Detail from "Mystery of Sleep," by Salvador Dali. "Time is fluid, It's not fixed, rigid, like we like to think, and while we sleep, we lose our perception of time," says Dmitry Piterman, who will be exhibiting this print along with more than 570 Dali works at the Museum of Monterey. (Photo: Graham Holoch/KQED)
The largest collection of works by Salvador Dalí on the West Coast opened to the public on Thursday. More than 570 etchings, lithographs, sculptures and tapestries essentially took over the Museum of Monterey, and the building received a new name: Dali17, a reference to the original 17-mile drive that once began at Hotel Del Monte, where Dalí stayed for a time.
The Spanish Surrealist spent much of the 1940s avoiding World War II and its aftermath in Monterey and Pebble Beach, but until now, his Central Coast sojourn was an unheralded footnote in a region packed with other tourist draws.
Why is this happening? Ukranian-born real estate developer Dmitry Piterman fell in love with Dalí as a college student, and amassed a collection he wants to share with the rest of the world.
"He was a radical, in the sense that he always went against the norm, against the establishment, against thinking in the box," says Piterman, who also admires the way Dalí continued to educate himself over the course of his lifetime about psychology.
"Dreams played a big part in his life, and a huge part in his work. He believed that if you could tap in to your subconscious mind, the art you create is much more pure, much more vivid, much more uncensored."
A Cal grad, Piterman talked with UC Berkeley officials about housing his collection there, but backed away when it became clear much of that collection would not be openly exhibited. "They can't create one museum dedicated to one artist. They have different priorities," Piterman says. "So there would have been some kind of rotation, and a lot of art in storage. They showed me the storage, and the storage was much larger than the museum."
In contrast, his collection takes up the majority of the Museum of Monterey, aside from a token historical exhibit in the former museum store.
Surrealism may no longer be in vogue, but Dalí’s techni-color art work has more chance of a drawing a crowd than what used to fill the museum run by the Monterey History and Art Association at the foot of Fisherman’s Wharf. President Larry Chavez says the museum operated at a loss in recent years, as public interest in its maritime collection faded. In an attempt to engage the local community, the Association put out a call for new ideas to attract visitors.
"We’ve been in existence since the 1930s," Chavez says. "Our membership is getting a little older, and this is going to be a kick starter to get new people involved." The Association, he adds, can devote more attention now to some of its other priorities, like raising money to restore and maintain the region's famous adobes.
Piterman is not a casual art investor. He lived in Spain for the better part of a decade where he exhibited his collection in Spain and Belgium.
He can speak with great detail about Dalí's "paranoiac-critical method," to use the artist's own words. "Some of the brushes he used had only one hair," Piterman says. "So imagine the meticulousness with which he painted and created his art. That’s when jokester Dalí kind of disappeared. But burning giraffes and elephants on their frail little legs, all that is part of his work and part of kind of the provoking Dalí."
Dalí was a fixture on the local art scene in the 1940s, but here as elsewhere, his outrageous eccentricities made more of a splash than his art did. Nearly everyone remembers his curlicue mustache, as much as they do “The Persistence of Memory,” his painting with the melting clocks.
Piterman has free reign to design the presentation along with curator Hillary Roberts. Her task is a formidable one: to provide context for a wide range of visitors who made not be that familiar with the huge range of work Dalí put out over the course of his lifetime. He wasn't just obsessed with Sigmund Freud and dreams, but also Spanish history and Catholicism. "Ours is a very large collection," she says "You could imagine wanting to spend days here."
"Dalí was classically trained, and learned in the style of Rafael and Valasquez," says Lila Staples Thorsen, an associate professor of art history at Cal State Monterey Bay. What you see looking at his body of work is traditional training bent to the service of Dalí's "crazy Freudian, 20th century sense of the ridiculous."
Dalí17 doesn't compete with the museum the artist founded in Figueres, (in the artist’s hometown in Spain), but it stands with that one, and the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a temple to the artist.
Dalí17 will stay at the Museum of Monterey permanently. Piterman says he hopes to add to the collection, and host visiting Dalí exhibitions, as well as historic photos of Dalí’s time on the Peninsula. Perhaps most provocatively, he promises to stage Surrealist dinners that shock and delight the way the artist himself did back in the day.