About nine months ago, Sylvan Barnet, 88, a professor emeritus of English literature at Tufts University, was told that he had brain cancer. The doctors said that he had between six months and a year to live. His partner, William Burto — a retired chair of the English department at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell — died in 2013, aged 92, after four years of illness.
Burto and Barnet met in graduate school at Harvard University in 1951. Together over the course of half a century, as they taught English, wrote textbooks, and lived in a small house in Cambridge with a third professor, the two men quietly amassed one of the finest private collections of Japanese calligraphy and religious art outside of Japan.
When he died, rather than bequeathing his half of their collection to Barnet, Burto left the works to museums as the two had jointly agreed. Now facing death, Barnet is doing the same.
Four museums are the beneficiaries. Two are local: the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Art Museums. The others are the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The gifts, which vary in size, are carefully calibrated to each institution, and roughly equivalent in quality.
Both men served in the US military during the Allies’ struggle with Imperial Japan. Barnet, who was a teenager in 1945, served in the Army, but wasn’t deployed until near the war’s end. Burto, a few years older and serving in the Navy, saw action in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, surviving a close scrape with death and saving another sailor’s life at Guadalcanal in 1943.
Asked to describe the circumstances of their meeting, Barnet — who remains entirely lucid despite his illness — said he couldn’t remember much, except that he found Burto “very attractive.” The son of a leather tanner, Barnet had recently graduated from New York University. He saw graduate school, he said, as “a chance to keep on reading.” He had a great memory, especially for poetry.
“At a certain point,” he jokes, “you become ineligible for anything but teaching.” So, he says, he “wrote a couple of letters” and was hired at Tufts, while Burto also “wrote a couple of letters” (how different it was in those days!) and ended up at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
Their first purchase of an Asian object came in 1963, when they spotted a Korean celadon bowl in New York. “It was entirely accidental,” says Barnet. “We had no previous interest at all. I’d never even heard the word ‘celadon.’ ”
From that moment on, though their interests changed and their tastes became more refined, they continued to be guided as much by instinct as by inside knowledge.
Things “hit you in a magical way,” says Barnet.
About a year after buying the celadon bowl, their interests switched from Korean to Japanese ceramics, and then to Zen calligraphy — first, bolder, large-scale examples, and then smaller, more delicate works, eventually including Buddhist sutras.
“It was marvelous to observe Sylvan and Bill develop their fine collection,” said Peter Grilli, the former president of the Japan Society of Boston. “They trusted their own eyes over fad or fashion.” Describing both men as “great teachers,” Grilli says that their understanding of literature influenced their feeling for art.
“I sensed that it was their profound appreciation of the written word and the poetic phrase that drew them first to Japanese calligraphy and painting,” Grilli says. Without knowing Japanese, they intuitively understood why the same Japanese word — “kaku” — is used for both “writing” and “painting.”
According to John Carpenter, curator of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum, “Because they didn’t obsess about understanding the meaning of a text, they could immerse themselves in formal characteristics of Japanese characters and enjoy the gestural power of brushstrokes, or their fluid rhythm and compelling use of negative space. They could really ‘see’ and grasp calligraphy in way uncommon among native Japanese speakers today who have grown up reading typeset texts.”
To disperse their collection, Barnet and Burto chose museums with which they had forged strong connections, going back decades.
The more than 60 works Burto and Barnet have given to Harvard include fine examples of the Buddhist cosmic diagrams known as mandalas, Japanese religious objects, and Korean ceramics. Those to the MFA — 179 works — are more miscellaneous, ranging in time from the Neolithic period to the 21st century, and including scrolls, ceramics, lacquer, textiles, sculpture, prints, and photographs.
Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director, said that “their gift will have an immense impact on the museum and encourage an even deeper appreciation of Japanese art in Boston.”
It’s all good news for art lovers. But for curators at the recipient museums, the announcement is bittersweet, signaling the imminent end of a precious relationship.
Anne Nishimura Morse, the MFA’s curator of Japanese art, first met Barnet and Burto when she was an undergraduate organizing an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum (now Harvard Art Museums).
“They were the first collectors I got to know, and they have always embodied for me the ideal — individuals who have had unfailing senses of the beautiful and insatiable curiosities,” she said. “They have been invaluable critics (and editors of essays) and much beloved supporters.”
A handful of Morse’s fellow curators carry indelible memories of conversations with Barnet and Burto, at the museums and also during visits to what Barnet calls their “crappy little house” — which others remember as beautiful.
Harvard Art Museums’s Melissa Moy remembers evenings at the house as “a wonderfully open and robust time of exchange between collectors, scholars, and dealers.” Works recently purchased would be pulled out and discussed, attributions argued, meanings explored, aesthetic subtleties quietly pondered.
Barnet himself speaks warmly about these relationships. He and Burto dedicated specific gifts to several curators, as well as to favorite dealers, and to museum directors such as Rogers.
But Barnet is also bracingly unsentimental about museums. In a recent interview with “Impressions,” the journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, he admitted to being “not wildly happy at the thought” of giving away his works to museums.
