Commentary: Great Minds

By Louis A. Zona

Cleaning out a desk drawer, which I haven’t looked into in some time, brought back memories of a most amazing event that we experienced at The Butler several years ago.

Through a family contact of our late public relations director, Kathy Earnhart, we were able to exhibit the paintings of former Secretary of the Treasury, in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, Donald Regan. In retirement, he took up watercolor painting and absolutely loved to create art. A far cry from overseeing the Treasury Department, he greatly enjoyed the creative process of producing art that might best be termed highly original.

But what really impressed all of us who had the opportunity to interact with Secretary Regan was the sharpness of his mind. Simply stated, none of us had ever experienced such brilliance. I had the opportunity to interview him on camera. By the time my interview was completed, my head hurt trying to keep up with his thoughts on everything from government to modernism in art.

What I remember most was the way that he anticipated the next question, which he answered before I asked it. What an impressive man!

As he was growing up, I’m sure that he must have made his teachers double check their class preparations each night, realizing that they needed to be ready for questions coming from the young man in the third row.

The memory of Regan’s visit led me to think about other visitors to The Butler over the years who we might classify as brilliant. I would have to place David Shirey, born and reared in the Mahoning Valley, close to the top.

When I tell you that David reads publications in ancient Greek, that he speaks fluent Italian, Spanish, German and any language thrown at him, we realize that his is a very special mind. Never mind that he brags about winning The Vindicator Spelling Bee when he was a small boy.

I’ve been in his company after he spoke in Spanish to the owner of a Mexican restaurant. He greeted a couple who were speaking German in the next booth to ask about a Munich museum exhibition.

David graduated from Yale with high honors. He wrote for Newsweek and other international publications. His writings for The New York Times helped to establish his reputation as one of the leading authorities on art in the United States.

He loves to tell stories of his high school years when he attended the Canfield Fair and made the poor fellow in charge of public address announcements crazy with fictitious names. To this day, his sense of humor helps to define him. And by the way, a conversation with Shirey requires that your dictionary is handy at all times!

Astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, was a joy to work with. As we worked on his exhibition of paintings inspired by his experience on the lunar surface, he methodically carried out each assignment that we gave him. He approached his Butler exhibition as if he were checking each lever on his lunar craft.

Bean was 100% involved in every step in the creation of his exhibition. He too was absolutely brilliant. I asked him if he ever felt fear as he sat on the launch pad through the countdown.

“Never,” he responded. “Remember, I flew experimental aircraft for years – no time to be fearful. Sometimes I’d fly those new planes upside down just to see how they’d behave!”

Robert Rauschenberg’s visit to The Butler was a thrill for all of us since he was probably the most creative artist on the planet. So much so that what art students today learn in their classrooms are concepts this incredible talent created. He could make brilliant art from almost anything. Even the Vatican gave him a commission, making him the first artist in 500 years to receive a commission from the pope.

It was said of Robert Rauschenberg that he could be locked in a closet for 20 minutes and emerge with a spectacular work of art. We hosted an exhibition of his work that filled every available gallery in The Butler. When various universities found out that he would be speaking, The Butler’s Beecher Court was jam packed with students from Cleveland, Pittsburgh and beyond.

As he spoke about his work, I noticed that several students teared up; they realized that this was an experience that could not happen again.

One evening we honored the greatest art gallery owner in America, Leo Castelli. His gallery in New York introduced such artists as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and a dozen other greats to the world.

He was born in Trieste and came to America in the 1940s only to be immediately drafted into the Army where his ability to speak every European language helped the cause of victory over the Axis. When he returned to New York, he established The Leo Castelli Gallery where he promoted American art, ultimately sharing it with the world.

The history of American art would be very different had it not been for the eye and mind of this great gallery owner and patron. I add that he provided us with an exhibition of the work of Jasper Johns from his own collection, which did so much for the image of the Butler Institute.

When we invited the legendary art critic Clement Greenberg to The Butler, his lecture filled two galleries with art lovers from throughout the state. In its day, Greenberg’s pen was so powerful that he could make or break an artist’s career with a single review. Without Greenberg’s endorsement, we probably would not have Jackson Pollock, considered to be America’s greatest and most influential painter of the 20th Century.

It was Greenberg who discovered him and so many of the abstract artists of the post World War II era.

Greenberg’s influence was such that if he gave an artist a positive critique, that artist might be included in a talented group called “Clem’s Boys,” a great honor within the art world.

When he spoke at The Butler, the question and answer portion of the evening was a bit controversial as he let all of us gathered know which artists he respected and those he did not. It was Greenberg who caused a major contretemps when he personally chose the colors on the historic sculptures of David Smith.

He was attacked by artists and critics alike since Smith was dead when Greenberg repainted his famous works. Only he could have gotten away with such a move. Exceptionally smart and self-assured, there’ll never be another quite like him.