Context Is Everything: Visiting di Rosa

Notes from the Field

Notes from di Rosa

Context Is Everything: Visiting di Rosa

By Maria Porges December 4, 2014

A series in collaboration with community partners.

Notes from di Rosa is produced in conjunction with Art Practical's yearlong residency at di Rosa, in which the museum's collection serves as a focus and cornerstone for an in-depth exploration of Northern California contemporary art.


A full disclosure here: I have a complicated history with di Rosa. I first became aware of this important Bay Area art collection in the late ’80s as an emerging artist and critic scratching out a living in East Oakland. Its eponymous creator, Rene di Rosa, attended many openings, including that of every Bay Area school’s MFA show; he would often purchase the fresh works by young artists he found there. He was a Character, larger than life, and his collection was reputed to be the largest—and most important—of art by Northern California makers. Artists I knew aspired to be included in it—in part, because he was known for collecting in depth, rather than buying only one or two pieces. He collected 119 works by William T. Wiley, for example. Works by the top ten artists (out of more than 800) represent about 20% of the institution’s total holdings.

In the U.S., there are a number of museums bearing the name of a single individual. Most notable among these, perhaps, is the Barnes Foundation, which gives any institution known for eccentricity, charming and otherwise (as di Rosa has been, at times), a proverbial run for its money. As with the Barnes’ collection, di Rosa’s reflects the founder’s tastes and beliefs, but instead of the former’s aspirations toward establishing a kind of universal language of “greatness” (through accumulating objects and paintings from all over the world, from countless cultures and periods), Rene di Rosa fervently supported the art and artists of his own region and time. He was not guided by advisors; he bought what he liked or, as he once put it, what thumbed its nose at him. He described his collection as “divinely regional, superbly parochial, wondrously provincial—an absolute native glory.” Encompassing works by contemporary artists acquired over a forty-year period, it represents a unique cross-section of place and time.

Rene di Rosa. Lynched Volkswagon, 1996; VW Sirocco and cables; dimensions variable. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa. Photo: Maria Porges.

In 1999, when a lavishly illustrated book about the collection was being assembled, I was asked to contribute an essay. Two years before, di Rosa’s art-filled house and two additional brand-new gallery buildings had opened to the public, albeit on a strictly limited basis: guided tours only, which required a reservation. (This remains true—the guided tour part, anyway—for the house, main gallery, and outdoors area.) So it was that I drove up to Napa to meet Rene for the first time. He told me that we were going to a “fancy restaurant” for lunch—in actuality, a paper-plates-only Mexican greasy spoon otherwise patronized by truck drivers and fishermen. He was being humorous, as was often the case. He was fun to talk to and I felt privileged to be in on the joke. I wrote the essay, the book was published, and life went on.

What had started as a private collection had changed into the Rene and Veronica di Rosa Foundation, established in 1982 with the thought that someday it could be an “art and nature preserve.” The sale of much of the acreage and its fabled grapevines in 1986 had made it possible for that to become a reality. As di Rosa Preserve: Art and Nature, it continued to grow. More than half of the art was purchased (and for the most part, made) in the ’80s and ’90s. But drop-in visitors weren’t allowed at all until 2005, when the Gatehouse Gallery—one of the two buildings added in the mid-’90s—started presenting shows of work not included in the collection. As part of that programming, I had a solo show there in late 2008, giving me yet another opportunity to spend time there.

Ray Beldner. Nature Remains, 1993; metal; 48 x 720 x 24 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa. Photo: Maria Porges.

Things were in a state of flux as the year came to a close. The economy had tanked, affecting art museums everywhere, though smaller institutions fared particularly badly from reduced contributions, memberships, and grants. But the di Rosa Preserve soldiered on. Its founder passed away, aged 91, in 2010; the process of transitioning from the “di Rosa Preserve: Art + Nature” to simply “di Rosa” (with the tag line “Art Alive!”) had begun the year before.

