When the Getty Research Institute was founded more than 30 years ago, it was a modest library housed in a bank building four blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica. To build a suitable collection for the Research Institute, we were acquiring large collections as quickly as we could.
With a small staff, we just dived in and did everything. Unpacking the Jean Brown collection, we opened boxes holding truly extraordinary works by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, and that was the first clue that there would be a revelation, if not a revolution, in our collecting. Jean Brown’s collection had been acquired for its strengths in Dada and surrealism. But no one expected the large component of Fluxus objects, the more than 4,000 artists’ books, many in experimental, alternative formats—that is, they didn’t really look like books—and the unruly, scruffy boxes of mail art: shared art projects delivered by the post office. With its lingering scent of the collector’s personality and her love of anti-establishment artists, Jean Brown’s collection looked nothing like the well-mannered rare books and prints to which I was accustomed.
In those early years, we negotiated acquisitions with antiquarian book dealers and didn’t often meet with collectors. But my father was a New Hampshire antiques dealer, and while helping with the heavy lifting in his business, I had often met collectors. I knew they were usually interesting, occasionally eccentric, and notably knowledgeable about their collecting passions. Why not try to meet Jean Brown? She had been in touch with several Getty colleagues, and I knew she liked to receive and write letters. An inveterate and generous collector, she still wanted to send us more of her collections and help us decide what else to collect. I wanted to meet Jean Brown, and I also wanted to see the vintage Shaker seed house where she lived and where her collection had been installed. When I wrote to ask if I could visit on my next trip to New England, Jean was immediately welcoming. She wanted to find out more about what was happening with her collection.
From Boston’s Logan airport, I drove west on the Massachusetts Turnpike to the town of Tyringham, where Jean’s house was on the Main Road south of Lee. A small mid-19th-century Shaker village—now privately owned—was located a mile or so away up the hill on the Jerusalem Road. Jean’s house had been moved away from the site. It was built in a typical New England style, two stories with an attic and a central stairway connecting the floors. Known as a legendary cook and hostess, Jean had a light supper on the table: watercress and cucumber sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. We started talking, not stopping until it was dark.
When I got up to go to my hotel, Jean said she would be insulted if I didn’t stay with her. Actually, I was excited to accept her gracious invitation, so I did. We stayed up late, talking about the artists in her collections whom she had met. Among her favorites were Marcel Duchamp, George Brecht, and John Lennon, whom she insisted was also a very good artist. She kept up on new books and current exhibitions and was especially pleased when I brought her the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Rolywholyover A Circus exhibition box-catalog, filled with ephemera on John Cage, whom Jean admired and had met on several occasions.
Whenever I visited Jean Brown I stayed in the second-floor front bedroom across from the archive room where George Maciunas’s cabinets were installed. At the top of the stairs, the small desk where Jean wrote and made notes for her files looked out over the grassy backyard into the forest. It was a truly magical, inspired place, inhabited with spirit like I have experienced only a few times before in artists’ spaces or in nature. Inside the house one felt insulated from quotidian concerns, nurtured by the simple, well-designed Shaker furniture and Jean’s friendly tabby cat weaving through our legs.
Although the house is still there, Jean, the art, books, and furniture are all gone. Jean’s sons kindly allowed me to visit after her death to make some notes and do further research. Of course, and very sadly, it wasn’t the same. The nurturing, creative, and wry spirit had departed, although it is preserved in the Tyringham cemetery by Jean’s unique gravestone, made by the American artist Rodney Ripps and inspired by Man Ray’s 1923 metronome with eye, Object to Be Destroyed. Like her, the gravestone is unforgettable. My fond memories of those Tyringham visits will never fade.