Photos by Stacy Keck.
Pieces from one of San Diego’s most intriguing and historic private art collections are about to show for the first time in the 9th floor gallery at the San Diego Central Library.
Now, you read the words “private collection” in San Diego and it conjures images of a beachside mansion, sunlight shining through thick picture windows to illuminate impeccably arranged, perfectly hung artwork. Very tasteful investment pieces perhaps, a few famous names mixed in for the oohs and aahs they elicit from houseguests.
That’s not the story here. This is the collection of a modest art fan, a guy who enjoys books and music and creativity, who as a young man got into the habit of buying artwork that struck a chord with him, from the friends he made while palling around the local arts scene.
He’s a guy who worked 33 years at the same job, and lives in Pacific Beach. Nevertheless, Portrait of Pomeroy opens March 12th with a noon reception and the following statement: “Walter Pomeroy has single-handedly assembled the most extensive private collection of painting and drawing by local artists of the 1950s and 1960s.”
In essence, the showing of his collection is a time capsule to the formative San Diego modern art movement of 50 and 60 years ago.
“He never set out to become a collector,” says curator Dave Hampton. “He just bought what he could afford with the cash in his pockets.” Hampton, whose expertise is local midcentury art and design, calls Pomeroy the “quintessential San Diego story.”
Pomeroy grew up downtown, studied physics at San Diego State, and made a career of the first job he got out of college. That was 60 years ago, working as what we’d now call a computer programmer, for a company that eventually came to be known as General Dynamics.
Pomeroy says he was drawn to the creativity of artists he went to school with. “The people I knew, and the art they were making, was much more interesting to me than the physics and math classes I was taking,” he jests. He didn’t realize he would soon amass a collection that reached over 400 pieces. He simply reflects, “I finished college, got my first job, rented my first house, got my first cat and bought my first painting.”
He adds that he never considered himself a captial-A “Art Collector” — he just has an affection for creative products. “Books, LPs from the 50s, CDs, DVDs, Swatch watches, perfume bottles… when you say art collector I think of Norton Simon, somebody with an intent to do that. I collect a lot of things — paintings just happen to be one of them.”
At the time Pomeroy started collecting, Hampton explains, several prominent artists were beginning their careers in San Diego, working out of studios in the Spanish Village at Balboa Park, heavily influenced by abstract expressionism. The Spanish Village and local arts community were both quite different in those days, and this progressive movement was a departure, sometimes censored, often ignored.
However, the moment left an indelible mark on San Diego culture when some of these artists participated in starting the La Jolla School of the Arts at the Art Center of La Jolla, which soon evolved into parts of the UC San Diego art program, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Guy Williams is one such artist. Pomeroy collected three dozen pieces from his old friend, who eventually left San Diego to paint in LA and teach at several California colleges. As Williams’ modern approach moved into pop art and other modes, Pomeroy sought to collect a piece from each stage of the artist’s evolution.
He collected 44 pieces from Richard Allen Morris, a prolific and internationally recognized painter — and one of the few from those days who has remained in San Diego.
The same can’t be said for John Baldessari, arguably the most heralded name in the collection. “When he left San Diego,” Pomeroy recalls, “He burned everything he had, and kept the ashes, then moved to Los Angeles and became a completely different kind of artist.” He says Baldessari came back to get two surviving San Diego works in Pomeroy’s possession. ‘I’ll trade you one of my new pieces for one of my old pieces,’ he told Walter, who didn’t go for it, and for very good reason: “I didn’t want the pieces to be destroyed.”
One of these early Baldessari works will be on display at the library show, along with two dozen others from Williams, Morris and various artists that have been hanging in Pomeroy’s apartment for decades. Rather, one of his apartments.
Around 1970, Pomeroy built a 6-unit complex in Pacific Beach, and moved into one of the units. But it wasn’t long before he realized he needed more space, and moved into a second unit so he could have room for growing collections of vinyl, musical instruments and books — and art. He took the doors off of closets for more wall space, hanging paintings virtually on top of each other.
“His walls are hung salon style with his artwork,” Hampton explains, “Plastered up and down the walls, which is really amazing… informal and casual… very approachable, very homey.”
About ten years ago, Pomeroy says, he started getting interested in photography, which meant adding a third apartment.
Now 82, Walter Pomeroy has been spending his retirement going to movies, traveling, and volunteering at the Library rare books room, among other places. He’s donated part of his collection to the Oceanside Museum of Art, and now this grouping to the city of San Diego. He’ll be present at the opening reception of this show celebrating his personal snapshot of San Diego’s art history, and plans to visit occasionally during the show’s two month run to answer questions about the pieces and their backgrounds. The modest collector reiterates, “I didn’t plan to have an art collection, I just bought paintings from people I knew and liked.”
“If there’s any message in this show,” Hampton concludes, “It’s damn near anybody can do that. It’s so approachable and in contrast to the strereotypes we still have. Walter bought directly from the artists rather than any intermediary… They both got something out of it, and I just think that’s the most simple, sincere and human face of any art collector and artist relationship I can think of.”