver. “I don’t like to have a separate studio outside of the home,” the artist explains. “I tried it once. I can’t stand the idea of a studio being a place you have to go to like it’s a job. Art should be an integral part of life.”
While Ciscle has meticulously arranged most of the collection reflecting his very public career somewhat thematically and rotates what’s on display, Cleaver’s studio is another, more intimate beast. The space’s logic is additive and ritualistic—it feels like a secret hideaway the artist has gifted to his inner child to make up for something he was denied. “I grew up Catholic, obsessing over the saints and all that mythology,” he says. “But I also really wanted dolls, which I wasn’t allowed to have. So I would make them, and keep them secret in little cigar boxes or shoe boxes. I would turn these into hidden rooms, dollhouses with furniture. My brother was in on this secret too. We would act out these little dramas which would usually end in some sort of tragedy, with all the characters getting killed! I guess I’ve just kind of kept doing that.”
Indeed, the studio is packed with secret narratives told through clay and balsa wood. Ceramic figurines referencing everything from obscure queer history to favorite aunts are arranged in altar-like compositions. Hidden drawers and secret compartments open to reveal coded symbols. Every painted or carved surface reflects a postmodern take on Churrigueresque horror-vacui, “sometimes overworked to death,” the artist confesses: an index of “luxuriating over time.” Each corner is a cavernous overload of information I imagine taking an exhaustive amount of words to unpack in exhibition text. It’s not hard to see why a talkative curator who might be a bit of a workaholic would’ve ended up marrying Richard Cleaver.
It’s evident that narrative—in the sense of telling a good story—is a recurring theme in both men’s practices. Ciscle leads me down a small hallway from the apartment’s more “public” to “private” spaces. The curation stages the works on the wall like players in a mise-en-scѐne. The hallway is hung with vaguely homoerotic figurative works that almost appear to be exchanging gazes in flirty dialogue. There’s photography from Duane Michaels’ Nature of Desire series, which Ciscle showed at his eponymous gallery in the 1980s. But my eye is immediately drawn to the furtive glance cast by the young protagonist of an early modernist oil painting. Every object in Cleaver and Ciscle’s home comes with a story. But this painting’s might just be the best.
“This is one of the first pieces I ever acquired,” Ciscle recalls. “I bought this painting in 1976… I bought it, and I had no idea who he was. I just fell in love with the portrait.” Ciscle happened to meet the artist, Keith Martin, one year later. He had ended up in Baltimore after years of globe-trotting. “He saw the painting and exclaimed, ‘Oh my God! You’ve got my portrait of Charles Rains!’” It turned out that the painting, from 1932, depicted Martin’s then-lover, who was also a painter from Nebraska living in Europe between the wars. The two agreed to paint each others’ portraits. “Keith had no idea where the other portrait was. By this point, Rains was dead,” Ciscle says, “but I knew I had to find it.” A year before Martin’s death, in 1982, Ciscle tracked it down. “And here it is! Now they’re together. They’re so different stylistically, but I always try to hang them together, with all these portraits of men.”
It’s an incredible story of collecting and the bonds the process can form with an artist. Ciscle remained close friends with Keith until the artist’s death, collecting several of his works, and even enlisting his help to paint his son’s treehouse in camouflage (Keith’s specialty during WWII). Ciscle shows me the dresser Keith had decoupaged in the 1950s. “When he died, his partner wanted me to have this. He gave me this, the collage, his office desk and chair…”
My eyes settle on the desk and widen. “Is that an original Eames?!” It’s a gorgeous vintage piece—just worn enough to feel lived-in but in good enough condition that many a collector would pay a small fortune for it. It feels like it was made for the utopian Mies architecture and its leafy view.
“It is! It was such a generous gift… he gave me this as well,” Ciscle gestures to the corner, toward a pristine wireframe Eames Eiffel chair partially obscured by artist monographs. And then on the bookshelf, I spy probably the most peculiar piece of design culture in the collection—Noguchi’s simultaneously alien, ancient, retro, and futuristic “Radio Nurse,” designed as the world’s first baby monitor for Zenith in 1938. In the sparse bedroom, there’s more Noguchi goodness: a delicate Akari lamp purchased when the couple visited the late sculptor’s studio in Japan. “This is the same model they had in the ryokan when we stayed, so we thought we should get this one to remember that trip.”
Elizabeth Talford Scott, Rocks in Prison, 1993, fabric with mixed media
The delight of experiencing this collection goes well beyond the objects’ aesthetics and deep into the stories Ciscle and Cleaver bring to it. So much of the art on the walls comes from exhibitions Ciscle or his students curated. There’s a palpable sense of involvement with the work that goes far beyond ownership. And part of that is that their collection is a network of interlinked narratives in which they have been players. Here’s the cheeky Joyce Scott perched above the dining table—acquired a year after curating a separate body of work for the artist’s 2000 BMA show. And in the study, there’s a piece by her mother, Elizabeth Talford Scott, gifted by the artist as a thank you for curating her 1997 retrospective at MICA.
The apartment and its gems can be seen not only as an archive of the art scene and careers they’ve helped shape, but also as the realization of a dream. When this building began to rise over Charles Street, Ciscle was a not-particularly-happy student at Loyola, a then-conservative school lacking in arts programming. But when Highfield House opened, he remembers installing a sculpture at a favorite professor’s apartment. She had “opened his eyes” to a world beyond the established canon—Japanese art, African American culture, avant-garde choreography, to name a few subjects—and was the first resident of a pioneering building that was an aesthetic shock to its old-money neighbors. Ciscle promised himself one day he’d live there. “And now, 50 years later, here we are! Not to be morbid, but we think of this as the last place we’ll live.”
This living archive exemplifies the unabashedly personal relationship two men have had with half a volatile century’s worth of art making, commissioning, appreciating, and disseminating. This is what good arts patronage looks like. If The Contemporary proved that a museum could thrive without a collection, Ciscle and Cleaver’s domestic life is a testament to how we thrive when we live with art. Like a Mies masterpiece on an unlikely residential block of Baltimore, it is a local treasure with its own lived-in form of cataloguing and recognition.
Richard Cleaver studio installation
Rick Cleaver and George Ciscle
Photos by Jill Fannon
This story appears in BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas Issue 08: Archive.