On my most recent trip to di Rosa, I had questions about the future of the collection on my mind. How will this collection be displayed, conserved, promoted, and carried forward into the uncertain future that institutions face today? When I arrived, curator Amy Owen was looking at one of the works damaged in the recent Napa earthquake with a group of conservators from the Oakland Museum of California. While they conferred, I studied the two exhibitions in the Gatehouse Gallery: a selection from the di Rosa collection of two-dimensional works by the noted sculptor Viola Frey, and a group show of three younger Bay Area painters titled The Presence of the Present. Frey’s works on paper and canvas, featuring figures and objects set up in her studio, reveal her command of these media as well as her interest in exploring the same themes addressed in the monumental ceramic sculpture for which she is known—most notably, gender roles and ideas about power. In Studio ViewOne Man Splitting, a large canvas (72 x 96 inches) from 1983, Frey paints the three male figures with assurance, outlining their blocky, suit-clad forms with strong, dark lines. In a short essay, Owen describes the scene as possibly referring to the artist’s frustrations with the art world—collectors coming and going from her studio, ostensibly interrupting the flow of her work. But it also suggests the sculptor’s eye refusing the limitations of two dimensions by capturing the figure from three points of view at the same moment. In two nearby drawings, Frey focuses instead on monumental female figures, powerful rather than enticing, evoking her unflinching position regarding the status of women in a sexist profession.

Viola Frey. Studio View— One Man Splitting, 1983; alkyd oil on canvas; 72 x 96 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

Like Frey (and, really, so many of the other artists included in di Rosa’s collection), younger painters Teresa Baker, Liam Everett, and Leslie Shows are all deeply invested in materials and making. In The Presence of the Present, each of the three pushes the boundaries of painting while arguing for its continued importance in a world increasingly dominated by digital culture. Seen side by side in the gallery’s modern white-walled environment, these two small, jewel-like exhibitions suggest to me that the catchy tagline of di Rosa—“Art Alive!”—might be interpreted to mean that the institution intends to stay vital, at least in part, through this kind of programming: showing pieces that aren’t always on view, or comparing/contrasting the very particular vision represented by the collection with the ideas of the kind of young artists Rene di Rosa loved to champion.

New acquisitions would also add a certain kind of liveliness. As with many art museums, however, the di Rosa’s holdings already far exceed the available space to show them, so no additions are being made for now. Some 828 works are on view in the galleries and outside areas, out of nearly two thousand. Many works in storage need conservation—also a common institutional dilemma.

Teresa Baker. Red on Beige, 2013; acrylic on felt and polyurethane foam; 18 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Jay Jones/di Rosa.

Though active collecting will eventually resume, it’s difficult to imagine what kind of effect the addition of a few pieces will have, since, as noted earlier, the tone of the whole is so firmly attuned to a time and place—as well as to di Rosa’s quirky, humorous taste. But is that a bad thing, really? It seems correct, both morally and artistically, that di Rosa (the institution) will always embody the vision of di Rosa (the man). Other museums may bear the name of a founder, but as far as I know, there really is no place quite like this one—historic home museum, contemporary white-walled space, and sculpture park rolled into one. Before I left, I paused in the courtyard in front of the house, thinking about what someone standing on this very spot might see fifty or even a hundred years from now. Perhaps the immense, reclining female nude by Viola Frey will have been moved, or the Robert Hudson sculpture that anchors the center of the graveled expanse, but for the most part, I feel confident that the experience will be the same. Inside, photographs and paintings will cover the walls and ceiling (yes, the ceiling); a car will still hang from a massive tree branch outside. With any luck, even the TV monitors in Paul Kos’ “chapel” downstairs will still cycle through the hours of the day in a few minutes.

By then, global warming may have affected the grapes that have built much of Napa Valley’s current wealth, but that would most likely bother Rene di Rosa less than individual labels next to the artworks in his museum. His resistance to this kind of “institutionalization” was legendary; to this day, neither labels nor wall texts appear on the walls in the residence, and only minimally in the main gallery (as well as in the gatehouse). In the house and main gallery, binders provide information by the work’s location in the room. Though it’s irritating at times, I believe that it’s important to see this as a kind of gift. We get to see the art di Rosa loved, the way it looked when he lived with it.

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