Walter Pomeroy is Everyman art collector from San Diego

Walter Pomeroy is Everyman art collector from San Diego

A new exhibit at the Central Library in downtown San Diego showcases San Diegan Walter Pomeroy’s mid-century art collection, who has amassed the collection over the years with little money.

Walter Pomeroy points to some of the abstract paintings hanging in the living room of his apartment in Pacific Beach.

“That wall is everything Guy Williams,” said Pomeroy, 82. Williams was an abstract painter living in San Diego in the 1950s and 1960s. He and Pomeroy were friends.

Pomeroy points to another wall covered in artwork by La Jolla-based artist Richard Allen Morris. Pomeroy has 44 pieces by Morris, who is considered one of San Diego’s foremost artists.

It’s not just two walls. Every inch of Pomeroy’s wall space is covered in art.

“You see, I don’t buy them because they’re famous. I buy them because I love art,” Pomeroy said.

He’s had the same rule for over 60 years: never spend more than $ 500 on a part.

“I didn’t spend a lot of money,” Pomeroy said. “I never thought I was collecting art. I bought a painting. And then I bought another painting. And in no time, my walls were covered.”

A portrait of Walter Pomeroy, who has an extensive collection of paintings and drawings by San Diego artists from the 1950s and 1960s, on March 9, 2016.

Pomeroy’s collecting habits are broad. He also collects vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, books, perfume bottles and swatch watches. But it was the artwork and the need for wall space that forced him to expand into two adjacent apartments (he owns the small complex where he lives).

Its art collection ranges from the simplest to the most intellectual, from a Parisian thrift store to photography to the works of star artists like David Hockney and Sam Francis.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Pomeroy began dating emerging San Diego artists such as Williams and Morris. Some of these artists had studios in the Spanish village of Balboa Park, so Pomeroy would hang out there on weekends.

“If I saw something I liked and had money in my pocket, I would buy it,” Pomeroy said.

He also purchased the work of National City-born artist John Baldessari, now one of the world’s leading art figures.

“Walter put together most of what painters and draftsmen were doing in San Diego in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Dave Hampton, mid-century art expert in San Diego and curator of the exhibit. Portrait of Pomeroy “. which opens Saturday in the Art Gallery of the Central Library in downtown San Diego. It highlights this local mid-century period represented in the Pomeroy collection.

Pomeroy bought art for a modest salary. He worked as a computer programmer at General Dynamics for 33 years. He has always loved art, music and books, but he did not come from an art loving family.

“My stepfather was a sailor and my biological father was a sailor,” Pomeroy said. “I grew up downtown on Union Street near Ash. It was kind of a tough neighborhood.”

Her mother worked as a cocktail waitress.

Gertrude Stein, right, and Alice B. Toklas in 1922 in their art-filled Paris apartment.
Gertrude Stein, right, and Alice B. Toklas in 1922 in their art-filled Paris apartment.

As he grew older, his musical tastes broadened. Her room was near the kitchen where her mother often spent time. Pomeroy listened to records, especially operas. He particularly liked “Four Saints in Three Acts” by composer Virgil Thompson, on a libretto by poet Gertrude Stein.

“There is a wonderful refrain, ‘Pigeons on the grass alas, a magpie in the sky,'” said Pomeroy. “I played this a lot and she heard it.”

For her birthday, she baked him a round cake and wrote “pigeons on the grass” on the cake.

“She had no idea who Gertrude Stein was or anything,” Pomeroy said. “It was an emotional moment, and we didn’t have a lot of it in my family.”

Gertrude Stein has remained an important influence on Pomeroy. He hangs his paintings in a living room style, just like she did in her Parisian apartment.

“But in his case, there were Picassos and famous people,” Pomeroy said.

Pomeroy actually owns an etching by Picasso. It hangs a little askew on a wall near the floor.

“The Picasso is a good example of how I’m not a good curator,” Pomeroy said. “When I got it I just went out and bought a drugstore frame and the stand and mat are not acid free. Now you can see how dark it is.”

Walter Pomeroy points out the holes in his art collection since pieces were moved to the downtown library for a new exhibition on March 9, 2016.
Walter Pomeroy points out the holes in his art collection since pieces were moved to the downtown library for a new exhibition on March 9, 2016.

Curator Hampton appreciates the lack of formality in the way Pomeroy presents his collection. He was bowled over when he first entered the apartment and saw all the art.

“It was so accessible and unpretentious,” said Hampton. “I don’t think there was a pair of white gloves in this place to move a painting, period. There was an immediacy and sincerity that was so refreshing.”

Pomeroy almost always bought directly from artists and built relationships with them.

“More than one person has told me… they use the same word Walter was a hero,” Hampton said. “That he kept them alive at times when it was difficult. Walter went straight to the artist and supported them decade after decade after decade.”

Nowadays, Pomeroy collects less and gives more. He donated works to the Oceanside Museum of Art and to the City of San Diego. But he still enjoys hunting.

“I always like to go to thrift stores and find something wonderful,” Pomeroy said. “It doesn’t have to be a great artist. Just something wonderful.”

The “Portrait of Pomeroy” exhibit opens Saturday in the gallery space of the Central Library in downtown San Diego. A documentary on Pomeroy will be presented at the exhibition. It was produced by Hampton and filmed and edited by Bill Perrine, whose most recent documentary focuses on San Diego’s underground music scene in the 1990s.

Walter Pomeroy is Everyman art collector from San Diego

Norma D. Ross