Written by Richard Edwards
W ALTER SPINK came to the Department of History of Art in 1961. Those were days, if not of wine and roses, of extraordinary development. It was a time when the department, along with area centers, was in a period of conscious expansion. Charles Sawyer was already in place giving to the Museum of Art increasing national significance, expanding collections (for which the Parker Fund was used to bolster Asian holdings), and heading vital museum training programs. The year before, on George Forsyth's invitation, I had arrived from Saint Louis to fill a vacant post in what was still broadly the Asian area. What better at that point than to convince both the department and the growing center that my long-time friend of Cambridge and Brandeis experience was what we needed in Ann Arbor for scholarship and teaching in the arts of India and Southeast Asia?
IT might be noted that Harvard's Jakob Rosenberg, who had just been a distinguished visiting professor at Michigan and returned to east of Worcester with praises of the program here, added his encouragement to a former student and friend. (Of course, we would have captured Walter anyway, but it helps to have powerful assistance.) There followed those years of the sixties under Marvin Eisenberg's focused and sensitive scholar-teaching direction as chair, when the area of Asian art - to say nothing of other appointments - received important attention. While Oleg Graber was well in place for the Islamic world, in mid-decade Calvin French was enlisted to give greater authority to the art of Japan. Subsequently, we were to add Virginia Kane, a second China appointment. Indeed, the department was to expand its coverage of Asia to a point when seven faculty members, on full or shared appointments, were offering courses on the arts of a great continent: east from the Mediterranean to the last unique expression of it on the island complex of Japan. In those periodic outside reviews that administrations appear to require, more often than not Michigan's focus on the arts of Asia elicited a "distinguished" evaluation.
While Walter, by undisguised self-admission, may be considered the antithesis of organizational man, he presented for us not only an alternative voice on Asia but a universal approach to the arts that shattered barriers between East and West, time present and time past. After all, it is in the nature of visible form more readily to scale those cultural walls so guarded by linguistic enclosures of verbal form. Uncomfortable in the systematic coverage implied by "The Arts of Asia," he turned to an open-ended introduction: "Arts: Ideas: East: West. " His Indian specialty slipped readily into instruction on Western prints and drawings, always with first-hand exposure to collections, dealers, and collectors. He was, however, open to all the arts. Special was his love of poetry, graced from early contact with Archibald MacLeish to later friendship with Robert Bly. It included the teaching of Yeats, and one might catch his personal suggestion that the greatest twentieth-century poem was Wallace Steven's "Sunday Morning."
Given the glow of what the Chinese would define as his "true nature" (xing), it is perhaps inevitable that Walter would shine brightly well beyond the borders of academic Ann Harbor. Whether in concert, lecture, or scholarly gathering, floating down Michigan's rivers, exploring exhibitions, superintending quality photography and its distribution, or traveling the world, he ranged far beyond classroom walls. No need here to reiterate his love for "Mother India." Curiously, indeed dramatically, his burrowing into ancient caves became a tangible seal for his direct love for the visual. At Ajanta, it was in what he could see from a humble door hinge or rocky fault to the carved and painted glory of Buddha's kingdom that he claimed, in a methodology worthy of a scientist, to read fifteen years of creative activity in the second half of the fifth century.
As you continue to glance through Walter's publications and read the warm and heartfelt remarks of those who came closest to his scholarly and personal aura, there can be little doubt that his place in our departmental constellation was as a bright star, someone of special presence, of international stature, and in his field a leader.