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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.