Gillett Griffin, 1928-2016

A leading curator of ancient American art has died

July 7, 2016
Obituary: Gillett Griffin, 1928-2016
Source: Princeton University Art Museum

Gillett Griffin was born in Brooklyn, New York on 22 June 1928 and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut before going to Yale University School of Art for a degree in painting and graphic design (1951).

It was as a student that he began to collect New England children’s books and, in his graduation year, he illustrated and printed A Mouse’s Tale, nominated as one of the Fifty Books of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

It was also while studying at Yale that he bought a tiny ceramic head for 25 cents and was told that it was Mexican and dated from about 400BC. It was this that laid the foundations for his long collecting and scholarly career in the field.

From 1952 to 1966, Mr Griffin worked in the Princeton University Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections division as curator of graphic arts, although this spell included a period of leave to design books for Princeton University Press.

After a year in Mexico, where he helped to discover some Olmec cave drawings that were identified as the oldest paintings in the New World, he returned to Princeton in 1967 to join the University Art Museum as curator of pre-Columbian and Native American art. He was to remain there for 38 years until he retired and became emeritus in 2005.

Partly through thousands of donations from his own collection, Mr Griffin helped to build the art museum into what the current director, James Steward, calls “one of the world’s greatest collections of the art of the ancient Americas”.

He made numerous trips to Mexico and, in 1973, was part of the team that rediscovered Temple B – an archetypal Maya palace structure in a dense area of the Yucatán jungle – which had eluded searchers since it was first found in 1912. He organised important Princeton conferences on Maya pottery and co-edited with Elizabeth Benson a major study of Maya Iconography (1988).

A familiar figure at Princeton for more than six decades, Mr Griffin befriended the town’s most famous resident – Albert Einstein – became a frequent guest at his house and even acquired a range of Einstein ephemera, including a compass, a pipe and several puzzles, which he later donated to the Historical Society of Princeton.

He also retained his early interest in painting. A retrospective exhibition of his work, Heads and Tales: Portraits with Legends by Gillett Good Griffin, was held at the Princeton Public Library earlier this year.

Mr Griffin died on 9 June.

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