Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fresh Paint 25 Years Later

Robert Boyd

In January, 1985, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts opened a gigantic show of paintings by Houston area artists called Fresh Paint: The Houston School, curated by Barbara Rose and Susie Kalil. As far as I know, it was the first time the MFAH had devoted a large show to local artists. James Surls spoke about this last year at Lawndale, how in the 70s Houston art institutions were deathly afraid of failure. The implication was that if you put up a show of Houston art, you might get laughed at as provincial. But then Peter Marzio came along to run the MFAH, and he was a bit more expansive and risk-taking in his vision. Besides, by the early 80s, a lot of exciting art was being done in Houston. This exhibit was huge--44 painters in the Mies-designed front part of the museum. The paintings varied in size but tended towards being big. I was still a student at Rice and was excited about the show--although I had mixed feeling about the work.

Why this show? Why 1985? These questions are easy to answer, really. During the sixties and especially the 70s, Houston had grown substantially. That growth was fueled by the oil industry. While the rest of the country was knocked off its feet repeatedly by high oil prices, Houston prospered. A smugness, a certain unattractive swagger developed. (Totally unjustified--Houston had no control over oil prices, even thought it benefited from their rapid rise.) In 2009 dollars, the price of oil in 1970 was $9.94/bbl. In 1985, it was $54.95/bbl. (The price of oil collapsed the next year and didn't start recovering until 1999--this past-decade-long revival of the price of oil is one of the reasons Texas has suffered less than other parts of the country during the past two recessions.) 1985 was therefore a peak year. Great cities celebrate their wealth with art. Hence Fresh Paint. Hence FotoFest, which also began in 1985. And Fresh Paint wasn't just for Houston to pat itself on the back--it traveled to P.S. 1 in May of 1985. We were ready to show New York a thing or two.

But 25 years later, how does it stand up? I mostly have my memories and my copy of the catalog to go by. The first thing that rankles, and even then seemed an overreach, was the identification of a "Houston School" of painting. The rationale here was that in the Renaissance, there were distinct regional schools tied to specific Italian cities. Furthermore, one could reasonably point to places like Chicago and L.A. as having distinct regional voices and approaches--schools, if you must use the term. So why not Houston? All that was needed was to find some kind of stylistic or thematic link that tied Houston artists together.

This was folly. Here's what Thomas McEvilley wrote in Artforum at the time. He says it a lot better than I can.
The show is one in which the critic must review the curating before the work; the curating is so extravagant that the work can hardly be seen until one has blown away the cloud of claims that surround it. And when it is seen, it is found to be still without the frame or horizon which it is curating's responsibility to provide. Above all, Rose and Kalil have failed to present their Houston artists in a relation to the world. To say that these artists are gifted is not to say much. Entering the "Fresh Paint" show in the Miesian space of the museum's Cullinan Hall is both shocking and stimulating. The visual clamor is deafening. Walking through it is like riding waves of sometimes discordant music. To walk through the "Fresh Paint" show with the question of a school in mind is chaos. Everywhere are conflicting values which annihilate one another.
There just wasn't enough tying these artists together to make the case that there was a "Houston school." I can almost imagine what they were thinking, though. They saw a bunch of paintings by local artists that were, broadly speaking, neoexpressionist (which was the hip thing to be as painting and the art market revived in the 1980s--think Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz, David Salle, etc.), but with injections of semi-tropical color (which could reflect the greenness of Houston), neon-ish touches (reflecting both Houston's gaudiness and Mexican border towns) and a certain Mexican influence (from the great Mexican painters, from the border, from the influence of Mexican immigrants, etc.) And this stuff is present in a lot of the paintings, more or less. But seen from the vantage point of today, it seems a little kitschy. I'm looking at you Earl Staley, Malinda Beeman, Patrick Cronin and Craig Lesser.

Rose and Kalil also make a case that Houston artists are non-abstract. "The use of figuration is similarly motivated today [...] by the desire to communicate with the public rather than to remain locked in the isolated prison of art for art's sake. The general antagonism of Houston-based artists to elitist styles, intelligible only to the initiated, is as much a moral position as it is an attraction to local folk traditions as opposed to the academic elitism of the more hermetic modernist styles." (Barbara Rose, "Painting is Dead, Long Live Painting in Houston", Fresh Paint: The Houston School, 1985)  But some of the best paintings in the show--those by Dorothy Hood, Joseph Glasco and Basilios Poulos, for example--are completely abstract and most definitely come out of the modernist tradition.

