The Man and the Monument

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

But Nasher's collection also has its fair share of decades-later or posthumous recasts, affectionately known as "chocolate bunnies." For example, Julio González's important, welded 1936-'37 "Woman With a Mirror" is represented in Nasher's collection by a bronze recast made many years after the artist's death. Other late (although not posthumous) reprises of an artist's "greatest hits" include Naum Gabo's magnificent, important 1916 constructivist masterpiece, "Constructed Head No. 2," which here appears as a 1975 enlargement. Although the Nasher piece emphasizes Gabo's transformation of two-dimensional planes into three-dimensional volume, in the end, the grotesquely enlarged copy violently distorts the eloquence of the far smaller original.

At the same time, some pieces--Picasso's 1958 concrete "Head of a Woman" springs to mind--seem to be valued more for their one-off rarity and/or provenance than for their aesthetic importance. Moreover, there are a number of critical missing links and second-rate substitutes, González's "Woman With a Mirror" being but one example. The collection contains no examples of Westermann, an omission that seems particularly curious given the presence of several fine works reflecting the horror and inhumanity of war, especially David Smith's anti-imperial "Perfidious Albion (the British Empire)"; his "House in a Landscape," a perverse look at war widows; and Alberto Giacometti's subversive commentary on war in the form of a game board, titled "No More Play."

As one might expect from a man whose bent is primarily intellectual, Nasher's collection is presented as a linear and rigorously logical narrative. The story begins with the late 19th century, with Rodin, Gauguin and the near-forgotten Medardo Rosso. Fittingly, these works are presented on the bottom-most floor, in the basement, below the modernism of Picasso and Matisse.

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

Climbing to the main floor, one moves through modernism and surrealism and into more contemporary work, which is housed outside. Each room is open, with clear sight lines extending across the gallery and even outside, so one can literally see connections across movements and time. Visitors are handed an audiocassette with informative lectures they can listen to if they choose, a wise decision that allows visitors to wander, make connections and explore where they see fit.

The best parts of the collection are its in-depth, occasionally eccentric aspects, especially the fine selection of David Smith's early, small-scale work and an equally fascinating cross section of Giacometti's surrealist sculpture. The exhibition catalog does a fine job of explaining Nasher's interesting and idiosyncratic detours into futurism, vorticism and the sentimental wax-and-plaster work by the obscure Rosso.

Architect Renzo Piano's low-profile building largely deserves the critical froth it has received. The simplicity and modern classicism of Piano's Nasher rivals Piano's own earlier masterpiece, his building for Houston's Menil Collection--for my money, one of the finest public museum buildings anywhere. Unfortunately, however, the garden is disappointing. To some extent, this may be caused by the immaturity of flora and fauna. But landscape architect Peter Walker seems to have decided to emphasize, rather than hide, the open, flat terrain--a decision that does little to disguise the sparseness of the sculptures or to relieve the relentless Texas sun, the queuing of crowds or the noise of the adjacent freeway. The outdoor sculptures themselves, from di Suvero to Abakanowicz to Moore, with nods to pop art (Lichtenstein), tragically trendy land art (James Turrell) and the required rejoinder to the "Burghers of Calais" (Segal), are absolutely predictable.

One walks away from the garden with the distinct impression of a patron who was determined to pound a square peg of a sculpture garden into a round hole of a site. And despite the lavishness of materials and the expensive engineering details of the building's see-through canopy, one gets the notion that the project did not enjoy an unlimited budget. In the end, one is left with a garden and building that reflect a life well-lived, the work of a man dedicated to learning who is nevertheless one stubborn, hardheaded and formidable S.O.B.

As Emerson noted, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds; thus Nasher has his moments of glorious inconsistency, even flat-out hypocrisy. For just one example, he has stated that he designed the building with a low profile to be accessible, to convert the wasteland of a former parking lot into a green paradise, and to promote the revitalization of an inner city, with the intent that pedestrians can wander by and peer in. At the same time, however, Nasher is to blame for the parking lot next door, having blocked a planned multistory development with petulant threats because the control freak in him couldn't bear not to have the final aesthetic say when it came to developing the project next to his beloved garden.

But despite the idiosyncrasies--and indeed, because of them--Nasher has made an invaluable contribution to the city. One can forgive him his occasional flights of puffery, vanity and even sentimentality as he wanders, Stanley Marcus-style, among the sculptures of his latest and most beloved development, a kind of super-duper NorthPark south (SouthPark, if you will). May he continue to mind the store well into the next decade, quarreling with would-be neighboring developers and shopping Sotheby's for bronze bargains and proselytizing for what a docent at the opening called the "Nasher aesthetic"--an all-consuming enterprise that involves overseeing details down to the selection of vases in the gift shop. For it is all part of an important process, which in the end is less about art history and educating the public as perfecting Nasher's own piece of sculpture, a monument to a cussed, determined, intellectually adventurous and very interesting life.

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