To get to know Ray Nasher, it helps to don a hardhat and do a construction-site circuit. That is, two construction-site circuits: Nasher is the prime patron of museums in progress at Duke, from which he graduated in 1943, and in Dallas, his adopted hometown.
Early in March, Nasher, along with architect Rafael Viñoly and Duke museum director Michael Mezzatesta, were walking the Duke site. Construction had started just weeks earlier. They were looking at a sample of pre-cast concrete, four feet by four feet, that had been trucked in from Charlotte. Pigment had been used to tint the concrete light brown, and small stones in shades of brown, beige, and white had been added to provide more color and texture. They were also considering the width of the reveals, or raised surfaces, that would add visual relief once the flat panels of concrete were put in place. From the beginning of the Duke museum project, says Mezzatesta, Nasher's vision has been "to hire a world-class architect to design a significant building."
In Texas, later in March, Vel Hawes, whose business card reads "Owner's Representative," was leading a tour through the half-finished Nasher Sculpture Center. It will occupy a former parking lot, adjacent to the Dallas Museum of Art. The first obvious feature is "an instant forest"--some 180 re-planted, fully mature trees. Then there are two soaring sculptures. Mark di Suvero's Eviva Amore, made of steel, is thirty-five-feet high and weighs 22,500 pounds. Richard Serra's My Curves Are Not Mad combines two forty-foot-long steel plates arranged in a precise alignment; its installation required flatbed trucks, cranes, and special lifting clamps, along with its own concrete foundation.
For both projects, Nasher isn't just the conceiving force but also a continuing presence. Hawes talks about Nasher's tendency to "be a perfectionist in everything he does." The architect for the Duke building, Viñoly, was runner-up in the competition to rebuild the World Trade Center. The Dallas building and sculpture garden is a collaboration between Renzo Piano, winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture's ultimate mark of distinction, and landscape architect Peter Walker. At its core is the collection assembled by Nasher and his late wife, Patsy, which is probably the world's most impressive array of modern sculpture in private hands.
In Dallas, the twin design themes are Italian travertine and transparency, a merger of inside and outside, art and nature. Visitors will be able to gaze up through glass ceilings to the sky. They will be able to stand in front and look all the way through the building to the garden beyond, or stand in the garden and look into the interior installations. The glass panels on the roof are covered with a cast aluminum "sunscreen," with small hoods that will pop upward or downward. Top-layer hoods will capture a steady northern light and bounce it through lower hoods, giving the light an even, diffused distribution in the galleries. The effect is "pure, pure, pure," in the words of center director Steven Nash.
Hawes pauses in the main exhibition gallery, where two supervisors are selecting travertine tiles. He says Nasher tells contractors to "keeping raising the bar," to "make it the best you can make it." He adds, "He can't read a construction plan in a technical sense, but once he sees it, he understands it. If you're explaining it to him, he's sizing you up. His greatest strength is his intuition. He won't make a decision until it feels good."
Duke's Nasher Museum is scheduled to open in late 2004. Dallas' Nasher Sculpture Center opens this fall. Already, Hawes has led some 300 tours, at the behest of interested--and envious--architects, museum executives, and art dealers. "This is a very complex building that, when finished, will look very simple."
That's how Ray Nasher does things--initiating complex processes that make strong and simple statements. To him, art changes everything, including how we perceive the world and how we perceive ourselves. "When you look at art that you bought thirty years ago, which gave you butterflies at that time, it may be more stimulating today," he says. "You can see a Picasso today and think it's the most beautiful and exciting thing. And then three months later, it's still a fabulous piece of art, but suddenly a Matisse comes into play and that Matisse is much more meaningful."
" The problem that I have with people who don't really relate to art is that they're always looking through things," he says. "They don't see anything."
