The Austin Chronicle

"What I Wanted"

Chuck Cooper Takes Collecting Art Personally

By Rebecca S. Cohen, July 25, 1997, Arts

photograph by Minh

A block from the old courthouse on Milam Street in Columbus, Texas stands the Live Oak Art Center. Inside, "Contemporary Texas Art: The Personal Collection of Chuck Cooper" commences in the first large room and continues down a little hallway, into the library, and beyond into a social room in the back. Paintings and drawings and photographs are double- and triple-hung on the walls, and several pedestals support sculpture. The initial effect is overwhelming, even if you're used to looking at the world through the eyes of contemporary artists. Houses and trees won't quite hold still in the landscapes, soldiers cavort with weapons for heads and disconnected limbs, and there's a little house filled with twigs sitting on a glowing green rock inside an orange, screened case. Volunteer preparators did a remarkable job of creating order amidst this disorderly lot of images which also include a man approaching a day-glo pink pig with a knife by Fidencio Duran and a cast concrete crab basket by T. Paul Hernandez.

I asked one of the volunteers manning the space what the general response in this small town has been to the exhibition.

"The general response is..." -- she paused -- "...well, general."

The same woman, however, seemed personally interested in both the exhibition and the collector. "When I met him, I felt I already knew something about him," she said. "He reminded me of my brother. He must have a sense of humor." Pointing to two sculpture maquettes by David Deming and a Tom Allen maquette, she described them as "constructed silences," then turned her attention to Ron Bolling's birdhouse with twigs atop the green rock. "That one is noisy."

Another woman in the gallery was less charitable: "This isn't art; it's fooling around."

Between the two of them, those women had a pretty good handle on the collection and, perhaps, on the collector himself. In the personal collection of Chuck Cooper, even the quieter works tend to have disquieting elements, as in Susan Whyne's landscape painting where the figures are always engaged in some mysterious bit of business. James Bettison's Alien Babies (painted on washcloths) appear playful to some, just plain weird to others. Steve Brudniak's construction and Danville Chadbourne's sculpture may look like the artists were "fooling around," but this is the most beautifully crafted fooling around you'd ever want to see. The owner of all these objects is a man seriously bent on assembling a great personal collection and great collections for clients. He is also described by some as an overscale Peter Pan with thinning white hair and a trim beard.

Chuck Cooper is probably the biggest art dealer in all of Texas: six feet, six and a half inches tall and weighing closer to 300 than 200 pounds. He dominates most any room he enters, if not physically, then with his breathless, rapid-fire (and occasionally rambling) ruminations on art history, the state of the arts in Texas, and the latest gossip. He divides his time between clients' homes and offices, St. Stephen's School's Helm Fine Arts Center, where he is acting part-time director, and the deli counter at Central Market, where he sells smoked salmon and other delicacies. Finding time to discuss his art collection was a challenge. We finally met at his place at 10:30pm one night.

Ninety-four objects -- paintings, sculpture, photographs, and constructions by Texas artists -- belonging to Cooper are on exhibit through August in Columbus. You'd think, with 94 objects off on their own, that the man's apartment would be half-empty, naked picture hooks and perhaps discolored patches of paint on the wall indicating where some of those paintings had been. I expected the mantle, at least, to be bare. But the opposite is true. Within three feet of entering the door to his one-bedroom apartment in Tarrytown, visitors have to stick to the footpath cleared through the clutter or risk disappearing into it.

With Chuck (I've known him too long to call him anything else), almost everything is the opposite of what might otherwise seem logical. His tiny habitat is filled floor to ceiling with art, chairs stacked on top of each other, cushions stacked on top of the chairs and the assorted other pieces of furniture. The floor is littered with records, magazines, clothes, and towels. I still cannot imagine where the absentee art will go when it returns from the Live Oak Art Center. Yvonna (the cat) flies from one cluttered surface to the next as we speak, slowing down now and then to stare at the huge carved snake from San Miguel de Allende that hangs from the ceiling. There was no room for it anywhere else. Madonna (the other cat) beats a hasty retreat to the bedroom when I arrive and never returns.

