The Joy of Art

Dan Leach enthusiastically shows off his collection at the Tucson Museum of Art

Try, just try, to get Dan Leach to slight any of the artworks in his collection.

I tried and failed.

A fraction of the 1,400 works he owns are now on view in the big exhibition An Eclectic Eye: Selections From the Dan Leach Collection at the Tucson Museum of Art. The 220 works by 183 artists take up almost every room and ramp in the sprawling building. And Leach cherishes each and every one.

"I love good drawing and painting and ceramics," he enthused one morning last week, gazing on the multiple works.

Leach had kindly agreed to lead me on a tour of the show. We started out well before noon, and by the time we finished (with a break for lunch), it was nearly closing time.

He had tried to limit his remarks to just a few representative works in each section, but he just couldn't do it. He insisted on praising them all. If I tried to nudge him past a piece, he'd cry out, "But this is so beautiful." And then, with flawless memory, he'd recite details about the artist's life and work.

"This artist, Merlin James, is Welsh, but I bought this piece in New York," he said of James' "French Window," a 1986 acrylic and mixed media on canvas. "It's quirky as all get out. See the flecks of tin foil in the paint? I got this around the time of Katrina, and it reminded me of New Orleans. And the figures remind me of a man and woman in front of a window in a Matisse painting. It makes me think of a Hockney painting also."

Turning to "Transfusion I," a 2002 nightmare medical scene in sgraffito by former Tucsonan Alice Leora Briggs, he exclaimed, "She draws so incredibly well. This is on scratchboard, for god's sake. Her art is magical--she scratches into (the black board) to reveal the white underneath. The patience to do all those lines! She's making a name for herself. She's going to be big."

The learned Leach is a voluptuary of art of all kinds: of layered, luscious paint on canvas, of delicate line drawings, of richly shadowed photographs, of inky etchings, of textured ceramics, of shimmering glass. Divided into six sections, the show has choice examples of all these genres. And Leach has pledged the whole kit and caboodle to TMA upon his death, with the exception of a lovely Bruce McGrew landscape that's promised to a friend.

"This will be a nice kick in the butt for the museum," he said. A longtime supporter of the TMA, Leach was one of the most vocal critics when curator Joanne Stuhr was fired in 2003. But he believes Robert Knight, director for two years, now has the museum on the right track. "Robert has a positive attitude. He's inspirational."

Though bright abstractions make a strong minority showing in his collection, Leach's tastes run more often to expressive landscape and figuration. He admits to not "getting" sculpture, nor the more radical strains of contemporary art.

"I'm on the board of the Contemporary Art Society, but I can't say I'm in tune with the cutting edge. Sometimes it eludes me."

He owns a number of works by late greats, including photographers Paul Strand and Eugène Atget, and painter Leon Golub, but he prefers to buy living artists. Noted Arizona environmental artist James Turrell, who makes giant pieces in the Western landscape, is here brought down to size in a couple of small prints.

"He's a genius," Leach declared.

Living the last 30 years in Tucson, Leach has made a subspecialty of collecting work by locals, including the likes of painters Bailey Doogan, James G. Davis, Jim Waid, James Cook and Nancy Tokar Miller, and photographers Frances Murray and Kate Breakey.

But he travels widely, often booking a trip to see a particular show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or a gallery in Paris. He buys wherever he goes, so his collection is strong in New York and Philadelphia artists, as well as Dutch and French.

"Paris is a favorite spot," he said, so much so that he took an apartment in the city for about five months in the 1990s. Photos by Denise Colomb, a Frenchwoman who died in 2004 at the grand age of 101, are among the fruits of his French sojourns. Her "Femme Surprise, Antilles," from 1948, is a charming shot of a worker in a long dress; a bowl on her head makes her face disappear into a shadow.

But much of the French work is up to the minute. Bertrand Henry's 2004 "Adret" is a series of nine nearly abstracted etchings; hung in a grid, they create a landscape in line.

"I packed the nine pieces in a box and brought them home with me and had it framed here," Leach said. "I tend to be able to bring the stuff back with me--so I don't buy big, big paintings on my trips."

Leach's passion for collecting began when he was a kid in a sawmill town in the Florida Panhandle, where his father worked as a forester. His first treasures were shells, fossils, arrowheads and rocks. The first real art came into the house when his father started buying etchings and woodcuts from the Associated American Artists in New York "in a project to get art into the hands of not-wealthy people." He still owns one of those, Thomas Hart Benton's 1945 litho "Island Hay," a rollicking black and white of farmworkers in the rolling hay fields.

The first piece he ever collected himself is a 1928 Georges Rouault aquatint of a man's face. His father had died. "Mother wanted to buy me a life insurance policy. I told her, 'Buy this instead.' I was 24 or 25."

Before heading to New York to try his luck as an opera singer, Leach studied voice at a small Jesuit college in Alabama. Bad teaching in the city ruined his bass baritone, he said, and he turned to acting instead. He drove cabs and worked in a crafts museum during the 15 years he spent performing off and off-off Broadway.

After one play in the back of a bar, painter Joseph DiGiorgio invited Leach and other cast members for a drink up front. Known for lovely pointillist landscapes, DiGiorgio not only became Leach's close friend; he introduced him to a lively circle of artists.

"He was the first professional working artist I knew," Leach said. "My collecting started with Joe."

Leach moved out to Tucson in 1977. His father's investment in a partnership had paid off big, and Leach was able to live off the proceeds. He bought a two-story 1937 house in Sam Hughes with a basement, and he began filling the place with art he picked up at Dinnerware and elsewhere.

He and DiGiorgio, still a New Yorker, continued their practice of making art rambles around the country, to look at new art and to scout subjects for DiGiorgio's paintings.

DiGiorgio's two-panel "Virginia Series 83-10," a 1983 oil on canvas, has the place of honor at the entrance to the museum show. Leach traveled with the painter to the original location, a Southeastern forest in the fall. It's a controlled explosion of red and yellow paint splatters.

What attracts him to it?

"Well, the color, for one," he said, gazing raptly at the bright work. "I love to watch it in different lights. There's a 3-D give-and-take between the branches. And the dots of color for leaves."

He sighed with pleasure.

"Landscape--I love it."