Nasher, an only child, was born in Boston; his father had escaped the pogroms of Russia, and his mother had immigrated from Germany. He went to Boston Latin, the first public school in the United States, which dates back to the 1630s and is still considered one of the best in the country. The school is close to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "From the time I was six or seven years old, the three of us went to museums. There were something like twenty-seven museums in the Boston area," Nasher says. His first fixation with a work of art was Van Gogh's Postman, which he kept re-encountering at the M.F.A. "It was captivating. The colors had a tremendous meaning--the postman's uniform and hat. And the expressiveness of the face. The postman came alive. One could see right through to the character of the person."
He was exposed not just to art, but also to an open-ended intellectual curiosity. His grandparents lived in the Bronx in New York, next to Yankee Stadium. When he visited, he'd accompany them to baseball games, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and some unexpected destinations. "My grandfather was a very interesting man. Anything that happened in New York, he knew about it. So we had to go up the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the day they were opened."
During the Depression, the family moved to New York for what his father hoped would be better economic opportunities in the garment-manufacturing business. Twice a week Nasher studied piano at a branch of the Juilliard School of Music (now The Juilliard School) in Queens. Every Saturday he had composition and harmony lessons at Juilliard in Manhattan. He still keeps a piano in his library.
Eager to experience life beyond New England and the Northeast, Nasher went to Duke. He majored in economics and never took a college-level art course. As a senior, he became president of the Men's Student Government Association. The Chronicle reported at the time that Nasher had "left, returned, left, and returned again to the campus because of the Navy's calling him to active duty as an ensign in the supply corps." Nasher had his own Chronicle column, "Time to Think." He promoted the virtues of physical education as "a definite contribution to our country's war efforts," pleaded with fraternities to abide by their own rules of behavior, and pondered the question, "Can you tell me why Man has been working for war rather than for peace ever since the founding of his universe?" In one of his last columns, in April 1943, he dwelled on "Duke deficiencies." He wrote, "Duke needs an art and music school. Our university should enfold culture of every nature. Art and music are basic cultural entities which must not be lost in the shuffle of 'bread and butter' seekers."
Morton Heller '42, now a retired bank chairman in Aspen, Colorado, coached Nasher on the freshman tennis team, was Nasher's roommate for three years, and managed his publicity when Nasher made a successful run for the class presidency. He remembers Nasher as "a smart, very steady player" for the varsity tennis team, of which he was captain, and whose matches Nasher's parents often came to see. And, says Heller, he was known around campus as "one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet." They continued to play tennis together for more than fifty years.
After Duke, Nasher returned to Boston and enrolled in a graduate program at Boston University, concentrating on housing and urban development. "Maturity suggests that you know what you don't want to do; you may not know what you do want to do," Nasher says. "I knew that I didn't want to be in my father's garment business."
Nasher was determined to land someplace where the entrepreneurial environment would allow him to make his mark. His wife, the former Patsy Rabinowitz, was a Dallas native, so both were drawn to Dallas. (They had met at an election-night party in 1948, the first election to be televised. As Nasher recalls it, Patsy Rabinowitz was the only one at the gathering to predict a Truman victory.) Struck by the postwar exuberance for home ownership, a trend boosted by generous government financing, Nasher got his start as a developer of low-cost housing. He mastered the essentials: water, sewer, and natural-gas lines, power grids, zoning regulations, landscaping possibilities.
Beyond his Dallas base, Nasher has exerted an influence in other ways. In the administration of Lyndon Johnson, he was a delegate to the United Nations, executive director of a White House Conference on International Cooperation, a consultant to the State Department's Bureau of the Budget, and a member of a federal advisory committee on urban development. He served on the Kaiser Commission, appointed by Johnson in 1967 to report on the nation's urban areas. The commission reached conclusions that reflected a spirit of social progressiveness. It found, for example, that "Public expenditures for decent housing for the nation's poor, like public expenditures for education and job training, are not so much expenditures as they are essential investments in the future of American society."
