From On Campus, June 2007

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. — Sir Isaac Newton

By Mark E. Rondeau

WILLIAMSTOWN — How does one sum up nearly a century of vivid and purposeful life? This is the challenge posed by the passing of S. Lane Faison, Jr.

Beyond his myriad accomplishments, Faison’s legacy expands with each new student who takes an art course at the college Faison loved so long and so well.

He held many official and unofficial titles during his long life: professor, art historian, museum director, critic, mentor. Near the end of World War II, as a 37-year-old naval officer, he helped restore art looted by the Nazis to its rightful owners, a story he told often in his later years.

A beloved figure, Faison died Nov. 11, 2006, at his home in Williamstown at age 98. He taught at Williams from 1936 to 1976 and directed the Williams College Museum of Art from 1948 to 1976.

A tour of the cathedral at Chartres during a post-high school family vacation ignited his love for art. He came to Williams as an undergraduate in 1925 and studied with Karl Weston, founder of both the Williams art department and the Williams College Museum of Art.

“I had two marvelous courses plus an Honors Study with Karl Weston, Class of 1896, who greatly influenced my career and life,” Faison once said. “In my sophomore year, as soon as I listened to him, I said to myself, that’s what I want to do!”

After graduate school and a few years teaching at Yale, he came back to Williams as a professor in 1936, becoming a colleague of Weston. In later years Faison became his mentor’s first successor as chairman of the art department and as director of the museum.

In 1945, near the end of World War II in Europe, Faison found himself assigned to a U.S. Office of Strategic Services unit tasked with protecting art and cultural monuments being liberated from the Nazis. Before long, he was doing detective work, tracing the origins of priceless works so they could be returned to their rightful owners.

Back at Williams after the war, he taught until his retirement in 1976. Over the decades, the inspired teaching of Faison and colleagues William Pierson and Whitney Stoddard ’35 became the stuff of legend. Countless undergraduates discovered a love for art in their classrooms, and a large number of them became curators or directors at major museums.

A 1997 New York Times profile called Faison “An Art Lover Who Awakened a Generation.”

One member of that generation is Eugene J. Johnson ’59, who was not particularly interested in art when he came to Williams in the mid-1950s but who ended up becoming an art professor at the college.

“Lane had a way of getting to the essence of things. And saying it in just a few words, a few memorable words,” Johnson said. “I think he was marvelous at summarizing the styles of individual artists and making you understand them so that we got really excited about the visual material that he was presenting us.”

“His greatest gift as a teacher was in terms of visual analysis. He really taught you how to look at a painting. How to understand what was going on in it, formally in terms of the shapes, the colors, the lines, the composition,” Johnson said. “He also taught you to make very subtle distinctions among artists, so that when you saw a picture by someone whose work you knew — but this was a picture you’d never seen before — you could say ‘OK, this is a Monet, this is not a Renoir, this is a Monet.’ ”

Another of Faison’s great gifts was the ability to teach students to write clearly. He wrote incisively himself, as is amply evidenced in a book of Faison's own articles, which Johnson and colleague Michael Glier helped compile last year, "Expressing Abstraction: Writings on Art for The Nation."

In a 1952 review for The Nation of a CÚzanne exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Faison offers an arresting image: “...understanding modern art begins at the precise moment CÚzanne’s pears stop rolling off the table.”

“What he meant was that the important thing about art, about painting, was not the subject or the story that it was telling but it was the formal properties,” Johnson said. “And if you thought that CÚzanne’s pears rolled off the table, then you were thinking in terms of pears, not in terms of painting.”

Johnson remembered that as director of the college museum in the 1950s, Faison kept a procession of shows coming up to Williamstown from New York, including much contemporary art.

Karl Weston had established the college art museum during Faison’s first year as a student to provide Williams students the opportunity for first-hand observation of fine works of art. He considered this essential to the study of art.

Faison and his colleagues carried on this tradition of teaching “from the object.”

“I remember, for instance, seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s Odalisque which was an outrageous object in its day, and I think still is,” Johnson said. “It’s a construction with wood and photographs and it has a rooster, a stuffed rooster, on the top of it. It’s a very complicated work, but there it was in 1958 or 1959, here in this very building. And so he was constantly exposing us to real works of art and challenging us.”

All this just gives a rough outline of a life that awaits a full-scale biography. Announcing Faison’s passing to the Williams community, President Morton Schapiro offered these words:

“As much as anyone, Lane personified Williams — a curious student of many talents, a sharp intellectual, an inspired and inspiring teacher, an able administrator, an incisive writer, a person of natural warmth and wit, and a mentor whose legacy will forever spread far and wide through the countless students he turned on to art,” he wrote. “Lucky the student who walked into his class, the audience member who sat down at his lecture, the reader who picked up his essays, or the dinner guest placed next to him at table. All were in for a treat.”