UC Berkeley lost one of its greatest teachers and the art world lost one of its greatest scholars when James Cahill, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and former Chair of the Art History Department, died on Feb. 14 at age 87.
Cahill, who won both the prestigious Distinguished Teacher Award from Cal and the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing form the College Art Association, was highly regarded for his expertise in Asian art, especially Chinese art – not only in the west, but in China, too, where all of his books have been translated into Chinese.
"He treated us as if we were his colleagues, not his students," said Patricia Berger, who succeeded him as Chair of the Art History Department when he retired in 1995. "And as a lecturer, he was phenomenal. He'd come in with a handful of notes, which he never consulted, and deliver lectures that were coherent from beginning to end. He must have kissed the Blarney Stone."
He had a lack of pretentiousness that was utterly charming. Despite his worldwide fame, he insisted that everyone call him "Jim," not "Professor Cahill," and everyone dutifully complied – at least, to his face. Behind his back, they reverently called him "Professor Cahill" or "our sensei."
It's the old Zen paradox: The more he rejected the trappings of fame, the more they adored him for it.
Many universities tried unsuccessfully to lure him away. Harvard offered him its most prestigious chair, a University Fellowship, which is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the academic profession. But he turned it down, the first person to do so since Galileo.
"I didn't want to leave Berkeley," he explained to me a few years ago. "I like the way the university and the community interconnect. For some people, that's what's wrong about Berkeley. But for me, it's what's right."
Cahill was not only a great scholar, he was a great collector. Most of his collection of Chinese paintings – one of the finest private collections in the world – has been donated to the University Art Museum. He also collected rare phonograph records, which he played on his weekly radio show on KPFA.
But the collection I'd give my right arm for is something I'd seen in reproductions but never before in original form – his complete collection of early, pre-Alfred E. Neuman Mad Magazines, the ones in comic book format. (My favorites are "Superduperman" and "Batboy and Reuben.")
As modest as he was about his accomplishments, he was extremely proud of his children. His eldest son, Nick, is Professor of Art History at Wisconsin and senior archaeologist at the dig at Sardis in western Turkey, where he and his team are unearthing the palace of King Croesus of Lydia.
His daughter, Sarah, a concert pianist specializing in new American music and the American experimental tradition, has had works composed for her by such luminaries as John Adams and Terry Riley.
He also leaves two college age sons: Ben, a chemistry major at Cal, and Julian, a film student at NYU. And all four kids have inherited his independent spirit.
"My father was an advocate for lesser known, out-of-the-mainstream artists, and that's what I do with my music, too," says Sarah. "So I'm carrying on his tradition in my own way."