The first President George Bush tapped him to serve on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; he continues as vice chairman. And he has had several university teaching stints, including three years at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Probably the most enduringly impressive outcome of Nasher's development work is NorthPark Center, opened in 1965 and located at the convergence of two Dallas highways. Today its 120 stores include upscale retailers like Neiman Marcus, Burberry, and Tiffany, along with The Gap, the Disney Store, Banana Republic, and other mall staples.
Nasher looks on NorthPark as an aesthetic statement, a giant sculpture composed of a single material and form. He assembled a team of accomplished architects and designers; none had ever worked on a shopping center before. At the time it was built, it was the largest climate-controlled retail establishment in the world, with a white faÁade meant to suggest great buildings as they've been conceived through history. It stretches over a half mile along a naturally lighted promenade filled with fountains, shrubs, flowering plants, and a pond populated with turtles and ducks. One of Nasher's aims was architectural integrity; another was what he refers to as "the democratizing of the retail business."
That NorthPark retail business is accompanied by art, lots of art, all of which comes from the Patsy and Raymond Nasher Collection. The dominating work greets shoppers at the entry along NorthPark Boulevard: Jonathan Borofksy's Hammering Men, a twenty-foot-tall, five-figure group with motorized arms that continuously move up and down. In the Fountain Court is Frank Stella's Washington Island Gadwall. Configured of enamel, crayon, and glitter on aluminum, it's a colorful and cacophonous assemblage, the largest metal relief from Stella's Exotic Bird series. One corridor has an Andy Warhol Ads series: silkscreen prints of Ronald Reagan selling Van Heusen shirts, Donald Duck hawking war bonds, and Judy Garland in Blackglama fur. Outside Neiman Marcus, the shopper comes face to face with John Newman's Torus Obicularis, an aluminum construction of two flowerlike orbs connected by a large pipe. Nearby is Barry Flanagan's Large Leaping Hare, a gilded-bronze hare balanced atop an altar-like pyramid. Jim Dine's The Field of the Cloth of Gold invites contemplation of a twisted, brightly colored riff on the Venus de Milo.
NorthPark signals a lot about Nasher both as developer and collector, says the Nasher Center's Steven Nash. "For great developers, it's the process as much as the product that is exciting, the idea of having a dream and being able to put together all the ingredients to make it happen. And that is very much like the vision and independence and willingness to take a chance that a great collector has to have. Patsy and Ray's history of collecting sculpture has been marked by a very important pioneering quality. They were way out ahead of the market, even as they understood what they liked. That required a forward-looking ability to stare straight into the future without being distracted by other people's opinions."
The Nasher Collection comprehensively traces the idea of modernism, representing the techniques of abstraction and figuration, the use of different media, and the pairing of indoor and outdoor display. "There are collections of modern sculpture that are bigger," says Nash. "There are museum collections that have great individual pieces in them. But you'd be very hard-pressed to find a collection that, piece-by-piece, artist-by-artist, has these amazing aesthetic continuities within it. There is barely a letdown anyplace along the way, and if there is, it's not a very serious one. It covers a lot of territory and hits all the high notes of all the great sculptors of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries and into the twenty-first century. But it also has some very interesting byways, in terms of going down rivulets that are not as well-known or understood but that had been recognized by Ray and Patsy as tremendous examples of sculptural invention and quality. All those things together add up to something that is unparalleled."
Nasher says he and his wife determined early on that if they had any surplus funds, "the first thing we'd do is buy art." Patsy Nasher, who had graduated from high school at age fourteen and had taken art classes as a Smith undergraduate, became known for her acute aesthetic judgment and for the connections she cultivated with dealers, curators, scholars, and artists. Their art purchases represented "a true partnership," says one of their three daughters, Nancy A. Nasher J.D. '79, now president of the NorthPark Development Company. "If there was a piece that he liked that she didn't like, they didn't get it. If there was a piece that she liked that he didn't like, they got it. If there was a piece that they both liked, they got it."