Part of him, he explained, likes the idea of taking the art with him to the grave. Another part sees the value in putting the works up for auction — the only effective way of ensuring that the next owner truly wants them. And he remains attracted by the idea of establishing a new museum for the collection.
But in the end, he and Burto both enjoyed life-changing experiences with works of art at museums, so it made sense to return the favor. “We are trying to help people have the experience we had,” said Barnet.
Barnet and Burto never collected with museums in mind, or to please a curator. They owned everything jointly. They first traveled to Japan in 1965, and returned there almost every year until 2009. If one of them was ill one year and they couldn’t travel, according to Barnet, they would go twice the next year.
He recalled only one occasion when they disagreed over a work they were considering, an embroidered sutra that Burto felt was more of an object than an example of calligraphy. They didn’t buy it, to Barnet’s regret. But, he says, “I can honestly say, every piece we owned, we both had to love.”
“I know that they always acquired works together,” says Carpenter. “But it always seemed to me that Sylvan was more analytical, and Bill more emotional in approaching or explaining a work of art.”
Although Barnet is not a Buddhist (“It’s not for me at all”), he maintains that he is “still deeply touched by the words of the Buddha.” One of his favorite sutras is the 13th century “Sutra of Cause and Effect, Past and Present,” of which Barnet and Burto acquired four pieces. (They have given all four to the MFA).
For Barnet, aside from its aesthetic qualities, it embodies the idea of karma, which has always interested him. “Deeds have consequences,” he says. “It’s the same idea as ‘As you sow shall you reap.’ We’re also shaped by what is around us.”
Both Barnet and Burto, and many of the curators they came to befriend, were hugely influenced by John Rosenfield (1924-2013), a professor and curator of Asian art at Harvard University for more than 25 years.
Rosenfield would invite Burto and Barnet to sit in on seminars, and it was through him that they met Anne Morse, her husband Samuel Morse, now a professor of Japanese art at Amherst College, and the collectors Kimiko and John Powers, among others.
According to Barnet, “John and his students provided us with lifelong help in understanding and enjoying Japanese art.”
Another major influence was Jan Fontein, the head of Asian art and later the director of the MFA. In 1970, they saw an important MFA show called “Zen Painting and Calligraphy,” which made a big impact. Twenty years later, they purchased two of the works that had been borrowed for that show: Gyokuen Bompo’s entrancingly simple “Orchid, Bamboo, and Rock” and Sekishitsu Zenkyu’s seven-character line of calligraphy, “The Immortal Knows the Mind of Antiquity.” They have now returned the works to the MFA permanently.
Eleven years after she first borrowed a work from Barnet and Burto for a 1979 museum show at the Fogg, Morse mounted a small MFA exhibition of works from their collection. Called “Text as Image,” it was the first museum show of works from Barnet and Burto’s collection.
More museum shows followed, and so did more gifts — although Barnet is careful to point out that no one at any of the museums they gave to “ever made an exhibition conditional upon our giving a gift.”
In 2002, the Metropolitan mounted “The Written Image: Japanese Painting and Calligraphy From the Sylvan Barnet and William Burto Collection.” The show’s curator, Mike Hearn, had earlier borrowed from them a striking example of 13th-century Chinese calligraphy by Zhang Jizhi, a work which Burto and Barnet later gave to the Met.
In the early 1990s, Barnet and Burto met the acclaimed Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who at the time was unknown, and supplementing his photographic work by selling Japanese art from a shop in New York.
Barnet and Burto purchased a sutra from him. Only on a subsequent visit, when they enquired about a seascape photograph they saw, did they learn that he was a photographer. They began collecting his photographs, and also acquired two of his small, pagoda-shaped sculptures made from bubble-free optical glass enclosing photographs of the sea. They gave one to the Met and one to the MFA.
Aside from making his own work, Sugimoto collects Buddhist art. He once bought a section of a mid-eighth-century hand scroll, commissioned to celebrate the construction of the Great Buddha at Todai-ji, and later damaged in a 17th-century fire. The distinctive scorch marks added to the work’s prestige and beauty. Sugimoto designed a new mounting with green silk and strips of silver foil before selling it to Barnet and Burto, who have now given the work, along with 17 of Sugimoto’s photographs, to the MFA.
Even as their collection grew, there was little room to show it in their crowded home. According to Barnet, “We pull out one work at a time after the cleaning lady comes on Wednesday, and we keep it up over the weekend.”
The Met’s Carpenter, who noticed the trusting relationships Burto and Barnet built up with particular dealers, says, “They never bartered with dealers over prices, and were not afraid to pay top dollar for top-notch works — though in their daily life they were frugal, almost abstemious, when it came to dining and entertainment.”
Barnet and Burto were the joint authors, along with Berman, William Cain, and Marcia Stubbs, of many highly regarded college textbooks on literature. “Textbook writing can be quite remunerative,” says Barnett, who claims it was income from the books that allowed them to afford works of art.
Barnet, who alone also authored the excellent “A Short Guide to Writing About Art,” is fond of sprinkling references to his favorite poets and authors into the conversation. When, in a discussion of the notion of karma, he casually quotes Wordsworth’s “little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love,” it’s easy see how all the many aspects of his curiosity, his taste, and his modesty effortlessly come together.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.