The Man and the Monument

The Nasher Sculpture Center is full of revelations about a man and his art

Philanthropist, n. A rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.

--Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Ray Nasher isn't a man given to grinning. At 82, he is a diminutive man, stern of countenance and bald of pate, with a hooked nose and a gravelly voice oft-compared to Marlon Brando's in The Godfather, only deeper.

Nasher's grotesquely enlarged copy of Naum Gabo's masterpiece "Constructed Head  No. 2" distorts the eloquence of the far smaller original.
Mark Graham
Nasher's grotesquely enlarged copy of Naum Gabo's masterpiece "Constructed Head No. 2" distorts the eloquence of the far smaller original.
Rodin's "Eve," one of 16 copies cast by the sculptor's foundry
Mark Graham
Rodin's "Eve," one of 16 copies cast by the sculptor's foundry

He isn't particularly hard to read. The only child of immigrant parents denied opportunities by anti-Semitism, he grew up in a milieu where, as a friend who edits at The New York Times puts it, "even the plumber's kids had to take music lessons." Although he is an educated man, an alumnus of Boston Latin, Duke and Boston universities, nattily attired and culturally sophisticated, his predominant characteristics are a steel will and a shrewd mind. He is, in a phrase, a tough old bird. And on this afternoon less than a week after his new museum had officially opened to the public, it was clear that the old bird was enjoying himself immensely.

Planted near the door of his museum gift shop, sporting a light cashmere sport coat, coordinating slacks and a satisfied air, Nasher was minding the store. Surveying his domain, the Nasher Sculpture Center, he graciously paused to accept platitudes and autograph $65 hardbound copies of the catalog from his collection. "Well, thank you," he replied to more than one admirer who, having absorbed the boosterish notices and toothless criticism that have so far accompanied the unveiling of Nasher's legacy, fawned over his "amazing generosity" and his "great gift to the public."

Nasher's new museum is a generous gesture--and at the same time a selfish and vainglorious one, at once overly controlled, brilliant and hardheaded and, in parts, flawed. Like the carefully patinated sculptures salted about the two-and-a-half acres at 2001 Flora St., Nasher's new institution must be viewed from multiple angles; to do anything less is to deny the man his due.

Thus, the rave reviews and goose-stepping critics constitute something of a disservice, recalling Bierce's definition of applause as "the echo of platitudes." Reviews in national magazines routinely describe Nasher's collection as "the most important survey of modern sculpture in private hands," a meaningless bit of puffery that says less about the collection's merit than about the pathetic state of art criticism. Far from demonstrating that Dallas is now, as Nasher claims, a "cultural destination," the critical inflation surrounding Nasher's endeavor primarily illustrates that, nowadays, satire often pales before reality.

To be fair, much about Nasher's new enterprise is right. At their best, Nasher's museum and the rotating collection it houses are utterly human, occasionally eccentric and very personal enterprises, ones that reflect Nasher's own shortcomings and quirks. In many ways, the collection's most interesting aspect is what it reveals of Nasher, the man.

On the other hand, parts of Nasher's project, and especially of the collection, are predictable, somewhat pedantic exercises in gathering examples of The Canon. Although the building itself is a remarkable piece of sculpture, the individual pieces housed within and without the structure are uneven in quality. Moreover, the garden, from its design to the selection and installation of works, appears to have been overly influenced by other sculpture gardens, especially those at the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery. Too many pieces can be seen in many other venues. Nasher's collection features the requisite Henry Moores, the usual Rodin recasts and reductions (e.g., "Monument to Balzac" and "The Serf"), and the de rigueur, not-so-rare Calders and Mirós. Indeed, to wander the Nasher is to be struck by the number of artists and works one has already seen while wandering the Mall in Washington, D.C.

This is no accident. As the exhibition catalog reveals, Nasher's résumé includes two stints in public service--the first in the early '60s, when Nasher, a real estate developer, held a presidential appointment under LBJ. (One of the best surprises at Nasher's museum is the catalog itself, a helpful and jargon-free effort that does an outstanding job not only of analyzing particular pieces, but also of revealing Nasher's stubborn, intellectually aware and somewhat conventional approach to collecting.) It was during this period that Nasher and his wife, the late Patsy Rabinowitz, began to collect sculpture in earnest.

The influence of what Nasher viewed in D.C. and New York helps to explain the over-reliance on received wisdom. As a frank 1996 interview in the catalog explains, the Nashers concentrated on sculpture in part because it was undervalued relative to painting. Theirs was a true collecting partnership. As Nasher recounts, Patsy Nasher was the more "progressive" partner while Nasher took a more intellectual, art-historical approach.

The duo got lucky. During the past four decades of the 20th century, sculpture moved from being a forgotten and somewhat reactionary form to being the predominant medium in contemporary art.

And while the result may or may not be the "most important" sculpture collection in private hands, it definitely is not the most important on public view.

This is not to deny the import of many works in the collection. Some pieces, like Rodin's original plaster cast of "The Age of Bronze," clearly merit the superlatives. One of Nasher's most recent (not to mention expensive) acquisitions, the full-scale plaster is revelatory. Though at first glance it seems a throwback to Renaissance sculpture, upon closer inspection, one is struck by the contrast between the mature musculature of the body and the smooth, naïve innocence of the unlined, even ridiculously inexperienced face. As Michael Brenson's marvelous catalog essay points out, this modern sense of dissociation, even of schizophrenia, is precisely what makes Rodin's masterpiece one of the first truly modern sculptures. Nearby are two other highlights of the collection: Paul Gauguin's two small, rare and primitive sculptures. Equally important, they emphasize another aspect of nascent modernism: the conscious search for primitivism, the attempt to throw off civilization and seek the primal impulse, a theme that is repeated throughout the 20th-century sculptures upstairs.

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