Katie Robinson Edwards
University of Texas Press, 2014
Reviewed by JUDITH TAYLOR
With comments by the author
In Midcentury Modern Art in Texas, Katie Robinson Edwards presents a comprehensive view of modernism in Texas, covering twenty-five years beginning in the mid 1930s. Across the country, the wave of modernism was taking hold; in Texas, “artists absorbed and interpreted the latest, most radical formal lessons of Mexico, the East Coast, and Europe, while still responding to the state’s dramatic history and geography,” the historian notes.
Edwards’ new research opens the window to a period of art in Texas that until now was lesser known, yet laid the foundation for the state’s cultural cities as we know them today. Organized around significant events and key figures, the author’s extensive knowledge and fluid writing style sets the Texas modernist within the context of American art.
The year of the Texas Centennial, 1936, marks the beginning of Texas modernism. A group of educated and curious Dallas artists, referred to as the “Dallas Nine,” worked tirelessly to ensure that young Texas artists were represented in the cultural celebration. Unable to secure the commission to create the mural for the Hall of State, the group looked elsewhere. The $500,000 Art Deco Dallas Museum of Arts (DMA) building at Fair Park was completed just in time for the centennial and provided the Dallas artists the exposure they sought.
Of particular interest is the role that Jerry Bywaters and Alexandre Hogue played in the Centennial exhibition. Hogue’s Drought Stricken Area, still in the DMA’s permanent collection, and Jerry Bywaters’ In the Chair Car along with his essays on the exhibition brought national attention. Interestingly, Bywaters would later serve twenty years as the Director of DMA. Hogue is often referred to as the “Dust Bowl Bill Condon, Houston Ship Channel, 1958, oil on panel, 24 x 80 in. Courtesy of Collection of Charles M. Peveto, Austin, Texas artist” and the first American artist to give voice to erosion and conservation of the land.
The success of the Centennial Exposition is best stated in a quote from Art Digest, 1936: “Texas is Big . . . and whether New York knows it or not, the commonwealth . . . (is) contributing a vital element to the nation’s art.” In essence, this is the thesis of Edwards’ book as she chronicles the artistic developments in Houston, Austin, Fort Worth, and Dallas in the context of American Modernism.
In Fort Worth, the modernist painters referred to themselves as “The Eight” in joking response to the Dallas Nine, though today they are known as the “Fort Worth Circle.” Their personalities collectively and individually were far less conservative than those of their Dallas peers. The group included Fort Worth native Dickson Reeder, the group’s unofficial leader, and Kelly Fearing, who in 1952 began his forty-year-long tenure at The University of Texas College of Fine Arts.
Speaking of the camaraderie of the Fort Worth Circle, Fearing recalled a remark made by Otiz Dozier: “You boys, you girls over here have such fun. We’re so stodgy in Dallas. We don’t do anything like this.”
The group looked to European modernism for inspiration and inward for subject matter, rejecting the realistic imagery that had anchored Texas regionalism.
Turning to Houston, Edwards traces the achievements in art and architecture and explains how, by the 1950s, the city had reached “the top tier of the art world.” Modernist institutions, patrons/ philanthropists, and artists, including the noted painter Robert Preusser, wove the city’s cultural fabric. Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) was the first arts museum in Texas. In 1958, philanthropist Nina Cullinan set in motion the museum’s master plan by donating funds for its Mies van der Rohe expansion. Preusser was instrumental in organizing the Contemporary Art Association (CAA) which became the Contemporary Art Museum. Not a part of the old guard of the MFA, John and Dominique de Menil “ . . . grew impatient with the Contemporary and through collecting and vanguard patronage . . . began to construct their own alternative to the CAA’s modernism.” Today the Menil Collection is a force in the international art world, housed in its trademark gray building designed by Renzo Piano.
Current trends often compare the art DNA of the four cities which Edwards explores in Midcentury Modern Art in Texas. To understand the differences as well as each metropolitan area’s assets, one need only read Edwards’ book. The twenty-five years of modernism she documents set the evolution of each city’s trajectory and helped define the individual cultural personalities of today.
Three Who Made Their Mark
The individual artists whose careers, artistic pursuits, and contributions Katie Edwards presents in her in depth review of Midcentury Modern Art in Texas are too numerous to mention. Some will be readily recognized by readers; others are less known. While talking with Ms. Edwards, I asked her whom she considered the most significant – or stated more casually – the most outsized. She spoke of three: Forrest Bess, Robert Preusser, and Toni LaSelle:
Bess is surely the most recognizable name in midcentury Texas art. And speaking of the Menil’s ongoing dedication to Lone Star artists, curator Clare Elliott recently organized Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, with a marvelous catalogue. (The show is currently at the Hammer Museum in L.A.) For those who haven’t heard of Bess, he’ll stick in your mind for having undergone self-surgery in an attempt to fuse his male and female qualities. Like other historians and critics, I point out how tough it is to distinguish the paintings from the persona. But that’s precisely the point: if you really study Bess’s small-scale paintings, with their symbol system and handmade frames, you realize he intended for his art and androgynous goals to be understood as one. Interestingly enough, I used to teach Bess to my Baylor University Studio and Art History students. We even saw the Robert Gober-curated Bess room in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, which included graphic photos of Bess’s nether region. But some of the students were highly perceptive, seeing Bess as an early performance artist whose philosophy was inseparable from his art.
Bess came from Bay City, but spent significant time in Houston. As a young man, he cofounded a short-lived modern art gallery with our next outsized artist: Robert Preusser. Preusser opens and closes my book, partly because his importance extended well beyond his own art. First, he was precocious – my book reproduces a painting he made around age 17 in which one can see many of his interests: geometric abstraction, space (and outer space), rapid shifts in depth of field, etc. While still a teenager, he studied at what we call “the new Bauhaus” in Chicago with László Moholy-Nagy. Second, he was a contemporary art advocate, helping to found the Contemporary Arts Association in Houston. Third, he embarked on a second life/career when he left Houston in 1954 and became professor at MIT. There he dedicated the rest of life to interdisciplinary work in art and science. It’s funny that Preusser is still my guidepost. With the help of JD Talasek, Director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences, the Umlauf launched a series of Art- Science salons called ATX Laser. Someday I’d like to present Preusser’s work at an ATX Laser. In keeping with his belief that the viewer should be fully engaged, his work expanded from the single painting to fun-house-style quasi-psychedelic rooms that remind me of artists like Tony Oursler.
Researching this book was gratifying in many ways, like when I began to see how much Texas modern art owes to women. The modern era itself in Europe and the U.S. saw a shift in women’s roles, from passive art subjects to active art producers. Texas kept up with the worldwide development, but perhaps Texas women led the charge more forcibly. Dorothy Antoinette “Toni” LaSelle was truly a pioneer in abstraction. She taught at Texas Woman’s University in Denton for over four decades, spending many summers at Hans Hofmann’s school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her own paintings are carefully balanced abstractions of geometric shapes that clearly abide Hofmann’s push-pull directive regarding how to engage color and shape. But she was also a fervent believer in the power of architecture, leading over 300 students to help construct the exterior and interior of O’Neil Ford’s Little Chapel in the Woods. Her legacy extends beyond her phenomenal art to the thousands of students she mentored over her career to the modernist building that still stands today.