Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On January 18, 2010 Ray Wielgus died in his home in Tucson. Long time friends Jim and DeAnn Cook, Ron Perry, Carolyn Leigh, Scott Clark and Tom Senkerik were with him in his final hours. To say that this was the passing of a giant in the world of tribal art would not do justice to a man who was both passionate and continued to contribute to our knowledge of this art field for almost 55 years. Although Ray might not have been as well known, this is the passing of a man with the stature of a Gordon Ekholm, Junius Bird, or Roy Sieber. As he put together this extraordinary coillection, there is no doubt that Ray Wielgus was in the right place at the right time. He traded openly with museums constantly upgrading his collection by having a better eye and more knowledge of what he was doing. He bought some masterpieces for under a $1,000 which was inexpensive even then. But he knew that. As a frugal man his trifecta was a great piece with great collection history for a very reasonable price. Obviously we all aspire to this, but he made it look easy.

In 1960 in his own words Ray described his collecting philosophy as the following: “My aim in collecting is not to amass a great number of pieces, but to acquire a small group of objects that combine three admittedly intangible characteristics: esthetic excellence, ethnographic or archaeological importance and that quality perhaps best described by the adjective "right."
Esthetic excellence means for me that the piece is outstanding as art irrespective of type or time. Naturally this is an expression of personal taste and, as such, is bound up with the taste of one's time.
I do not profess to scholarship and acknowledge my debt to specialists who, personally and through their publications, have educated me to estimate the cultural importance
of a work.
For a piece to be right it should, except in rare instances, be unimproved by cleaning, restoration or techniques of preservation. Further it should be traditional in style and content, a product of the mainstream of a culture uninfluenced by alien civilizations. Perhaps this quality is most easily recognized in its absence, for whenever the arts have become the battleground of cultural values in conflict there is a resultant indecisiveness of character, a loss of esthetic strength, a weakening of artistic purpose.
The collection is in a process of continual modification; I do not feel irrevocably committed to any particular piece. Each work is open to reevaluation; it must constantly prove itself and be proved.” [Museum of Primitive Art 1960, 7].

For the past ten years it has been a great honor to work with Ray Wielgus as his appraiser for the tribal art collection. We have come full circle after my first visit in the late 1970’s when Ray sat me down in his home in Tucson and began peppering me with questions about authentication and identification of his objects. I remember specifically as he thrust his great Tongan ivory figure into my hand, he demanded an immediate and precise attribution. I sputtered and floundered like a dying walrus and offered something pathetic like.. Eskimo. He leered at me and said that I would never be any good if I didn’t know the basics. I was fascinated, inspired, and horrified all at once thinking that I was standing in the middle of a Volkswagon showroom and had misidentified a beetle. But I did the research and quickly learned how rare the Tonga ivory really is. I took great joy years later watching him torture Bill Mercer in exactly the same way.

When you lose someone special it is always a loss suffered on many levels. I have lost a very good friend; however, I have also lost a mentor, a father, a professional colleague, a client, and a man who significantly impacted my career. I will from time to time bring Ray back in the Newsletter and blog. There will be no service in Tucson. I expect Indiana University, which will be the home of Ray’s tribal collection, will have a memorial.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am sad at the passing of Ray Wielgus as well. I completely agree with your praise of him.
It is very nice of you to do this.
Rey Kerr