Hidden Treasure

Though Elinor had opened the Poindexter Gallery in 1955 (the year before George started collecting), Tieken has established through research and interviews that the Poindexter Collection was George's individual creation. (Elinor put together her own modernist painting collection, which she donated to the Yellowstone Art Center in Billings.)

In 1960, George began to cede his collection to the Montana Historical Society, giving an abstract painting in memory of his father. (The gift caused some consternation for his relatives, who had little affection for abstraction.) By 1963, the 100-plus-piece collection was ensconced in the historical society in Helena, then Montana's only museum of any kind. Prior to its current appearance at the DAM, it was displayed only twice--once on the occasion of the gift in 1963 when it traveled statewide, and again in 1965 at the then-new Yellowstone Arts Center, the second museum to open in Montana. In the more than thirty intervening years, the Poindexter Collection has been put away--and that's what makes this current show such a rare, exciting treat.

Poindexter was an adventurous collector, and his choices "provide a snapshot of art on the cusp from the late Fifties and early Sixties," Tieken says. Widely varied styles are apparent in the three paintings in the anteroom leading to the Close Range Gallery. On the left is Gene Davis's "65-I," an undated acrylic on canvas made up of vertical stripes of color. Ahead is an abstracted figure painting, "Mr. and Mrs. S.," a 1960 oil on canvas by James Weeks. And to the right is "Beach Figures," an abstract-expressionist composition by Robert Goodnough, done in 1962. With these three paintings, Poindexter covered a lot of mid-century painting territory, from Davis's Washington School minimalism to Weeks's Bay Area figuration, alongside Goodnough's New York School abstract expressionism. And though the three rival movements were each putting forward a different pictorial program, they now peacefully coexist at the DAM. If, as Tieken says, it was rare for individuals to collect contemporary art in the 1950s, it was rarer still to find someone like Poindexter, who was interested in competing movements at the same time.

Poindexter's commitment to difficult, transitional works is demonstrated by the first piece in the exhibit proper, an early and significant Jackson Pollock. Within the untitled 1943 ink and watercolor on paper are several surrealist elements that anticipate Pollock's later classic abstract-expressionist paintings. This prescience is best embodied in Pollock's extensive use of automatic drawing; essentially scribbling, the method makes this painting every bit as non-objective as his subsequent drip paintings. Pollock thought the use of automatism came out of his subconscious, an idea that was the product of his exposure to psychoanalysis.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the collection is its four historically important Willem de Kooning paintings. They all are definitive stylistically and date from the late Forties and early Fifties, the artist's most consequential period. Poindexter acquired the paintings directly from de Kooning. (The two had a mutual friend--the collector's mentor, Tworkov, who had introduced them.)

The most striking of the de Koonings is also the smallest. The diminutive "Woman," an oil on paperboard from 1946, is the painting Poindexter dedicated to his father's memory. It reveals the way de Kooning began to leave behind representational imagery as he increasingly embraced abstraction. Though it is part of de Kooning's famous "Woman" series, this piece is unique. "It's the only de Kooning 'Woman' I know of with a recognizable background," Tieken says.

Franz Kline, another abstract-expressionist giant, is represented by an archetypal example, a 1951 untitled oil on canvas. The easel-sized horizontal composition, in which bold black brush strokes are heavily applied on a rich, thickly painted white ground, is pure Kline. "I wanted to hang the Kline alone on its own wall, but there just wasn't the space," Tieken says. Truly, the show is cramped in Close Range--but with the quality of paintings included, so what?

Other highlights are two marvelous figural paintings by noteworthy artists Robert DeNiro, who worked in New York, and Richard Diebenkorn of San Francisco. They are among the artists in the Poindexter Collection who were represented by Elinor's gallery, which gave Diebenkorn his first New York show in 1956 and regularly exhibited DeNiro's work until closing its doors in 1978. The DeNiro, a 1954 tempera on paper titled "Small Single Bather," and the Diebenkorn, a 1956 oil on canvas called "Portrait," have been hung together. They're markedly similar: Each is a portrait in which the subject's features have been only vaguely filled in, and both seem to be mostly about the application of paint.

Poindexter was also interested in fine, definitive color-field paintings. Notably, there's the stunning "Singular Delight," an undated oil on canvas by Jules Olitski that features a gigantic orange figure eight on a rich blue ground. And the full-bodied 1961 Al Held oil on canvas "Untitled No. 8" indicates the artist's transition from abstract expressionism to minimalism in that it incorporates an unlikely combination of both drips and hard edges. (Olitski and Held were represented by Elinor's Poindexter Gallery, too.)

After he gave the collection to the Montana Historical Society in 1963, Tieken says, Poindexter apparently lost interest in it, since correspondence in the files after that time remains unopened. It's unclear why Poindexter suddenly dropped his hobby.

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