Excerpted from Texas Vision: The Barrett Collection, published by SMU Press/The Meadows Museum
Texas Vision was written in 1992 as the catalog essay for an unprecedented historical survey of Texas art: an exhibition of the Barrett Collection intended to tour Europe and, we hoped, triumphantly return home to similarly open the eyes of Texas museum-goers – a sort of back door approach to getting Texas art in front of Texas audiences. But the notion that Texas has a rich cultural history is no easier to sell abroad than it is at home, and what would have been a landmark exhibition never materialized. Richard and Nona Barrett, however, were sufficiently ahead of their time that neither Texas collectors nor Texas museums, while considerably more interested in Texas art they were twelve years ago (due in great part to the Barretts’ own tireless proselytizing), have yet to catch up to them. Thanks to the enlightened efforts of Ted Pillsbury and the Meadows Museum, the Barrett Collection at last comes to a Texas audience (through the front door, at that), and its unique vision of Texas’ culture and history remains as revelatory today as it was when this essay was written.
TEXAS VISION: THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS OF HISTORY
I first saw the Barrett collection in the fall of 1989. I had been invited to Nona and Richard Barrett’s Dallas home on a social occasion, and although I had heard that the Barretts were energetically collecting the work of Texas artists, I was more skeptical than expectant. Not that I had summarily dismissed the notion of the Barretts as serious collectors. I had simply given up on the notion that any Texans would ever become serious collectors of Texas art.
This was not, from my perspective, an unreasonable prejudice. Since 1977, I had regularly written about art for Texas Monthly magazine, and during that tenure I had witnessed an evolution so dramatic that it might be more properly called a revolution. In 1977 Houston had emerged as the hotbed of Texas art, but no temperate observer would have dared to suggest that the city was on the verge of becoming an established "regional" center like Los Angeles or Chicago. The Houston Contemporary Arts Museum under James Harithas was zealously exhibiting the work of Texas artists, but too often the talent wasn’t equal to the exposure (a situation that would be reversed in the 1980’s). The inclusion of a Texas artist in a national exhibition such as the Whitney Biennial was infrequent enough to represent the pinnacle of ambition for a Texas artist determined to stay at home. Those with higher aspirations (or more persistent delusions) moved to New York, following a time-honored tradition epitomized by Robert Rauschenberg, who bid his native state farewell in 1945.
A little more than a decade later, in 1988, I saw a very fine exhibition called the "First Texas Triennial," organized by Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum as a showcase for relatively unexposed Texas artists. (A number of the artists present here in Texas Vision – Tracy Harris, Bill Komodore, Celia Munoz, Brian Portman, Randy Twaddle, Michael Whitehead – were represented in the Triennial, so I will place their work into evidence as to the overall quality of the exhibit.) As I looked over the biographies of the artists included in the Triennial, I was struck by a certain pattern. Only four of the twenty-four artists were Texas natives, and the majority (14) had been educated outside of Texas. A typical example is Brian Portman, who was born in Rhode Island in 1960, earned his BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, and came to Texas in 1983 as a Core Fellow, a corporate-sponsored residency at the Glassel School of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Portman’s exhibition history also revealed a pattern that had become typical: first the Core Fellows exhibition; then group shows at DiverseWorks, a Houston alternative space; and on to commercial galleries in Dallas (Barry Whistler Gallery) and Houston (Hiram Butler Gallery).
The Triennial biographies illustrated a striking reversal of Texas’ historic propensity to export its raw talent. Not only were the University of Houston MFA’s staying home, but talented young artists from all over the world were coming to Houston to build their careers, attracted by a sophisticated and successful support system. Over the past two decades the University of Houston has built one of the nation’s most prestigious undergraduate and graduate art programs; in 1979 the University also began sponsoring Texas’ first alternative space, The Lawndale Art & Performance Center, which is still in operation. DiverseWorks, founded in 1982, has earned a nationwide reputation for its professionalism and aggressive innovation, and has debuted the work of a number of Texas’ most promising young artists. During the 1980’s, a small group of galleries dedicated to Texas art became commercially viable despite the celebrated Texas oil bust, a much more severe and prolonged downturn than the recession that afflicted the rest of the United States in the early 1990’s; Texas’ best young artists can now reasonably expect to make a living from sales out of a Dallas or Houston gallery. Although Texas museums were slow to recognize the ascendence of Texas art, today the array of public venues for contemporary art in Houston stands comparison with that in any American city: In addition to the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Blaffer Gallery of the University of Houston, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts also shows Texas art with some regularity and insight (most notably the landmark 1984 exhibition "Fresh Paint: the Houston School", which marked the coming-of-age of Houston art), as does the privately-funded Menil Museum, capital of the de Menil family’s far-flung collecting empire.
Somehow the Texas art boom escaped the notice of Texas art collectors. During the oil boom of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Texans bought art with a furious disregard for price or quality. While one might assume that Texas petro-dollars were squandered on Remington bronzes and Taos desertscapes, in fact they were lavished on contemporary art, most particularly color- field painting of the high-Greenbergian persuasion. New York galleries quickly discovered that Texans were unusually receptive to the work of fading luminaries in whom New York collectors were no longer interested. The New York school, limping into history, had its last stand in Houston and Dallas.
None of this spending trickled down to local talent. The trailblazing Texas gallery of the 1980’s, Graham Gallery, had its genesis in a converted garage, and became successful enough to move into more conventional quarters – and eventually to support a number of its artists – only because owner William Graham realized that the key to survival was finding out-of-state buyers for Texas art. When the oil boom went bust in the mid-1980’s, the dim prospect of interesting Texas collectors in Texas art disappeared entirely. Texas galleries, artists, and arts organizations persisted and in many cases thrived throughout the bust simply because they had already learned to do without the support of the Texas economy.
It was with this history in mind that I entered Nona and Richard Barrett’s home on that October night in 1989. The house itself in no way advertised the Barretts passion for contemporary art; it is comfortable but not palatial, in an updated Georgian style, with traditional furnishings. The art one notices on entering is small-scale, hung in odd places in a relatively modest foyer that immediately accesses a large stairwell. Several of the pieces in the foyer were engaging, but they communicated little of the ambition and bravado of contemporary Texas art.
So, with unrelieved skepticism, I began to climb the stairs. The stairs turned and I could see into an expansive landing that encompassed the stairwell, offering as much wall space as a Soho gallery. The pictures were crowded as they had been in the foyer, but these were immense canvasses, full-scale, full-tilt paintings by Derek Boshier, Bill Komodore, Richard Thompson, Michael Whitehead, Melissa Miller. The energy was palpable: in bold, painterly gestures and daring compositional fiats, in a sense of fierce intellectual independence. Instead of the aimless, image-appropriating prattle of so much postmodern art, here was the uncompromisingly direct symbolic language of Texas postmodernism.
I was astonished. The Barretts weren’t politely dabbling in Texas art, they were collecting it with the same irrepressible passion that had produced it. After years of looking at the predictable, brand-name late modern and postmodern art displayed in the homes of affluent Texans as a badge of sophistication, I found the vision of a similarly well-endowed collection dedicated to Texas art simply breathtaking.
The second time I saw the Barrett collection, in the summer of 1991, was another revelation. Even a glance revealed that the Barretts had been very busy in the intervening two years. They had added literally hundreds of works, but even more arresting than the quantity and quality of the new additions was the sense of direction now apparent in the collection as a whole. I was particularly drawn to the works dating from the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, and found myself making connections between these pieces and the Texas art of the 1980’s. The Barretts, I suddenly realized, were more than just adventuresome connoisseurs; they were collecting Texas art with the goal of providing it a history. And in this they had charged headlong into terra incognita.
The historiography of Texas art can be measured with a few handfuls: a handful of diligent monographs, a scant handful of exhibitions and catalogues devoted to various episodes in the history of Texas art. There is no comprehensive work on Texas art; there has never been an exhibition offering more than a cursory overview of Texas art from the 19th century to the present. The Dallas Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and the San Antonio Museum Association all own extensive collections of Texas art, acquired fitfully over many decades. But with the exception of recent low-profile, temporary exhibits by all three museums (only the San Antonio exhibition featured a catalogue [published after exhib – not out yet]), these collections have remained hidden from the public and virtually untouched by interpretive scholarship.
Constructing a history of Texas art from these meagre resources is difficult enough, but the task is made considerably more onerous by the peculiar institution that is Texas history. In this case the problem isn’t a lack of attention to the subject, but a surfeit. Texas’s unique saga, its stirring fight for independence from Mexico and its short-lived republic, its cattle kingdoms and oil booms, has been mined by historians even more industriously than it has by the popular media. But most of this material, even the most venerated scholarship, is highly suspect, too often dedicated to preserving a mythic realm rather than portraying the Texas of fact and record.
At this point it is necessary to ask the question: Is there really any need to establish a relationship between Texas art and Texas history? One currently fashionable critical posture is to reject the idea of a Texas art that has any defining regional characteristics, and to consider it solely in an art-historical context; this opinion meshes rather neatly with that of a huge constituency of know-nothings – among them many Texas historians – who find in Texas art only an alien cosmopolitanism that can never reveal the essential Texas. Something of a middle ground is taken by critics who hold that Texas art has a reckless factural exuberance and uncomplicated emotional candor that betrays a distinctly Texan character, even if the imagery and themes provide little evidence of Texas origins. Of course, this sort of speculation is just another incarnation of the question that bedeviled American artists earlier in this century: is there such a thing as American art, and if so, what is American about it? Today, when "Texas" is substituted for "American," the range of answers seems to be from "no" to "yes, but…"
However, I intend to argue – quite unfashionably – that the answer to the question "is there such a thing as Texas art?" is an emphatic "yes." What is Texan about it is not as simple as an affinity for bold strokes, whether emotional or literal. It is a pervading sense of place, a fundamental Texan-ness most directly evidenced in a strong tradition of narrative and landscape art, but which also emerges through a more subtle appropriation of the same language in which so much of Texas’ history has been written: the language of myth. Perhaps the mythic images we see in Texas Vision do not resemble the historians’ vision of Texas, but that is not to say that these images are not exceptionally faithful to their Texas sources. I believe that the Barrett collection represents an authentic vision of Texas: sharp, precise, often complex, but always illuminating, a vision much more profound and consequential than the caricature created by Texas historians. In Texas art we find a window into the soul of Texas and, ultimately, an insight into a singularly American state of mind.
Which brings us to the real problem in reconciling Texas art and Texas history. To fully encompass the Texas vision revealed in this exhibition would require re-writing the history of Texas, and then proceeding with a comprehensive history of Texas art. Scholars have just begun the former endeavor, while the latter remains well beyond the horizon – and is certainly beyond the reach of this essay. We can, however, at least try to discern some features of that distant landscape. To that end, I offer a series of fragmentary views – snapshots, if you will – of Texas history and Texas art, each separated by a half century: 1836, 1886, 1936, and 1986.
1836: AFTER THE FALL
Before dawn on March 6, 1836, 1500 assault troops commanded by the Mexican dictator Antonio Lopes de Santa Anna stormed the walls of the San Antonio de Valero mission, better known as the Alamo, slaughtering the 183 defenders almost to the last man; significantly, a slave in the possession of William Barret Travis, commander of the Texas garrison, was spared. Less than three weeks later, the citizens of Nacogdoches, then one of Texas’ largest towns, issued a proclamation reading in part: "They died martyrs to liberty; and on the altar of their sacrifice will be made many a vow that shall break the shackles of tyranny. Thermopylae is no longer without parallel, and when time shall consecrate the dead of the Alamo, Travis and his companions will named in rivalry with Leonidas and his Spartan band."
That the 182 Texas martyrs were avenged at the Battle of San Jacinto within weeks of the fall of the Alamo has the predictability of a motion-picture script – and, of course, has inspired more than a few. More surprising is to realize that Texans living in 1836 so quickly perceived that they were attending the birth of a myth, that they understood that their turbulent present had the dimensions of a sacred history. Rarely has heat-of-the-moment hyperbole proved so durable; with the Alamo as its apotheosis, this sacred history, accreted in subsequent generations with heroic sagas of Texas Rangers, Cowboys, Cattle Barons, Gunslingers, Wildcatters, and Wheeler- Dealers, has dominated most Texans’ – and most outsiders’- perceptions of the state. Originally a variation on the American frontier myth, over the years the Texas myth has become a superset of that fundamental American belief in unlimited horizons and unfettered individualism. The defenders of the Alamo have become the quintessential American heroes, their last stand an indelible American icon [il. The Fall of the Alamo by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (San Antonio Museum Association)], and their heirs have seemingly evolved into a race of "Super- Americans" (the title of a 1961 book on Texas by New Yorker writer John Bainbridge) whose unbroken frontier spirit is resented, envied, and emulated by Americans from Hawaii to Maine.
The Texas myth is more than just a colorful cultural patrimony. It is a dynamic force in Texas society today, a natural resource and export commodity as important to the state’s past and future as oil. At the least it provides a cultural point of reference for one of the most geographically and ethnically diverse political entities in the world, a nation- state larger than France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland combined, in which 40 percent of the population is a racial or ethnic minority. "Texas isn’t a state, it’s a state of mind," the cliche goes, but Texas is actually a remarkably variegated meeting of the minds, a place of historic collisions: between native Americans and immigrant Americans; between the Old South and the New West; between the Anglo-Protestant culture of north America and the Hispanic-Roman Catholic culture of Latin America; between the timeless, third-world poverty of border "colonias" and the twenty-first century promise of glittering "edge cities" rising from the "silicon prairie." Texas is a place so polymorphic, so culturally fractured, that only its abiding myth seems to hold it together.
