There's a story behind each and every one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of pieces of art Walter Pomeroy has hanging in his house.
"That one is based on a Wallace Stevens poem," says the 82-year-old Pomeroy, who has lived in San Diego since he was a toddler.
"I bought this when my brother and I were in a little restaurant in Maine," he says. "We were sitting at this table and we looked up and there was this drawing of the table we were sitting at."
Whether it's the twinkle in his eyes or the rising cadence of his voice, it's easy to notice Pomeroy's connection to the art he's been collecting since the 1950s. Many of the pieces he bought from artist friends for what he describes as "whatever money I had in my pocket at the time." His walls are covered from floor to ceiling, and the pieces are displayed salon style in rows and columns. He owns and lives in a six-unit apartment building in Pacific Beach. Since buying the property in the '70s, he has knocked down the walls of two of the units in order to make his place bigger and, more importantly, make more room for his art collection.
The three-sided living room walls are covered in pieces from the late San Diego modernist painter Guy Williams, a close personal friend of Pomeroy. Scattered throughout the house are pieces from the likes of Richard Allen Morris, John Baldessari, Bob Matheny and other highly important and influential artists from the '50s and '60s. If there's a piece of wall that isn't covered in art, Pomeroy is quick to point out that's because he recently donated it to either to the Oceanside Museum of Art or to the city of San Diego. Many of those pieces and paintings had been in his place for so long, there are now a noticeable yellowish outlines on the walls where the pieces once hung.
"Please try not to look at the dirt," Pomeroy says unabashedly. "I'm usually quick to replace something if another piece comes down."
The quick-witted Pomeroy loves to dismiss questions about which are his favorite pieces, and it's easy to see that all of them as representative of Pomeroy's love affair with art. It's a love that has lasted over six decades and is finally getting its due at a new show opening March 12 at the downtown Central Library Gallery (330 Park Blvd.) entitled Portraits of Pomeroy. The exhibition will include dozens of works on loan from Pomeroy, OMA and the city, and will feature important pieces from the aforementioned San Diego artists of the '50s and '60s. Guest curator Dave Hampton, who first met Pomeroy after hearing about him from artist and critic Mark-Elliott Lugo, says the exhibition is just as much about Pomeroy as it is about local mid-century contemporary art.
"We have these stereotypes and constructs of what it means to be an art collector," says Hampton, who has written extensively about the San Diego art scene in the '50s and '60s. "When I saw Walter's collection for the first time, it opened my eyes. It was the first example I'd seen where someone had put together a truly special, truly historically significant collection, but also developed these lifelong friendships out of that without any of the trappings or bullshit associated with what it means to be an art collector."
"I think it's very much the story of man and how he wanted to, needed to, support local artists," adds Library Arts and Culture Exhibition Coordinator Kara West, who helped Hampton spearhead the exhibition.
This story began in the '30s when a two-year-old Walter Pomeroy moved to what was then a very different San Diego. Proficient in science and mathematics, Pomeroy says he was drawn to visual art because, "that's where all my friends were." After college, he worked at Convair (which later became General Dynamics) working in the aeronautics division. He says when he wasn't working, he was almost always hanging out at the artist studios at Spanish Village in Balboa Park and it was there that he made friends with people like Jean Swiggett and Richard Allen Morris.
A 15-minute documentary, made by local filmmaker Bill Perrine, also accompanies the exhibition and delves into the personal relationships Pomeroy developed with these artists even though he admits to only dabbling in art himself. Even now, when he sees the paintings on his wall, he doesn't see investments or even a collection, but rather, reminders of the lifelong bonds he made with the people who made them.
"Some people decide they want to collect and build a collection, but that was never my intent," Pomeroy says. "I never saw them as masterpieces. These were just friends hanging on my wall."
Therein lies the true character of Walter Pomeroy. It's completely incidental that some of the works in his vast collection have appreciated over the years. He bought them because he liked the way they looked and wanted to support his friends. His life is a lesson not only in what it means to collect art because you love it, but to collect it to support the arts as well.
"Buy what you like, and don't buy names. If you buy what you like and it ends up being worth thousands of dollars later, that's great," says Pomeroy. "When it came to the art, I was more into the people than the objects, but you can't collect artists. Well, Peggy Guggenheim collected artists, but I'm not on her level."