Thursday, March 26, 2009

(No.20) The amazing Jack Warner

Not long before Pat and I travelled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama this month I had been thinking about the recently published and highly successful memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, by the 91 year old English literary editor Diana Athill [ q.v., the quote from it I included in RickardsRead -- "(No.13) Distilled Wisdom"].  

By coincidence in west central Alabama we met another impressive, indeed amazing 91 year old.

Jonathan "Jack" Westervelt Warner is a WWII veteran of the Burma theatre and until 1995 was the third generation CEO of his family's pulp and paper company in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He began 51 years ago -- with the acquisition of some Audubon prints --  to develop his passion for art, a process which has led him to become one of the leading collectors of American art and the creator of the Westervelt Warner Museum of American Art which houses his collection of paintings, furniture, sculpture and decorative arts from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. 

While I would love to have the opportunity to meet Diana Athill, I am delighted that we had the good fortune to meet Jack Warner and his wife Susan, thanks to our having been taken by Bill Rabel of the University of Alabama to the Westervelt Museum and introduced to them. To our delight he took us on a personal tour of his collection, a tour unique in our experience of such things. His vigour, passion and erudition about American art generally and his acquisitions in particular, supported by his impressive knowledge of relevant American history, were amazing in the proper sense of that word.

Do not imagine Jack Warner to be some 'frail little old man'. He is the opposite of such a stereotype. He is a man whose stature and vigour cannot fail to make an impression on those who meet him. In addition to his knowledge and sophistication about art and each of the works in his museum, another factor which (for us) made him not only a delightful and gracious host but an entertaining one was the refreshing absence of political correctness in his commentary -- whether he was talking about George Washington (one of his personal heroes) or the private lives of his favourite American painters. 

We began by sitting beside Warner to view a 10 minute PBS-style film ( one he doubtless has sat through many times) introducing him, his collection and his Museum of American Art. After it concluded, in a sort of 'Alice through the looking glass' moment, he rose and began taking us from painting to painting. His knowledge of each work, its artist and relevant history is deep and interesting, far from the sort of dry and arcane musings one hears from some gallery curators leading tours so desiccated as to belong in the desert. The sense one gets of Jack Warner's personal connection to each piece of art in his collection is powerful, almost palpable.

The range of works is wide and impressive both in subject matter as well as quality. From early on in his collecting of American art Jack Warner has had an eye for art he liked but also for art that later has grown immensely in value. He referred from time to time to what he had paid for a work and how much he had lately been offered for it by a would-be purchaser. Paintings evoke from him anecdotes both informative and amusing, from a colourful explanation of the origin of the "Ashcan School" of art to a passing observation (in the process of pointing out a painting he had bought for $250,000 now worth tens of millions) that many so-called "art experts are crazier than hell".

Warner is very fond of paintings of the Hudson River School and does not hesitate to explain why he prefers them (and bought them) rather than 'modern' works by artists like Jackson Pollock. Modern art of this sort he seems to regard mainly as "a lot of crap". 

As a collector and latterly the founder of an art museum Warner arranges his paintings in a very effective and interesting fashion, one that reflects his view that one should "hang paintings together that are compatible". He groups works by subject and has a gallery devoted solely to works involving George Washington. 

I asked him which was his favourite painting in the collection, guessing that it might be Tanis, a striking depiction of a sunlit girl by Daniel Garber. I was wrong. He said his favourite was The Backrush, a severe sort of physical scene by Winslow Homer. Although the focus of his passion and his collection is American art (subject and/or artist) I asked if he had considered acquiring any of the 19th century Quebec scene paintings by Cornelius Krieghoff. He immediately replied that he'd had one in his collection but had sold it for a multiple of what he paid. After all, he said, while he liked Krieghoff the painter was not an American nor a painter of American subjects.

Despite his impressive collection and the great personal wealth it both represents and reflects Warner is a casual and unassuming host but he's not at all detached, often emphasizing both his points and his enthusiasm for the subject by reaching out and touching his listener's arm. While talking to us about a set of Revolutionary War period silver laid out for display on a period table, he reaches over and picks up a couple of large  Paul Revere-owned spoons and hands them to me to emphasize a point he was making. Referring to a painting newly hung in another gallery he turned to a security guard and asked: "Hey Charlie. What's the name of that new war painting we just hung?" Charlie immediately provided the answer upon which Warner turned to us and said "he knows more about this than I do".

Warner's own artistic creativity is on display in the permanently unfinished 8 acre garden surrounding his nearby home on the shores of North River Lake. He designs it and has a crew working on it continuously. In walking through the garden in March we were impressed by the fact that it is as he describes it: an "all season garden". He believes one "can find God in a leaf, a flower and a landscape".

Jack Warner's private art collection has been located since 2003 in its own building (with a boutique hotel nearby) in the North River area of Tuscaloosa. It is a treasure and deserves to be more widely known; it is considered by leading art critics to be one of the greatest private collections of American art in the world and the most noteworthy available for public viewing. 

As we prepared to leave one of his staff told us that our host and guide comes to his museum almost every day when he is at home, "it is his passion".  Any visitor who has the chance to meet and listen to him will encounter an amazing man.

[ Visitor information and a "virtual tour" of the Westerveld Warner Museum of American Art is available at the museum's website:  www.warnermuseum.org  ]

Alastair Rickard

email:   alastair.rickard@sympatico.ca