The power of that myth is attested by its global reach and consequences. As Lyndon Johnson escalated American involvement in Viet Nam, he invoked the tradition of the Alamo so frequently that the New York Times editorially chastised: "If Americans must remember the Alamo, let’s remember that gallant men died needlessly in that old mission… To persevere in folly is no virtue." But a generation later most Americans still want to believe. The 1992 Presidential campaign – and perhaps the landscape of American politics – was irrevocably altered by the dust-up between a nominal Texan and a real one: Tough-talking incumbent George Bush, a New Englander who invented his own personal myth about his days in the Texas oil business, steadfastly maintained his residence-of-record in a Houston hotel even when the hotel went bankrupt; plain-speaking Texas billionaire Ross Perot stepped forward as the self- proclaimed "sheriff" determined to rid the nation of outlaw politicians. Bill Clinton won the election, but collectively, the two Texans won the popular vote.
The high priests of the sacred history of Texas have traditionally been the state’s historians, who have jealously guarded their myth against revisionists, and where necessary, the facts. Beginning with George P. Garrison at the turn of the century, the most respected Texas historians – Charles W. Ramsdell, Eugene C. Barker, and Walter Prescott Webb – have successively assumed the role of defender of the faith, writing histories in which Anglo-Protestant Texans, armed with unflagging courage and incorruptible virtue, prove their invincibility in the social Darwinist arena of frontier conquest. The preservation of this myth is still viewed as a moral imperative among most Texas historians and writers, as evidenced in this excerpt from a 1986 essay titled "Texas Mythology: Now and Forever," by T. R. Fehrenbach, author of Lone Star, the all-time best-selling history of Texas (and a source frequently cited by writers who imagine themselves in the myth-puncturing business, such as Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro.):
The most interesting fact about Texas society today is that it works. It may not be the most equitable or intelligent, the most developed or the most artistic or the kindest, but, like the society of Singapore, for the present it works. Its denizens believe in it; they have confidence in both the past and present. A sense of common past makes it easier to believe in a common future…
The last thing I would want us to do with the Texas history-mythology is to de-mythologize it.
There is, however, a creeping heresy among the lesser clergy; within the past twenty years, a small contingent of maverick scholars has indeed begun to de-mythologize Texas history. Very little of their work has found a popular forum, but occasionally a leaf or two of the growing revisionist corpus drifts into the public eye and provokes a furor. In the 1970’s, the disclosure of reliable eyewitness evidence, originally published in Mexico in 1836, that Davey Crockett surrendered and was executed following the battle of the Alamo was greeted with howling denunciations by the local and national press – which cited the movie versions of Crockett’s death as the incontestable primary source. The mass-media orthodoxy has since been sustained by novelist James Michener in his sprawling epic Texas (1987), who considered the revisionist evidence and dismissed it with a firm "Unlikely, that."
Given the vehement reaction to a rather mild rescripting of Crockett’s exit (the eyewitness, a Mexican staff officer, reported that Crockett met his torture and execution heroically), it isn’t surprising that far more substantial redactions of the Texas myth have failed to engage a wider audience. The Texas myth is essentially a creation myth, and disabusing true-believers of their interpretation of Genesis is always a risky business.
Like the universe of Genesis, Texas at the moment of its creation was a dark void, a vast, unsettled land, neglected for two-and-a-half centuries by a Spanish empire for which Texas merely served as a buffer against French New World ambitions. Across this darkness – so the myth tells us – had moved the light of Anglo-American civilization, transforming the Hispanic, Roman Catholic wasteland into a English-speaking, Protestant garden. In 1820, the year that Spanish authorities opened Texas to colonization, only 3,000 mostly Hispanic settlers inhabited a strip of woodlands and black-soil prairie along the eastern third of the state. By 1836, 30,000 Americans, most of whom were immigrants from the southern United States, had settled in the same rough crescent of Texas land.
Stephen F. Austin, hallowed as the Father of Texas, was the most important of the empresarios extended grants by the Mexican government (Mexico had won independence from Spain in 1821 and renewed many of the Spanish grants) to bring settlers into Texas. Austin, whose colony contributed a third of Texas’ population in 1836, saw the process of settlement as one of redemption, the creation of "the garden of North America" out of a wilderness through the virtuous application and self-sacrifice of his colonists. "My object, the sole and only desire of my ambition since I first saw Texas, was to redeem it from the wilderness, to settle it with intelligent, honorable, and enterprising people," Austin wrote in 1830. Conquered by "the axe, the plough, and the hoe," Austin’s Texas would become "a second Eden."
According to the myth, the snake in Austin’s garden was the Mexican central government under Santa Anna, who had wrested power from the liberal constitutional government in 1834; until then, Texans had been content to press for full statehood under the Mexican federal constitution of 1824 (prior to the revolution, Texas was part of the state of Texas y Coahuila, with its capital in northern Mexico.) Santa Anna adopted a policy of intimidation against the Texans, sending troops to enforce the collection of customs duties. The crackdown quickly radicalized the statehood movement into an independence movement, and full- scale war became inevitable. Of course, virtue and love of freedom prevailed, and the snake was driven from the garden.
In truth, the snake in the garden of Texas wasn’t Mexican despotism, but rather the American institution of slavery. The Mexican revolutionaries who fought to free their country from Spain were strongly disposed to abolition, although there were relatively few slaves in New Spain; only with the mushrooming development of Texas by slave-owning immigrants from the southern United States did the issue become pressing for Mexican lawmakers. In 1827, the state constitution of Coahuila y Texas restricted slavery by prohibiting further importation of slaves and emancipating at birth any child born to a slave; Texas settlers quickly learned to circumvent the first restriction by nominally freeing their slaves before entering Texas, then forcing them to sign life-time employment contracts at a subsistence wage.
Austin reflected the attitude of many Texans on the issue. He acknowledged that the institution of slavery was an "evil." But he personally owned slaves, and he considered slave labor essential to the rapid settlement of Texas. Austin was particularly concerned that abolition would discourage the better class of settler he sought. In 1825 he wrote the governor of Coahuila y Texas that without slavery, Texas "cannot expect colonists with large and competent means, nor can we have hands for the cultivation of Cotton or Sugar, and consequently these fertile lands, instead of being occupied by wealthy planters, will remain for many years in the hands of mere shepherds, or poor people…"
The Mexican government initially concurred with Austin’s it’s-good-for-business argument, exempting Texas from an 1829 general emancipation decree in order to maintain the pace of economic growth. But a year later, Mexican policy-makers, suddenly alarmed at the increasingly assertive American presence in their buffer zone, prohibited further immigration into Texas. As an additional deterrent to Anglo settlers, the new law banned the importation of slaves, and limited contracts of servitude to ten years.
With the outbreak of war, legal maneuvering gave way to impassioned rhetoric from both sides. As Santa Anna marched on the Alamo, he wrote back to Mexico City: "Shall we permit those wretches [slaves] to moan in chains any longer in a country whose kind laws protect the liberty of man without distinction of caste or color?" Texas revolutionary leader William H. Wharton, who had chaired an 1833 convention of Texas settlers, in turn protested, "With a sickly philanthropy worthy of the abolitionists of these United States, they [the Mexicans] have… intermeddled with our slave population, and have even impotently threatened… to emancipate them…"
So strongly was the Texas cause identified with the advancement of slavery that when the Texas victory at San Jacinto was announced in Washington in May 1836, Massachusetts congressman John Quincy Adams railed before the House that the Texas victory represented "the reestablishment of slavery in territory where it had already been abolished by Mexican law." For the next ten years anti-slavery forces in the United States Congress would block the single policy objective of the struggling, destitute Republic of Texas: to be annexed by the United States. The opposition to annexation was bolstered by the publication in 1837 of a book by abolitionist Benjamin Lundy, who had traveled in Texas for several years just prior to the revolution; Lundy’s tome was titled The War in Texas: A Review of Facts… Showing that This Contest is a Crusade… to Reestablish, Extend, and Perpetuate the System of Slavery and the Slave Trade.
Whether the defense of slavery was the primary motive or a secondary cause of the "Texian" fight for freedom is subject to debate even among revisionists. But the facts leave little to dispute about the effects of the Texas victory. "All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas… shall remain in a like state of servitude…" declared the constitution of the Republic of Texas in 1836. "No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the republic…"
With this unambiguous endorsement, an army of slaveholders advanced on Texas in the decades following the revolution. In 1836, the slave population of Texas was roughly 3000 – about one tenth of the total. By the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the white population of Texas had grown fourteen-fold to 420,000, while the slave population had increased almost fifty times, to 170,000. Cotton, the most profitable cash crop, was king in Texas’ antebellum boom, and slaveholders held almost three-quarters of all wealth in pre-Civil War Texas. As Randolph B. Campbell concludes in his landmark 1989 study An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, "Slaveholders dominated the the state’s economy, controlled its politics, and occupied the top rung on the social ladder… In short, the Peculiar Institution influenced and shaped virtually every aspect of life in the Lone Star state."
That Texas’ freedom-fighter founding fathers were constructing a slaveholding empire at a time when most of the world was dismantling the institution of human bondage is evidently a matter of some embarrassment to Texas historians, who have chosen to emphasize Texas’ western character rather than its profoundly southern sources; one doesn’t find the Cotton Planter on the roster of archetypal Texas heroes. Seminal Texas historians George P. Garrison (writing in 1906) and Eugene C. Barker (writing in 1924) dismissed the connection between slavery and the Texas revolution with bizarre logic: Taking literally the accusations of a "conspiracy of the slavocracy" hurled by nineteenth century abolitionist firebrands like Lundy, the Texas historians searched for documentary evidence of a cabal of Virginia or North Carolina planters sitting down and painstakingly plotting the Texas revolution; finding no so such overt conspiracy, they protested that slavery had not been at issue in Texas’ fight for freedom.
Later historians have either passed swiftly over slavery in Texas or offered questionable apologia: The great majority of Texas farmers did not own slaves (although this was also true throughout the south); Slaves were treated better in Texas than in other southern states; Texans despised the planters and only voted for secession because they feared a slave uprising in the event of emancipation. No Texas historian has yet been able to suggest that the first generations of Texans were calculating, pragmatic opportunists, who, like Austin, embraced slavery in spite of its moral odium simply because it promised them prosperity and a better life.
Antebellum Texas was the booming frontier of the old south, its planter class too new and raw even to borrow the elegant neo- classical architectural veneer of the Deep South. Painting, never significantly patronized in the Deep South, was less so in Texas. Artists tended to visit Texas briefly, and to be interested principally in Indians and wildlife: George Catlin, the artist/explorer noted for his studies of American Plains Indian culture, made sketches of Comanche and Pawnee tribes in north Central Texas in 1834; John J. Audubon painted birds in the vicinity of Galveston in 1837; Seth Eastman, a career army office and indefatigable documenter of Indian culture, did meticulous drawings of the central Texas Hill Country while posted there as commander of a company of mounted infantry in the late 1840’s.
A few artists stayed. French immigrant Theodore Gentiltz, who had studied cartographic drawing in Paris, came to Texas in 1843 to help land promoter Henri Castro lay out the Alsatian community of Castroville. Gentiltz lived in San Antonio from 1845 until his death in 1906 and painted many faithful if uninspired local vignettes, but his interest was the inland city’s picturesque if impoverished Mexican community, far removed from the coastal cotton culture. (That throughout the antebellum South very few realistic images of slavery were recorded was not simply because artists found the subject uninteresting or unappealing. English artist Eyre Crowe, traveling in Virginia in 1853 as secretary to the novelist William Makepeace Thackery, described an incident in Richmond in which he attempted to sketch a slave auction and was driven away by an angry crowd.)
While Texas’ slaveholding empire left no cultural monuments, it has left the state a particularly enduring legacy. Virtually every artist in this exhibit has had to deal with the consequences of Texas’ origins as a slaveholding society: a stunted industrial base, which left Texas dependent on the vagaries of crops and climate until the 1930’s – and plagued with an economic inferiority complex that continues to this day; retarded urban development in the nineteenth century, followed by convulsive growth in the twentieth, both of which have left a deeply embedded mistrust of cities and their culture; and, of course, legally-mandated racial segregation so recent that even relatively young Texas-born artists can remember whites-only theatres and "colored" restrooms.
However, the point in revising the Texas Genesis is not to suggest that slavery is the original sin from which everything Texan must inevitably descend. It is simply to illustrate that Texas history, more so than most history, is a looking glass in which its subjects see themselves as they wish to be, not as they are. The image that Texans (and true believers in the Texas myth throughout the world) perceive of their past – and thus, of their present and future – is not merely tinted with rosy nostalgia, but is deeply distorted with fundamental misconceptions. The challenge for generation after generation of Texas artists has been to peer through the looking glass of history and find the scintilla of truth.
1886: "GEH MIT INS TEXAS"
By 1886, the Republic of Texas had been annexed by the United States of America, seceded from the union and fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War, endured a bitter Reconstruction era, and had entered a period of populist reform. Settlement had pushed far beyond the original woodland crescent of 1836, into the arid high plains of west Texas. In the 1850 census Texas had ranked twenty-seventh among the states in acreage under cultivation; in 1900 Texas would rank rank first in the nation.
Buffalo had already vanished from the plains and prairies by 1886, as had the Indians who relied on them for sustenance. The great Trail drives of Texas longhorn cattle to the railheads in Kansas, which had begun at the conclusion of the Civil War, were coming to an end, and barbed wire had begun to close off the open range of lore and legend; in 1884 the Texas Legislature passed a law making fence-cutting a felony. The shrewd acquisition and consolidation of real estate parcels had become more essential to success in ranching than frontier grit, and the Cattle Barons of the 1880’s were as likely to be European or Yankee capitalists as former trail bosses. Texas’ largest ranch, the Matador, was owned by group of Scottish investors.
Despite the growth of the cattle industry, cotton remained more important to the Texas economy; the value of the cotton crop throughout the era of the Cattle Kingdoms was typically fifty to one hundred percent greater than the value of beef cattle. Sharecropping had replaced slavery as a means of providing cheap agricultural labor; under the typical arrangement, the land owner received three-quarters of the crop, but because he also provided credit, he often ended up with the sharecropper’s quarter. Timber harvesting was also a boom industry; although the timber barons of east Texas were empire builders as adept at wheeling- and-dealing as their ranching counterparts, the romance of felling trees has not been incorporated into the Texas myth. Rail lines transformed the map of Texas, planting cities like Dallas in featureless prairie, while previously thriving communities that had spurned the railroads withered and died. By the beginning of the twentieth century Texas had more miles of track than any other state.