Chuck pulls out a portfolio of the late Robert Levers' drawings from behind the sofa and an Andy Warhol print. He points to a James Johnson painting (one that was too racy for Columbus) hanging on the wall. "You remember Little Red Riding Hood?" he asks. Two woodblock prints lean against the stereo near my feet. They were among the first pieces of art purchased by Cooper in the Sixties when he was in the Air Force stationed outside of London. "This is the mentality," he says, handing me a book about famous European collections, trying to explain his impulse to collect. "The mentality without the money."

Cooper grew up in Harlingen, influenced to some extent by his mother, who liked to paint and who taught art to small children. After two years in Kingsville College, he transferred to the University of Texas. A pleasant encounter with art at the McNay Museum in San Antonio precipitated the move, but it turned out that he was not quite ready for UT. After the University requested that he leave in the mid-Sixties, Cooper joined the Air Force to avoid the draft. Being stationed outside London allowed him access to opera, theatre, and, finally, to a slew of first-rate museums. By the time he returned to the University of Texas at Austin in the early Seventies, he was ready to finish his undergraduate degree in art history. He left school just short of a masters degree in the same subject. "Chuck, you're not a scholar, you're a born art dealer," said one of his professors before he left. The words set him on his way.

In 1981, Chuck and two friends opened AIR Gallery on Sixth Street. It offered an innovative if abbreviated series of exhibitions. He was also waiting tables at Tarry House and when the gallery folded, he worked for Patrick Gallery on Sixth Street. In 1983, AIR Gallery was reborn -- with a little help from his friends -- on 12th Street and Lamar, then later moved to Republic Plaza at Third and Lavaca.

Chuck Cooper has always collected things -- or perhaps it's just that he never threw anything away. When he was a boy, Chuck collected stamps, minerals, and rocks, and then, when he was in the service, he collected filigreed card holders. Next he began to buy art. How many of these objects (especially the ones covered with dust and leaning against a wall) have any intrinsic value at all? Most of them do. He has a good eye, a substantial art history background, and a particular passion for Texas art and artists, especially those who make edgy, figurative work. Not unlike Lucy Lippard, whose collection was recently displayed at the University's Archer M. Huntington Gallery, Chuck speaks of the power of each object in his collection to evoke the memory of a friend or family member. Most of the nearly 200 objects he owns were presents from his friends, sometimes in response to Chuck's prompting: "Can I have that if it doesn't sell?" He has both adventurous tastes and substantial chutzpah.

Lately, however, he seems to be running out of steam or at least out of room. Chuck envisions contributing his collection to one or more of the city's museums some day, but he is not ready to part with the objects yet. And there is absolutely no more room in his apartment for more. "I never set out to build an art collection," he says. "Some people collect linearly. I just bought what I wanted. What I liked. What I could [afford]." When asked why he buys art, he answers quickly. "Not to match the wall or the rug," he says.

While he is not adding to his own collection these days, Chuck is still interested in building collections for clients and in bringing attention to private and corporate collections, presumably to encourage more people to buy art. Discerning the reasons other people choose to surround themselves with art interests Chuck. Perhaps that's just what art dealers (even recovering art dealers) think about. Perhaps he hopes to learn something more about his own impulses by bringing others into the fold. In any event, this preoccupation led to two exhibitions which he proposed for the Nancy Scanlan Gallery at St. Stephen's School's Helms Fine Arts Center. In the fall, an exhibition of work by Jimmy Jalapeeno will include paintings from private and corporate collections rather than focusing on paintings out of the artist's studio or gallery. Currently, the Scanlan Gallery is hosting an exhibition curated by Chuck called "Two Austin Connoisseurs Collect Texas Art." The two men, Philip Dempsey and Clint Boelsche, had known each other before the show but not well. Their tastes are similar enough that the work might plausibly have come from one collection. Chuck's Texas collection in Columbus is similar as well, but the work tends to be a bit more raw, more raucous, and more uneven. Perhaps a collection based on personal friendships and memories -- no matter how sweet -- inevitably presents a different face than one purchased obsessively with every dime the collector can save.

Next: Clint Boelsche, Unlikely Austin Connoisseur. Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.

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