Says Ray Nasher, "We felt strongly that it had to be art that we wanted to live with, so the works really had to become members of the family. It wasn't a question of the quality of the work or formal considerations about art in general, but what it meant to us." Each piece, he says, has a story behind it.
An early interest in pre-Columbian and other ethnographic arts, including Navajo rugs and Guatemalan textiles, was stirred by several vacations in Mexico. The couple mingled with workers at archaeological sites and made inexpensive purchases, $10 or $20 for an object. (Nasher notes that those purchases preceded UNESCO protections of native cultural artifacts.) "You could see in that pre-Columbian art the whole range of the people's religious considerations, the nature of their schooling, the nature of their buildings. You had the whole culture of that period depicted through their arts. It was a very important beginning for us."
Their first purchase of a major work of art was a Ben Shahn watercolor, Tennis Players. That purchase, from a New York gallery, sparked a string of acquisitions of American Modernist paintings. "I'm such a tennis fan, and I felt it was just fantastic," says Nasher. "I told Patsy that we had to have that piece on account of the fact that I've played tennis all my life. How many times do you see tennis players in an art form?"
In 1961 the Nashers moved into a house built by Howard Meyer, a Dallas architect and disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Nature is accessible from every vantage point. So is modern sculpture, inside and outside. The house is surrounded by four-and-a-half woody acres; Nasher eventually acquired property across the street that now serves as a sculpture garden. As he has said, "You can't put a twenty-foot, five-ton sculpture in a New York apartment."
Inside, the first thing the visitor notices is Jean Arp's Torso with Buds, which fills the front hallway of the house. The couple acquired the work, a bronze fusing of floral and human shapes, rising some six feet in height, in 1967. Its suggestion of organic growth seems a fitting starting point for a collection that subsequently blossomed. His wife bought it as a birthday present for Nasher. "She had seen it at the Janis Gallery in New York, and she thought it was one of the most beautiful forms she had ever seen. This was a major breakthrough. It basically was the beginning of our searching out the very important artists of the twentieth century."
Some of those very important artists became well known by the Nashers. Says Nancy Nasher, "They would either come to our house and sometimes live with us for months on end, or we would go to their studios or their foundries where they would be making the pieces, or we would be with them for the installation of the pieces." World-class tennis players also came to visit, as did other celebrities--among them, Paloma Picasso, the artist's daughter. As soon as she walked in the door of the Nashers' house, she saw a Picasso bronze, Pregnant Woman. It had been done in stages in the Fifties, when Picasso's companion at the time was pregnant with Paloma. "The first words out of her mouth," recalls Nancy Nasher, "were, 'That's me in there!' "
One of the Nashers' extended artistic encounters was with Andy Warhol. Patsy Nasher had come to know Warhol during her frequent forays into the New York gallery scene. She negotiated a trade-off with Warhol: In exchange for Navajo rugs, pots, jewelry, and other pieces of ethnographic art, Warhol would do individual family portraits. The family had long lived with a Warhol presence in their kitchen, a series of Warhol's silkscreen poster-prints of Campbell soup cans. Nancy Nasher has held on to some real Campbell soup cans with Warhol's signature; a couple of them have exploded, she says, so she has had to give them to a conservator for attention.
Warhol and his retinue came to Dallas and configured a makeshift studio in their hotel. Says Nancy Nasher, "My mother told me what the process was going to be, which was pretty much, take everything off and wrap a towel around yourself, and he's going to cover you in white powder--totally, everywhere, every inch of you, everything but your hair. And then you sit, and he's there with this Polaroid camera and a few people telling you how to sit, how to hold your head up. And he's taking hundreds of Polaroids."