Hermann Lungkwitz, a graduate of The Royal Academy of fine Arts in Dresden, Germany, was 73 years old in 1886. He probably painted The Klappenbach Ranch near Johnson City [cat. #], two or three years earlier. The Central Texas sheep ranch was the home of Lungkwitz’s daughter, Eva, and her husband, Richard Klappenbach; between 1882 and 1886 Lungkwitz lived and helped out at the ranch, tending the vegetable garden, building rock walls for sheep pens, or keeping amorous rams away from the ewes. Lungkwitz’s oeuvre was curiously divided between such documentary images of frontier settlement – mills, farmhouses, and views of San Antonio and Austin – and the stirring, transcendental frontier landscapes that are his signature works. Yet a closer look at Lungkwitz’s life illuminates the passion he invested in even this small oil sketch. For Lungkwitz, these simple frontier structures were symbols of a profound and persistent faith, as charged with meaning as Casper David Friedrich’s mountaintop cathedrals and crucifixes.
Lungkwitz had arrived in Texas in 1851, joining a German immigrant population that numbered about 30,000 at the time – almost one fifth of state’s white population. The German federation had enjoyed a cultural florescence in the first half of the nineteenth century, but overpopulation, crop failures, and political repression prompted the exodus of millions of German farmers and intellectuals. The preferred destination was America, and more specifically, Texas. Between 1815 and 1850, more than fifty books were published by Germans who had traveled in the United States, and Texas was featured so prominently that Germany in the 1840’s was swept by a Teutonic strain of "Texas fever." This American enthusiasm, whetted by glowing reports in journals like De Bow’s Review, drew hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Texas from the Southern United States. Mostly small "yeoman farmers," precursors of the celebrated "redneck," these southern immigrants were the dominant demographic force in Texas throughout the nineteenth century. They brought with them a world view often quite different from that of the German immigrants, but they were brought to Texas by same potent myth of place.
In Germany, perhaps the most widely-read ode to Texas was Texas und seine Revolution (Texas and its Revolution), by Hermann Erhenberg, who fought in the Texas revolution before returning to Germany to teach at the University of Halle. Erhenberg’s book extolled the political liberties claimed by Texas’ white settlers – a notion with profound appeal to Germans starved for democratic reform. A lushly romanticized view of the frontier paradise of Texas was provided by the novelist Karl Anton Postl, who had traveled throughout the United States but had never visited Texas. Hoffman von Fallersleben, who wrote Germany’s national anthem "Deutschland uber Alles," was so captivated by the Texas mystique that in 1846 he published a collection of poetry titled Texanische Lieder (Texas Songs). In 1843 a group of German noblemen, prompted by both altruism and profit motive, established the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, or Adelsverein, which settled almost ten thousand immigrants in Texas before going bankrupt in 1847. So persistent were the Adelsverein’s recruiting efforts that "Geh mit ins Texas"– "go with us to Texas" – was reported to have been a common greeting in some parts of Germany.
The son of a successful Dresden hosiery manufacturer, Lungkwitz entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1840. His principal teacher was Ludwig Richter, a second generation German romantic landscapist who eschewed the allegorical vistas of predecessors like Casper David Friedrich in favor of a more subtly reverential, intimate study of nature. Lungkwitz seems to have inherited his master’s low-key spirituality, making frequent sketching expeditions into the Alps after his graduation in 1843, returning with precisely rendered, meditative vignettes of mountain streams and antique ruins; some of Lungkwitz’s trees, drawn in almost compulsive detail, are as individualistic as portraits.
The suppression of Dresden’s democratic movement by the Prussian army in 1849 almost certainly motivated Lungkwitz’s decision to leave his homeland. Along with a party of five other family members, including his wife, Elise, and her brother Richard Petri, also an accomplished Academy-trained artist, Lungkwitz eventually settled on a 320 acre farm near Fredericksberg, a town founded by the Adelsverein in the picturesque Hill Country northwest of San Antonio. They were on the edge of the frontier; in 1852 Lungkwitz and Petri signed a petition imploring the Governor of Texas to police the Indians in the area.
Lungkwitz and his family worked hard to transform the wilderness into a garden. He built log cabins and rail fences, grew corn, and raised cattle, pigs, and chickens. The work was impeded by violent weather, drought, and disease; in December of 1857, Petri, feverish from what was most likely a recurrence of malaria, wandered into the Pedernales river and drowned. To supplement his meagre income from farming, Lungkwitz sold lithographs (one was an advertisement for a local "water-cure" health spa), raffled paintings, worked as a surveyor, and took up photography, briefly touring with a magic-lantern slide show billed as "brilliant Stereomonoscopic Dissolving Views and Polarscopic Fire Works." Lungkwitz’s landscapes were perfunctory, almost lifeless during this period; much more inspired was Crockett Street Looking West, San Antonio, (1857) [il. San Antonio Museum Association]. Lungkwitz depicted the sparkling little city, then Texas’ largest (pop. 8000), in a clean, brilliant, Mediterranean light, a miniature Athens rising from the dust.
The Civil War brought Lungkwitz face-to-face with some unpleasant truths about his adopted homeland. Most Germans were too poor to own slaves, and while some served in the Confederate army, most either declared their pro-Union sentiments, or, like Lungkwitz, adopted a silent "neutrality" that nevertheless left little doubt about their true loyalty. This made the Germans easily identifiable targets for Confederate enforcers. In 1862, four dozen German settlers who had refused to swear loyalty to the confederacy were massacred by Texas troops. Confederate "bushwhackers" roamed the area around Fredericksburg, murdering German settlers; on one occasion Lungkwitz’s wife hid him under her mattress and feigned illness while bushwhackers searched the house.
Fearing for his safety, Lungkwitz moved his wife and five children (a sixth was born by the war’s end) to San Antonio. Deeply depressed by what he called "this unholy war," Lungkwitz apparently renewed his passion for nature; in his Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg (1864), the massive granite dome, purpled with the setting sun, stands like the indestructible cathedral of a timeless faith [il. (San Antonio Museum Association)]. At the war’s end Lungkwitz opened a photography studio with Carl von Iwonski, a Silesian immigrant and painter. (Largely self-taught, Iwonski painted some sharply insightful, technically accomplished portraits of his fellow German immigrants.) During Reconstruction, Lungkwitz was rewarded with a position as an official state photographer by the last Republican administration Texas would see for more than a century.
Lungkwitz lost his state job when the Republicans were voted out in 1874. He spent most of the years until his death in 1891 traveling between the homes of his married daughters and painting from nature with an autumnal fervor. His focus narrowed from broad panoramas to more tightly framed scenes similar to those he had favored during his youthful Alpine sojourns: rushing water, rock formations, gnarled trees. But now these scenes had a painterly spontaneity Lungkwitz had been unable to realize in his youth, along with a dynamic vision of nature unlike anything in the romantic tradition.
In Lungkwitz’s late works nature is no longer a timeless verity, a catalogue of marvels intended as metaphoric reminders of man’s transience, but rather an organism struggling with its own cycle of death, decay, and regeneration. Rocks are surrogates for both human and architectural forms: Veined with fissures and tinted like flesh with the sun, or eroded by water into drooping grotesques, they have a potent animism; limestone bluffs carved by rivers resemble the masonry ramparts of some antediluvian civilization. Lungkwitz often centered his compositions around pools, basins, grottoes, and caves [il. West Cave on the Pedernales 1883, McGuire #269]. Dark, still recesses in the midst of nature’s relentless motion, they are wells of metaphysical yearning, portals to some transcendental realm.
Although Lungkwitz’s work is well-known today in Texas, he remains a virtually unexamined anomaly in the broader context of nineteenth century American art. Much of today’s mythic image of the American west has evolved directly from German-born immigrant artists like the western genre/history painters Charles Wimar and Emmanuel Luetze, and the landscapist Albert Bierstadt, all three of whom studied at the Dusseldorf Academy, where they were inculcated with a classical, highly formalized, history-painting tradition. These three, along with artists of similar European academic training, such as Alfred Jacob Miller, Charles Deas, and Thomas Moran, wandered the west in search of authentic vistas and vignettes. Reproduced in magazine illustrations and lithographic reproductions sold in the tens of thousands by mass marketers like Currier and Ives, the work of the "westering" history painters (whose significant role in 19th century American art and popular culture is just beginning to be recognized) reached a huge urban audience on the East Coast. But the western icons the history painters invented – the noble savage, the "mountain man" [il. Charles Deas, Long Jakes, The Rocky Mountain Man (1844) (Vose Galleries of Boston, Inc.)], the virgin wilderness – were already anachronisms by the time they entered the popular imagination.
Uniquely among these skilled immigrant artists, Lungkwitz staked his claim to a tiny piece of the west and actually lived through its transformation from frontier to a rudimentary civilization (thus his evident reverence for farmhouses, mills, and even towns, the rudimentary monuments of that civilization). Unlike his history-painting peers, Lungkwitz didn’t try to re- invent the recent past as a series of Manifest Destiny fairy tales. Instead his work conveys an earnest psychological realism, the confessions of a settler’s often troubled soul. Doubt, fear, the loss and reclamation of faith – the spiritual crises and resolutions that animate Lungkwitz’s art – don’t make for stirring myth, but they illuminate the real forces at work on the frontier. Texas and the rest of the American West weren’t conquered by the heroic few, but by thousands, then tens and hundreds of thousands of tenaciously ordinary settlers like Lungkwitz, who left their homes to build new homes, who buried their friends, wives, husbands, and children in foreign soil, who overcame despair, cowardice, and uncertainty to create a new world.
In 1886, Frank Reaugh was sketching round-ups of Longhorn cattle on the grassy plains just south of the Red River (which separates Texas from Oklahoma) in north central Texas. Born in 1860 in Illinois, Reaugh had come to Texas with his family in 1876, traveling by covered wagon. The family had settled on a small farm thirty miles east of Dallas, a region of fertile black soil that remained unfenced, open range; the Reaugh farm was surrounded by herds of Longhorn cattle, brought from sparsely vegetated South Texas to fatten up before moving on to the Kansas stockyards. According to Reaugh’s own account, he was already determined to be an artist by the time he arrived in Texas, and although he had yet to see an original painting or a reproduction in color, he was familiar with monochrome engravings and lithographs of works by Camille Corot, J.W.M. Turner, Edwin Landseer, and Rosa Bonhuer.
Reaugh became captivated by the Longhorns, a lanky, hardy breed descended from cattle brought into South Texas by Spanish settlers. He approached the subject with monomaniacal intensity, poring over a book on bovine anatomy, collecting, measuring and drawing cattle skeletons, and sketching live Longhorns whenever he could free himself from his farm work. In the early 1880’s Reaugh left the farm to follow the herds, sketching roundups and trail drives. He received his first formal training in St. Louis in the mid-1880’s. Later in the decade he was a student at the Academie Julien in Paris, then went on to Holland to independently study the work of the Dutch landscape painter Anton Mauve, a painter of atmospheric, carefully observed landscapes in the tradition of the French Barbizon school. (Mauve also briefly tutored his nephew, Vincent Van Gogh.)
Reaugh’s early pastels (the medium he preferred because it most faithfully reproduced the "opalescent" light of the prairie) were remarkably authentic – and to modern eyes, surprising – images of nineteenth century rangeland. Cross Timbers Twilight [il. Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin)] depicts a region of north central Texas where woodland and grassland meet; the lush, brooding, backlit scene might have been sketched in the forest of Fontainebleau.
By the time Reaugh returned from Europe, the trail drives were over and the Longhorn, whose imposing horns and feisty temperament made it difficult to load into railroad cattle cars, was obsolete, soon to be usurped as Monarch of the Plains by the more compact and docile English Hereford. The end of the trail drives also coincided with the last, feeble Indian uprising in the United States, which ended with the massacre of 300 Sioux warriors, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota on December 29, 1890. The 1890 Census of the United States underscored these milestones by declaring the frontier officially closed; the population figures revealed an America settled from sea to shining sea, the fulfillment of the Manifest Destiny of the Anglo-American people to bring the light of civilization into the wilderness.
Post-frontier America had its coming-out party at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The colossal steel-truss palaces of the great White City (among them the largest roofed structure ever built) glittered with the most extensive display of incandescent lighting on the planet, proclaiming the transformation of America from a struggling agrarian democracy to an industrial superpower. Yet as America rushed headlong into the future, it also began to look back with nostalgia at its vanished frontier. The most popular attraction in Chicago in 1893 was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which ran for more than 300 performances just outside the fairgrounds.
Cody’s theatrical revival of the wild west also had a more serious intellectual counterpart. The Columbian Exposition hosted a World’s Congress Auxiliary, a series of conferences on subjects ranging from Art to Temperance. At the Congress of Historians, a young professor from the University of Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner, presented his paper "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Turner disputed the reigning orthodoxy that American culture represented the "germination" and fruition of European civilization in a new world. What Turner saw was a radically new society whose distinguishing characteristic was the frontier. "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American civilization westward, explain American development," Turner declared. "This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive societies, furnish the forces dominating American character."
Within a few years Turner’s "frontier theory" had been reprinted widely and had become the subject of nationwide discussion, an influence that steadily waxed throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century. While Turner’s assumptions are being re-examined by today’s scholars, they have lost little popular appeal; the continuing invocation in late twentieth century America of the ideals of a frontier democracy has its foundation in Turner’s thesis. And the influence of Turner’s thinking on Texas mythologizers has been particularly profound. George P. Garrison’s Texas: A Contest of Civilizations, published in 1903, and Westward Extension (1906) proceeded directly from Turner’s thesis. Garrison’s disciple Walter Prescott Webb, Texas’ most venerated historian, adapted Turner’s ideas into an original vision that is likely to define Texas into the twenty- first century.
