Col­lec­tion traces evo­lu­tion of genre

Hevrdejs fam­ily do­nates to MFAH un­matched as­sem­blage of still lifes

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Molly Glentzer Col­lec­tion con­tin­ues on A14

Hous­ton busi­ness­man Frank Hevrdejs has al­ways had an eye for con­trasts.

Dur­ing his first trip to a mu­seum as a 10-year old in Chicago, Hevrdejs grav­i­tated to op­u­lent, re­al­is­tic still lifes by Dutch old mas­ters and harder-tode­ci­pher mod­ern table­top com­po­si­tions by Paul Cézanne and Pablo Pi­casso. Those wildly dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to paint­ing stayed with him.

Hevrdejs has amassed a col­lec­tion of 250 Amer­i­can paint­ings in all gen­res, but he’s kept a keen eye on the evo­lu­tion of still lifes — an ex­tra­or­di­nary range dat­ing from the early 19th cen­tury, when dec­o­ra­tive flower and fruit paint­ings in the Euro­pean tra­di­tion still held sway, to the present, when any­thing goes.

Sixty-seven of those works now hang at the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Hous­ton in the ex­hi­bi­tion

“Two Cen­turies of Amer­i­can Still-Life Paint­ing: The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Col­lec­tion,” which opens to the pub­lic Satur­day.

Even­tu­ally, they will re­side there for per­pe­tu­ity. Hevrdejs pledged all of the show’s paint­ings to the mu­seum Thurs­day night at a pa­tron’s din­ner.

A wind­fall for mu­seum

The wind­fall in­cludes a few master­pieces, among them James Peale’s “Still Life with Fruit,” John Fred­er­ick Peto’s “The Writer’s Ta­ble — A Pre­car­i­ous Mo­ment,” Max We­ber’s “Still Life with Three Jugs” and Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe’s “From Pink Shell.” Yet many of the paint­ings have not been shown in mu­se­ums un­til now.

“Nowhere else in Amer­ica is there a col­lec­tion of still-life paint­ing that fea­tures the range, qual­ity and fo­cus of (these) works,” MFAH Di­rec­tor Gary Tin­terow said.

A co-founder of the pri­vate eq­uity firm the Ster­ling Group, Hevrdejs be­gan col­lect­ing in earnest in the 1980s. He said Seat­tle dealer Al­lan Kol­lar helped him seek out paint­ings ev­ery­where from garages to mu­se­ums that were sell­ing works. Pre­em­i­nent Amer­i­can art scholar Wil­liam Gerdts, an­other long­time friend, wrote the show’s cat­a­log and book-length es­say.

While many peo­ple col­lect Amer­i­can still lifes, the Hevrdejs col­lec­tion is uniquely de­voted to the “en­tire ex­panse” of the genre, with room for more than the “usual sus­pects,” Gerdts writes.

Hevrdejs said his work col­leagues nick­named him “the plan­ner” for his or­ga­ni­za­tional skills.

“So, ‘plan­ner guy’ fig­ured out I want a plan to cre­ate some­thing that’s kind of com­plete, as op­posed to just ran­dom,” he said. “I thought we could have an in­ter­est­ing col­lec­tion and cre­ate a sur­vey of Amer­i­can still-life paint­ing, and I think we’ve been able to ac­com­plish that, all the way from the be­gin­ning to the end.”

Some of the works don’t fit the gen­eral per­cep­tion of still lifes, in­clud­ing Im­pres­sion­ist paint­ings that in­cor­po­rate still-life el­e­ments. Hevrdejs also wanted his col­lec­tion to rep­re­sent the di­ver­sity of artists, so he has pur­pose­fully sought out paint­ings by women, an African-Amer­i­can, a Na­tive Amer­i­can and a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can.

He is still search­ing for the right work by a Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can, he said.

The show was sev­eral years in the mak­ing, and af­ter see­ing it all com­piled into Gerdts’ au­thor­i­ta­tive book, Hevrdejs told his wife, Michelle, he was feel­ing a lit­tle sad. It was like he’d reached the end of a “re­ally long jour­ney” he wasn’t ready to give up.

“You can keep buy­ing,” she told him, “just don’t tell Gerdts.”

They’ve pur­chased four stil­l­life paint­ings since then — most re­cently last week, when they ac­quired a Chuck Close paint­ing of a mon­u­men­tal sun­flower.

Cu­ra­tor Kaylin We­ber said the col­lec­tion’s sin­gu­lar fo­cus — “where we can look at a true arc across one genre and a pe­riod of Amer­i­can art his­tory” — presents a great op­por­tu­nity for Hous­ton au­di­ences who may be learn­ing about this as­pect of stil­l­life paint­ing for the first time.

Tells a com­plete story

Tin­terow de­clined to put a mone­tary value on the col­lec­tion.

“Al­though many of the paint­ings in the Hevrdejs Col­lec­tion could be sold at auc­tion for great sums, the value to the mu­seum is quite dif­fer­ent,” he said. “Money alone can­not ac­com­plish what the Hevrde­jses have done — as­sem­ble a col­lec­tion that rep­re­sents 30 years of sleuthing, trad­ing and re­fin­ing to cre­ate a group whose whole is much greater than the parts.

“That is pre­cisely what de­fines a great col­lec­tion: It rep­re­sents an enor­mous in­vest­ment of time and ex­per­tise. With the Hevrdejs Col­lec­tion at the MFAH, we will be able to tell a much more com­plete and in­ter­est­ing story about the his­tory of paint­ing in Amer­ica.”

The show will travel to the Mem­phis Brooks Mu­seum of Art, di­rected by for­mer MFAH Amer­i­can art cu­ra­tor Emily Ballew Neff, and the Ta­coma Mu­seum of Art. It’s on view in Hous­ton through April 9.

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

“Two Cen­turies of Amer­i­can Still-Life Paint­ing” rep­re­sents 30 years of sleuthing by Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs. The cou­ple are do­nat­ing the works to the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Hous­ton.

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