Suzy Kopf: Only two of the works displayed are part of the BMA’s permanent collection, and many of the other works are from private collectors and small college and university collections. Can you describe the process you went through to gather all the works in this show?
Oliver Shell: You’d be surprised how much can be found online. I contacted the curators at Smith College, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley where I knew he’d been collected because I grew up in Wellesley. I also reached out to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston because Yarde befriended a curator who was a big fan of his, so the MFAB has four or five really fabulous pieces. They had just shown a number of them so I couldn’t actually use all of their pieces, but they were very generous in giving me Jack Johnson, as well as Pageant. They have a painting depicting the returning troops from WWI of a Black brigade, which is just fabulous. I would’ve loved to have had that but they had it out recently, so I couldn’t use it.
Not everyone is aware of this, but works on paper are very sensitive to light and museums limit how frequently they are shown as a result. The BMA has an extensive prints and drawings collection and yet most works on paper are not on display year-round. Can you describe why museums need to limit the frequency at which works like the Yarde watercolors are shown?
We have a paper conservator who keeps us in line with how much light exposure works can take. Usually when a work has been out, it’s for a maximum of six months and then it has to go into darkness again for sometimes as much as 10 years, depending on the policies of the institution. Of course, there’s always a great pressure to show the perfect Picasso or whatever, and lots of people wanna borrow things, but we’re pretty rigorous about that. Our conservation departments make those decisions. So although the BMA has over 60,000 prints and drawings and watercolors, at any time they’re only showing a very small portion of those.
Because we’re talking about conservation, do you know what kinds of materials Yarde used?
I know that he approached watercolor on a much grander scale than people in the past. Usually watercolor was sort of a small, intimate thing associated with trips and travel sketching, whereas for him it was kind of industrial. He’d use whole sheets of the big Fabriano watercolor paper, and if that wasn’t enough, he’d attach two of them to each other, or three of them, and in one case five, and just go in whatever direction he wanted to go in. So he approached watercolor quite differently. I looked, quite carefully, at all the works in the show with Linda Owens, our paper conservator, and we both realized that there are almost no drips in his works. He may have worked flat, which would keep things from dripping. He had an incredible technique that he’d worked out.
This is the first all-watercolor show the BMA has put on in many years. Why is it happening now? You have been aware of Yarde’s work since you were eighteen, but you’re actually a curator of European Painting and Sculpture. Has this show been a passion project for you?
The show came about in conversation with Asma Naeem [the Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator]. We were kicking ideas around and I had put together a stack of things and at the very last minute, I’d thrown in a small Richard Yarde catalog. There aren’t large catalogs for his work because he hasn’t received these academic accolades; you have to work to find literature on Richard Yarde.
Perhaps we could talk about why that is. I subscribe to Watercolor Artist magazine, so I just read the print version of their article about the show and I was surprised to learn that Yarde had the opportunity to be included in a Whitney biennial in the 1970s but instead protested the biennial’s curation and as a result was not included. He was protesting the lack of Black curators for the show. Is that correct?
I heard about that through Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, who is a scholar and was a friend of Yarde’s. She did a series of interviews with artists. Her father said, you gotta get to Richard, he’s really failing, because he had kidney disease in his last years. She interviewed him, and the BMA paid to have it transcribed, so I was able to read it.
The Whitney had made a certain promise to a group of Black artists, and then they somehow didn’t fulfill that, or it was perceived that they didn’t. Richard himself sort of laughed about it and said, maybe that wasn’t the wisest idea to turn down the Whitney, because that would’ve maybe catapulted him into the category of all the other people of his generation who were dealing with photography in painting. So many artists, from Warhol on, were using photographs as inspiration and Richard was doing that too.