Frank Reaugh also had his moment on the stage at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. He was one of a handful of western American artists represented in an enormous international exhibition (more than 1000 works by American artists alone) in the sprawling, neoclassical Art Palace. Reaugh sold two pastels from the exhibition, and continued to show his work to enthusiastic reviews in Chicago and St. Louis for at least another decade. But Reaugh’s vision of the open range was soon overshadowed by that of another Columbian Exposition artist, Harper’s Weekly illustrator Frederic Remington.
Born and raised in Canton, New York, Remington studied art at Yale, then embarked on a brief and unsuccessful western sojourn, failing as both a Kansas sheep rancher and saloon keeper before returning home. Remington resided in New York for the rest of his life, but he made periodic trips west (preferring to go as far as possible by Pullman car), often to report on various military expeditions; he was in the vicinity during the Wounded Knee massacre, and gave Harper’s Weekly a glowing account of the troopers’ heroism – which he hadn’t witnessed and which hadn’t occurred.
Harper’s Weekly assiduously exaggerated Remington’s actual experience of the west he portrayed, promoting their star artist as a veteran Indian fighter; by the turn of the century Remington had become the most widely recognized artist in America. In the mid 1890’s Remington and his frequent collaborator, the Philadelphia-born, Harvard-educated novelist Owen Wister (Virginian), took a little-known western laborer, the "cow-boy," and re-cast him as the new American frontier hero, the successor to the mountain man of the 1850’s. The paradigm perfected by Remington and Wister in their articles, books, bronzes, and paintings became a fixture in illustrated magazines and pulp novels in the first decade of the twentieth century, was soon appropriated by the nascent motion picture industry, and today remains the most identifiable American icon.
Reaugh had his own opinion of Remington: "He knew little about cows and was principally interested in the cowboy as wild man." The two artists offered an interesting contrast. Reaugh did all of his sketching and much of his painting in the out-of- doors, while Remington traveled with a Kodak camera and did most of his painting from photographs in his New York studio. Remington’s west was arid, the sunlight harsh, almost acidic, etching shadows into the sere earth; on one of his trips west he found West Texas too green for his taste and ventured into New Mexico and Arizona before he found the kind of sun-baked, ochre landscape he preferred. Reaugh depicted the open range as it was in the cowboy’s day, before fenced-in cattle stripped the tall grass: a hazy, panoramic prairie of rich olive hues punctuated with bursts of pink and yellow wildflowers and wooded islands of cool, blue greens. Remington’s west is a place of ceaseless motion and conflict [il. A Dash for the Timber (Amon Carter Museum)], while in Reaugh’s west the herds proceed across the plains in gentle, stately serpentines [il. Driving the Herd (Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin)].
Reaugh was actually the realist and Remington the romantic, but Remington’s dramatic macho style met popular expectations of the wild west. Reaugh disappeared from the national arena after the turn of the century, but he had a more enduring influence as teacher to several generations of Texas artists. Reveau Bassett [cat #] and Edward Eisenlohr [cat. #], both atmospheric landscapists in the Reaugh tradition, accompanied Reaugh on his annual sketching expeditions to the high plains of West Texas. Alexandre Hogue, the most important Texas artist of the first half of the twentieth century, also went west with Reaugh and his students in the 1920’s. But Hogue would see the plains with a radically different vision; between Reaugh and Hogue, the Texas landscape leaps from the nineteenth century to the twentieth.
The nineteenth century in Texas art most properly closes with the sudden death of Julian Onderdonk at age forty in 1922. Julian was the son of Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, scion of prominent Maryland family and a founding member of the New York’s Art Student’s League. Robert Onderdonk came to San Antonio in 1879 intending to get rich quick painting portraits of local plutocrats, but he stayed to become an influential teacher in San Antonio and Dallas. The senior Onderdonk tried his own hand at the Texas Myth; when he undertook The Fall of the Alamo [pl. #] he wrote his patron that Davey Crockett’s death would be recorded with scrupulous regard for the facts: "I suppose you know that Crockett was not killed in the Alamo but in defending the gateway of a building in the first assault."
Julian Onderdonk left his native San Antonio in 1901 to study at the Art Student’s League under William Merritt Chase; he returned in 1909 in possession of a workmanlike impressionist style [cat #’s] that slowly matured as he painted views of the same south central Texas Hill Country that had stirred Lungkwitz. Onderdonk’s amethyst-hued bluebonnet fields inspired enough imitators to create a popular art cottage industry that still thrives in Texas today, cranking out derivations so hackneyed that they have tainted the originals. (Onderdonk lived long enough to despise his designation as the "bluebonnet painter.")
But Onderdonk’s wildflowers were only the pretext for an increasingly subtle and spiritually resonant late Impressionist style. In Onderdonk’s last picture, Dawn in the Hills (1922) [il. (San Antonio Museum Association 38-18-69 P)] the shrouded, flickering hills and a pale sun struggle to materialize through an elegiac, dusty purple mist. As with Lungwitz’s late work, in Onderdonk’s culminating vision nature is merely an evanescent veil over a deeper mystery; one is tempted to project intimations of mortality on the scene. The imminent death in Onderdonk’s final opus, however, is not only that of the artist but of the land itself.
1936: THE CRUCIFIED LAND
In 1936, Texas provided almost forty per cent of all the oil produced in the United States. The oil age had arrived with a new century, when the fabled Spindletop well blew in on January 10, 1901, sending a geyser of black crude one hundred and fifty feet into the air, in nine days creating a lake of oil equal to Texas’ entire oil production the previous year. The most immediate effect of the oil bonanza was to put people and money into Texas’ cities, none of which had claimed more than 60,000 inhabitants on the day Spindletop blew; by 1930 Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio all exceeded 200,000, and by 1938 Houston would top 400,000. The social elites of the burgeoning cities began to be dominated by oilmen and their financiers. In Houston, the uncouth Wildcatter vied for supremacy with more gentlemanly oil magnates whose fortunes had been established through interest in Humble Oil and Refining Company, Texas first major oil company, which had prospered in a largely silent partnership with John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of New Jersey. Adhering to an eastern seaboard ideal of wealth without ostentation, Houston’s "old money" families, who had established the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1924, would for many decades run Houston’s cultural institutions with same innate conservatism that they did their lives and businesses.
Politically, Texas had assumed a pattern it would follow for the rest of the twentieth century: episodes of progressive reform alternating with episodes of conservative, sometimes virulent retrenchment. In the opening decades of the twentieth century the Texas legislature passed some of the nation’s first child labor laws and extended suffrage to women in advance of the nineteenth amendment to the United States constitution. But in the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan became a powerful broker in Texas politics, and the state legislature voted to permit the exclusion of black voters from primary elections.
Reform forces had surged back by 1936; the second-term governor of Texas, James Allred, advocated a commission to regulate public utilities, cleaned up corruption in the Texas Rangers, and crafted an old age assistance package. Texans were also some of the prime movers of the New Deal in Washington. Vice President of the United States John Nance Garner, a former congressman from the south Texas town of Uvalde, held conservative Democrats in an uneasy accommodation with President Roosevelt. Sam Rayburn was in his twenty-fourth year as a congressman from a rural East Texas district; a true Texas populist, Rayburn had already authored some of the most important New Deal legislation. Houston banker Jesse Jones headed the key Reconstruction Finance Corporation. And twenty-seven year old Lyndon Johnson, most recently a congressional assistant, had just been appointed to run the National Youth Administration in Texas.
As much as Texas had progressed between 1886 and 1936, it remained an agrarian culture, with two thirds of all Texans still residing in rural areas and agriculture still claiming two thirds of all employment and investment. Cotton continued to be not only the dominant crop but a rival to oil as the driver of the Texas economy. Not until the discovery of the East Texas oil field in 1930, at the time the world’s largest known oil reserve, did the cash value of Texas’ crude oil production finally exceed the value of the cotton crop – and then only because of a precipitous plunge in the price of cotton. Almost 70% of all farmers were sharecroppers, the great majority of whom, white and black alike, cooked on wood stoves and lit their homes with oil lamps. But the collapse of cotton prices, combined with the relentless "Dust Bowl" winds that stripped away soil already scourged by drought, overgrazing, and overproduction of cotton, had initiated a mass exodus from the land. In 1935 the number of farms in Texas had peaked at half a million. By 1960, that figure would be halved.
Despite the ravages of the Great Depression, in 1936 Texas concluded a remarkably sophisticated – and successful – effort to merchandise its sacred history. The event was the Texas Centennial Celebration, a multi-million dollar statewide extravaganza culminating with a "World’s Fair" in Dallas. Promoted by Hollywood stars, a traveling troupe of "Rangerettes" attired in chaps and five gallon hats, and a nationwide press junket highlighted by Texas Ranger Captain Leonard Pack, who rode into the lobby of a Detroit hotel on his horse, Texas, a Colt six-shooter on each hip, the Centennial was shrewdly conceived by Texas advertising and publishing executives as a public relations opportunity for the entire state. The basic selling tool was Texas’ celebrated past, which Centennial boosters believed would lure tourists and investors capable of enriching Texas’ future. Governor Allred’s proclamation inaugurating the centennial year was a credo for Texas’ new aspirations: "As we stand upon the threshold of our State’s Centennial, we must not forget that its purest concept lies in reverence for the past, and a devotion to the perpetuation of that past through an endless future."
Among the sleek, thirties-moderne buildings constructed for The Texas Centennial Exposition was a new Dallas Museum of Art, which until then had been housed on the ninth floor of a local office building. The museum opened with a survey of art from the Renaissance through Picasso, but the most talked-about feature of the Texas Centennial exhibit was the sharply delineated regional style evident in a juried selection of almost 200 works by Texas artists. This unprecedented regional movement (perhaps best referred to as "Lone Star Regionalism," the title of the definitive 1986 exhibition and catalogue by historian Rick Stewart) coalesced around a loosely affiliated but ideologically focused group of local artists known as the "Dallas Nine."
The centerpiece of the Dallas exhibit was Drought Stricken Area [cat #] by Alexandre Hogue, the most talented artist among the Nine and, along with Dallas painter and critic Jerry Bywaters, the movement’s most outspoken proselyte. Painted in 1934, Drought Stricken Area is an almost viscerally evocative Dust Bowl landscape, a scene, in Hogue’s own words, of "realism more real than the thing itself." The painting is a composite of symbolic attributes as carefully arranged as a Dutch still life: the fractured geometry of the windmill (first used widely in the 1870’s to pump water from deep wells, windmills remained ubiquitous high plains landmarks in the 1930’s) echoing the arc of the half-buried water tank; the dismantled fences marking the breakdown of a transient human order; the vulture waiting to reclaim the emaciated cow, the last vestige of civilized husbandry. Hogue suggested atmosphere by its absence; not only moisture but the air itself seems to have been sucked out of his razor-edged landscape.
Born in rural Missouri, Hogue was brought to Texas as an infant just before the turn of the century. He studied art in New York for four years in the early 1920’s, returning to Texas each summer to ride west in Frank Reaugh’s model T truck. For a time Hogue painted in Taos, but he eventually eschewed that picturesque landscape for the "still waters" of Texas’ "rolling plains," which he believed offered "extraordinary possibilities for the painter who masters interpretation of them."
Hogue became both a scenic and an ideological interpreter of the Texas landscape. By the late 1920’s he was a regular contributor to the Southwest Review, which had become the mouthpiece for a broadly based regional movement that encompassed art, architecture, literature, and music. Hogue protested that most young American artists were "following the European herd," and could never hope to achieve real stature until they made art based on their own experience; Hogue perceptively cited Cezanne as an artist who succeeded by becoming a regionalist, immersing himself in the provincial landscape of Aix en Provence.
Yet in choosing West Texas as his Aix en Provence, Hogue contributed to a sweeping redefinition of Texas itself. Significantly, this new incarnation of the Texas myth took place at the moment when oil replaced cotton as the engine of the Texas economy, allowing Texans for the first time to truly differentiate themselves from the militarily and economically defeated Old South. Suddenly Texas could discard its Confederate past and embrace a far more promising alliance, the New Southwest.
As early as 1929, Henry Nash Smith, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, had written about a "Southwestern ‘Renaissance’" in the Southwest Review. But the Southwest as an intellectual construction was not fully formed until the publication in 1931 of Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains, a work of such importance to the Lone Star Regionalists that Bywaters opened his commentary on the Texas Centennial exhibition, published in the Southwest Review, by citing the central thesis of Webb’s book.
Webb was a forty-three year old professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin when he published the The Great Plains. His personal saga has added to his mystique, and doubtless colored his own view of Texas and the west. Webb’s father was a Mississippi farmer/schoolteacher who emigrated to Texas in 1883, settling in the wooded northeastern region of the state, a culture dominated by cotton and post-Civil War bitterness. In 1892 the family moved farther west, out of the woodlands onto the edge of the arid high plains, where Webb’s father taught school to the children of dirt-poor farmers; Webb himself had to drop out of school for two years to work the family’s 120 acres. At age 16, Webb wrote a plaintive letter to an editor of The Sunny South magazine, asking how he might go about attending college and becoming a writer. The published letter brought a response from a philanthropic New York novelties importer, who sent Webb books and magazines and eventually financed his education at the University of Texas.
In The Great Plains Webb essentially one-upped Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier theory of American history. Turner had claimed that American civilization was distinguished from its European antecedents by the continuous conquest of a western frontier. Webb, in turn, posited that the settlers of the great western plains, those pioneers who ventured beyond the timbered frontier east of the 98th meridian, had been confronted with entirely different challenges on the treeless plains and as a consequence had been forced to invent a culture as distinct from that of the Eastern United States as America was from Europe. The lord of this super-frontier was a new sort of knight-errant: "It would be hard to find a more effective ensemble of power," Webb wrote, "than a man on a good horse armed with a six-shooter – the one to conquer space, the other to conquer danger."
