Remembering Gillett Griffin (1928–2016)

Since I first became involved with the Princeton University Art Museum as an intern during the summer of 2005, Gillett Griffin played a central role in my engagement with ancient art of the Americas. He almost solely created Princeton’s renowned collections in this area over the thirty-eight years he served as faculty curator, and he maintained an impressively intimate knowledge of every object. Frequent visits to his home included mesmerizing tales of his extensive travels and details of how he came upon objects, how they compared to others in the known corpus and, almost always, how they might be incorporated into some humorous anecdote or inspire a pun. For Gillett, the forms of pleasure one gained from engagement with art were vast and interlaced; he could—and often did—make an important art-historical point and a joke at the same time. I also came to learn how Gillett’s personality and particular tastes inflected his curatorial work and collecting: his sensitivity to the humanity inherent in exotic old objects, his ability to glean artists’ thinking from the results of their endeavors, his fascination with works most would consider too small or too obscure for a museum. Even though Gillett died, peacefully, on June 9 of this year at the age of 87, his presence is still felt warmly and indelibly, both within the Museum and far beyond.

Griffin and JustI sense this poignantly in what I consider to be his most significant donation to Princeton from his personal collection, a collection that included thousands of objects. It is modest in scale and material—a small figural pairing modeled in clay, associated with the area around the modern-day town of Xochipala in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Gillett and his close friends Carlo Gay and Frances Pratt hypothesized that the uncannily naturalistic Xochipala figurines were the oldest artistic productions of ancient Mexico, predating the famous Olmec civilization and its more abstract art. This was the thesis of Gillett’s first curated show at Princeton, Xochipala: The Beginnings of Olmec Art, in 1972. Notably, the majority of the objects displayed therein belonged to Gillett, who amassed the most important collection of this material anywhere.

Late Formative, Xochipala, Guerrero, Mexico, Seated adult and youth, 400 b.c.–a.d. 200. Red-brown micaceous ceramic, h. 13.5 cm.; h. 11.0 cm. Gift of Gillett G. Griffin in honor of David W. Steadman, Graduate School Class of 1969. Photo: Bruce M. WhiteWhile more recent research has proven that the portrait-like Xochipala figurines are a thousand years younger than Gillett and his colleagues proposed, this in no way diminishes the importance or impressiveness of these works. The paired figures in particular still garner praise as superb works of art, featured as such, for example, in Honour and Fleming’s A World History of Art, one of the primary textbooks used in introductory college art history courses. They brilliantly capture an intimate conversation, one that seems to involve teaching and learning. What makes them special is the manner in which the subtleties of bodily positioning and gaze convey so effectively the nature of interaction between the two figures—one older and perceptibly patient, the other animated and engaged, eager to know more.

I can’t help but see Gillett in this calm, generous instructor, and suspect I am not alone in envisioning myself as that eager student. There is no doubt that the knowledge and enthusiasm that Gillett imparted will continue to teach visitors to appreciate the subtle aesthetic aspects of art as they engage with those objects he has brought to the Museum for that very reason.

Bryan R. Just

Peter Jay Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas