Encyclopedic institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts rarely have encyclopedic donors. Collecting art, as a matter of either taste or pocketbook, hasn’t worked that way for a long, long time. That’s one of the things that made Frederic A. Sharf special. He and his wife, Jean, donated 7440 works to the museum over several decades. That number is not a typo. While not interested in the full set, he knew his way around multiple volumes of the encyclopedia, all of them highly engaging.
Sharf died last year, at 83. In his honor, the MFA has mounted a small, highly appealing show, “Fred Sharf — Renaissance Man.” It runs through July 22.
A photograph of Sharf hangs at the beginning of the exhibition. The man shown has a bullet head, a bit of a gut, more than a bit of a grin. He wears a bow tie and suspenders (to help conceal the gut?). The overall effect suggests someone both formidable and approachable. That’s a rare — and excellent — combination.
Sharf’s interests were vigorously eclectic and rigorously offbeat. What made him so impressive as a collector wasn’t just the extent of his pursuits but the unexpected forms they could take. His collecting extended to jewelry, textiles, Japanese wood block prints, industrial design, American folk art, architectural drawings, fashion, transportation models. Examples of all are to be found in the show.
The 29 works on display were either given by the Sharfs, donated in their honor, purchased with their assistance, or relate to their interests. The oldest is a Civil War-era weather vane. The most recent is a 1990 Kenneth Paul Block fashion illustration from W magazine. How’s that for range? Or a model of a 1950s Greyhound Scenicruiser, more than a yard long, and a 1920s evening coat, of fuchsia velvet with gold-lame trim, from Paris? Don’t forget the propaganda scarf from London during the Blitz. Who even knew there were such things as propaganda scarves? Fred Sharf did.
A sensibility emerges, and it’s all the more pronounced for the instances of it being so varied. Sharf knew what he liked, which is rarer than you might think among collectors. That knowledge freed him to collect so widely and unconventionally. He liked energy. He liked color and flowing lines — a preference for curve over angle. Surfaces drew him, and not in any superficial way. As Sharf knew, the surface is where all looking, and thus all appreciating, has to begin. It’s telling that he had a particular fondness for models and drawings, items about process, which not only allow but encourage non-practitioners to enter the development of a design.
Collecting is a complicated thing, and not always attractive. Yes, it’s about beauty and passion — but the passion isn’t necessarily for beauty. Collecting can be the pursuit of status by aesthetic means: Thorstein Veblen visits Christie’s. At its most basic (and base), it can be a form of culturally approved greediness: an obsession with sheer possession, so long as the possessions are of the right sort. For Sharf, collecting was far from either. It was about enthusiasm shared, appreciation fostered.
It’s telling that the Sharf name is most prominent at the museum not attached to a gallery or an endowed position (though the Sharfs did provide the money for a design curatorship). Rather, it’s the Sharf Visitor Center. That’s where, appropriately enough, the show hangs. The visitor center is the museum at its least intimidating. It’s the place where visitors can ask questions, get their bearings, collect their wits. As Fred Sharf so happily understood, that collecting is the best kind of all.
FRED SHARF — RENAISSANCE MAN
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through July 22. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.