Webb’s designation of the 98th meridian as where the west began eliminated the entire eastern half of Texas, but that radical surgery made it easy for the dean of Texas historians to ignore the cotton culture of the Texas woodlands and coastal plains. Instead, Webb could view the state’s history as a matter of exterminating Indians and Mexicans, finding water, and raising cattle. The quintessential hero of the great plains rode forth in Webb’s 1935 book The Texas Rangers, a grotesquely reverential history of Texas’ traditional frontier policemen, whose reputation for gritty valor ("one riot, one ranger") was matched only by an appalling record of extralegal violence: The number of innocent Texans of Mexican descent summarily executed by Rangers during World War I, when the border was rife with rumors of Mexican-German conspiracies, has been estimated at anywhere from several hundred to five thousand. Black Texans, who comprised perhaps a fourth of all Texas cowboys, nevertheless didn’t figure much in Webb’s heroic vision of the Southwest. He had dismissed them in a 1916 student paper: "the negro must find his place and realize that he is a distinct, separate, and inferior caste…"
In later years Webb seemed to regret his racism and the overly broad strokes with which he had painted the heroic west, but by then the myth he had had a singular role in creating was far more powerful than he was. And while Webb offered Lone Star Regionalism a certain intellectual legitimacy, a closer look at his thought in relationship to the art movement reveals some of the differences that over time have estranged Texas art from Texas history.
Webb’s mythic west was the exclusive domain of Anglo- American males ("the plains repelled the women as they attracted the men…" Webb declared), while Lone Star Regionalism envisioned a much more inclusive new Southwest. Instead of viewing Mexico as a degenerate old world culture, routed by the heroes of the Texas revolution, and against which the noble Rangers had since maintained a necessarily ruthless vigilance, Hogue and Bywaters saw in the Marxist Mexican muralists of the 1920’s an example to be emulated. Bywaters met Diego Rivera during a 1928 trip to Mexico, afterward writing "Diego Rivera has taught me a lesson I had not learned elsewhere in Europe or America. I know now that art, to be significant, must be a reflection of life; that it must be understandable to the layman…" In a 1932 interview, Hogue praised the Mexican muralists for their "translation into art forms of intimate colloquial life…"
The Lone Star Regionalists also found inspiration in local diversity. Otis Dozier, another important member of the Dallas Nine, grew up on an east Texas cotton farm, and he later painted sympathetic portrayals of the sharecroppers’ plight as well as dignified scenes of Dallas’s black community. Dozier’s The Annual Move [il. Dallas Museum of Art], exhibited at the Texas Centennial in 1936, poignantly depicts a Central Texas sharecropping family stoically moving on to new land and new debt – an acknowledgement of the quiet heroism to be found east of the 98th meridian.
Webb idealized the nineteenth century cattle industry, writing in The Great Plains that "existence of the cattle kingdom is the best single bit of evidence that here in the west were the basis and promise of a new civilization unlike anything previously known to the Anglo-European-American experience." But the spiritual roots of Lone Star Regionalism lay in the far less aristocratic tradition of Texas rural Populism and farmer’s movements dating back to the Greenback Party of the 1870’s and the Southern Farmer’s Alliance of the 1880’s.
Texas Populism had a strong base in evangelical Protestantism, and revival meetings remained a fixture of rural life in the 1930’s. This bedrock spirituality led a number of the most important Lone Star Regionalists to depict the Depression as a kind of rural Passion drama. The fencepost crucifix motif established in The Three Crosses (1935-36) [il. (Dallas Museum of Art)] by William Lester, one of the younger members of the Dallas Nine and former student of Hogue’s, is central to Hogue’s The Crucified Land (1939) [il. Gilcrease Institute, Tulsa.], in which the red soil, eroded as a result of straight-line plowing, flows like blood. Everett Spruce’s Mending the Rock Fence (1936) [il. (Meadows Museum, Dallas)] has a Biblical seriousness; the bearded elder instructs a younger farmer as if passing on a ritual of faith.
The echoes of Italian quattrocento painting evident in Spruce’s work, combined with a modernist affinity for abstract geometric relationships, is characteristic of the stylistic breadth of Lone Star Regionalism. In this they were distinguished from the orthodox "American scene" painters like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, who had become national celebrities (Benton made the cover of Time magazine in 1935) by vehemently rejecting European modernism in favor of a home-grown heartland esthetic. The Lone Star Regionalists welcomed the attention to regional issues attracted by Benton, Wood, and the rabidly chauvinistic critic Thomas Craven, but they chafed at the notion that the Texas movement was derivative. Hogue and Bywaters took pains to point out that, unlike the American scene painters, they had no intention of purging American art of all foreign and modern influences; they also found the cornbelt Americanism of Benton and Wood, which came close to caricature, to be a contrived and unauthentic form of regionalism.
Lone Star Regionalism continued to be strongly cohesive until the outbreak of World War II, and by the late 1930’s the Texas movement had achieved significant exposure. In 1937 Hogue’s work was featured in Life magazine, and one of his Dust Bowl paintings was purchased by the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. In 1939 the Dallas Nine also figured prominently in two major shows on opposite coasts, The Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco and the New York World’s Fair. Locally, the Dallas artists had established a sophisticated infrastructure, organizing a printmaking cooperative called Lone Star Printmakers, with the objective of making their images available to a broader audience; they also successfully lobbied for federal government public arts commissions and one-person exhibitions of Texas artists at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (Bywaters became director of the Museum in 1943).
World War II finally brought down the curtain on Lone Star Regionalism. By the late 1930’s Hogue had already presaged a new Texas in paintings based on the oil industry [il. Mural, Post Office, Graham, Texas], which had moved strongly past cotton as the dominant force in the Texas economy even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In 1942 Hogue went to work as a technical draftsman for North American Aviation, which had just built the world’s largest single-building industrial facility near Dallas; Hogue was soon making lithographs of the Liberator bombers that were pounding Axis oil refineries [.il Oil Strike (Dallas Museum of Art)]. The war and its aftermath transformed the Texas economy and landscape as oil alone never could have, creating the petrochemical and defense industries that brought Texas fully into the twentieth century. What the Lone Star Regionalists recorded with striking emotional authenticity was the anxiety, nostalgia, and wary hopefulness of a culture poised on a demographic fulcrum; the 1940 census would be the last in which more Texans were found to reside on the land than in cities.
Lone Star Regionalism remains the pivotal episode in the history of Texas art, linking the nineteenth century romantic realism of Lungkwitz to the allegorical expressionism of Texas art a century later. But the Lone Star Regionalists are perhaps closer to the present than they are usually credited (Indeed, Hogue is still active). In their populist outlook, broad stylistic synthesis, direct yet sophisticated use of readily identifiable, colloquial symbols, and their quest for a pluralistic Texas myth, the Lone Star Regionalists anticipated the defining features of Texas art today.
1986: ON THE POSTMODERN FRONTIER
In 1986 the price of crude oil plunged to under fourteen dollars a barrel, unmistakably punctuating the end of one of the most extraordinary periods of sustained economic expansion in the history of the United States. While most Texans viewed the oil bust as the abrupt end to an equally sudden prosperity, the oil boom of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s was in fact the climactic spike in a growth curve that had begun its steep ascent with the outbreak of World War II.
Between 1940 and 1980 Texas’ cities added more inhabitants than had lived in the state when the period began; by the 1980 census Texas had three of the nation’s ten largest cities. The basis of much of this growth was the shrewd and persistent pursuit of federal largesse, particularly military and defense spending, by Texas’ formidable contingent of Washington power brokers. Sam Rayburn served as Speaker of the House of Representatives for 17 of the 21 years between his first election in 1940 and his death in 1961; in 1954 Lyndon Johnson became Majority Leader of the United States Senate. When the Houston area was awarded the NASA Manned Space Center complex in 1962 (local boosters never tire of pointing out that the first word addressed to Earth from the Moon was "Houston.."), the city’s good fortune was the result of then-Vice President Johnson’s collaboration with George R. Brown, who helped engineer a donation of land for the project – and whose Brown and Root construction company earned a nice piece of the 250 million dollar contract to build the space center.
But Texas politics on the state level was distinguished by vitriolic opposition to the federal government. Texans were so incensed by Harry Truman’s support for civil rights legislation that the state was carried by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 – only the second time since Reconstruction that Texans had supported a a Republican Presidential candidate. Three-term Democratic Governor Allan Shivers, who endorsed Eisenhower, staked his political fortunes on a successful campaign to claim for the state the right to tax oil production in the so-called "tidelands," the oil-rich region just off Texas’ Gulf Coast. Shivers insisted that due to Texas’ unique status as a former Republic, the state’s sovereignty extended ten and a half miles into the Gulf, rather than the three miles the federal government ceded to the other states. The United States Supreme Court disagreed with Shivers, but Eisenhower eventually signed a bill quitting the federal government’s claim. As a consequence of the civil rights and tidelands controversies, many Texans fiercely proclaimed their independence from the federal government at the same time that federal spending was transforming their lives.
The gap between perception and reality in postwar Texas produced a sometimes baffling cultural and political identity crisis that has endured well past the 1950’s: The contrast between Lyndon Johnson’s progressive social agenda and his "remember the Alamo" approach to the war in Viet Nam; the remarkable popularity of 1970’s "redneck rock," an improbable musical marriage of rock n’ roll liberalism and country-and-western conservatism; the flourishing of some of America’s most accomplished and eloquent feminist politicians (Barbara Jordan, Frances "Sissy" Farenthold, and Anne Richards, elected Governor in 1990) alongside some of America’s most inarticulate good ol’ boys (Governors Dolph Briscoe, William Clements, and cowboy candidate Clayton "Claytie" Williams, who narrowly lost to Richards after remarking that bad weather was just like rape: "If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.")
This powerful cultural shear had its economic counterpart in the oil boom-and-bust cycle that began in 1973 with oil priced at just under four dollars a barrel. The boom peaked when oil reached thirty four dollars a barrel in 1981, and ended with the price collapse of 1986. The height of the boom saw "Texas chic" sweep the nation; John Travolta’s progression from a New York discotheque in the motion picture "Saturday Night Fever" to a Houston honky-tonk nightclub in "Urban Cowboy" was regarded as a bellwether for American popular culture. On the small screen, the series "Dallas" was the number one program in Great Britain even before it became America’s most popular nighttime drama. When the Dallas Cowboys football franchise became designated "America’s Team," one could justifiably claim that that the Texas myth had become – at least temporarily – America’s myth.
More sober-minded observers also saw in the Texas boom an American culmination very similar to the vision Walter Webb had set forth in the Great Plains. "Texas: Superstate" bannered a Newsweek cover story (the cover photo featured the Kilgore Junior College Rangerettes, a precision drill team modeled after the original Texas Centennial Rangerettes). Reporters and pundits gawked at Houston’s rakish postmodern skyline, symbol of its aspirations and originality. (Philip Johnson’s split-spire Pennzoil Place building in downtown Houston, completed in 1975, is considered the Pazzi Chapel of postmodern architecture.) The witnesses took it all in and reported back the astonishing statistics: 1000 new immigrants to Houston each week; the United States’ third largest port; a quarter of the nation’s oil refining capacity – all this in a city that had sent Americans to the moon, and in which the largest employer was an enormous hi- tech medical complex.
The witnesses made much of Houston’s absence of zoning regulations, implying that some native genius for improvisation – that Webbian capacity for spur-of-the-moment, frontier innovation – made it all work. No one noticed that Houston’s civic leaders had been planning the city’s future for generations (a prime example was the far-sighted construction of a deep-water channel to the Gulf in early 1900’s) or that deed restrictions had traditionally accomplished many of the functions of zoning laws. Boom-watchers and local boosters alike proclaimed a new frontier democracy and overlooked the role played throughout the century by an essentially old-south oligarchy determined to escape the economic legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction. And no one seemed to notice that the descendants of these deliberate aristocrats, Houston’s boom-era bankers, developers, and oilmen, had gone temporarily insane – as though drugged with a Webbian vision of their own manifest destiny – and had staked their personal fortunes and their city’s future on the belief that thirty dollar-a-barrel oil would soon be fifty dollar-a-barrel oil.
The unencouraging economic outlook for the vast majority of Texas artists during the boom years allowed them a skeptical view of the rampant mythologizing that accompanied the escalating oil prices. British artist Derek Boshier had made his reputation as a pop artist in the 1960’s, well before joining the faculty at the University of Houston in 1980. His Everyday Opera [il. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston] (1983) places slapstick images of horse-opera romance and petrochemical might against a flame-hued horizon. The reeling nude, a recurring cowboy everyman in Boshier’s work at the time, is an embodiment of the mythic past, knocked off his feet by the vision of Houston’s hi-tech industrial future. But the embracing couple, oblivious to the apocalypse at their backs, are a personification of denial, Texans romancing a new myth against the rising indicators of disaster.
Boshier’s vision was prophetic. In 1982 the price of oil began to slump, and with it fell the all-important "rig count", the measure of new drilling activity. By 1986 the statistics of growth had been replaced by equally astonishing numbers: at the year’s end Houston had more unleased office space than Pittsburgh had office space. Dallas, with a more diversified economy than Houston’s, resisted only slightly longer, but the collapse of the real estate market soon left its postmodern towers with the same eerie hush. Post-boom Houston and Dallas seemed to rise from the prairie like a futuristic Pompeii and Heraculaneum, silent, intact artifacts of a catastrophe that had miraculously preserved them.
Perhaps because they had not shared in the prosperity of the boom (and because rapidly rising rents and real estate values in Houston and Dallas made rural living attractive), a number of Texas artists established their studios outside the burgeoning city centers, or in other cases simply returned to the land allegorically. Yet this was no simplistic, romantic regression; artists working in the new landscape tradition of the 1980’s picked up where the Lone Star Regionalists had left off fifty years previously, searching for trenchant contemporary metaphors in rural verities.
David Bates, who grew up in a Dallas suburb and has enjoyed the most dramatic ascent to national prominence of any Texas artist in the 1980’s, is perhaps closest of the present generation to the rural vision of the Lone Star Regionalists. Bates’ broadly brushed, expressionistic canvasses are populated with survivors of an earlier era, principally coastal and inland fisherman. But the landscape Bates returns to is far removed, both geographically and pictorially, from the west Texas plains where Walter Webb staged his larger-then-life heroics and the Lone Star Regionalists set their tragic epic. Bates’ scenes of the cypress swaps found in east Texas and western Arkansas are a return to a primordial Old South, a timbered region with a rococo ornamentation of hanging moss, where water is so abundant that most travel is by boat [cat. # Still Water]. The subject of Cotton Water [cat #] is Ed Walker, a ninety year old black man portrayed unsentimentally, yet with something of the dignified realism of a late Roman bust. There is also an echo of, and a counterpoint to, Renaissance portraiture in the way Walker is posed against the landscape; he doesn’t command the natural world like a triumphant Duke or condottiere, but instead has won a far more difficult truce. Walker becomes an icon of forgotten Texans, the slaves, the post-bellum black sharecroppers, the rural blacks condemned to the fringes of an impoverished east Texas white culture that itself barely subsisted. In a largely intuitive way – Bates’ work is much more concerned with formal issues than social commentary – Bates practices a kind of remedial history painting, retrieving a southern past that in Texas is not only neglected, but is in essence forbidden, a sense conveyed by the gothic gloom and cypress cloisters of Bates’ swampy realm.
Sculptor James Surls, who was raised in rural east Texas and played football at East Texas State University, had already become nationally known for his monumental, chain-saw hewn wood totems when he moved from Dallas to the Piney Woods north of Houston in 1976. Joining the faculty at the University of Houston, Surls quickly became a tireless, politically adept promoter of Texas art. In 1979, when James Harithas’ departure from the contemporary Arts Museum had orphaned Houston’s artists, Surls became Texas art’s self-help guru: He conceived and set up the University of Houston’s Lawndale Art & Performance Space; curated an exhibition of 100 Texas artists at the CAM; and staged an Artists and Models Pow Wow, which drew a crowd of 2500, for the first time bringing together a rapidly growing art community and giving it a sense of its political potential. The self- empowering strategy that kept Texas art visible throughout the boom, and at the same time built Houston’s present grassroots infrastructure of alternative spaces and galleries, owes more to Surls’ example and efforts than to any other individual contribution.
Surls’ art reached maturity in the early 1980’s, after he put aside the chainsaw and began to observe and preserve the natural forms of the logs he uses as his principal medium. The self-conscious, derivative primitivism of his earlier works was replaced by a remarkably original rural mythology. In Surls’ work, much as in Lungkwitz’s, man and nature share a common sentience – symbolized by the eyes that sprout from the spiky leaves of his bronze Eye Am [cat #] – and are partners in regenerative cycle of almost Vedic complexity. The vortex-like forms found in many of Surls’ pieces have both destructive and constructive associations; sometimes they suggest tornados, sometimes DNA helixes, sometimes elements of both. Working in the Garden (1981) [il. from 1985 DMA show] begins with a pedestal shaped from a massive tree-trunk – much of the root system still intact – and builds into a multi-armed, multi-eyed, axe-wielding organism, seemingly whirling furiously, rising like a wood- chopping Shiva from the very destruction it has wrought. The theology implicit in the piece is rooted in Surls’ own experience and personal mysticism, but it is a spirituality in the tradition of Lungkwitz and the Lone Star Regionalists, a pragmatic, often harsh, but ultimately redemptive faith in nature and its processes.
Melissa Miller, who like Bates was a dramatic 1980’s success story, has lived periodically on her grandparents’ farm, located in a small, predominantly Czech community about a hundred miles west of Houston. In the late 1970’s a cast of barnyard characters began to crowd human figures out of her paintings, and by the early 1980’s Miller had assembled an eclectic menagerie of tigers, monkeys, bears, sheep, coyotes, and rabbits to perform as human surrogates in a series of subtle, frequently ambiguous psychological allegories. Miller often set her scenes in exotic locales ranging from ice floes to African savannah, but the sky in these pictures, roiling with thickly impastoed, cyclonic clouds, was derived from Miller’s familiarity with the sudden violence of Texas weather. One Rabbit Feeling the Pain of Another [cat #] (1982) was painted during a period of devastating illnesses in Miller’s family, and the rabbit protagonist and the clouds dance to the same tormented rhythm. The picture reflects Miller’s affinity with a Texas rural story-telling tradition, one in which the dramas of human existence are punctuated by tales of often-disastrous prodigies of the notoriously temperamental Texas climate. The Ark (1986) [il. Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston] depicts a spectacular pan-species convocation gathering before the advancing deluge, but the wall of rainclouds marching across the horizon, a common Texas sight, is more realistic than metaphoric. In later works, such as Decision (1991) [cat #], Miller’s natural history includes surrealistic freaks: oversize insects, a plucked chicken with a horse’s head, a leaf with human legs, all parading along in Bosch-esque procession. Here the realism is limited entirely to the underlying human emotion, yet because we are able to instinctively trust Miller’s observation of nature, her mutants are troubling and evocative rather than silly and gratuitous.
Miller’s use of rural imagery as an element in complex postmodern allegories is common in recent Texas art. Bill Haveron’s paintings and drawings derive from folk art, but his teeming narratives seem like hybrids of pulp science fiction and country store tall-tales [cat #’s]. In bronze sculptures of considerable formal ingenuity [cat #], Joseph Havel chains rural artifacts – cane chairs, rockers, farm implements – into fluid arcs and whorls, simple geometries that conjure ineffable forces of transformation: perhaps climate, perhaps time, perhaps the miraculous.
Barnaby Fitzgerald’s Waiting Sarah [cat. #] is a deft synthesis of the classical and the colloquial; the landscape is part prairie panorama, part Mediterranean idyll. The figures are wryly twisted takes on art historical standards: a deconstructed treatment of the three graces; an homage to Manet’s candid, confrontational nudes; the horse on a pedestal, a riderless version of the equestrian statue. The rooting pig in the foreground, however, is an unsettling note of rural realism, placed there almost as an admonition against revery. Julie Bozzi’s tiny landscape paintings likewise combine the conventions of traditional landscape art with contemporary irony. Carefully observed from nature, meticulously crafted, Bozzi’s renderings of Texas’ plains and wooded prairies are presented in an anti-heroic scale and format. The image is usually a horizontal strip a few inches high, occasionally confined by a faux framing device [cat #] – the limitless vistas of the mythic west compressed to delicate miniatures.
Boom-era pundits made much of the clash between a persistent rural parochialism and an emerging urban cosmopolitanism in modern Texas. But the dominant culture in Texas today is suburban, and contains elements of both. The Houston and Dallas skylines, with their cutting-edge imprimatur of Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei, are abrupt outcroppings of marble veneer and tinted glass amid a vast tableland of suburbia, distinctive precisely because they are so anomalous. One can walk from one end of downtown Houston or Dallas to the next in a matter of minutes, and the view from any of the towers is one of a startling expanse of vegetation, spoked with freeways and punctuated by satellite downtowns ("urban nodes" or "edge cities" in current jargon) such as the Post Oak/Galleria area in Houston, which has its own Philip Johnson tower – taller than downtown’s, yet. There are no rows of brownstones, no brutal clusters of public housing. Even the neighborhoods closest to downtown are the fashionable suburbs of but a few decades before; many are still-prestigious incorporated enclaves. Poverty, of course, exists – is, in fact, endemic – but it is often a tree-shaded, rural kind of poverty, run-down single family dwellings on unimproved streets. The mercantile ghettoes are also in bucolic disguise, as "industrial parks" or "office parks." Only the huge shopping malls, with their acres of parking lots, emerge as monumental human intrusions.
This suburbanscape can seem as limitless as the plains of west Texas. Both Dallas and Houston command vast metropolitan areas: the Dallas-Ft. Worth "metroplex," with a population of 3.8 million persons, and the 3.7 million person Houston- Galveston-Brazoria Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area. Significantly, both Dallas and Houston – but Houston in particular – have historically expanded their tax base by taking advantage of a state law that allows them to annex neighboring unincorporated communities without a referendum. Dallas and Houston are cities whose fundamental instincts – political, economic, cultural, and visual – are centrifugal, not centric.
The suburban tablelands are the Webbian frontier of modern Texas, as awesome to twentieth century immigrants as the great plains were to nineteenth century pioneers. Painter Lee Smith moved from New Orleans to a suburb on the eastern fringe of Dallas in 1956, when he was six years old. He describes his reaction to the vast open spaces:
Where Louisiana had represented a enclosed, protected space among the backyard banana trees, Texas was filled with endless space covered by gigantic sky. To step through our back gate was to step into a new frontier of astounding scale and freedom.
Smith’s art is a strikingly imaginative record of his boyhood exploration of that frontier. The early-nineteenth century artist-explorers who first documented the Indians of the American west were frequently draftsmen or engineers without formal training in fine art, a background quite like Smith’s: he studied architectural drafting, worked as a commercial silk- screen technician, and taught himself how to paint. Like the artist-explorers, Smith records an exotic tribal culture whose customs are inscrutable, profound, cruel, and beautiful. Games with the Night [cat. #] portrays three boys and their dog prowling the woods in search of a fourth boy. As in many of Smith’s scenes, there is a disturbing if unintended ambiguity; the fanning flashlights and camouflage hues add a militaristic note to the playful scene, a reminder that the boys of the 1950’s were only a decade away from search-and-destroy missions in the jungles of Viet Nam. In The Sound Stealers [cat. #], the tribe, tapping the sound system of the local drive-in theatre, learns the rituals of technology, the transforming faith of the suburban frontier. (The high-temperature transistor, which enabled the digital revolution, was invented in 1954 at Texas Instruments, an immense electronics and defense manufacturing complex located in a north Dallas suburb; so many computer-related firms are situated in the area now that it is known as the "silicon prairie.")
In her sculptures assembled from salvaged household objects, Helen Altman invents a suburban myth as original and compelling as Smith’s. Altman’s works are inspired by girlhood memories of the 1960’s (Altman was born in 1958), the cusp of the suburban golden age. Altman modifies her vintage objects only slightly, but the results have a provocative, menacing edge: a blender churns a dark, tornadic vortex; a coffee pot perpetually fills a cup to overflowing; a mixer’s blades are replaced by tiny jet fighter models [il. Icarus Barry Whistler Gallery.] Custom Deluxe [cat. #] and Fire Wall [cat. #] both incorporate the theme of fire, simulated by special flashing bulbs. In Custom Deluxe, the stove’s mundane domesticity is belied by the theatrical, bone-shaking (there is a small motorized skeleton set inside the control panel), bulb-flashing vehemence with which it boils water. For as long as we want to suspend disbelief in the obvious artifice of the fire, the stove is an appliance of supernatural forces: dangerous, volcanic, perhaps infernal. Fire Wall [cat. #], with its association to the most basic domestic archetype, the hearth, stretches even further the tension between the ridiculous and the sublime. On one level it is a pyramidal household shrine, massive and mythic, on another it is a grandiose lighting fixture.
The ambiguity found in Smith’s and Altman’s suburban myth- making is grounded in the very real moral ambivalence of Texas suburbanites. Many are parishioners of some of America’s largest, fastest growing churches, a virtual ecclesiastical-industrial complex ranging from vast, colosseum-like Baptist churches to huge televangelical empires. The Texas religious experience is limned in Ed Blackburn’s Jesus on the Road to Emmaus [cat. #], the comic-book approach to Bible study suggesting the degree to which modern churches have adopted the trappings and techniques of popular culture. However, Texans break sacred vows as eagerly as they make them: During the boom years, Dallas and Houston perennially contested for the nation’s highest divorce rate.
Jim Love, a grocer’s son from the Texas panhandle town of Amarillo, was a theatrical set designer before turning to sculpture in the mid 1950’s. One of the most influential Texas artists of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Love brought from his theatrical experience a keen narrative instinct and a sense of how to communicate complex themes through a few basic visual elements, qualities that were admired and adopted by the generation of Texas artists that came to maturity in the 1980’s. The Single Mother at 3:00 A. M. [cat. #] (the title is an obvious play on Giacometti’s The Palace at 4:00 A. M.) illustrates with graphic simplicity the frustrations of single-parent survival; in subtext, it also suggests the potential eruption lurking beneath any suburban rooftop.
Gael Stack, another widely influential Texas artist, both by example and as a professor at the University of Houston since 1974, raised her two sons to adulthood as a single mother. Her signature paintings are based on a blackboard used in her home to record telephone messages, an evanescent record of the comings, goings, and crises of family life. Drawing with oil stick on black grounds in a fluid, classical line, Stack combines figures and scrawled bits of text, numbers, and dislocated household objects. The line drawings resemble the sinopia of a fresco, and they usually evidence a certain amount of adjustment of the poses [cat #]; these ghostly retracings are pentimenti in the most literal sense, meditations on what was done in one’s life and what wasn’t, what might have happened and what did. The words are usually indecipherable, readable only in occasional fragments, a record of life’s garbled communications and undelivered messages.
Stack’s sophisticated picture-making, applied to the commonplaces of middle-class life – failed relationships, raising children [il Bill 1988 (Betty Moody Gallery)], IRS audits – creates works of uncommon emotional resonance. As a psychological realist, Stack continues the progression begun with Lungkwitz’s landscapes and continued in the starkly emotive domestic exteriors painted by the Dallas Nine. Stack penetrates directly to the interior of her eviscerated, phantom figures, exposing the naked emotions of a beleaguered settler on the postmodern frontier. This frontier, like Lungkwitz’s west, isn’t the domain of epic heroes, even if journalistic myth has already enshrined one: the entrepreneur, riding the freeways in his Mercedes, armed with his cellular telephone. The actual heroics on the postmodern frontier are found in small gestures, in simple acts of persistence in the face of economic upheaval and personal doubts.