Nancy Nasher says she was impressed with Warhol's workmanlike ways; she recalls his quiet manner, his ghostly white complexion, his riveting eyes, and his team of scurrying assistants. "In some of his portraits, he put in a little more color or a little more detail around the eyes or the month. In ours there was not quite as much." But there was a bigger issue. When her portrait came back, she noticed that Warhol had taken artistic license with her hair color, shifting it from its authentic brown to an unfamiliar black. "I told my mother, 'This is not an accurate representation.' I don't know how I had the nerve to do it, but I knew that it wasn't accurate. So Warhol redid the portrait and lightened up the color."
Although the Nashers were never driven by an academic impulse, they collected intelligently as well as passionately. One of their acquisitions, from the estate of Picasso, was the artist's Head (Fernande), from 1909. It's a first casting in plaster, from the hands of Picasso. A portrayal of Fernande Olivier, Picasso's love at the time, the work is considered the first true cubist sculpture. The surface is broken up as on a cubist canvas, with the woman's features rendered in sharply angled planes.
Their collection received an academic endorsement in 1978, when it was exhibited at Southern Methodist University. In 1987-88, "A Century of Modern Sculpture: The Patsy and Raymond Nasher Collection"--some one hundred works by more than fifty artists--appeared at the Dallas Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It later traveled to Madrid, Florence, and Tel Aviv. In their foreword to the catalogue, J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery at the time, and Harry S. Parker III, his Dallas counterpart, said the collection constituted "a cohesive historical continuum" even as it showed "that rich stamp of personal taste which can distinguish a private collection from its museum or institutional counterpart." They noted that even as the Nashers collected in depth such modern masters as Duchamp-Villon, Matisse, Moore, and Giacometti, they also encouraged new developments on the contemporary scene, acquiring pieces by Borofsky, Segal, and Serra.
The Nashers installed sculptures at civic spaces around Dallas, and lent works for exhibitions around the world. A selection from the collection rotates perpetually through the sculpture garden at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice. Nasher helped design the sculpture garden, which the Guggenheim named after the Nashers. (Patsy Nasher died in 1988 after a long series of illnesses.) He lent it thirty pieces for its opening in 1995. He was also on the design committee for the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the fluid-form, titanium-clad Frank Gehry creation that he calls "a revolution in the nature of museum building."
When, a couple of years ago, Nasher announced the gift of the sculpture center to Dallas, The New York Times reported: "For years, museums from the Solomon R. Guggenheim in Manhattan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have courted Raymond D. Nasher and coveted his extensive collection of modern and contemporary sculpture. All but one of the museums have courted in vain."
For his part, Nasher says the decision was logical: He has spent most of his life in Dallas, his daughters grew up there, and it seemed important to provide a cultural catalyst for downtown development. His catalyzing action, he hopes, will make the city an international art destination. The private Nasher Foundation, headed by Nasher, will maintain the center, decide what will be displayed, lend pieces not on display to other museums, and buy new works.
If the Nashers didn't create a new awareness of sculpture, they fed that awareness. "There's a famous, rather snide quote from an abstract artist of the New York School," Steven Nash says. "He said that sculpture is what you bump into when you're backing up looking at paintings. But there has been a growing recognition of sculpture. I think part of it is just more exposure--more sculpture gardens, more cities with public sculpture. But it also is a market condition: As paintings become rarer and increasingly expensive, sculpture by the same artist, which is of equal quality, becomes more and more attractive."
Harry S. Parker III, now director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and formerly director of the Dallas Museum, says, "One of Ray's qualities is that he likes the big idea, the big vision. I think from the very beginning, he saw an opportunity to create a big idea, which was a comprehensive, high-quality collection of modern sculpture. When Ray started it, it was something pretty darn new. Ray worries over the details, he worries over getting everything right. But the big concept is what he goes for."
To Nasher, sculpture is simply more interesting than painting, both as a creative process and for the impact on the observer. "Sculpture has dimension, which is vital and which makes it much more interesting than painting," he says. "You put a painting on the wall, and you get the illusion of depth. But my feeling is that a piece of sculpture is really 360 different works: Every one of those 360 degrees gives you a different sense of the sculpture.
