By Beauty Obsessed
Writer Shannon Severson
Photography Courtesy of Western Spirit: Scottsdale Museum of the West
Throughout human history, people have collected beautiful items that capture the eye and stir the heart. From seashells gathered on the beach to dazzlingly rare gems, we naturally seek beauty with which to surround ourselves.
By Beauty Obsessed: Gilbert Waldman Collects the West is an assembled series of 50 artworks by nearly 40 artists on loan from Phoenix/Scottsdale resident and renowned art collector, Gilbert Waldman and his wife Christy Vezolles, who is also an avid art collector, appraiser and writer. The exhibition is on display at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West through August 23.
“I have long felt it is important to share my collection with others, whether by welcoming museum groups to my home for private tours, loaning individual paintings to national exhibitions or creating an entire themed exhibition to be displayed at an institution that holds personal meaning to me,” Waldman says. “This exhibition was a natural outgrowth of that impetus, as well as my involvement in the Scottsdale Museum of the West and my desire to share some of the highlights of my collection with my community.”
Waldman is a founding member of the SMoW Board of Trustees who played an integral part in the museum’s inception and its opening five years ago. It was important to Museum Director Mike Fox to both honor Waldman’s contribution to the arts and share a glimpse of his outstanding collection with the public.
“It’s the West in all of the different ways that you can encounter it,” says Dr. Tricia Loescher, SMoW’s assistant director of collections, exhibitions and research, “from the sunset and landscapes as they appear in different seasons to ceremonial aspects and the cultures and people who live and have lived in these areas.”
Waldman and Vezolles worked closely with Loescher to comb through his extensive collection and choose what to share with the museum’s visitors.
“Working on this exhibit with Tricia Loescher was such a pleasure,” Vezolles says. “Our happy challenge was selecting from the number of significant works in the collection. Once we determined the theme of the exhibit and the direction we wished it to take, certain works began to emerge as ‘must-haves.’
“We didn’t let him have any say in the selection, because he would have chosen every piece he owns. He loves them all so much. In the end, I think By Beauty Obsessed captures the essence of Gil’s collection.”
The works date from the mid-1800s to post-war 1950s and are arranged according to the regions they depict: Arizona, New Mexico, the Mountain West and the Northern Plains.
“The Grand Canyon” by Gunnar Mauritz Widforss is believed to be the largest oil on canvas the artist ever produced. Rare for both its size and the fact that watercolor was the Swedish artist’s primary medium, it was also chosen because it so richly depicts the natural beauty and conservation legacy of the Grand Canyon National Park that just celebrated its centennial year in 2019. The wafting clouds and distant, misty formations are at once formidable and ethereal.
“Like many of the artists that came out here at the turn of the previous century, I find that the quality of light in West is distinctive and unique,” Waldman explains. “It affects the way you perceive your surroundings–colors are fresher, they’re more vibrant and the air virtually shimmers with vitality, yet at the same time, it is tranquil. When an artist captures that, it really appeals to me.”
Artists came to the American West from around the world, entranced by the singular topography of the region–the canyons of Arizona and Utah, the deserts and snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, the sky-scraping granite facades that rise above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Like the artists he collects, Waldman also came to the West from a distance. His native Albany, New York is certainly different from the desert he now considers home.
His admiration for Hudson River School artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran exposed him to the work they produced after traveling to the American West in the 1800s and early 1900s. Waldman himself visited Santa Fe and Taos, where he soon became entranced by the landscape and the art it inspired.
“I have a particular affinity for the paintings by the Taos Society Artists, which are the core of my collection,” Waldman says. “The Robert Henri portrait of the young Julianita is a favorite–the expression on her face belies her youth. Also, I am especially attracted to landscapes depicting autumn foliage or snow–perhaps because they remind me of my childhood in Albany. I hope the viewers will each find pieces to which they feel a connection.”
Vezolles has her own favorites, as well.
“I’m drawn to William Penhallow Henderson’s ‘Two Riders in the Canyon,’ depicting the artist and his daughter, for its Modernist aesthetic and vibrant color palette,” she says. “I’m especially partial to the images of the strong Native women–including Julianita–and have positioned them prominently in the exhibition for that reason.”
Henri’s “Indian Girl of New Mexico” (a.k.a. Julianita) is demonstrative of the close relationships he and several other artists of his era had with the Taos pueblo. Many of those close ties continue to this day.
“These paintings have a long, deep history,” Loescher says. “It’s all about connections and community. The people depicted truly lived and breathed and were there at the time. The artists were documenting the many changes in Western society at that time.”
Waldman and Vezolles personally trained the museum docents, sharing the stories behind each acquisition. Detailed placards throughout the exhibition have both artist information and quotes from Waldman on what inspires him about each piece.
This personal touch truly makes By Beauty Obsessed an insider experience, even if one doesn’t encounter Waldman and Vezolles on the property.
“Curating these shows, you encounter the story of what shaped and informed the collectors and the artists,” Loescher says. “Hearing Gil talk about his passion for the work he has collected and being able to share that enthusiasm with the public is a privilege.
“To have that kind of relationship that bridges so many diverse ideas, ways of being, backgrounds and stories … it keeps our world magical in its way. It’s all part of the emotions and the human need to express, whether you’re a collector or an artist.”
Waldman’s greatest hope is that visitors walk away happy. A visit to this exhibition is to experience, and to be filled by, the many stunning faces, cultures and places of the American West.
By Beauty Obsessed: Gilbert Waldman Collects the West
Through Aug. 23 | See website for hours | Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West | 3830 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale
$15; senior, active military, student and children discounts available | 480-686-9539 | scottsdalemuseumwest.org