Perfect Vision

Skepticism suits Dr. Edmund P. Pillsbury. It informs his professional acumen; it sharpens his impressive intellect. It feeds his wry sense of humor; it counter-balances his lifelong love of art. Pillsbury runs Southern Methodist University's Meadows Museum. Before that, he saved Gerald Peters Gallery from turmoil at the top, partnering with Peters to create Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. And before that, he spent 18 formative years developing a world-renowned collection for Fort Worth's Kimbell Museum. With his lengthy and vast experience and having seen the best art--and possibly the worst--throughout the world, Pillsbury might be voted "Least Likely to be Astonished" by anyone's art collection. Yet, he admits, despite a hefty dose of skepticism when he was told about the collection of Texas art being assembled in the home of Dallas arts patrons and philanthropists Richard and Nona Barrett, "I was astonished."

The Meadows Museum has mounted an unprecedented exhibition of Texas art, collected over 20 years by the Barretts. Texas Vision: The Barrett Collection--The Art of Texas and Switzerland reveals some of the greatest contemporary and historical works by Texas artists in the first public presentation of 150 paintings and sculpture. Pillsbury recalls his first private exposure to some of the art in 1989. "Although I had heard that the Barretts were energetically collecting the work of Texas artists, I was more skeptical than expectant," he says. "Not that I had summarily dismissed the notion of the Barretts as serious collectors; I had simply given up on the notion that any Texans would ever become serious collectors of Texas art."

Pillsbury watched carefully over the last five years as the Barretts' collection--and his scholarly astonishment--grew. "The Barretts weren't politely dabbling in Texas art," he says. "They were collecting it with the same irrepressible passion that had produced it. After years of looking at the predictable, brand-name late modern and postmodern art displayed in the homes of affluent Texans as a badge of sophistication, I found the vision of a similarly well-endowed collection dedicated to Texas art simply breathtaking." Pillsbury and his staff, including adjunct senior curator Richard Brettell, began the process of coordinating a showcase of the Barretts' treasures at the Meadows Museum. "In the years of collecting represented in this exhibition, the Barretts have begun the recovery of at least a hundred years of Texas history from the embarrassed silence of Texas' cultural institutions," he says.

It's high time, we might say. Curiously, alongside the Barretts' exemplar Texas works from the late 19th century to now, the Meadows is showing the couple's small but impressive collection by Swiss artists. Brettell makes a connection of sensibilities between Texas and Switzerland in an interesting essay in the Texas Visions exhibition catalog. Brettell writes, "We see more similarities than differences. Texas was isolated by its size, Switzerland by its mountainous geography. Each brought the strength of multicultural identities to bear on their respective provincialism, creating similar conditions for the creation of a kind of art and culture-making that might be called Cosmopolitan Provincialism. Each benefited from its respective isolation and diversity."

Texas Vision showcases these similarities. There are too many artists to list in this space, but viewers will find historic art that created a kind of Texas "visual vocabulary," plus plenty of contemporary art by names we know--David Bates, Linda Ridgway, Bill Komodore, Joseph Havel. The Swiss art is pristine in places and eerily compatible with some of the Texas work. You'll get this show on many levels, whether you're an amateur art scholar or whether you shoot art appreciation from the hip.

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Annabelle Massey Helber