The Hess Collection

Collector Donald Hess blends his passions, displaying a world-class modern art collection at a Napa winery.

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Hess Collection
Left to Right: “Staying in the water,” 1991, Katsura Funakosh; “Black,” 1958, Howard Mehring; “Alpha Nu,” 1961, Morris Louis; “A lunar Eclipse in the Forest,” 2006, Katsura Funakoshi. Photo: Paul Kirchner, San Francisco, CA
The journey to the Hess Art Museum is a unique one for museum-goers; away from the crowded, busy city–where one expects to find world-class art collections–off a narrow, serpentine, oak-lined lane amid the lush vineyards of Northern California, one arrives at The Hess Collection winery visitor center. Inside to the left, is the tasting room and gift shop, while ahead is three stories, comprising 11,000 square feet, of fine art. The artwork continues in the outdoor garden where several large sculptures, including a piece by Anselm Kiefer, are on display.

The Hess Art Museum is not alone in sharing a personal collection through a publicly accessible venue in the Napa region. Notable among other such offerings are the Rene di Rosa collection, which features a vast selection of works by Northern California artists. At Clos Pegase winery, the collection of founder and owner Jan Shrem, which includes an impressive selection of large-scale outdoor sculpture by artists such as Henry Moore, Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, Tony Smith, Robert Morris, and Jean Dubuffet, can be viewed. And Mumm Napa not only features rotating photography exhibitions, but also, on permanent display, is a selection of photographs by Ansel Adams from the private collection of Matthew Adams, the grandson of the famed photographer.

At the Hess Art Museum, the works are from the collection of the owner of Hess Family Estates (of which the winery is a part), Donald Hess, who has been named by ArtNews magazine as one of the top 200 collectors in the world. Hess grew up in a 700-year-old home in Switzerland that featured only white walls. When he was about 12 years old, he asked his father why there was no art in the house; his father replied that Donald should look out the window to the garden and stated that no artist can create anything as beautiful as what has been created by God. And when the younger Hess further inquired that, in the winter, it was dark and he couldn’t see the garden so wouldn’t it be nice to have art then, his father responded: that’s when I like to relax in my chair and look to the white walls where I can create my own paintings in my mind.

And so it was until Hess was in his thirties, at which time, the sister of a childhood friend, who worked at a gallery, suggested that Hess really ought to have some art. She proposed that he give her three afternoons at the gallery, in which time she would teach him about contemporary art. At the end of the three days, Hess bought his first piece of art: a small lithograph by Picasso. And Hess means that quite literally. By example, he says, “At a restaurant, maybe I’ll overhear some people talking about their art. I’ll order a bottle of wine, maybe have a glass and then ask if I can share my wine and join them in conversation. Then maybe I’ll visit their studio, and if I like their art and I like the person, maybe I’ll buy something.” Indeed, experiencing art with the artist is Hess’s preferred art-viewing method: “I don’t often go to museums,” he says. “I prefer to visit the artist’s atelier.” Importantly for Hess, buying from an artist is more than just a one-shot deal; Hess acts almost as a patron to his artists, collecting their work sometimes for decades, and sometimes even assisting in getting them gallery representation, as several of the artists whose works he’s collected did not, at the onset, have such representation. And to maintain such support and focus, Hess only collects from about twenty artists at any given time. “I like to see how an artist grows,” he says, “how they evolve. And my aim is to help artists, to work with young artists who really need it.” Thus, Hess’s selections of works by any one artist have great depth.

This is one of two characteristics of this collection that distinguish it (setting aside the high quality of the work); the other, also a reflection of the man behind the art, is the international scope (and acclaim) of the work. Hess, who is 76, is based in Bern, Switzerland, and his business dealings take him all over the world. When traveling for business, after work obligations are over, which is promptly at 5 pm, Hess typically arranges to dine or otherwise socialize with artists. The collection thus houses pieces by artists from all over the world: Poland, Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Japan–and beyond. The international scope of Hess in the art world also extends to his other two museums, one in Argentina, which is fully dedicated to the work of Light & Space artist James Turrell, and one in South Africa; both are located at Hess-owned wineries; there are plans for a fourth museum at Hess’s winery in Australia, which will go forward, says Hess, once the economy improves.

