The art of Rene di Rosa
A maverick's collection comes of age
Revolutionary art, flush with color and rife with meaning.
Think "modern art collector," and you might conjure a bony hipster swathed in black.
From the tips of his Ferragamos to the cuffs of his custom suit, he exudes cool. Perhaps he's affected a perennial frown, a flinty-eyed mask meant to telegraph solemnity, a reminder that this art thing isn't kid's play.
Think "museum" and you almost smell the dust. Creaky collections thick with ancient paint, patrons huddled in whispering pods. Deferential, reverential. We learn early on: This art thing is serious. It's not meant for rubes or ruffians, peasants with blue collars and calloused hands. Art, serious art, is the turf of the intelligentsia, the domain of the glitterati and literati, the birthright of the elite.
Look, but don't touch; see, but don't feel. This really isn't meant for you, pal.
Rene di Rosa clearly didn't get the memo. Checked shirt, striped jacket, bow tie, devil's grin, he evokes Rogue Uncle far more than Art World Fashionista. An outsider who relishes his outsider status, he's famously made entrance at chi-chi Wine Country events in a gorilla suit, strolling easily among the haute monde as if simian apparel were the most normal thing in the world.
Don't let his self-deprecating, aw-shucks exterior fool you. Under Rene's skin beats the heart of a maverick, a trailblazer, a sophisticated art hound with an impeccable nose. It all began with an itch he couldn't scratch.
After finishing Yale and following a stint in the Navy, di Rosa moved to Paris in search of his muse. The plan? A writerly life in the manner of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Nights of hedonistic revelry, days hammering out lean, tidy prose. But the writing proved difficult. Frustrated and hungry for something he couldn't yet name, di Rosa sought solace in the vibrant boho culture dominating the Left Bank. Here he found revolutionary art flush with color and rife with meaning. These weren't the fusty canvases prized by East Coast elites, this was art fresh and alive. Rene bought his first significant piece: a green nude with a cherry-red mouth. It was to be the first of many.
In 1960, now living in West Coast California, 41-year-old Rene di Rosa-using an inheritance from his father-purchased five hundred acres in the heart of Carneros. At the center of the parcel was a century-old stone house. Originally built as a winery in 1886, its dank cool interiors had been repurposed many times over: once for mushroom production, once as a granary, even once as a secret repository for high-quality brandy during Prohibition. Di Rosa loved the story of this house and this land. He loved living close to "Mother Nature and Father Soil." Decades before anyone had heard of the now famous appellation Carneros, Rene di Rosa determined to plant his land with grapes. The local old-timers snickered into the bibs of their overalls, certain the hardpan clay would have the last word.
Stubborn but not daft, di Rosa undertook a course of study at UC Davis, sitting through countless hours of viticultural instruction. He expanded the small pond on his property to a 35-acre lake and used the excavated loamy silt to amend the topsoil of his acreage. He covered hills with pinot noir and chardonnay, convinced the warm days and cool nights would produce stellar results. And yet, despite the deep satisfaction of a dream within a few years' reach, a pervasive restlessness remained. In between applied science and long agricultural labors, di Rosa found himself drawn to the charismatic art department at UC Davis, where he spent hours chatting up students and instructors alike.
The 1960s had found Davis a red-hot cauldron of emerging artistic talent. Robert Arneson, Roy de Forest and William T. Wiley were all on staff, and student work reflected the humor and pathos of their mentors. Rene di Rosa, a wanna-be writer with a visceral need for beauty and truth, caught the art bug in earnest.
In 1976 he was married for the third and final time to a comely young artist named Veronica. The newlyweds opened their home to artists and intellectuals whose work they admired, hosting languorous wine-soaked dinners at the charming stone house. They began collecting art systematically, crowding walls and beamed ceilings, filling courtyards outside. Rene and Veronica worked from the ground up; haunting open studios and art schools, they fixed the bright, eager beam of their attention onto the canvases of unknown ingenues. And what was the motivation for his mission to discover and enable the artist-on-the-cusp-of-breakout? "I wanted to help them become the artist I had failed to become."
When the couple did fall for an artist, they acquired his or her work with a lover's hungry devotion: 76 works by Wiley, 72 by David Best, 38 by Arneson, just to name three. Rene and Veronica's selections reflected a zeal for color and form, and nothing to match the couch.
Ten years after they married, the di Rosas sold half of what had matured into premium vineyard to the Seagram Company LTD, a corporate behemoth with very deep pockets. Now, essentially retired and with a tidy pile of cash, their aesthetic appetite reached critical mass. They bartered, they bought and they binged. Today their collection, at 2,200 objects and counting, ranks among the largest collections of modern art in America. It is by far the largest assemblage of Northern California art in the world.
The gravel path cresting at the Gatehouse Gallery deposits the visitor at the edge of the preserve's ethereal lake. A misty expanse home to a hundred-plus species of bird, the lake itself reflects an ethos: A painted cow drinks from a platform, hovering above the water like a whimsical specter; a huddle of date palms crowd a small island. Guarding the gallery entrance a massive Viola Frey sculpture-an Amazon with zaftig curves-clenches a jug between her enormous knees. Around the first corner growls a hulking, creatural art car by David Best. The old Pontiac is swathed in a raucous rococo of trailer-park detritus-armies of tiny action figures clashing against glitter-eyed graveyards of lost buttons and Medusa tangles of Barbie parts; it's grotesque, prelapsarian eye candy of the first degree. Further on bristles a grand pile glinting with tiny spikes and blades: Nail clippers and cuticle scissors and the occasional box cutter comprise a suspended landslide of personal hygiene confiscated by airport security, ever since the world changed irrevocably one sunny September day. The Gatehouse Gallery hosts such works among its rotating exhibits, which often feature emerging artists, new efforts by artists already in the collection, or retrospectives meant to contextualize the di Rosa holdings.
