Walter M. Spink

(1928 - 2019)

Walter M. Spink, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, passed away in Ann Arbor on November 23, 2019 at the age of ninety-one. He was one of the world’s leading scholars of South Asian art and architecture.

Walter was born in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1928.  He graduated from Amherst College in 1949 and he earned an M.A. (1950) and Ph.D. (1954) from Harvard University.  Upon graduation, he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps until 1956, when he joined Brandeis University’s faculty.  In 1961, he came to the University of Michigan, where he played a crucial role in making the department one of the most important centers for studying Asian art. Over the course of his long and distinguished tenure at Michigan, Professor Spink shaped numerous dissertations on diverse topics. He retired in 2000, tirelessly pursuing his scholarly interests for nearly two decades.

Professor Spink published widely on Indian art, notably on manuscript paintings celebrating the Hindu deity Krishna and the rock-cut sanctuaries of the Indian subcontinent. His name is forever linked to the Ajanta caves, located near Aurangabad in western India. At Ajanta, there stand approximately twenty-nine rock-cut caves. These served as Buddhist meditation halls, spaces for congregational worship, and dwellings for monastics. Together, they represent an exceedingly rich trove of architecture, painting, and sculpture. Before Walter’s investigations of the site, the ensemble at Ajanta had been dated to the long period extending from the beginning of the fifth-century through the seventh century CE. Supported by fellowships from the Bollingen Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, National Endowment for the Humanities and other organizations, and melding art historical evidence with clues in textual sources, Professor Spink famously proposed a “short chronology.” He argued that nearly all the caves at Ajanta were in-fact completed in a fifteen-year period beginning in 462 and ending abruptly in 477 ce. Following this bold proposition, Professor Spink remained devoted to the documentation and analysis of Ajanta and directed the annual Ajanta site seminar from 1975 to 2010s for graduate students from American and Indian universities.  The astounding depth and breadth of his engagement with this site culminated in his seven-volume study of Ajanta published by Brill (2005-2016). Professor Spink also made his findings accessible to a broader public by participating in the production of documentary films; he likewise aided in the site’s conservation by advising the Archaeological Survey of India.

While at Michigan, Professor Spink lead the field of Asian art in many ways, serving as a member of the editorial board of the journal Ars Orientalis (1963-2000), as president of the American Committee for South Asian Art (1972-1976), and as a Trustee of the American Institute of Indian Studies (1962-1965 and 1972-1973). From the early 1960s through the mid-1990s, Professor Spink photo-documented scores of architectural ensembles across South and Southeast Asia. He also identified many private art collections in India and photographed their holdings. All these photographs eventually entered the department’s Asian art archives, a visual resource he made available to scholars worldwide first through the American Committee for South Asian Art color slide project and eventually through agreements with ARTSTOR and the Virtual Museum of Images and Sounds.

Professor Spink also played a significant role in widening and deepening the study of archaeology and art history in India. He was an active member of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Asiatic Society of Mumbai, and other organizations. Late in his life, he presented his papers to the American Institute of Indian Studies in Gurgaon and gifted over 120 artworks to the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Professor Spink’s passion for teaching and promoting Asian art inspired three generations of art historians. He directed numerous dissertations and mentored students working on diverse topics including the citadels of Parthia, planetary iconography, symbolic morphology of medieval south Indian temples, aesthetics and politics of early modern north India court paintings, handprints and footprints in Tibet, and narrative reliefs in southeast Asia. As his students began their careers in the academy, in museums, and in public service Professor Spink continued to guide them. In return, his students felicitated him with a festschrift, and with conference panels and symposia organized in India, South Korea, and United States.

Professor Spink is survived by his wife, Nesta, and children David, Philip, and Ann. His great mind, wise heart, and persistent generosity will be missed by all.



Tributes from the Indian press: 

Job Thomas, "Remembering Ajanta Scholar, Prof. Walter Spink (1928-2019), The Hindu, 30 November 2019


"granthamānava: suvarnayugācā sāṅgātī," (A Man of Letters and a Witness to a Golden Age) Loksatta, 30 November 2019


"ajiṇṭhā leṇyāñce jyeṣṭha abhyāsak Walter M. Spink yañce nidhan" (Walter M. Spink, senior scholar of Ajanta caves passes away) Loksatta, 27 November 2019