"When you have a piece of sculpture outside, it's basically a living element. You have to wax it, you have to wash it, you have to conserve it. With a painting, you might have a work in oil or watercolor. But we have something like thirty-nine different materials in our collection. The artist can put his hands on that clay, on that terra-cotta, marble, wood, or whatever he's using. He can really dig into it, he can really feel it."
Just three years ago, Nasher reached back to what he considers the starting point of modern sculpture, acquiring an 1876 plaster casting of Auguste Rodin's The Age of Bronze. The youth's right leg is bent at the knee, his right hand grips his head, his eyes are closed in concentration, and his mouth is slightly open, as if he's about to speak. A curatorial friend had called Nasher to say that it had just become available on the market; the work had been in the collection of the foundry that had originally cast the plaster into bronze. Since Rodin, Nasher says, "more has happened, from a sculptural point of view, than happened from the beginning of history. From the time of Michelangelo and the Renaissance until Rodin created the figurative age in bronze, there was a vacuum in sculpture."
In Nasher's house, the Rodin now shares a gallery otherwise devoted to Alberto Giacometti. In works like the three busts of his brother Diego, Giacometti's forms are an enigmatic, amusing, and unsettling coupling of the figurative and the abstract. Parker recalls the Nashers newly displaying "those tiny, terribly, terribly fragile Giacometti sculptures that, I guess, would fit in a matchbox. I just remember thinking that it would take a well-educated eye to see them for what they were. But they were some of the most exquisite sculptures that Giacometti ever did."
The Giacomettis seem purposively primitive. Distinctions between the modern and the primitive can disappear in sculpture, Nasher observes. That point is illustrated just outside the front door, with Reclining Figure: Angles, a bronze by Henry Moore. Moore's works show a fascination with natural forms, along with the classical and the primeval; they carry suggestions of landscapes, rock formations, bones, and the human figure. In 1967, the Nashers traveled to London for the Wimbledon tournament and visited Moore in Much Hadham. Sheep strolled about, and pieces of sculpture were strewn about, the pasture area that surrounded Moore's studio. At the time, Moore was working on Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 9. He also showed the couple three stones that would become the basis for Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae. The next year, Moore told the Nashers that he had finished both pieces, that they were at London's Tate Gallery in a retrospective, and that the couple might want to come over and choose one. They ended up buying both.
Moore, as a houseguest of the Nashers, became enamored of one of their Oceanic pieces. He ended up doing a lithograph based on the piece, which he gave to the Nashers. Later he turned the composition into his own sculpture, one of his reclining figures.
The Nasher Collection doesn't just juxtapose the modern and the primitive. It also sparks a conversation between works of art, and even between art and life. A gaze into his living room takes in a wall displaying a Picasso painting, Vase of Flowers on a Table (Bouquet), an exuberant composition in gray, green, blue, red, and yellow, seemingly about to burst out its frame. A Picasso sculpture, Flowers in a Vase, made of plaster, terra cotta, and iron, rests on the living-room ledge. Then a real bouquet of flowers occupies a table. David Smith's The Forest, made of steel painted green and pink on a wood base, is alongside the living-room windows, which look out on the forested grounds.
Having so much sculpture to place gives a collector the license to act as "a lay artist," in Nasher's words. The collector creates a composition--incorporating factors of light, shadow, and relationship--as he arranges the works. "You can place sculptures in a thousand different ways," he says. "But being able to have them talk to each other, to have them relate to each other meaningfully--that makes a tremendous difference in the quality of the exhibition."
In the house's library, Nasher is surrounded by sculpture and by his sprawling collection of books, which was organized by a professional librarian. The largest category is, unsurprisingly, "Art." Sitting at an Art Deco table, under a painted, sheet-metal mobile by Alexander Calder, he points to a small Mask: Reclining Head by Julio Gonzalez, circa 1930. "This Gonzalez, on the table, is truly one of the very, very important pieces of the twentieth century. Gonzalez was the first one who was able to take a welding torch to iron and make significant pieces out of it."
