Maverick Vision

How a wildly successful Texas oilman amassed one of the Southwest's most important Modern sculpture collections and gave overnight credibility to a fledgling museum in Palm Springs.

Gwendolyn Weiner appreciates the texture of Henry Moore's "Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 3" in its last days on the Ted Weiner Sculpture Terrace.

Photo by Elena Ray

Ted Weiner could have been a character dreamt up by Walt Disney. A wildcat oilman with less than a high school education, he and a partner drilled for black gold in west Texas in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. Over the years, he founded Texas Crude Oil Co. and several other oil and drilling companies and emerged a leader in the petroleum and natural gas industries.

By 1949, Weiner’s shiny Wall Street investors had opened his eyes to the world of Modern art. It was an awesome revelation that became a passion and ultimately gave a deeper purpose to his life and legacy — one that Palm Springs Art Museum began celebrating anew with its 34-piece exhibition Picasso to Moore: Modern Sculpture from the Weiner Collection, continuing throughout 2008 in the museum’s freshly renovated Annenberg Wing.

“It’s the perfect time to bring many of the best pieces into one show to honor the Weiner family’s generosity and the impact they have had on our museum,” says Chief Curator Katherine Hough, who joined the curatorial staff in December 1975, a month before the museum moved from Tahquitz Canyon Way to its current location on Museum Drive behind the Hyatt Regency Suites in downtown Palm Springs.

Weiner, a former museum trustee who died of cancer in 1979, preferred sculpture — heavy, bold, and masculine works that embodied much of his own character. “Ted had a dynamic, quick-thinking style about him,” Hough says. “He was confident, direct, and decisive.”

He was a daring character. He built the first Modern home in north Texas and had begun cherrypicking the finest works by the most important sculptors before other major collectors, including Raymond and Patsy Nasher of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, had heard about the artists. “I pick the most representative art of each particular artist,” he told Gloria Greer for a November 1969 Palm Springs Life article. “Today, you can’t do that because museums have bought up most of the important pieces.” (Now, nearly 40 years later, private collectors snap up the best pieces at auction houses and international art fairs.)

In his exhibition essay “The Weiner Collection and Modernism,” Museum Director Steven Nash characterizes the Modern movement as an “exhilarating declaration of independence when most of the timehonored conventions for the making and meaning of sculpture succumbed to new approaches. … Within the Weiner collection we can follow the challenges of Cubism to accepted views of time and space, some of Modern sculpture’s most aggressive and poetic reinventions of the human figure, abstraction’s ability to comment on geometry and the forces of nature, the influence of tribal art on Modern thought, and excursions into emotions of terror and jubilation as grist for sculptural expression.”

Weiner was a maverick collector with a bionic eye. “He liked to cross the terrain between figurative and abstraction,” Hough says. “That’s the common thread with all the sculptures.”

The exhibition punctuates this aesthetic with works by Henry Moore, Marino Marini, Jean Hans Arp, Jacques Lipchitz, and Jack Zajac.

“He loved sculpture,” says Weiner’s daughter, Gwendolyn, the custodian of her father’s collection, which has been called the best of its kind in the Southwest. “He didn’t collect many paintings. It was the sculpture that drew him. He was a powerful person and related to all of this.”

Weiner collected certain artists in depth, particularly Moore, represented in the exhibition with eight sculptures, including two outstanding Reclining Figures. “The Henry Moores are the strength of the collection,” Hough says, noting her favorite: the 1956 Reclining Figure. “It captures the best of Henry Moore, in my opinion, with a wonderful balance of the figurative, abstract, and landscape.”

Weiner befriended Moore and took his family to visit the artist’s studio in Perry Green, Much Hadham, England.

Another gem is Moore’s 1939 Stringed Figure (Bowl), which has been in storage for more than 20 years because of the expensive conservation required to restore the dyed elastic string that stretches from the bottom to the top of the bronze piece.

Stringed Figure had company in storage. Arp’s Growth (1938) is being shown for the first time at the museum’s current location; the sculpture required a special mount. Other pieces unfamiliar to regular visitors include The Manipulator (1954) by Reg Butler and Jacques Lipchitz’s Draped Woman (1919), which “captures the essence of Cubist sculpture,” Hough beams.

The pièce de résistance has to be the Amadeo Modigliani Head (1910-11). Lipchitz had developed a friendship with the artist, who was poor and, the story goes, loaded a wheelbarrow with the limestone used to build the Paris subway and hauled it back to his studio, where he made eight heads. One — on extended loan from Gwendolyn — greets visitors to the exhibition galleries. “The Modigliani is very special,” Hough says, because “Gwendolyn actually selected it, and it has remained her favorite piece.”