But the suburban tablelands can also offer the exhilaration and adventure of a sexual frontier. Before the advent of AIDS, Dallas’ and Houston’s throbbing late-night singles cultures, gay and straight alike (both cities’ gay communities are among the largest and most politically active in the United States), hardly evidenced the influence of the "Bible belt" morality. Joe Allen, who interrupted his art career for fifteen years to earn a living as a remodeling contractor, uses sheetrock and wood, the ubiquitous ingredients of the instant suburbs, as supports to which he pastes color xeroxes of art historical classics. The title of Ha Na Ha Na My Boyfriend’s Back [cat. #] refers to a popular song of the 1950’s, in which the protagonist expects her boyfriend’s reappearance to solve her problems. But Allen’s humorous appropriation of Pierre Cot’s The Storm, depicting the reunited lovers melodramatically fleeing the rising gale, suggests that such a deus ex machina is not likely to solve many problems in the turbulent 1990’s. In Male Slave [cat #], a phototransfer on corrugated steel, an image of a callow young man carrying a fish on his shoulders (a satire, whether intended or not, on Ernest Hemmingway’s grizzled, male-intensive fishing tales) is combined with the superimposed facsimile of a personal ad seeking "dominant female." The piece reflects the most recent trends on the sexual frontier: the increasing use of personal ads to randomly canvas for partners, a function once ceded almost exclusively to singles’ bars; the increasing confusion of male and female roles; the growing association of pain and danger with sexual adventure.
The complicated mores of Texas’ cities are matched by their racial and ethnic diversity. Blacks and Hispanics comprise over half the population of both Dallas and Houston, and both cities also have small but rapidly growing Asian communities (in ten years Houston’s Asian community, predominantly Vietnamese, has grown from scarcely measurable to the ninth largest in the United States.)
African-Americans have a venerable urban tradition in Texas, having made their great migration from the country to the city during the Reconstruction era immediately after the Civil War. The former slaves settled in "Freedmantowns," usually on the fringes of established cities, and played an important role in Texas’ urban development throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Monolithic black ghettoes weren’t a feature of Texas cities during this period, but even in racially mixed neighborhoods, blacks were obligated to create their own churches, hospitals, and schools.
In 1949 John Biggers, born in North Carolina and educated at Hampton Institute and Pennsylvania State University, came to Houston to set up an art department at the new Texas State University for Negroes (now known as Texas Southern University), which was intended as a showpiece of Texas’ separate-but-equal public education system (far more separate than equal, as Biggers discovered; he arrived to find that his "art department" was a single 18×25 ft. classroom). At Hampton Institute, Biggers had studied under Viktor Lowenfeld, an Austrian Jew who had fled the Nazis, and had been deeply impressed by Lowenfeld’s insistence that his black students make art rooted in their African heritage. An admirer of the Mexican revolutionary painters, Biggers executed several murals in Houston area public buildings, adapting the social realism of Orozco and Rivera to ambitious depictions of the historical struggle and triumphs of African- Americans [il. Web of Life Mural, Science Building, Texas Southern University.] In 1957 Biggers visited Ghana and Nigeria, where he found a magical tribal culture so visually rich that at first it "almost paralyzed" his efforts to record it. Starry Crown [cat #] has the aspect of an hallucination, a materialization from the tales told by "the old matriarchs of the race who were born in slavery… concerning their descent from from priestly warrior kings and divine queens."
Biggers has communicated his passion to several generations of students, but many younger black artists are more concerned with personal than with racial issues. Kermit Oliver, who was born in small south Texas town, studied with Biggers at TSU in the 1960’s, but arrived at a lyrical, highly subjective form of symbolic realism, a style almost pre-Raphaelite in mood and execution [cat #].
Bert Long was born in Houston’s Fifth Ward, the city’s poorest black ghetto, in 1940, and was raised by his mother after his father was killed in a steel-mill accident when Long was three years old. While in elementary school, Long spent his summers picking cotton on south Texas farms. At age 12 he became a dishwasher at an exclusive Houston private club. Long worked his way out of the underclass while working his way up in the food service industry, becoming executive sous chef at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Houston in 1977. Although he had only been painting seriously for a few years, Long abandoned his career in cuisine at the height of his success and quickly became both a political and an esthetic force in the Houston art world; in 1979 he founded the quarterly art journal Artscene, which became an important voice for a disenfranchised art community.
A self-taught artist, Long virtually ransacks the history of art in creating his highly eclectic painting/constructions. Long’s work deals only rarely with racial issues, more often focusing on his struggle to survive and mature as an artist. A Quiet Day in Studio 13 [cat #] recalls a two month residency at a foundation in Nebraska, where the "paper-thin" walls permitted an unsettling intimacy with the other artists. The disembodied eyes, the crushed paint tubes, and the axe, a metaphor for an artist’s often violent self-exploration, are all symbols of Long’s efforts to realize his inner vision. Awarded the Prix de Rome for Visual Arts in 1990, Long epitomizes a fresh, outsider sensibility characteristic of Texas art, an esthetic wildcatting that fails as often as it succeeds – but succeeds with an originality impossible with a more cautious approach [il. Homage to Picasso (collection artist – photo Houston CAM)].
Long’s assimilation into the mainstream notwithstanding, the struggle for African-American cultural identity in Texas still bears, after more than a century, the imprint of Reconstruction era hostility. With peculiar logic, white Texans blamed the newly liberated slaves for the harsh Reconstruction policies imposed by white Republicans in the decade following the Civil War, and the lingering association of blacks with an oppressive federal government is still part of Texas’ popular mythology and political cant. White antipathy has engendered – and been abetted by – a steep decline in the relative representation of blacks in Texas society; from 30 per cent of Texas’ population in 1860, blacks have steadily dwindled to less than 12 per cent in 1990. But the black-white equation is vastly complicated by the real engine of demographic and cultural change in Texas today, the great Hispanic migration of the 1980’s.
Houston’s population growth rate of roughly 30% between 1970 and 1980 fell to 2% in the succeeding decade, yet between 1980 and 1990 the Hispanic population of Houston increased by almost two thirds, to more than a quarter of the whole; Dallas’ figures during the same period are similarly dramatic. Texas’ fastest growing cities in the past decade, El Paso and San Antonio, now have strong Hispanic majorities, almost 70% in the case of El Paso. In 1900 less than one out of every twenty Texans was an Hispanic. Today one of every four Texans is of Hispanic heritage, the highest percentage for any state except New Mexico.
This wave of immigration has added to the size and complexity of an already considerable and diverse Hispanic presence in Texas. Tens of thousands of the latest arrivals live in border colonias, third-world shantytowns without plumbing or electricity, where epidemics of cholera rage unchecked. In San Antonio, descendants of a group of Canary Islanders who came to the already established Spanish frontier outpost in 1731 are members of the city’s social aristocracy. Between the extremes are the middle-class descendants of the immigrant wave that fled the Mexican revolution and civil war of 1911-1921, often thoroughly assimilated economically and socially, yet still influenced by the religious customs and folk art traditions of their grandparents.
Typical of this generation is Celia Alvarez Munoz, who grew up in the border city of El Paso and now works in the suburban city of Arlington, halfway between Dallas and Ft. Worth. Principally known for large, conceptual installation pieces, Munoz uses her Mexican-American heritage as only one element in a broad cultural synthesis. In Ella y El [cat. #], Munoz appropriates a number of conventions from Mexican art: retablos, the towering, ornate, leaved altarpieces that have dominated Mexican churches since the late 1500’s, and in considerably simpler but no less inspired forms have become fixtures of many Mexican homes; santos, small, elaborately costumed figures of saints, believed capable of miraculous intervention in their worshipper’s lives (in Mexican-American communities santos are sometimes displayed in glassed-in yard shrines called capillas); household shrines to deceased ancestors, adorned each year on "The Day of the Dead" with food, ribbons, tinsel, and tiny charms purchased to ward off specific evils and ailments. But the richly layered Mexican elements in Ella y El aren’t intended as declarations of Munoz’ bicultural identity. Instead, the photographs of ornately costumed his-and-hers santos, framed on the outside of this secular folding altarpiece, and the elaborate symbolic attributes displayed inside, ironically emphasize a pan-cultural theme, the complex expectations and conflicting roles imposed on modern relationships.
Texas’ 1000 mile border with Mexico, demarcated by the Rio Grande River, is less a barrier between two nations than an arid river valley in which a unique hybrid civilization is beginning to evolve. James Magee, a Michigan native, made art in Paris and New York and practiced law in Geneva before settling down in El Paso in 1981. An habitue of the city dump in Juarez, the Mexican sister-city (and much poorer relation) separated from El Paso by the Rio Grande, Magee uses detritus from both sides of the border to create stark, industrial sculptural collages; his subtle, minimalist palette is dictated by the colors of rust, decay, and weathered paint. The scrap mosaic of Airport Road [cat. #], behind glass in a free-standing case that suggests elements of both the capilla and the retablo, reflects the border junk-into-art esthetic known as rasquachismo. But the piece has little of the chromatic brilliance of Mexican folk art, instead conveying with remarkable realism the smog-and-dust filtered, desert-and-chemical hues of the rapidly industrializing Texas-Mexico border.
Earl Staley, perhaps the most imitated Texas painter of the last 15 years, was born in Illinois in 1938 and came to Houston in the 1960’s to teach at Rice University. He started making camping trips into the Big Bend region of far west Texas in the late 1960’s, but didn’t cross the border into Mexico until 1975; by 1979 he had set up a studio in Oaxaca. The significance of crossing the border is represented in Staley’s Boystown, Laredo (1978-9) [il. from MFA, Houston, "Fresh Paint"]. The title refers to the red-light district of the Mexican border town, an almost ritual destination for Texas high school and college boys anxious to lose their virginity. But the ceremonial, erotic dance of the nude figures in the neon-lit street represents a much more profound journey of discovery: not simply of sexuality, but of the mysterious, forbidden culture of ancient Mexico.
Fear and abhorrence of Mexican culture is deeply embedded in the Texas myth. During the war for independence, Texas patriots convinced themselves that they were dealing with a medieval atavism and evil, an attitude echoed a few years later in the dedication to the first popular novel based on the Texas revolution: "The Texians may be considered as leading a crusade in behalf of modern civilization, against the antiquated prejudices and narrow policy of the middle ages, which still govern the Mexican Republic."
The virulence of anti-Mexican sentiment subsided for some time after the Mexican War of 1845-46, not only because the Mexican military threat had been defused, but also because the number of ethnic Mexicans in Texas remained so small. But a huge wave of Mexican immigrants in the early 20th century, combined with the border depredations of Mexican bandits and revolutionaries, as well as the notorious 1917 "Zimmerman note," in which the German foreign secretary proposed that Mexico declare war on the United States, more than rekindled the old hatred. By 1935, a esteemed historian like Walter Webb could write in The Texas Rangers: "Without disparagement it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to Indian blood." Part hooded inquisitor, part savage, Webb’s Mexicans prowled the border like snarling demons, with only the dauntless Texas Rangers to hold them back.
The culture beyond the border has very little resemblance to the caricature created by Texas nationalists and perpetuated by Texas historians. Mexico’s civilization is venerable not only by American but also by European standards. In 1519, when the Spanish conquistadores (who were the vanguard of a Renaissance, not a medieval, culture), first saw the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, a city twice as large as any in Europe, its boulevards laid out in the perfect grid that Renaissance city planners had only realized on paper, they wondered if they were experiencing an hallucination. Yet Tenochtitlan was but the most recent in a series of great urban centers dating back to the time when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt.
Within the last ten years new archaeological excavations and linguistic research have expanded our knowledge of Mexico’s pre-Columbian civilization so dramatically that virtually every standard work on the subject is obsolete. The major development has been the deciphering of the hieroglyphic scripts found in Mayan art, a breakthrough in which Texas institutions have played a central role. Much of the salient scholarship was done by Linda Schele at the University of Texas at Austin, and was first presented to the general public by Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum with the 1986 exhibition "The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art." The translation of the Mayan glyphs is an historiographical event of profound import: it has given the Americas a written history, replete with names of rulers, their conquests, and their beliefs, extending back a thousand years B.C.E. In this vivid new history, Mayan civilization emerges as the western hemisphere’s classical era, a pan-American source culture as complete and compelling as the Greco-Roman heritage of Europe.
The America’s classical culture proved little contest for European Renaissance technology. The Spanish quickly crushed the Atzecs militarily, and set to work obliterating their all- pervading state religion, which structured virtually every aspect of Aztec life. Despite the Spaniards’ enthusiasm for the task (they saw themselves as engaged in the same kind of holy war they had recently concluded at home, with the conquest of Granada from the Moors in 1492), Pre-Columbian culture has proved remarkably resilient. In some villages pre-conquest languages are still spoken and ceramic vessels and figures are made with the same techniques and designs used thousands of years ago. The religion practiced by many Mexicans is a unique hybrid of Roman Catholicism and Pre-Columbian pantheism, a teeming cosmology presided over by the Christian Trinity, but inhabited with a panoply of saints, zoomorphic demons, and spirits of the dead. A yet more imaginative amalgam is found in Mexican folk art, which elaborates this medley of Christian and Pre-Columbian imagery with a decorative exuberance borrowed from the upper-class criollo style (itself a sophisticated fusion of Baroque, Islamic, and Oriental influences), the visual expression of nascent Mexican nationalism in eighteenth century New Spain.
Diego Rivera frequently invoked the Pre-Columbian past as a symbol of twentieth century Mexican nationalism [il. The Great City of Tenochtitlan (Palacio Nacional, Mexico City)], finding in Mexico’s ancient glory a vision of the nation’s future. During the 1930’s, when Rivera was painting murals and creating controversy in the United States, there was an effort in north-of-the-border intellectual circles to claim a share of the Pan- American cultural legacy. The Southwest Review ran several prominent articles proclaiming a "New Pan-Americanism" and calling for the "building of cultural bridges" between the United States and Mexico. The 1937 Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition at the new Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, an exhibition of works by the Lone Star Regionalists and contemporary Latin American artists, also included Pre-Columbian artifacts. Alexandre Hogue did the cover for the catalog and Jerry Bywaters declared the exhibition "much more vital" to Texas art than the previous year’s Texas Centennial exhibition.
