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STANFORD -- Albert E. Elsen, professor of art at Stanford University for 27 years and an international authority on the history of modern sculpture, particularly the work of Auguste Rodin, died Thursday, Feb. 2, of an apparent heart attack at his campus home. He was 67.
Elsen, who held the Walter A. Haas Professorship in the Humanities, was a noted teacher and lecturer, a pioneer in the field of art law, a tireless fundraiser for the university museum, and the driving force behind Stanford's outdoor sculpture collection. Through his efforts the Stanford University Museum of Art acquired the world's second largest collection of the works of Rodin.
“He was the leading authority on Rodin, a leading authority on modern sculpture and a great teacher in a tradition of great teachers,” said John Merryman, professor emeritus of law, noting that Elsen earned his doctorate at Columbia University under famed teacher Meyer Schapiro.
“Al was a great lecturer, an astonishing lecturer - quite powerful and amusing. He got you involved with the work so beautifully,” Merryman said.
Elsen served as a consultant to many museums and organized exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Albright-Knox Gallery, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He also directed and wrote the catalog for an exhibition on the “Pioneers of Modern Sculpture” for the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1973.
Stanford President Gerhard Casper said that “Professor Elsen's death is a keen loss for the university community - for his students, his colleagues and everyone who appreciates the art that he was responsible for bringing to Stanford.
“He was an outstanding scholar who helped us all understand better the timeless value of the subjects that he taught so well. The Rodin Sculpture Garden will stand as a timeless memorial to his many fine contributions to Stanford.”
Elsen's lifelong interest in Rodin began when he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the sculptor's Gates of Hell. Elsen wrote several books on Rodin and was greatly responsible for restoring the sculptor's reputation, which had been in eclipse, said Elsen's former student Kirk Varnedoe, now chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Elsen produced major exhibitions on the artist, including a collaboration with Varnedoe on “Rodin's Drawings, True and False,” which was exhibited at National Gallery of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in 1972-73.
Varnedoe, one of a number of Elsen's graduate students who now hold positions as curators and directors in museums throughout the country, said that Elsen was “certainly devoted to the students he worked with - a wonderful mentor, enormously generous.”
Varnedoe also praised Elsen for the “strong streak in him that was for justice and ethics” in the art world.
That interest led Elsen in 1971 to develop, with Merryman, the first university course on art law. The course continues today and covers topics such as the fate of works of art and cultural objects in time of war; international law as it pertains to art; the international movement of stolen property; artistic freedom and censorship; and the government's role in art.
Elsen also became an authority on art forgeries and was involved with legislation to protect artists from hazardous materials. He was an early supporter of art studies in colleges that served predominantly African American students.
Lorenz Eitner, professor emeritus of art who taught with Elsen in the early 1950s and was instrumental in bringing him to Stanford, described Elsen as a “fighting scholar.”
“Militancy, energy and a flair for dramatic action, but also great generosity and a capacity for enthusiasm were part of his make-up,” Eitner said. “He was a fighting scholar by instinct and temperament.
Merryman called Elsen “the father of outdoor sculpture” at Stanford. Elsen championed development of the campus collection, which includes works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Joan Miro, Bruce Beasley, Jacques Lipchitz and George Segal.
A major achievement of the outdoor collection is the one- acre B. Gerald Cantor Rodin Sculpture Garden, adjacent to the Museum of Art, whose centerpiece is the massive Gates of Hell.
Thomas Seligman, director of the museum, said that “the Rodin Garden has become almost a sacred place at Stanford, both for many people here and for the external community. It's a magnet for people.”
Financier and donor B. Gerald Cantor, the longtime supporter of Stanford's art program for whom the campus Rodin collection is named, said that “Al and I shared a friendship, a passion for sculpture and a devotion to Rodin that spanned three wonderful decades. With Al's help, the Stanford campus became a living exhibition space for sculpture.
“Al was a great scholar whose keen mind and wonderful sense of candor and passion for his life's work distinguished him. We accomplished a lot together, and his loss extends across personal sorrow, the academic community and the world of art.”
Former student Varnedoe said that Elsen's death “leaves a large hole in the universe. They don't make people like him any more. Given Al's interests, I guess the right analogy is 'they broke the mold.' ”
Elsen was born in New York City. He earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees at Columbia.
He taught at Carleton College from 1952 to 1958 and at Indiana University from 1958 to 1968. He was visiting professor at Stanford in 1963-64 and joined the faculty in 1968.
His scholarship was recognized by Fulbright, American Council of Learned Societies, Guggenheim and Senior National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships.
He was a contributing editor to ARTnews and was a past president of the College Art Association. He oversaw the drawing up of its code of ethics for art historians.
In 1978 he won the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching at Stanford.
Elsen was the author of Purposes of Art, an introductory text, and Rodin's Gates of Hell, Rodin, In Rodin's Studio, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, The Origins of Modern Sculpture and Modern European Sculpture 1918-1945, and numerous other publications. He and Merryman co-wrote Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts.
He is survived by his wife, Sharon McClenahan Elsen, whom he married in 1993, and his children, Matthew of Portland, Ore.; Nancy of Tiburon; and Katherine of Fairfax.
A memorial service is pending.
The family requests donations to the Albert Elsen Memorial Fund, Department of Art, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2018.
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