The Art of Richard Stout
written by Judith Taylor
In August, the nation watched as hurricane forces brought devastation to the Gulf Coast. As Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I received an advance release of Sense of Home / The Art of Richard Stout, published by Texas A&M Press. Home, for Stout, is the southeast coastal region hit by Harvey.
In the TAMU monograph, author William Reeves sums up the artist’s career, saying Stout has created “poetic and sensitive expressions of the Texas coast. . . [He] absolutely captures its light, color, atmosphere, mood and mystery, and he does so with unparalleled fidelity and regard.”
On first reviewing the sixty-eight full-color plates included in Sense of Home, my eye fell to a 1959 painting titled The Black Wave, which I was pleased to see was in a private Austin collection. The fluid brush strokes move from left to right settling into bubbling abnormalities on the water’s surface. Long, reaching strokes combined with delicate line work and contrasting hues create an ode to Stouts’s love affair with the Gulf Coast. What one does not easily distinguish in the book’s reproduction is the texture—areas of layered, built-up paint that add yet another dimension to surface. This I discovered when Charles Peveto, an avid collector of midcentury modernism, invited me to see the actual painting.
Katie Robinson Edwards, curator for the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum and art historian recognized for her research and expertise in Modernism, wrote one of the book’s five essays, which give insight into Stout’s work:
“The Black Wave (1959) is a major work that alludes in title and image to an abnormal disturbance of the surface. It is easy to be pulled in to Stout’s wide horizontal painting, to be absorbed in the elegant contrast of light surface and foamy black curves, without realizing the wave is heading in the viewer’s direction.”
Edwards’ essay, titled Bound to the Sea, opens our minds to Stout’s connectivity to the coast. “Richard Stout’s work has always been anchored to the coast, returning to it again and again as a perpetual source… The tenuousness of human existence… always at the mercy of the vast and capricious ocean, resonated powerfully… [and] would be transformed into a symbolic motif in Stout’s paintings.”
Two paintings, Home and Hamlet, both from Stout’s personal collection, illustrate this point and recall the destruction by 1961 hurricane Carla, notes Edwards:
“In Home (1966), a crimson-red house sits precariously on the edge of a cliff against a bland, cream-colored sky. The source material is, of course, his Bolivar home, which Stout has said was 15 feet from the water on three sides. The house has been torn apart. Ocean-colored teal, deepest blue and black mix with the red and pour out of the bifurcation. A potent symbol of devastation of all types, Home lets Stout equate expressionistic painterly gesture directly with intense emotional content. He followed this work with a companion piece entitled Hamlet (1966), delving further into this theme… in his mature years, Stout would deeply explore the boundaries of building and sea, inside and out.”
Stillness and silence, space, time and memory (are) the essential ingredients.
Beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s, Stout established himself as one of the leading modernists working in Houston, alongside Dorothy Hood, Dick Wray, Jim Love and Jack Boynton. Both paintings suggest Dorothy Hood’s influence in both strong bold color, form and the push and pull of angst associated with the “tenuousness of human existence” and the forces of nature.
Stout often used structure and architecture to convey the coastal view. In Seiche II (1956), one sees the beginning of his use of structure to anchor the movement of a wave-like mass rendered in the organic color palette associated with Stout’s representation of the Gulf. This particular painting is in the permanent collection of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont.
A similar painting, completed a decade later, illustrates the artist’s progression. Here, structure gives way to architectural elements that present a more complex, thought-provoking, surreal viewpoint. The movement carries the eye through a partial door, up a staircase to an organic focal point, a freshly gathered bouquet representative of the coastal terrain. Untitled (1967), while not published in Sense of Home, is in the private collection of Austinite Robert Hardgrave, a longtime friend of Stout’s.
Hardgrave is particularly intrigued with the impact the artist creates. “There is, for me, a recurrent element that I feel in viewing many of Richard’s paintings—a sense of being drawn in, as through a door or space. Sometimes it is structural, sometimes by color, but it is an atmospheric pull into the painting that I think is quite wonderful.”
In his essay The Silence that Lives in Houses, art historian David E. Brauer addresses changes in Richard Stout’s work that emerge in the mid-1980s, pointing to “Stillness and silence, space, time and memory [as] the essential ingredients… The cumulative power of these works moves us beyond aesthetics to philosophy; these are the refractive meditations on the nature of existence itself, that perpetually changing condition of the now.” Brauer concludes that “One is reluctant to interpret or overinterpret works by any artist… The painting must ultimately stand on its own.”
Winter Light (1998) is one such painting that without question “stands on its own.” The red armoire provides structure, but it is what is absent—a wall on the right-hand side—that brings a surreal element to the painting, while the lack of reference to individuals moves, as Brauer noted, “beyond aesthetics to… refractive meditations.”
This fall, the Art Museum of Southeast Texas presents an exhibition by the same name, Sense of Home, featuring Stout’s work from the 1950s to the present covering the artist’s prolific career. In my mind, one particular painting represented in both the book and the exhibition pulls together the multifaceted meaning of Sense of Home. A Day at Rollover Bay (2015) provides a tranquil view of the Bolivar Island property. Compositionally, architectural elements are balanced with linear marks that segment the canvas, while the color palette of blues and greens merge land and sea as if seen from varied angles and differing points in time; yet, it is the playful ribbons of red that convey the joyful nature of home.