Visual Arts

The Art of the Deal

Art decorates the white-collar walls of many Phoenix business high-rises. Most of it is more decor than art. Given the setting and atmosphere of the modern corporation, it almost has to be low-voltage stuff, drawn from the stocks of interior designers and meant to coordinate with dominant color themes. So, you see a lot of abstract copper wall-reliefs or pastel collages made of ripped, handmade paper. We can't distract our workers with seriously engaging pieces; think of the effect on productivity!

But does it make a difference when one executive has a passion for art, and the power to place it on corporate walls? That depends on his or her aesthetic discrimination. What you see is what they collect, and money is no guarantor of taste. Donald Trump is a far cry from Cosimo de Medici, yet here is The Donald declaiming on the murals he had painted on his living room walls: "If this were on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it would be very much in place in terms of quality." Oh, please.

Or consider the late Don Tostenrud, when he was running the Arizona (now Security Pacific) Bank. Next to fire engines, Tostenrud loved Southwestern and Native American art, so the walls of the bank's downtown headquarters were filled with images of cowboys, Indians, horses and campfires. Most of these pieces have, thankfully, not been offered for public view, a policy we can only hope will continue.

"Corporate art" really is a misnomer. Institutions don't make aesthetic decisions; even a committee for art purchases usually is led by one executive, to whom the others defer. The collection may range from classical, gilt-framed pieces (David Rockefeller, Chase Manhattan CEO), to infuriating, avant-garde creations (the late Robert Scull, New York taxi king), to profusely eclectic works (Charles Saatchi, London advertising mogul).

Here in Phoenix, in a decidedly different league, the general public now can view the visions of two corporate collectors, Edward Jacobson, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer, and Morton Fleischer, CEO of Franchise Finance Corporation. Photographs Jacobson collected for Snell & Wilmer are on display at the Phoenix Art Museum; the Fleischer Museum in north Scottsdale has been open to the public since May. It would be hard to find two more different sensibilities.

Jacobson's name often is linked with the phrase "avid collector." Long a mainstay among Valley art patrons, he has raised money, served on boards and bought and donated artworks. In fact, he recently donated his 95-piece turned-wood bowl collection to the ASU Art Museum.

Jacobson is eclectic. Five years ago he began to collect pieces by Arizona photographers for display at the Snell & Wilmer offices. Why photography? One reason, Jacobson explains in his foreword to the museum catalogue, was affordability: "In 1985, photography was not particularly sought after on the art market. Prices were not inflated and fine works were available for purchase."

What he purchased certainly has range. In the 150 pieces on display at the Phoenix Art Museum, you can see examples of nearly every major genre--landscape, still life, portraiture, technical virtuosity, visual joke, postmodern experimentation, historical document and sociological peek.

It's as though Jacobson had a check list of categories to consult and felt determined to include every one: The Noble Indian Face. The Shiprock Picture. The Sunstruck Adobe Church. The Hopiland Sunset. The Cactus Close-up. The Grand Canyon Panorama. The Georgia O'Keeffe Portrait. The Chicano-Poverty Interior. (He did miss the Coyote, the Saguaro, and the Rattlesnake, those talismans of Southwestern schlock.) Each image is, of course, technically excellent, and as beautiful and safe as anything in Arizona Highways.

What you won't see is anything thought-provoking, disturbing or challenging. But we really cannot expect to confront an image of Robert Mapplethorpe, bullwhip snaking out of his ass, glancing over his shoulder at us as we wait for our appointment with the lawyer. And we cannot imagine stepping out of the elevator onto plush carpeting and coming up against one of Nicholas Nixon's poignant portraits of AIDS victims. Clashes with the atmosphere, don't you know.

And that's one of the problems with corporate art. Who knows what Mr. Jacobson harbors in his home? At work, he has to filter his sensibility through the expectations of his fellow attorneys, support personnel and clients. Chances are, their minds inhabit a landscape far removed from the cliff edge of aesthetic reflection.

But some of these images do come close to an edge, where you can see that you're approaching that cliff. Consider, for example, With Emmett by Harold Jones. It's a black-and-white photo of a highway rise, with scrub on both sides, a huge, cloudy sky above, and power lines dipping over the hill and out of sight. This quiet picture evokes all the contradictory expectations you feel while traveling, wondering what might be over the next rise--a motel, a gas station, an incredible panoramic sunset, a car wreck, or just more miles to go before you sleep.

Another black-and-white photo, an untitled piece by James Hajicek, shares some of the same melancholy air. The bottom third of the photo shows, in a flat diagonal, the top of a cyclone fence strung with barbed wire. Above this hovers a black and threatening sky. One gets the feeling of a prisoner gazing longingly over the fence, but even freedom looks foreboding.

Both of these pieces come from a classical school of photography, one we could call "looking for coincidence." No setups, no darkroom pyrotechnics, no collage, just eyes that saw something under what was there and grabbed it.

Several other pieces stand out, among them Tamarra Kaida's Worm of Doubt, Rita Lee's The Pueblo--Curved Stairway, and, yes, I admit it, I loved Jerry Jacka's Walpi Sunset, probably the most Arizona Highways-like photograph in the collection.

Far removed in every way from the Snell & Wilmer photographs is Morton Fleischer's collection of early California Impressionist paintings. For one thing, it is housed in a museum at his corporate headquarters near Pima and Bell Roads, way the heck out there by itself. Out front is a wild tangle of bronze horses, a sculpture by Buck McCain, entitled Spirit. The building itself is simple and elegant, made from pale stone that blends in with the surroundings.

Inside is the fruit of Fleischer's obsession--more than 150 paintings from the California School of American Impressionism, most ranging from the 1890s to the 1930s, and all placed in a tasteful, brand-spanking-new environment. Far from eclectic, Fleischer knew what he liked, had the wherewithal, and so began collecting one kind of artwork, scattering paintings among the offices, entryways and boardrooms of Franchise Finance Corporation of America.

Unlike Jacobson, Fleischer did not need to consider anyone else's taste. In any case, how could anyone be offended by these traditional pieces? Except for the textures of brush strokes, they could be blowups of postcards from Big Sur. The typical employee who would be working around these paintings lives in a rapid crossfire of sophisticated media images, each backed by thousands of dollars of advertising research. Even a very young brain has absorbed so much from magazines, TV and billboards, that these turn-of-the-century artworks simply slip below the threshold of sensuous impact.

What are these paintings like? They are like each other: dominated by pastel colors and full, liquid brush strokes, twisted trees, glowering shorelines, weather-beaten landscapes. There is a lot of surface aesthetic pleasure to be had from these pieces, like refreshing your breath with mouthwash. The eye travels with pleasure over the details of depicted objects. You delight in technique. After a while, though, it's like walking around with a fixed grin: Your face muscles ache and you long for a change of expression.

But it might--just might--be worth making the trip out to north Scottsdale in the near future. Fleischer seems to be aware that corporate art collections need to see the light of day. Beginning in December, he plans to show "the top U.S. corporate art collections" at the museum. If there are such things.

"Arizona Photographers: The Snell & Wilmer Collection" will be on display at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central, through November 18.

The Fleischer Museum is located at 17207 North Perimeter in Scottsdale. The collection is on permanent display.