He turns to a Max Ernst bronze from 1944, The King Playing with the Queen. "These two are of different materials, they're of different sizes, and the Ernst head, unlike the Gonzalez mask, is done surrealistically. But there's a relationship between them."
Visible through the picture windows is Barbara Hepworth's Squares with Two Circles (Monolith), one of the first fully abstract works in the collection. The Nashers came across the sculpture in front of the Tate Gallery; Hepworth later agreed to sell the work to the Nashers and lend another piece to the Tate. While it has the purity of a study in geometry, Squares with Two Circles seems well integrated with its natural surroundings. Slender and more than ten feet high, with a bronze surface fading into green, it mimics the trees around it, even as the viewer's gaze takes in those trees through the sculpture's "empty space." Nearby is a George Segal cluster of commuters, Rush Hour; Duchamp-Villon's Large Horse; a Picasso Head of a Woman; and Richard Serra's four-piece Inverted House of Cards. Nasher calls the Serra, a solid and severe work in which steel plates fold in on each other, "minimal and rusty and a little dangerous." He and Patsy, as he once put it, "didn't want just polite works around us."
Still, sensuous, figurative works are prominent in the collection. Constantin Brancusi's 1907-08 plaster work The Kiss--embracing lovers with anonymous, abstract, primeval features--is an intensely sensual response to Rodin's sculpture of the same name. It sits on the Nashers' dining-room table. Matisse reclining figures and other Matisses populate the living room; the collection includes the largest group of Matisse sculptures in private hands. "We loved his paintings, but we couldn't afford them," Nasher says. "His sculptures weren't considered that important. But from our point of view, they were more exciting than the paintings. And they were about a tenth of the price."
The couple's first Matisse was Large Seated Nude, purchased in 1983. It was more than twice the price of anything they had bought before. Nasher calls it one of "the great pieces of all time." Because there was so much interest in it, they had to make a same-day decision. Nasher has said that the Matisse purchase "gave us the freedom and confidence to seek only the very best."
Over the years, that self-assuredness has been bolstered by a relentless drive to learn about, and to seek out, the best. Parker, the San Francisco museum director, pauses when asked if he's ever encountered a collector as exuberant as Nasher. "Exuberant is a good word. But you can't ignore the fact that he really works hard to find the very exceptional pieces. He is as single-minded as anybody I've ever met. Even with a general category like David Smith sculpture, you have to ferret out the really unique pieces--the rarest and the highest-quality pieces. It's not just the enthusiasm he has for collecting. It's also his intellectual rigor."
Parker moved to Dallas in 1974 and bought a house two doors down from the Nashers. He and his family would make use of the Nasher swimming pool, splashing in the vicinity of sculptures like Joan MirÛ's Caress of a Bird, a painted bronze over ten feet tall that suggests, among the bird's features, an ironing board, straw hat, and carrot.
Parker recalls a visit in the mid-Eighties to the Nasher house by Picasso's widow, Jacqueline. Walking over to Picasso's The Studio, from 1961-62, she recognized the painted representations of her household's sofa and blanket. And she was moved to tears by Picasso's 1971 Man and Woman. In the painting, Picasso is more recognizable than his cubistically rendered companion--at the time, Jacqueline, of course. He presents himself as old, grizzled, and nude, with a face resembling an exaggerated skull or mask. Jacqueline saw in the painting a premonition on Picasso's part of his own impending death, which would come two years after the canvas was painted.
" She had seen the painting, but she hadn't seen in it a long time," Parker says. "She was also very taken by Ray's passion and enthusiasm. I think she saw some of the same qualities in him that she loved so much in Picasso himself--a very direct, aggressive, and passionate personality."
The Dallas developer has assembled the most impressive array of modern sculpture in private hands. Now he is the major force behind two museums in the making.
June 1, 2003