This expansive Pan-American vision did not come to fruition (a fate shared by the Mexican revolution) and has not been formally articulated since. But many Anglo Texas artists have informally claimed Mexico and Latin America as a legitimate cultural patrimony. Houston artist Lucas Johnson lived in Mexico for ten years during the 1960’s and 1970’s and has regularly exhibited his work at galleries in Mexico City. His Valley of the Monuments [cat.#], painted in a precise, surrealistic style reminiscent of the work of Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo (whose legacy is far more important than Rivera’s among the current generation of Mexican artists), evokes a primordial Mexican landscape stirring with powerful, mythic forces, a realm of both natural and manmade prodigies. Michael Collin’s Rainforest I [cat. #] is also a Pan-American landscape, though from an entirely different perspective; it symbolizes the loss of the sub-tropical rain forests and the potentially catastrophic effects on the world’s climate.
Sharon Kopriva’s Raisin Woman was inspired by the artist’s visit to Peru in 1982 (like Mexico, Peru was the center of a series of sophisticated Pre-Columbian empires). The withered, almost vegetal figure is a re-creation in wood, animal bones, and papier mache of the mummified corpses found at Nazca and Inca burial sites. Keenly balanced between preservation and decay, between a mocking afterlife and a dignified sleep, the Raisin Woman reflects attitudes about death that predate the introduction of Christianity into the western hemisphere. Here death is part of a regenerative cycle, in Kopriva’s words, "like winter in the garden," a gentler version of the Pre-Columbian belief in a relentlessly reborn universe, where even the stars had to perish in celestial combat each night so that the sun could rise in the morning.
Ultimately the Pan-Americanism of Texas art is less a matter of appropriated imagery and beliefs than it is a fundamental attitude about making art, an attitude in which Houston and Mexico City are more closely linked than Houston and New York. The function of Mexican art, from 3000 year old Olmec sculptures to the twentieth century murals, has always been mass communication, the expression in direct, easily readable symbols of commonly held beliefs about the nature of the universe, the structure of the body politic, and the ordinary man’s place in both. This emphasis on communication and content appealed to the Lone Star Regionalists, and is shared by many Texas artists who came to maturity in the 1980’s. Today’s Texas art, like Mexican art, is concerned with finding coherent, readable symbols for complex, transformational social and intellectual forces. Like Mexican art, Texas art is a mythmaking enterprise, and Texas artists understand that myths should carry their own exegesis. Houston native Kopriva echoes the attitude of many of her colleagues when she comments, "If I had grown up in New York I might be painting gray mud and having to write a ten page essay to explain why I did it."
The myth Texas artists are currently defining is not nearly so simple as a revisionist Texas myth, or even a new Pan-American myth, although it includes elements of both. It is a working model of a postmodern myth that is at once regional and global. The prototype factory for this myth is Houston, which is arguably the first postmodern art center; at the least it can indisputably claim the first postmodern skyline. More important, Houston is the first art center to emerge in an era marked by two key economic details: a dramatic reduction in the cost of international air travel, and a dramatic inflation in land values and living costs in the world’s great cities.
Few young artists can afford to live in the cities whose cutting-edge cosmopolitanism and economic vitality would, in other ages, have made them cultural capitals. Today’s New York artists are for the most part actually Hoboken or Brooklyn artists, and the cost of living in Tokyo makes unlikely even the brief florescence of a Soho or East Village. On the other hand, quick, cheap access to the capitals of virtually every epoch and culture is now available to artists living virtually anywhere in the industrial world. This unprecedented mobility has produced the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan generation of artists in history, artists who are studying in a global atelier and then returning to places like Houston – large enough and sufficiently variegated to nourish a community of artists, yet not so densely populated as to crowd them out – to pursue their careers. The age of the cultural capitals is over, at least for the next historical moment. The art of the twenty-first century is likely to be defined in a half-dozen or fifteen or even thirty centers of fast-happening quite similar to present-day Houston.
Looking at Texas art today, one can already see the outlines of this twenty-first century culture. In certain ways it will resemble the culture of the Hellenistic world two thousand years ago, when Roman power enabled relatively quick, safe travel throughout the Mediterranean region, establishing the Greco-Roman tradition as an international cultural language modified by various national inflections. The shared lexicon of the postmodern version of Hellenism is far more complex than the original, incorporating the entire range of art history and admitting new idioms, such as Mayan classicism, almost as soon as they are identified. This polyglot offers a baffling range of expressions; for many artists it is sufficient simply to offer up inchoate babble in the not-unwarranted hope that it will be mistaken for profundity. But for the best Texas artists, the objective is to shape understandable phrases from this welter of dialects.
Earl Staley is Texas art’s most accomplished and protean mythmaker. In addition to his interest in Mexican culture, he has adapted and narrated Greek, North American Indian, and Biblical myths [il. The Fall of Man (1977) collection Balene and Sanford McCormick, Houston.]. Staley’s allegories are always told in a direct, uncomplicated style that makes all the more convincing his portrayal of miraculous, inexplicable events [cat # Healing ]. These elegant fables, which frequently deal with erotic love in both its destructive and creative manifestations, proceed from Staley’s laconic mandate: "I decided simply to stop making ‘art’ and make pictures and tell stories."
Vernon Fisher, a Fort Worth native, rivals Staley as an influence on other Texas artists. Like Staley’s, Fisher’s art is fundamentally narrative, but the syntax is more complicated and the stories are pointedly inconclusive. In early works like Desert Malevich (1978) [il. (collection Al Souza)], Fisher combined banal, roadside-eye photorealistic images of the West Texas landscape with original passages of writing; the text was laid out in plastic letters placed behind the canvas and then sanded into the image. Desert Malevich demythologizes the landscape by contrasting the absurd icons of settlement – a road sign reads "Drive Friendly" – with melodramatic passages such as "Spreading out behind in all directions he could see nothing but endless miles of rock and cactus…." The second half of the diptych demythologizes abstract art, ironically echoing the desert landscape with Malevich’s description of his journey into the "desert" of non-objective art. In later works such as Movements Among the Dead [cat. #], the text has disappeared and the landscape elements have become found objects: the phototransfered landscape vignette is an incongruous patch (inspired by Fisher’s observation of automobile body-shop repairs) on the blackboard-like surface of the painting; the underlying wooden lattice alludes to a west Texas railroad trestle bridge pictured in a painting that hung in Fisher’s boyhood home. Fisher’s facsimile of a myth, patched over the remnant of a memory, becomes a metaphor for a fragmentary and allusive postmodern culture.
For all its deconstructive wit, Fisher’s art aspires to the construction of a subtle postmodern mythology. Red and Yellow, Black and White [cat. #] is a compendium of recurring themes: sudden death on the highway ("…a car has overturned and is burning…"); sudden nuclear annihilation (the Poseidon missile bursting from the sea); the black trapezoid, both a mute vestige of modernist utopianism and a symbol of cosmic indifference ("deep in space, a supernova larger than a galaxy is collapsing… it is a dot in a photograph.") Yet these random events unfold in a consistent sequence from cosmic to global to personal, as if the universe is composed of Dantesque spheres spinning madly to some discordant, atonal music: the music of chaos, yet music nonetheless. In this private version of chaos theory, Fisher finds a purposeful essence in the accumulated accidents of life.
Bill Komodore’s art mediates between Staley and Fisher, disassembling and reassembling western mythology with remarkable pictorial daring. Born in Greece in 1932, Komodore came to the United States as a teen-ager. After studying with Hans Hoffman and Mark Rothko in the 1950’s, Komodore worked in New York during the 1960’s, painting hard-edged optical abstractions that were included in major exhibitions such as the Whitney Museum’s 1967 "Annual" and 1968 "Artists under Forty." In the 1970’s Komodore went to Virginia to teach and turned to figurative art; he settled in Dallas in 1977. Classical Still Life [cat. #] (1986) reveals Komodore’s gift for synthesis, combining Rothko’s somber palette and Hoffman’s painterly structure in a still life that further challenges tradition with its outsize scale and recklessly asymmetrical composition. Somehow Komodore commands this volatile eclecticism, imparting the still life a Morandi-like stability and metaphysical presence (Morandi was another Komodore mentor).
Orpheus Assembled (1990) [cat. #] is Komodore’s treatment of the Greek myth that has most profoundly resonated throughout western culture. In the myth’s coda, Orpheus, torn apart by "bad" nymphs for neglecting to praise them and instead singing about his dead wife, is reassembled for burial by "good" nymphs, enabling him to enter Paradise. This Orpheus is an allegory of art and its sundered and recovered traditions; as Komodore puts it, "the body of art disassembled and assembled endlessly." But the brutalized yet transcendent figure, with its intentional evocation of the dead Christ, can also be read as a more expansive corpus, a great, fragmented body of myth and belief whose recovery, if only for burial, engenders the hope of a resurrection.
The dialogue between abstraction and representation found in Komodore’s oeuvre, both over time and within individual paintings, is common in the work of younger Texas artists. Frances Bagley’s Centrifugal Torso [cat. #] combines post- minimalist, soft geometry with the humanist tradition of the classical torso, a cross-fertilization assisted by casting in bronze the original wood and reed construction. Danny William’s Transfiguration [cat. #] evokes a vast range of mediterranean art, from Roman portrait busts to Renaissance interiors to Post- Impressionist still-life and landscape, all presented in a postmodern package of unusually seamless elegance and simplicity. In Death and Allusion [cat. #], Michael Whitehead, an English native who came to Texas in the mid-1980’s, repeatedly layers auto paint and tar to create a primeval still life, a pair of vases suspended between two-dimensional representation and three-dimensional realization. The vessels are artifacts of the postmodern age, with the artist’s presence, in both gesture and process, recorded on the template of an ancient form. Randy Twaddle’s black-and-white charcoal drawing More Winged Victories [cat. #] translates technology into archetype, employing the silhouette of a microwave transmitter as a somewhat ironic suggestion of the eponymous classical sculpture; the cross-cultural analogy is annotated with inflections of oriental calligraphy and Franz Kline.
This skill at building basic icons from intricate layers of meaning achieves both a baroque richness and analytical rigor in the work of Tracy Harris. Untitled [cat. #] reveals her typical working mode, beginning with a few basic forms which are repainted and redrawn repeatedly in oil stick and encaustic, the successive layers selectively erased or revealed by turpentine and sandpaper. The result of all this labor is not an idle exposition of process, but an intriguing kind of post-cubist still life. Taking the architectonic fragments that the cubists reassembled with such classical care, Harris clones them in separate universes where they establish their own laws of time, space, perception, and memory. A limited repertoire of forms mutate into limitless possibilities, with exteriors exploding into interiors, mechanical forms gyring into organic shapes. Tower [cat. #] presents a unified field theory for commonplace objects, with ropes, nuts, ziggurats, vortexes, wheels, and turbines all proceeding from the same primordial whirling impulse. Harris’ is a universe stripped of its comforting perceptual surfaces, revealing in the simplest things the cosmic dialectic between atrophy and entropy, between timeless singularity and unending evolution.
Harris’s extraordinary vision also provides a metaphor for the collective vision presented in this exhibition: Texas Vision enables us to see Texas culture stripped of its appealing but superficial mythic gloss, revealing a structure that derives its strength from the great tensions inherent in its construction and the profound possibilities offered by its evolution. It is the framework for a culture of inclusion, one which will succeed because of, not in spite of, its varied sources, a culture united in a vital ecumenicism rather than an oppressive orthodoxy.
The contribution Richard and Nona Barrett have made to that nascent culture – the culture of the twenty-first century – is significant. They view themselves primarily as champions of Texas artists and proselytes among unconverted fellow collectors, a role they fulfill with a steady agenda of public lectures and private tours of their collection. I take a much broader view of their efforts. In the five years of collecting represented in this exhibition, the Barretts have begun the recovery of at least a hundred years of Texas history from the embarrassed silence of Texas’ cultural institutions. The Barrett Collection is a challenge to Texas’ major museums to research, catalog, exhibit, add to, and interpretively assess their collections of Texas art. It is a challenge to mainstream Texas historians and writers to discard an exhausted mythology, and it is a challenge to the revisionists who have already done so to provide a place for Texas art in their new histories. It is, finally, an invitation to every Texan and every spiritual heir of the Texas myth, regardless of residence, to peer through the looking glass of history and discover the future.
The twelve years since this essay was written represent a considerable leap of time in the rapidly-evolving universe of the visual arts: just think about the progression of American art between 1950 and 1962, from the emergence of Pollock to the apotheosis of Pop. And much has changed in Texas since this essay was written in 1992. Some artists have, sadly, literally passed from the scene (Alexandre Hogue and Lucas Johnson), while a new generation has moved to the vanguard, many working in an increasingly diverse assortment of media: site-specific and installation art, video, DVD, digital photography, and sound recordings. Yet even as new artists and new media claim the stage, it is remarkable how little has fundamentally changed. If anything, the burden of Texas mythology on Texas culture is heavier than ever: to both admirers and detractors, the most recent Texas president (an occasional oilman who bought a ranch months before declaring his candidacy and has since made regular use of its home-on-the-range symbolism) has become the international embodiment of the state’s stereotypes. Yet even as Texas’ political profile seems increasingly white, male, and suburban, our demographic and cultural diversification has only accelerated. At the same time that a particularly gifted cohort of young African-American artists has risen to prominence, the inexorable, returning tide of Hispanic culture and influence is starting to look more like a tsunami. The Pan American culture envisioned by Texas artists back in the 1920’s will be the everyday reality of Texans in the 2020’s.
As Texas culture becomes increasingly ecumenical, its fundamental language – the language of myth – is likely to remain largely unchanged. While aggressively exploring new media, the new faces on the Texas scene have proved equally committed to that traditional virtue of Texas art, the translation of intricate layers of meaning into a potently direct visual vocabulary. And these clear, eloquent voices have only become more important. Challenged by the necessity of reviving its urban centers, meeting the educational requirements of a global economy, and integrating one the world’s most diverse populations, Texas can no longer afford stale stereotypes; to continue our embarrassed indifference to our complex cultural patrimony is to deprive the state of an essential tool for twenty-first century competitiveness. In 1992 the Barrett Collection represented an invitation to Texans to peer through the looking glass of a poorly perceived past and discover their future. Today the murky, often misleading reflection of our mythic history seems no less familiar than it did then. But twelve years later, there is a significant difference: the future Texas artists have so brilliantly prophesied is now staring us directly in the face.