Small Victories: One Couple’s Surprising Adventures Building an Unrivaled Collection of American Prints

by Nicholas Mancusi

<i>Small Victories

To the uninitiated, art collecting may seem like a fairly straightforward procedure: figure out how to accumulate a large amount of expendable wealth, then expend said wealth on the objets d’art that strike your fancy, then repeat as necessary. However, in Small Victories—part memoir, part user’s manual, part criticism and part art-historical survey—Dave H. Williams offers a much more nuanced and compelling look at the lives and concerns of art collectors. Before they began donating major portions of it to U.S. museums, Williams and his wife, Reba, amassed the single largest (and, one is inclined to agree with the back cover, greatest) collection of American prints in private hands.  

Reba and Dave Williams did not begin their odyssey merely to amass status symbols or flip their acquisitions for profit. Indeed, when they decided that prints would be their focus, specifically American prints, they did so precisely because these works were out of fashion, and could be had for significantly lower prices than, say, French Impressionist paintings. Williams explains in one of his many expert asides: “Nearly all prints made before the revival of print making and collecting in the 1960s are small—frequently less than 12 inches in each dimension—so a wall can hold many. Most are less expensive than paintings of equivalent quality by the same artist. Because prints are made in editions of multiple copies (each nonetheless an original work of art), it’s usually possible to find the one you want.” We see, through Williams’s words and actions, that collecting prints is perfect for someone who admires, in equal measure, both art and the thrill of acquisition.  

Even if Reba and Dave Williams had pursued significantly less interesting collectibles, this book would still be worth reading. Whether they are bribing monks in Italy to permit them access to view the art in their monasteries or rubbing elbows, or perhaps elbowing for position, in the cut-throat New York art world, the pair forge a lifestyle worthy of Indiana Jones, equally at home in the field, gallery and classroom. (Reba completed a Ph.D. in art history to improve their collective collecting acumen.)  

Yet the real pleasures of the book come from its biggest surprises, which are the understanding that Dave Williams has of his collection, and the erudition with which he expresses it. Williams provides commentary on his favorite pieces worthy of any art history professor. Here he is on Thomas Hart Benton’s 1934 WPA print Going West: “Benton advocated ‘going west,’ deliberately abandoning the effete eastern urban life. His locomotive strains forward, the engine bent like a racing animal’s snout. Smoke streams from the boiler furnace, curling off in the distance. Telegraph poles are left behind, leaning backward. The West... is where Benton sees power, dynamism, and good things, even in the Dust Bowl-plagued, Depression-wracked year of 1934.” Here he expounds on the style known as “Indian Space”: “The distinguishing characteristic is similar to Native American art: the distinction between figure and background is eliminated, giving the art a scrambled look... [Howard Daum’s] untitled print of 1945 is typical. Swirls and totemic figures, with no hint of a third dimension, can be seen in this small example.”  

At its peak, the Williams Collection included over 5,000 prints, and many of them are beautifully represented here, arranged in thematic chapters that evolve along with the taste of the collectors. (The chapter headings include “The Resurrection of the Screenprint” and “The Mexican Muralists and Prints: Teaching Gringo.”) The medium of printmaking does not intrinsically guarantee any particular artistic quality, but seen here in toto, an argument is implied about the maximum utility of prints: they function most effectively when they convey focused, dynamic images that rely on stark contrast and easily appreciated symbolism to convey meaning.  

As valuable as this book is in academic terms, it will also be useful, if not indispensable, for would-be collectors. Now approaching the end of his career, Williams has laid out his most valuable tips, along with a healthy measure of encouragement: “How does one begin? By looking and learning... the essential book for the beginning collector is Antony Griffith’s well-illustrated Prints and Printmaking (London: British Museum Press, 1996)... Art admiration is part emotion, so the collector should let some feelings into the decision. The cliché ‘I only buy what I love’ is not to be scorned. Without passion for the objects collected, the exercise becomes investing, a decidedly unemotional activity.”  

It could be said, in a more cynical mood, that art and collecting exist as antagonists, with the vast majority of the world’s (and this country’s) artists struggling in poverty to produce art while rich men wait to buy and trade the most successful fruits of that labor. Yet Reba and Dave Williams are model collectors; the respect and even love for art they have demonstrated are staggering. This book is not only a lesson in collecting, but also one in how to appreciate whatever your passion—indeed your reason for living—may be.  

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2015, Volume 33, Number 2