Everybody Loves Ray

And why not? His Nasher Sculpture Center will finally put Dallas on the map of don't-miss arts destinations.

September 2003By Comments

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 the linear arabesques of Tiari (1930), a polished-bronze bust abstracted to a few refined, flowing volumes. In a dozen particularly fine works, Giacometti advances from his primitivist bronze totem Spoon Woman (1926-27) to the eerie, Surrealist marble game board No More Play (1932), pitted with craterlike cavities and miniature crypts, to his trademark attenuated, existentially isolated bronze figures such as Venice Woman III (1956). But the Nashers’ “textbook collection”—the phrase often used to characterize its comprehensive scope and blue-chip quality—isn’t necessarily a predictable read; Nasher didn’t hesitate to make a major chapter of a footnote like Rodin’s Italian-born colleague Medardo Rosso, only now emerging from obscurity (the Nasher Center will host a traveling show of his work next year). Rosso’s strangely blurred, translucent wax-on-plaster busts, such as Ecce Puer (1906), have a powerful immediacy that goes well beyond mere replica-tion; they seem to be raw human essences snatched out of time, like fossil insects trapped in amber.

By the mid-nineties the Nasher Collection had become the object of a heated courtship by New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Washington’s National Gallery, and London’s Tate Gallery; the city of Dallas, seeing a major civic asset slip away, offered to fund half the cost of a $30 million facility to house the collection. Nasher rebuffed all the suitors, announcing in 1997 that he would keep the collection in the city where he had built his business and raised his children but would also assume all the costs and do it his way. “I decided to do it in Dallas if I could create something that no other city had,” he says, “and if I could do it in a place that would improve the downtown Arts District.”

Anchored by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the sprawling Dallas Arts District—”designated” by the city two decades ago with great expectations but little real planning—had seen scant growth around its institutional nucleus, which itself lacked a marquee attraction of the same rare quality as Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth. After acquiring the two-acre parking lot next door to the DMA, Nasher hired the biggest name in the museum-design business—and soon told his Pritzker prize-winning architect to, in effect, ramp it up a notch. Piano, a celebrity since the 1977 debut of his Pompidou Center in Paris, also designed the Menil Collection in Houston and the Beyeler Foundation Museum outside Basel, Switzerland, both featuring roofs of innovative louvered “leaves” that control the flow of natural light into the galleries. “Renzo thought what he’d done in Basel would work,” Nasher says. “I told him, ‘We need to go to the next level.'” Piano’s solution is as elegantly simple as it is visually mesmerizing; the subtly arched glass ceiling vaults are overlaid with cast-aluminum sunscreens perforated with thousands of small, nozzle-shaped ports, each aimed precisely north to capture the least intense natural light. From within the galleries, the roof is a work of optical art, allowing vistas of the sky from certain angles and endless variations of an opaque, honeycomblike texture from others.

While the see-through roof and glass front and rear walls make the indoor galleries feel like an extension of the garden—and the street—orderly rows of live oaks and cedar elms planted in the garden create “virtual rooms” for the display of outdoor pieces. The indoor-outdoor transparency echoes Nasher’s own home (designed by pioneer Dallas modernist Howard Meyer), where his sculpture-filled living room commands a panorama of a landscaped grove inhabited until recently by many of his monumental works. Nasher’s vision infuses not only the basic look of the center but the hidden details: the fast-draining “designer dirt” that lies beneath the garden turf, for instance, or the massive elevator that lowers delivery trucks to the basement, where they can be unloaded, out of sight, into a sprawling subterranean complex that includes classrooms, offices, a kitchen for the upstairs cafe, and a fully equipped conservation lab.

Already hailed locally as something like the Second Coming of Dallas culture, the Nasher Center will no doubt be seen by many as the kind of gorgeously packaged, capital-intensive, capital C culture the city has long embraced. Nasher, however, cautions that his vision won’t fully materialize unless the city encourages the kind of small c culture necessary to surround its architectural icons with a vibrant street life—a chronic blind spot in the city’s long-term outlook. “I thought the city should have bought all the land that it proposed for the Arts District twenty-odd years ago and leased it to galleries, restaurants, bookstores, and arts organizations,” he says. “But that wasn’t done. Now I think the city should look at the whole area and determine what can be done to make it a place where people are walking and talking and sitting out on the street. Something like Paris did around the Pompidou Center.”

Asked if the city can rise to that challenge, Nasher offers only a diplomatically wry “I’m not sure.” His uncertainty is a reminder that the generation he represents—Nasher is perhaps the last of the storied “civic leaders” who gave Dallas the economic and cultural infrastructure necessary to build a real city—has already been succeeded by a generation of arena-builders who have so far proved woefully inadequate to finish the job.

Meanwhile, Nasher doesn’t intend to slacken his own efforts; he promises that his center will be a stimulating host of performances, seminars, research projects, artists’ residencies, and touring exhibits. He’ll also continue to add to the collection he and his wife started four decades ago. “If you’re a collector, you’re a collector,” Nasher says. “Once you stop, you’re dead. It’s an addiction. It becomes part of the excitement of your life.”

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