In search of Tom Slick, art collector

“Slick ideas” was the tag for the endless stream of directives and observations millionaire Tom Slick funneled to the three research institutions he founded in San Antonio in his short lifetime. A son and heir of one of the country’s most successful wildcatters, Slick was an insatiable omnivore, consuming, digesting, and regifting everything in his path — like the famous coffee-bean-processing civets — a man whose immense wealth shielded him from the consequences of folly and funded Quixotic campaigns to make the world a better place (which he arguably did with the contribution of Brangus cattle, oral contraceptives, and Liquid Paper, to name a few inventions pursued or perfected at one of the Southwest Research permutations), or at least finally capture the Abominable Snowman. And all before he died in a plane crash at age 46.

“Whether he was pursuing the Yeti, or a cure for cancer, or a new oil recovery technology, or the best food in town, `Tom Slick` was passionately awake and present, never numb,” writes niece Catherine Nixon Cooke in her intermittently riveting vanity biography, Tom Slick: Mystery Hunter. And indeed, if there are Tom Slick-decrying apostates out there, they’ve been successfully excluded from SA’s public record. By all of Cooke’s accounts, he was infectiously enthusiastic, brilliant, charming — and his estate yielded, among many other things, a few of the finer pieces in the McNay’s collection.

A new show at the McNay sheds additional light on this endlessly fascinating man, who rooted one of the city’s great trust-fund family trees in town with his decision to establish the original ESSAR ranch here in 1941. It doesn’t reveal a profound or visionary collector, but a perceptive, acquisitive man with money and connections who might have joined the ranks of Texas’ Menils, Nashers, and Wiess Laws if he’d had time to fully develop his own tastes and preferences.

Artworks selected by the McNay from Slick’s estate in 1973 are spelled out with several more pieces held by Slick family members in one half of the new Stieren exhibition wing, and given some context with quotes from Slick’s correspondence with artists and gallerists. You’ll find a couple of really lovely O’Keeffe pastels — 1922’s “Sun Water Maine,” and 1945’s “The Black Place III” — that show off her emotionally ennervating play of light and dark and her seductive relay of Earth’s extravagant curves. Go not to see Picasso’s “Portrait of Sylvette” (if you’ve been to the McNay, you’ve likely seen it before, and it’s not one of my favorites, lacking the definitive genius of any of his many phases), but the striking little collection of Picasso ceramics. Two aluminum Noguchi sculptures, including the iconic “The Mirror,” stand sentinel together, announcing a gallery full of fine but not particularly memorable paintings (although it’s fun to imagine the four Alan Davie paintings — which are kind of like very cheerful Francis Bacons, or unruly urban Kandinskys — as Slick’s four children).

Most strikingly, you’ll encounter a mother lode of British artist Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture from the mid to late ’50s: smooth, organic pierced forms in marble and bronze, and her gorgeous layered ribbons of hammered bronze and plaster-covered metal — this one striking out like a daddy long legs on the move, that one collapsing in on itself in a prophecy of Guggenheims to come.

What’s really interesting about the collection as a whole is how Slick lived with the art at his O’Neil Ford designed estate, and a number of charmingly unprofessional snapshots of Slick at home suggest that he loved the pieces as much as he claims to in the excerpted quotes affixed to the gallery walls. Among those quotes, the word “modern” appears at least three times: he was interested in “modern art,” not proven masterpieces, he said, a reflection of his drive for uncharted territories. Slick was, at his core, an explorer who could afford to be interested in the journey as much, or more than, the outcome. A year spent developing “artificial pecans” to counteract a drought that didn’t materialize? Well, what the hell; they were a hit in the Christmas baskets that year.

Modern art meant, then and now, a lot of abstract work, and it’s likely as the catalog suggests that this quality appealed to a man who traveled to South America and the Himalayas on the trail of mysterious panaceas and mythical creatures. It was art as manifested but uncontained ideas, art as tangible intuition, art as primordial communication. But also always art as a thing of beauty.

Until the final room of the exhibit, which is filled with a collection of optical paintings by Polish artist Wojciech Fangor created in the last two years of Slick’s life. They radiate and pulse in your peripheral vision, rooting you to the gallery floor, suggesting Twilight Zone and LSD in almost tacky overtones, although the eclipse-like “#29” and the infinite visual passageway of “Black Cross” are mesmerizing, and the “Square” series echoes contemporary Dan Flavin’s flourescent sculptures. But they also feel functional and methodical, like scientific explorations, like something that Slick’s hit-and-miss Mind Science Foundation might support. They’re intriguing given the man’s farflung interests and flitting attention. With another 20 or 30 years to collect, would Slick have developed a long-term relationship with a museum curator and built a portfolio of Brangus cattle? Or would his esoteric leanings and peripatetic nature have resulted in more “artificial pecans”? The answer is out there somewhere, and while I don’t think you’ll find it at the McNay, it’s worth the effort to search for it.

Tom Slick: International Art Collector
Through Sep 13
McNay Art Museum
(210) 824-5368

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