IN A CITY PRONE TO TALK EXPANSIVELY about its cultural aspirations but do little about them, Dallas developer and philanthropist Raymond Nasher has long stood out for his pragmatic deeds and modest words. “I hope there will be people around the world who will want to come and see this,” he says of his $70 million Nasher Sculpture Center, whose October 20 opening is the most eagerly anticipated arts event in the city’s history. Although Nasher’s expectations are characteristically understated, he has given Dallas a cultural attraction that actually deserves the superlatives that so liberally festoon the civic lexicon (in the excessive use of the term “world-class,” Dallas’ boosters truly are world-class). The Nasher Center—which was designed by Renzo Piano and will house the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, widely touted as one of the finest caches of modern sculpture extant—is about to claim a place on the short list of Texas sites (Marfa’s Chinati Foundation, Fort Worth’s museums, Houston’s Menil Collection) that rank as must-sees on any global sophisticate’s itinerary.
Four decades ago, Nasher revolutionized Dallas’—and the world’s—retail landscape with his NorthPark Center luxury mall; now, at age 81, he’s poised to have a similar impact on the inner city. Hardly the latest designer vault for some plutocrat’s fragile treasures, the Nasher Center will display its wealth in a setting of breathtaking openness and transparency. Variously described by Piano as a “noble ruin” and a “museum without a roof,” the sequence of parallel Italian-travertine gallery walls, isolated like rows of columns at the ruins of Paestum or Karnak, are sheltered by high-tech glass and novel cast-aluminum sunscreens. Motorists and pedestrians passing by the center’s Flora Street entrance will be able to see clear through the galleries into the one-and-a-half-acre sculpture garden; visitors can stand within the landscaped oasis and stare almost directly up at the neighboring office towers. It’s an unprecedented baring of the museum cloister to the city’s quotidian gaze, an act of civic-minded exhibitionism so daring that it threatens to bring the long-languishing Dallas Arts District roaring to life.
While most similarly ambitious projects reflect the creative consensus of a panoply of dealers, consultants, curators, and architects, the Nasher Center is distinguished by how directly it has been shaped by the singular vision of its sole patron. Nasher grew up in Boston, the son of Jewish immigrants who took him to a different area museum once a month. But the real genesis of the Nasher Center dates from election night 1948, when Nasher, studying for a master’s degree in economics at Boston University, met a Smith College coed from Dallas, Patsy Rabinowitz, an ardent arts enthusiast who impressed her future husband by forecasting Truman’s upset win. Married a year later, Ray and Patsy moved to her hometown in 1950, where Ray embarked on his real estate career and the couple began to collaborate on a collection of pre-Columbian antiquities, then within their relatively modest means.
The Nashers’ passion for contemporary sculpture ignited in the early sixties, when Patsy splurged on Jean Arp’s sinuous 1961 bronze Torso With Buds. She became a habitué of New York galleries, openings, and auctions, while Ray explored affinities with his own profession: “The sculptor is really a builder,” Nasher once observed, and years ago he began placing sculpture in and around his own three-dimensional creations. NorthPark Center, which opened in 1965 amid warnings that its clean lines and elegant finish would be lost on the mall masses, was designed from the ground up to properly display large works of art. Filling a void in a city that still lacks a contemporary-art museum, Nasher rotated selections from the couple’s collection throughout his radically tasteful mall, routinely introducing shoppers to new works such as Jonathan Borofsky’s twenty-foot-tall postmodern kinetic sculpture, Hammering Man (1985), one of more than twenty monumental pieces recently installed in the Nasher Center’s garden.
Nasher and his wife, who died in 1988 after a long illness, were self-educated collectors. “We didn’t go through huge phases of conversation with other people before we bought,” Nasher recalls. “We bought everything predicated on our own feeling. Each piece we acquired gave us butterflies. That was part of the joy of it, the ability to make our own mistakes.” Yet the amateurs seldom stumbled, adroitly plucking masterpieces from a market that was focused more intently on paintings. Moving backward toward Rodin (often at Ray’s insistence) and forward to minimalism and postmodernism (often at Patsy’s insistence), the Nashers ended up with an encyclopedic trove of modern sculptures that has grown to more than three hundred pieces, ranging in size from Alberto Giacometti’s matchbox-scale bronzes, Two Figurines (1945), to the fifty-ton My Curves Are Not Mad (1987), Richard Serra’s at once threatening and sensuous walk-through gantlet of curved steel plates. “The main strength of this collection is its incredible documentation of the history of modern sculpture,” says Steven Nash, the onetime deputy director of the Dallas Museum of Art who will run the Nasher Center. “The Museum of Modern Art or the Hirshhorn might have more pieces from the period, but in terms of piece-to-piece quality, no museum can match the tight aesthetic splendor of the Nasher Collection.”
The inaugural installation, totaling close to a hundred pieces both indoors and out, will hew to the collection’s dense core of modern masters, beginning with a plaster model (rarer than the actual bronzes cast from it) for Rodin’s The Age of Bronze (1876); in harkening back to the internal animation of Michelangelo’s muscular figures, Rodin’s impassioned male nude demolished the stale, stilted poses of the nineteenth-century art academies. From that opening shot, modern sculpture exploded in myriad directions, from the primitivism of Gauguin’s Tahitian Girl (1896), carved in wood in an almost naive style, to the futuristic machine aesthetic of Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s bronze Large Horse (1914). Nine sculptures by Matisse document the artist’s struggle to discover his own canons of anatomical form and balance, beginning with the gouged, tormented cast-bronze surface of his burly, striding male nude The Serf (1900-1903) and culminating with