Transformations—Death, Breakage, and the Unexpected

Notes from the Field

Notes from di Rosa

Transformations—Death, Breakage, and the Unexpected

By Terri Cohn October 8, 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.

Beautiful, bucolic, and quiet, di Rosa stretches out over its 200 acres with obvious and discoverable wonders.

Beautiful, bucolic, and quiet, di Rosa stretches out over its 200 acres with obvious and discoverable wonders. Di Rosa’s physical charm and the eccentricities intrinsic to its collection are deeply engaging, and the scope of the grounds and collections make a lasting impression. Yet the opportunity to spend some time at di Rosa this summer provided several unique and thought-provoking experiences.  

To his great credit, Rene di Rosa (1919-2010) had a tendency to collect bodies of work by the artists that interested him—notably Beat Generation artists (Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown, George Herms, Wallace Berman); Conceptual artists (Paul Kos, David Ireland, Tom Marioni, Lynn Hershman, Jim Melchert); and many of the artists affiliated with the Bay Area Funk movement, including Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, and Robert Hudson. He was also passionate about various mixed-media sculptors, photographers, and printmakers, including David Best, Deborah Butterfield, Viola Frey, Mark Alice Durant, Ray Beldner, and Enrique Chagoya. These “collections within the collection” provide a sense of the breadth and depth of di Rosa’s vision and his expansive interest in California art. 

William Allan. Transient Poet Leaving Home II, 1987; oil on canvas; 72.25 x 103.25 in. Courtesy of Di Rosa collection, Napa.

Various themes run through the collection, especially di Rosa’s wide-ranging attraction to artists with a sense of humor. Among the many noteworthy examples are De Forest’s paintings and assemblages, including his delightfully goofy Dog Bench (2004); some of Best’s sculptures, notably Mother Tina’s Car (1990), a 1967 Pontiac eccentrically ornamented, inside and out, with creatures including a saddled, metal horsehead mounted on the front grille; and framed documentation of Kos’ Lot’s Wife (1969), a humorous performance piece that features a towering salt lick and Jersey cows.  

While humor is one pervasive and important quality that ties together many of the works in the collection, it is counterbalanced by di Rosa’s apparent interest in themes of death, war, and destruction. This became particularly evident when walking through the main gallery during my first visit to the museum and sculpture park, where I encountered the installation of a large grouping of highly charged political works by Rigo, Enrique Chagoya, Baochi Zhang, Sandow Birk, Packard Jennings, Chester Arnold, Deborah Oropallo, Kara Maria, and Doug Hall, as well as Arneson, Hudson, Best, and Wiley. This grouping created a strong conceptual and visual dynamic, and it was powerful to consider the relationships between the works of younger and more mature artists in this space. For me, some of the most memorable were those that fuse darkness with levity, such as Bill Allen’s Transient Poet Leaving Home II (1987), an oil-on-canvas painting where a stick figure carrying his “suitcases” (a partially filled pack of cigarettes in one hand, and an almost empty matchbook in the other) is backlit with a burning house that illuminates the scene. Similarly, in his oil-and-acrylic The Battle of San Francisco (1996), Sandow Birk plays on the genre of heroic history painting, here depicting an imaginary war between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

David Ireland. Angel-Go-Round, 1996; fiberglass, cast concrete figures and motor; 180 x 191 x 191 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa. Photo: Israel Valencia.

Interestingly, the balance between levity and calamity that thematically infuses this collection was disrupted in real time when a 6.0 earthquake struck the Napa Valley on August 24. This unexpected natural disaster shifted my thinking about what was most important to discuss in this essay, as during my pre-earthquake visit, I had noticed di Rosa’s attraction to dark themes. I also wondered how my experiences of di Rosa and the collection would be altered on my return visit, post-quake. On that occasion, curator Amy Owen and I also had the chance for a conversation about the implications of the earthquake, which provided answers to some questions I had concerning how a collections-based institution like di Rosa preserves its legacy. I was particularly interested in the question of how things change us when circumstances beyond our control take place. Owen’s response expresses a spectrum of feelings:

It changes priorities, and makes us think about how to incorporate some of this into concepts for the future; such an event touches you to the core, especially when irreplaceable works of art are involved.  The silver lining is having the opportunity to reevaluate things, and to pull things out of storage to put on view; it creates many opportunities that you might not otherwise be aware of…We were also given the opportunity to take some things out of storage to replace those things that had to be pulled off view, and that’s always great, to be able to restate something…to continue to rotate things…This has (also) been an opportunity to rethink and bring other installation possibilities to bear on other areas of the property.1

In some ways, Owen’s comment that “such an event touches you to the core” describes my own experience of being at di Rosa post-earthquake. Despite email reassurances from executive director Kathryn Reasoner that the facility and collection were stable, it felt like I was going to visit someone who had been in an accident, when you’re not confident of what to expect until you see them. The fact that many wineries and buildings in and around Napa were badly damaged reinforced my sense of trepidation.

Owen’s positive outlook on this natural disaster—which took into account questions concerning the community’s response, and the deeper meaning of stewardship in such situations—was very heartening:

There’s been an outpouring of support—colleagues from other institutions have been very generous in wanting to assist, coming to help assess conditions [and] lend their expertise in areas we don’t have. The Oakland Museum has offered assistance from their conservation team, to help assess the top-priority objects, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts offered their time and expertise…The Sonoma County Museum offered staff support and storage for objects we might not have the capacity to deal with…that’s been wonderful.2

After our conversation, I spent several hours walking through the galleries and around the grounds, where very little appeared visibly different, which underscored the flexibility of the collection and the curator’s understanding that an appearance of normalcy was important for visitors. Yet my earlier observation of Rene di Rosa’s focus on the themes of death and destruction was still on my mind. Post-quake, some of the most unnerving works were David Best’s Children’s Wagon (1988), an elaborate, gold-painted “Cinderella style” coach that a di Rosa tour guide described to me as “a tribute to a friend whose daughter died”—as well as Best’s ghostly, horse-drawn wagon The Dream of Poland, which is filled with glass shards and adorned with visual references to the holocaust. Even David Ireland’s rather whimsical Angel-Go-Round (1996), with its concrete angel that perpetually circles around a pile of Roman-style statuary, took on new meaning—its intentional appearance as a pile of damaged sculptures was uncannily appropriate to the aftermath of this recent cataclysmic event.

Viola Frey, Homage, 1987 (foreground), and Mark di Suvero, For Veronica, 1987 (background), in di Rosa’s Sculpture Meadow. Photo: Faith Echtermeyer.

Feeling somewhat unsettled, I made a final walk through the house, planning to be comforted by being in this domestic interior. Yet even in the rooms that compose the di Rosa’s domestic milieu, this sensibility was reinforced by the many works that fill its spaces, created by various artists—Irving Norman, Clint Imboden, Charlene Milgrim, Ester Hernandez, Travis Somerville—in the Great Room cases, the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedrooms. And while I was pleased to discover several mid-‘80s sculptures by recently deceased and beloved Bay Area sculptor Carlos Villa, after encountering his rather macabre Bedspread (1984) covering the bed in Veronica di Rosa’s bedroom, I realized that my perspective on the collection, at least for the present, is infused with the reverberation of recent events. However, Owen’s comment regarding silver linings also came to mind. Her focus on the potentially positive outcomes—in both the short and long term—of this adverse event can be taken as another sign of the di Rosa staff’s commitment to maintaining the founder’s highly individual and remarkable vision, and to sustaining the art and surrounding sanctuary that represents this legacy.


  1. Author’s in-person interview with Amy Owen, September 17, 2014.
  2. Ibid. 

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