Exhibition view: Works by Magdalena Abakanowicz

Interview with Donald M. Hess

The Hess Art Collection – Colomé, Argentina; Glen Carlou, South Africa; Napa, USA

What was the first artwork you bought and when?
In 1968, I purchased my first painting. It was "Twice Six and Nine" (1961) by Alfred Jensen. For a long time, it was hanging in my house. Often, when I came home after a hard day’s work, I would sit in front of the painting, with a glass of good red wine, and look at it. I always loved the vivid colors and the strong brush strokes.
Pondering the problems that I had to deal with in the office, I thought: "The artist created such a masterly order. Every color is carefully chosen and placed at the perfect place. Why could I not take it as an inspiration? Each of the open issues of my business problems could stay for a color square. If I find the accurate order, place each square at its right place, I may find a good solution."

Does your collection follow a concept or a specific theme?
There is not a specific theme or school I am collecting. Still, there are three criteria: First, I only purchase art from living artists. Second, I like to collect in depth. It means that I am following an artist’s work over a long period of time and I buy works from different periods of the artist’s career. Thus, I assemble a representative group of work, comprising up to 40 pieces. And third, it is a limited number of artists I follow at a time, only about 15 to 20. It provides the opportunity to concentrate on their work.
I never bought an artwork at first sight, because it is essential to look at a work for quite a while. It happens that I wake up at night – normally, I sleep like a log – and think about the artwork. One inner voice would ask me to sleep, because I have to be fit for the next day, but the other one keeps me awake to tell me all the compelling aspects of the artwork I have seen. This is a clear sign that I am really touched and need to purchase the piece. Therefore, the art of the Hess Art Collection is a very personal selection of what I have encountered in the last 45 years.

Which artists do you follow at the moment?
After I spent many years in Argentina, building the Colomé vineyards and the James Turrell Museum, I lost contact with many gallery owners and artists. The more, all the walls of my home are full of art, and we run three museums showing major parts of the Hess Art Collection. I try to keep informed about the activities of the artists, which are already represented in the Hess Art Collection. But I am not actively looking for new artists.
An artist I have been following for a long time is Lynn Hershman Leeson from San Francisco. I was the first collector who bought her work, and it is satisfying to see her fame grow. I always loved the powerful paintings by Ouattara Watts. The Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz was an early discovery in my life as a collector. We own 17 of her remarkable works; I think I was among the first collectors to buy her work. 
Unfortunately, it is difficult to find works of art by the Japanese artist Shigeo Toya. I will never forget how I purchased the first of Toya’s paintings. He didn’t want to sell the painting, because it was the last of a series of just three paintings on wood. I was disappointed even if I could understand the reason. We went to a restaurant and Toya ordered a big bottle of sake. Only after we had eaten and emptied the whole bottle, he said: "You are a friend, I will sell you the painting." Marco Schuler and Friederike von Rauch, both German, belong to a younger generation. I started to collect their work some years ago. And the last artist I would like to mention is Andy Goldsworthy, we have works created from 1977 to 2000.

Do you have a personal relationship with the artists you collect?
It would be great to collect paintings by artists like Vincent van Gogh or Théodore Géricault. But, you see, I cannot have lunch with them. It is very important to me to get acquainted with the artists.
I want to learn about the circumstances of production, the thoughts and emotions that triggered the artwork. Happily, some of the contacts grew into lifelong friendships. Artists look at the world differently. They have the sensitivity to perceive the sore spots of our society, but also the preciousness of the world. Works of art are often a mirror of our time and provoke the viewer to see and think about it more profoundly. Discussing with my artist friends has always been enriching and widening my own perspective. 

Why did you decide to make your collection publicly accessible?
I truly believe contemporary art should be made available to the widest possible audience, and that collectors have a responsibility to make their collections accessible to the public to the best of their ability. 
We are running three museums, all of them connected to one of the Hess Family’s wineries: In 1989, we inaugurated the Hess Art Museum at The Hess Collection Winery in Napa (USA), in 2006 the one at the Glen Carlou Winery in Paarl (South Africa), and in 2009 the James Turrell Museum in Colomé (Argentina). The entry is for free, so everybody is able to visit the museums. 

Which publicly accessible private collection would you recommend visiting?
The museum that comes to my mind is the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. I recently visited it and was impressed by the grandeur of the collection. In Switzerland, I would highly recommend the Fondation Beyeler with its outstanding exhibition program.

Read more about The Hess Art Collection

Donald M. Hess
Exhibition view: Works by Magdalena Abakanowicz
Exhibition view: Works by Andy Goldsworthy and Ouattara Watts

Get your copy of the Fifth Edition