Business Press Arts Correspondent
When people think of Fort Worth’s notable family art collections, they likely think first of Kay and Velma Kimbell and their European masterworks, or Amon Carter Sr. and his Remingtons and Russells.
Though the names of Nancy Lee and Perry Bass are well-known to the city’s arts lovers – especially because of the renowned Fort Worth concert hall that is named for them – their impressive art collection has remained hidden.
This changes with “The Collection of Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass ,” on view March 1-May 24 at the Kimbell Art Museum’s Piano Pavilion. The show comprises 37 paintings and sculptures from the couple’s personal collecting adventures.
Many names are the stuff blockbuster exhibits are made of: Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Rothko. But the pieces were displayed mostly in this very private couple’s house and garden. Almost none have been seen by the public before now, except for van Gogh’s Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888), which has previously been on loan to the Kimbell .
The works were collected over about 25 years, beginning with some trips to Europe in the early 1960s. The Basses evidently liked impressionism but also post-war and contemporary paintings and sculpture. That diversity is part of the pleasure of the show, and makes for a bit of an unusual museum-going experience.
The Kimbell approached the Bass family with the idea for this exhibition, said museum director Eric M. Lee.
Lee said the exhibit includes works that fall outside the museum’s usual areas of focus. It’s very unusual for the Kimbell to show contemporary art, for example, or American works like the two Remington bronzes. “But it’s wonderful seeing them in the context of European art,” he said. “These galleries have never looked better.”
For Fort Worth art lovers, it’s an occasion that has something in common with the recent auctions of Van Cliburn’s personal treasures – a peek into the private world of Fort Worth’s greatest generation of arts leaders, now largely gone. Perry Bass died in 2006, and Nancy Lee Bass in 2013. Now we can gaze at the art pieces they loved, and were surrounded with every day in their Westover Hills home.
The show starts with the colorful Deauville Harbor (1938) by Raoul Dufy, the first expensive acquisition the couple made, in 1963, and one with an interesting history. This reportedly was the first painting that moved the frugal Perry Bass to spend major dollars on a work of art (Eric Lee declined to talk about any work’s monetary value, and no representatives of the Bass family were made available to the press).
The Basses’ four sons, Sid, Ed, Robert and Lee, were involved in the acquisition of Deauville Harbor. The family visited the painting numerous times, pondering the decision. Back in Fort Worth, they hung it above the mantel in the dining room. Young Ed Bass reportedly bought a poster of it and hung it in his dorm room at Yale.
Soon after the Basses brought the painting home to Fort Worth, it became part of the ad hoc exhibition Ruth Carter Johnson (later Stevenson) organized for President and Mrs. Kennedy for their rooms at the Hotel Texas on Nov. 21-22, 1963. It hung across from the bed where John Kennedy slept on the last night of his life.
The closest we get to a sense of the Basses’ house is through the show’s center gallery, an abstract re-creation of one important room, with the paintings arranged as they hung in the gallery/den space they called “the gym.”
It’s anchored at one end by what Lee Bass calls a “great” Rothko, Untitled (Orange and Red) from 1961. At the other end are two paintings that show how bold the Basses could be as collectors. Abstract Composition (1954) by Serge Poliakoff and Composition by Jean-Paul Riopelle (1957) were bought before the Dufy, in 1961, and are the earliest acquisitions in the show.
So we learn that the Basses began by purchasing contemporary art and moved on to impressionism. “It’s usually the exact opposite,” Lee said. “These were daring choices for the Basses to make in 1961.”
This room holds several more of what the Kimbell director calls the collection’s great masterpieces, including Joan Miró’s Painting (1933) and a cubist Picasso work from the early 1920s, Fruit Bowl, Bottle, and Guitar – one of several paintings here that show views outside a window (others are by Matisse and Bonnard). There are few other common threads, but the Basses obviously had a passion for bright colors.
Other galleries are devoted to 19th and 20th-century artists, with pieces such as two van Goghs and the Matisse and Bonnard window views that look supremely at home in the Kimbell .
For anyone looking to know the family better, the clues here are mostly oblique. Scott Gentling’s oil portrait of the couple that usually presides over the Bass Performance Hall’s Green Room is included (they’re pictured standing in front of that red Rothko), so you learn what Nancy Lee and Perry looked like.
That’s about as up-close as it gets. There are no photographs of the house’s interior, no furniture. Yet it’s still a window into the tastes and enthusiasms of one of the city’s great business and philanthropic families.
“You’ll get to experience and I hope receive pleasure from the works of art they lived with on a daily basis – the works of art that gave them such pleasure,” Eric Lee said. “You’ll learn something about the private world of a couple that meant so much to Fort Worth.”