In 1980, H. McCoy Jones announced that he and his wife, Caroline, would donate his entire private collection of more than six hundred Central Asian carpets to the Fine Arts Museums. Two years later, Cathryn M. Cootner was appointed as the de Young’s first textile curator (her tenure as curator-in-charge would run through 1995). Cootner’s robust acquisition and exhibition program transformed the Museums into a well-respected repository for high quality textiles and oriental rugs. Chief among these was a watershed exhibition of Caroline McCoy-Jones’s unsurpassed collection of Anatolian kilims in 1991. We took a moment to sit down with Cathy Cootner to reflect on the McCoy Joneses and their spectacular kilims twenty years later.
How did you first meet the McCoy Joneses?
I first met H. McCoy Jones in 1967 when I became a member of the New York Hajji Baba Club [a textile appreciation club, of which McCoy Jones was a founding member]. Over the years, we kept running into each other at rug exhibitions and conferences. In 1981, while I was guest curator at the Textiles Museum in Washington, D.C., McCoy often came to visit me. It was on one of these occasions that he suggested I become the curator of his rug collection, which he had put on long-term loan to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It would ultimately be gifted to the Museums upon his death in March 1987.
McCoy often gave parties at his home during rug conferences held at the Textile Museum, and it was at one such party that I first met Caroline. When I finally did become associate curator of McCoy’s collection, Caroline and I began to have more opportunities to talk with one another. Eventually, I was invited to stay at their home in 1984, during which time we became very good friends. We maintained this friendship until her death in January of 2006.
How did they become interested in kilims?
Caroline asked me to advise her on potential rugs for acquisition. In March of 1985, I suggested that she purchase, in installments, Garry Muse's collection of pre-nineteenth century Anatolian kilims. It was, and remains today, the most important collection of such kilims in the world. Caroline led the way in convincing McCoy to collect these pieces. He hated damaged textiles, and he very much preferred pile rugs [with a tufted surface] to kilims.
Do you have a favorite kilim in the collection?
No, I cannot pick just one. However, there are 25 pieces in the collection that I believe could stand alone as the most spectacular examples. On the other hand, the collection as a whole is a real asset as well. Anatolian kilims in slit-tapestry weave are about color expression, and the weavers who wove them had an incredible sense of color. As Vincent van Gogh once said, well after the kilims were made, "Color means something in itself."
What was the impact of the first kilim show that you curated at the de Young twenty years ago?
That exhibition, which contained over 80 examples, was ranked as the 3rd most important exhibition to take place in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1990. Contemporary artists, trustees and donors all flocked to see color as a level of expression that they had never seen before.
It is wonderful that the current selection is now on view; the collection is seminal in all aspects, each kilim exceptional in its expression of form as color, and so relevant to the art of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The Art of the Anatolian Kilim: Highlights from the McCoy Jones Collection is currently on view in the textile gallery at the de Young.