Sculpture in Dallas

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Sculpture in Dallas

Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion

Sculpture isn't easy. As that hoary artists' joke goes, it's what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting. Unlike paintings, which (for the most part) stay decorously on the wall and can even escape scrutiny, sculpture is unequivocally there, physically present and unignorable. Sculpture of the last half century is even more insistent, refusing to remain isolated on a pedestal, but instead competing for the very space we occupy. Sculpture can make rude demands on our sense of ourselves. Even the most stripped-down, minimal works ask to be perceived through our awareness of our own bodies, forcing us to draw upon our accumulated experience of how it feels to occupy space, to move, to resist gravity, to touch. And there are practical considerations, as well. Despite their considerable heft, sculptures can often be fragile or, if they are big enough and unwieldy enough, they can even pose life-threatening risks. The expense and logistical challenges of moving and installing large, heavy objects are so daunting that museums think long and hard before organizing sculpture exhibitions, while the difficulties of storage and handling can even make them reluctant to acquire sculpture. And because of all of these concerns, serious private collectors of sculpture are very rare beasts indeed.

All of which makes the advent of the newly opened Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas pretty close to miraculous. Dedicated to what its director, Stephen A. Nash, describes as "the exhibition, study, appreciation, and conservation of Modern and contemporary sculpture" the Center will offer the public rotating exhibitions drawn from a dazzling private collection of works spanning the late nineteenth century to the present, installed in an elegant building by Renzo Piano; large-scale pieces are distributed through an adjoining two-acre sculpture garden designed by Piano and the landscape designer Peter Walker. Like all sites associated with miracles, the Center should rapidly become a place of pilgrimage. As the Michelin guides say, it is not only worth a detour, but worth a journey.

This wonderful new institution owes its existence to the passion and generosity of Raymond Nasher and his late wife, Patsy, a remarkable couple who were sufficiently obsessed with sculpture--especially modern sculpture--to have collected it for almost four decades, beginning in the mid-1960s. The Nashers' life as collectors began even earlier, however, when they traveled to Mexico in 1950 and became interested in pre-Columbian art. During the years that followed, they gradually acquired what became a significant group of ethnographic and archaeological objects from ancient Latin America. Before long, though, their interest shifted to American Modernist painting, in part because of the helpful influence of the formidable Edith Halpert, the director of the legendary. Downtown Gallery in New York and a champion of artists such as Smart Davis and Jacob Lawrence. By the mid-1960s, the Nashers had begun to concentrate on Modern sculpture. Following the purchase of a major bronze by Jean Arp, they, soon acquired important works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, and Isamu Noguchi. The couple continued to buy paintings, but their future direction was established.

These changes in focus are probably not as surprising as they might seem. Patsy Nasher is reported to have been "a born collector" with an appetite for, in addition to art, political buttons, Navajo weavings, Gypsy and pre-Columbian jewelry, and more. Nash remembers Patsy saying "We never thought of ourselves as collectors with a capital C--we just bought what pleased us." But their decision to pay most attention to sculpture may have been inevitable. According to Nash, Raymond Nasher believes that his early interest in pre-Columbian and tribal art was an important foundation for his later appreciation of modern work in three-dimensions, and he believes, too, that his experience as a builder and developer "sharpened his eye for sculpture and its 'constructed,' spatial qualifies. …

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