As a result of his dedication to and personal relationship with artists, Hess has been able to acquire some of their finest or personally prized works. As was the case with Japanese artist Shigeo Toya. Once when visiting Toya, Hess spotted a painting by the artist and expressed interest in acquiring it. Toya, primarily a sculptor, said it was one of only three paintings he’d made and that was the last one he had. Then Hess was invited by the artist to sit down for drinks and Toya asked if he liked sake. Feeling it best to reply in the positive, Hess, not a great fan of the drink, said yes. “Toya ordered a huge container of sake,” Hess recalls, “and I knew I had to match him drinking it if I wanted that painting.” Hess suffered a terrible hangover for his efforts, but the work, which now hangs in him home in Switzerland, was his.

At any given time, the Hess Art Museum has roughly 250 works on show; according to museum director Rob Ceballos, the museum gets rehung about once a year, although pieces are moved in and out more regularly as well. Work is hung in groups of three to five or more pieces by artist, of which one can expect to find about 20 represented (there is work by an estimated 75 artists in the total collection, which includes a total of roughly 1,200 works). And while Hess doesn’t follow aesthetic trends or buy art as investment, the work on view is more often than not of museum quality and much of it by top tier artists–Kiefer, Andy Goldsworthy, Frank Stella, Robert Motherwell, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, and Robert Rauschenberg among them; refreshingly though, there is also work by lesser-known and/or local artists lending a nice mix of the familiar and the not-so-familiar. And because Hess has collected the work over time, the viewer is treated to seeing a sampling by each artist that nicely shows his or her range. For instance, there are the three works by Motherwell, in distinctly different styles, dating from 1969, 1976 and 1979. And, the eleven pieces by Magdalena Abakanowicz, which include a textile sculpture, an installation sculpture, figurative sculpture, and an abstract sculpture, date from 1967 to 2000. Likewise, the four works by Lynn Hershman Leeson’s on view include two photographs, a video sculpture, and an installation, ranging from 1991 to 2008 (the museum also recently screened her 2012 documentary, “!Women, Art, Revolution: !WAR”). Despite the collection’s variety, there are clear threads evident. Aesthetically, much of the work has an earthy, organic feel (fitting, no doubt, for work housed at a winery). By example are earth works by Goldsworthy and the works of The Boyle Family, who make life-size fiberglass sculptures that exactly resemble a specific patch of land. Notable among the Goldsworthys is the delicate leaf stock and thorn installation Surface Tension (10 by 16 feet), a version of which the artist builds in the 2001 documentary about him and his art, “Rivers and Tides.”

Another thread that can be teased out is the theme of identity, expanding to explorations of objectification and personhood. The photorealist portraits of Franz Gertsch; the upside-down figurative paintings and rough-hewn figurative sculpture by Georg Baselitz; and the evocative and intense feminist works of Hershman Leeson stand as examples of this. There are also many fine abstractions including those by Motherwell, Stella, Bruce Robbins, and Richter. And finally, Hess likes big, powerful pieces, and the large spaces of the museum show them well. An arresting power point comes when you get to the top floor where 14-foot ceilings allow breathing room for some huge works. Of particular note is the gallery that features two enormous works by Richter and five of Gertsch’s stunning, larger-than-life portraits; in particular is the gripping Johanna.

While many art collections are distinct to the collector’s vision, the Hess Collection is more personal than most, and that sense of joy charges the gathered works, the unique space in which they are displayed, and the viewer’s experience of them. And although he clearly takes pride in sharing his artistic passion with the public, the personal nature of this endeavor is one that Hess himself readily acknowledges. As he explains simply: “These artworks are my friends.”

The Hess Art Museum is open daily at no charge. Also, the visitor center has audio tours available and private tours can be arranged (also for no fee; there is also a nice online audio tour of the collection at www.hess-family.com/audiotour.html).