Über-successful financier Thom Weisel is no stranger to headlines, and these days the topic is his generous donation to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Although the longtime Marin resident has been collecting Native American art for quite some time, that category is not what initially drew his attention. He started out collecting contemporary art, but began to see the same qualities he admired in artists such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the powerful geometric canvases of Navajo blankets, in the brilliant and free visual experimentation in pre-contact Southwestern Native American ceramics and in the elegant classicism of great Northwest coast art. “I first became inspired by Native American art after spending so much time in Sun Valley and the first piece I purchased was a third-phase chief blanket, which I bought from artist Tony Berlant in 1973,” recalls Weisel. Since then he has amassed an impressive collection. In all, the Weisel family has gifted about 200 objects that, in museum director Colin B. Bailey’s words, “will reshape the Native American art collection at the de Young."
This month marks Bailey’s first anniversary at the museum, and he says meeting Thom Weisel was one of the top priorities when he came on board. “It was the first time I had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge,” he recalls of the occasion, “and once I got to the Weisels’ beautiful home in Ross, I was impressed by the array of pottery and unique weavings. While this genre was new to me, his passion was contagious. It was very exciting and intense — quite a heady experience.”
The exhibition spans nearly 1,000 years, from 11th-century Mimbres ceramics to 19th century works by recognized artists such as the Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo. According to Fine Arts Museums curator Matthew Robb, who specializes in the Arts of the Americas, these pieces not only represent the best of their types, but are also a great example of changing regional styles throughout the centuries.
Absorbing such a collection has been tasked to Robb, who is displaying 70 of the 200 pieces in the exhibit Lines on the Horizon, which opened last month. “It is always a pleasure to look at art with someone who has an intuitive grasp of aesthetic merit,” says Robb. “Over the last couple of decades, Thom has formed a premier collection of Native American art. One of my favorites is the powerful bear (pictured) from the Haida people of America’s northwest coast. Formerly in Andy Warhol’s collection, it is a ruggedly carved and modeled figure meant for the interior or exterior of a clan house to signal lineage and power.” These works, he says, are suitable companions to the de Young’s holdings in other areas of world art.
Weisel is also providing an endowment that will give researchers and curators at the museum an opportunity to learn more about the people and cultures behind the art and to develop educational programs related to the collection. We asked Robb to highlight a few significant pieces.