From the Gatehouse Gallery, an open-air jitney ferries visitors to the Main Gallery by a long winding drive, the low-grade crunch of gravel a steady counterpoint to the screech of distant peacocks. This meandering interlude may well equate to a "down the rabbit hole" passage, as the Main Gallery occupies an island unto itself. The iconoclastic space houses art so original, so confrontational, so provocative, it's difficult to absorb completely. Sandow Birk's cheeky parody of Golden State politics hogs the better part of one wall, while Chester's Arnolds pithy admonition against full-bore consumerism snowballs into another. A stuffed deer, endowed with all manner of ornamentation, charges from a near corner as a lone speaker throbs and pulses from a nook. To pass a rusty metallic grid is to trigger a cool, disembodied voice that issues the ultimate mixed message: "I'll always love you; I wish you were dead." A Terry Allen bronze invites the viewer to contemplate human foibles, while Rigo's pushpin "Missile" connects the dots between jingoism and genocide. It is all an assault of color and feeling and idea, a wildly brash intellectual zeitgeist that challenges conventions and begs us to dig for deep meaning. It is art that insists "think again." A plaster triptych stands sentry in a far corner, a small portal sawed neatly in the center of its chest. The cast nude is what remains of a man fallen victim to AIDS, a real human being whose ashes are stowed carefully inside. Is this pretty to look at, or easy to see? Hardly. But with dead-eyed aim it disturbs the place of repose within, that makes peace with the impossible. It mars the smooth surface of our easy complacence and leaves us refashioned, provoked and unsettled.
Outside the surprises continue, swelling against and out of the natural landscape. A lynched Volkswagen dangles from a tall tree, while a skinny tower of filing cabinets stuffed with the remains of a deconstructed MG casts a gaunt shadow in the meadow beyond. A crowd of ghostly ceramic hands clamor from the soil, a macabre suggestion to chill the spine. There's a fat, shiny peace sign; a dragon captured mid-flight; a massive steel yucca plant with blades 20 feet high; a house made entirely of discarded bottles. It is the art of everyday objects, spun wildly.
The entrance to the stone house is a dark chapel by Paul Kos, where the famous windows of the Chartres Cathedral of Notre Dame glow from a dozen stacked television monitors, a digitized compression documenting a single day's passage of light as it illuminates-then dims-the stained glass. In the cellar below the living quarters, Cinderella's coach (on mescaline) awaits, full-sized, gilt and gorgeous. Two ancient phones share a table, connected by cloth-covered wire to a quart of what appears to be blood. Each turn reveals something surprising, unsettling or bizarre. Upstairs, where Rene and Veronica lived, no surface is exempt from the art that defines them. Even the shower plays host to whimsy; dozens of black bowling balls crowd inside like lead balloons, man's first bad idea.
With an eye toward perpetuity, the di Rosas took stock of their burgeoning collection and found time was nigh for construction of long-range plans. They formed a foundation, intending to eventually gift their lands and holdings to the Napa Land Trust. City elders, fearing congestion, hesitated to greenlight this conceptual "art park," but the di Rosas sought and found support from others. David Ross, then-director of New York's Whitney Museum, vouched for their growing collection and called it "a great treasure for all of us who love and are concerned about the future of American art." The negotiations weren't seamless, but a deal with the city was eventually struck.
Midway through their planning, on a warm spring afternoon picking wildflowers on a cliff above the Mediterranean, Veronica di Rosa stumbled, lost her footing and fell into the sea. Crawling on all fours to the edge, trembling with fear and dread, Rene di Rosa saw his wife's body below, floating face down in the water. Heartbroken, he returned home a changed man. The celebratory gatherings that lit up the stone house so often were unthinkable, bereft of Veronica, and in the decade following her death the widowed di Rosa hosted only three parties. But his passion for their preservation project now drove him more fiercely than ever. It would be a tribute, a grand gesture of affection for the woman who had been, in no small way, the Eve to his Adam, the May to his December, the Beauty to his Beast. His love.
In 1997 Rene moved into a small apartment and gifted his land and art to the Napa Valley Land Trust. The following year, the di Rosa Preserve: Art and Nature opened to the public. Now, while the collection continues to grow and thrive, the collector himself has begun to fail. Ninety years old in May, Rene di Rosa maintains clear memories of the art he lived with and loved, if not of its makers. It is his miracle of painting life with every color in God's box, his indelible mark of curiosity and wit that will long outlast the temporal man.
With the blessing of its founder, the di Rosa is now being recast for a new era, an evolution in which the art will emerge less dependent on its collector. Retitled di Rosa: art alive! eye-catching signage is planned for the entrance, and an ambitious new marketing strategy is under way. Thousands of local schoolchildren experience the di Rosa each year, and the teen docent program shepherds a handful of lucky adolescents through an art history crash course each season. The Gatehouse Gallery is now free of charge, although to skip the rest is to blaspheme, or at least miss the point altogether. To underscore the evolving dialogue of art, new programs provide a platform for panel discussions and artist lectures. Despite all this shifting and despite what changes may arise in the di Rosa's future, what remains, now and always, is the spirit of a man with straightforward tastes and merciless humor-a man who wrenched art from its pedestal and carried it all the way home; a man who knew what he liked when he saw it.
The di Rosa is located at:
200 Sonoma Highway, Napa.
Call 707.226.5991 or visit
From the spring 2009 issue of SONOMA