She selected it from Knoedler Gallery in New York on one of many business and art-collecting trips she made with her father.

Gwendolyn began traveling when she was 8 years old, while her mother, Lucile, stayed at home. This particular visit to the venerable Knoedler Gallery was one of two seminal experiences to the development of her collecting vision. It was there that art dealer Harry Brooks “led us up an elegant staircase,” she says, “and hanging on the left was a Roger De La Fresnaye painting. Dad leaned over my shoulder and said, ‘I’m going to buy this.’” (The 1913 oil on canvas, Marie Ressort Avec Ses Vaches, La Bergére, is on extended loan to the museum; however, it does not hang in the sculpture exhibition, which also omits Weiner’s oil on canvas by Fernando Botero, a sweet gouache on paper by Adolph Gottlieb, and five excellent Franz Kline oil washes on paper.)

Weiner let his daughter choose between the Modigliani and a horse head by Georges Braque. “I knew there was something about it that was so special, so I chose the Modigliani.” She was reunited with the Braque, however, when a Dallas collector acquired it.

Her other defining experience was a visit to Curt Valentin Gallery in New York. “Wow,” she says. “He was a funny little man — sweet and simple. We went into a room that looked like a warehouse and there was art up and down the walls and an island covered in art. Dad spotted a Picasso right away. It looked so perfect way up high, looking down on us.”

It was Picasso’s Angry Owl (1951), one of the sculptures in the current exhibition in Palm Springs. Two late-1950s works by Peter Voulkos, a founder of the West Coast Clay Movement, give the show a ceramic dimension.

Gwendolyn still lights up when she sees the 1968 Lezard (The Lizard ), a fine example of Alexander Calder’s painted steel stabiles. “I love the airiness and movement and whimsy and humor of Calder,” she says, noting that her father acquired the piece following a Calder exhibition at Foundation Marguerite et  Aimé Maeght in Saint-Paul, France. “The Lizard was so spectacular.”

When the Weiner family purchased a winter home in Palm Springs, they met Frederick W. Sleight, the museum’s director from 1965 to 1980. Weiner joined Leonore Annenberg, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Gilbert Kahn, Donald S. Stralem, and Walter N. Marks on the board of trustees.

In November 1969, the museum opened the exhibition Modern Sculpture from the Weiner Palm Springs Collection. Pieces were selected for two more Weiner Collection exhibitions before the museum opened in 1976 at its current location.

Hough says the installation of works on the Ted Weiner Sculpture Terrace at the main entrance resonates more than any of many great moments in her 32-year tenure. “The lifting of that monumental Marino Marini bronze (The Warrior, 1959-60) and how it swiveled in air to the front of the museum, as it was brought up the steps, and everybody was watching, including the Weiners — and then the Henry Moore [Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 3 (1961)] next to it: It was very special.” The terrace on the E. Stewart Williams-designed museum was dedicated in 1979, within only months of Weiner’s death. Other pieces from his collection were installed in the two sculpture gardens and throughout the spacious galleries.

For nearly 40 years, the Weiner family has gifted and loaned pieces, always integrated into changing exhibitions and creating a definitive foundation for the sculpture collection. “It gave great credibility to the museum,” Hough says. “Coupled with our renovated galleries, we hope [the collection] stimulates renewed interest in the museum.”

Weiner also helped sponsor the Bob Hope Classic Ball, served on the Palm Springs Cultural Commission, and helped finance several films, including Howard Hawks’ El Dorado starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Hollywood turned up new investors for oil ventures, among them Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, according to Lone Stars of David: The Jews of Texas by Hollace Ava Weiner and Kenneth Roseman (Brandeis University Press, 2007).

“Ted Weiner subscribed to Theosophy, a doctrine of thought related to universal brotherhood, harmony with nature, and spiritual and physical evolution in the world,” the authors state. “It was Ted Weiner’s desire eventually to give [his art] collection to his hometown. But he withdrew the offer when told that Fort Worth would neither honor his request for turning his estate into a museum nor accept the art without a sizable endowment to cover maintenance. Weiner took his collection with him when he moved to Palm Springs.”

On a recent visit to Palm Springs to offer intimate insight into the pieces appearing in Picasso to Moore: Modern Sculpture from the Weiner Collection, Gwendolyn enjoyed looking back, recalling works of art that she associates with so many great memories.

“Each time you see a great work of art, you see something a little different,” she says. “Seeing it all looking new and in this new space is very exciting.”

Picasso to Moore: Modern Sculpture from the Weiner Collection is an ongoing exhibition.
Information: 325-7186.


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