And because Rose and Kalil identified this "school" as a school of painting, this meant artists working in other media were left out. If you were to make a list of the top Houston artists from the last 30 years, James Surls, Mel Chin and Jim Love would be near the top. But because of the thesis advanced by Rose and Kalil, they are necessarily left out of this show. Furthermore, from the vantage of today, you have to ask, "Painting? Why painting?" It wouldn't be fair to criticize the curators for focusing on painting--it was in the air. The art world was full of discussion and argument about the revival of painting--particularly neoexpressionism--that accompanied the explosion of the art market. Some--the October critics especially--saw this as retrograde and reactionary, driven by money. Others, famously Thomas Lawson, formulated defenses of painting. Rose and Kalil allied themselves with the conservatives and with money. Still, that meant that this show had to ignore a lot of the previous 25 years in art. To see Fresh Paint was to see what art would be like if there had been no Happenings, no neo-dada, no Minimalism, no post-minimalism, no conceptual art, no process art, no performance art, no Arte Povera, no Earth Art, no Art & Technology, no Fluxus, etc.

So there was a lot to criticize about the show, but why bother? This was an exhibit that had its run 25 years ago. At the time, it engendered a lot of the same kind of discussion. The No Zoning catalog said this: "Sparking heated debate about inclusions versus exclusions, and the true definition of the "Houston School," the exhibition was nonetheless a watershed moment in the maturation of the Houston scene." (Caroline Huber and The Art Guys, "Merging Traffic: A Chronology", No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston, 2009.) It's pointless to complain about it now.

The questions that should be asked, 25 years later, are these. What affect did the show have on Houston's art scene? Did the show represent the direction of Houston art going forward? (Or another way of asking it would be, was there a Houston School?) And what happened to the artists in the show?

The last question is the easiest to answer, thanks to a handy little research tool called Google. It let me down with 10 of the artists--I just couldn't find much on them. But I found quite a lot on most of the rest.

As you might expect, some of them have died, and some of them have moved away from Houston. At least eight of the artists are dead. A few of the older artists died of old-age related things, but at least a couple died in tragic circumstances. James Bettison got sick with bacterial meningitis in 1991 and finally died in 1997. (This obituary doesn't mention it, but later articles suggest Bettison had AIDS, and bacterial meningitus is known to attack people with weakened immune systems from HIV and AIDS.) Robin Utterback was murdered in 2007 by his partner, who then committed suicide.

At least 11 of the artists no longer live in Houston or the Houston area (although a few that moved only made it as far as Austin). One of the artists who moved and who is doing some really interesting work is Sara Stites. She is now living in Miami, and this is an example of her current work.


Derek Boshier is now in Los Angeles, but it always seemed a bit bogus to lump him into a "Houston School." He happened to be teaching here in he 80s, and doing some brightly colored, painterly works that could be lumped in with neoexpressionism. But he had already had a pretty distinguished career in the U.K. when he came here. The work he does now seems to take elements of his earlier Pop art and elements of his Houston-era expressionism and combines them. (Interestingly, Boshier was a well-loved teacher for two cartoonists I really respect, Scott Gilbert, who studied with him here in Houston, and Eddie Campbell, one of the most important cartoonists alive, who studied with Boshier in England.)

Among those who stayed in Houston are many of the respected elders of the Houston art scene--Sharon Kopriva, Gael Stack, Bas Poulos, etc. I've seen good shows from some of the artists--Kelly Alisons's bird paintings at G Gallery, for example, and Perry House's show at NauHaus last year. Earl Staley lives in Tomball now and has an amusing blog, Professor Art.

Kelley Alison, Oh Well, paint on book pages, 2010

In short, a lot of the artists from Fresh Paint are still around, still productive, still voices in the Houston scene. But not every story has been so great. In 2004, the Houston Press had a great article called "No Virgins, No Velvet" which was about the difficulties Latino artists had making it in Houston. As their main example, they wrote about the rise and fall of the career of Ibsen Espada. As far as I can tell, his last solo show was in 2002 at Sicardi.

A much more tragic story is that of Kermit Oliver, a painter in a classical style who specializes in religious themes. His son, Khrystian, murdered a man during a robbery in Nacogdoches, was tried, convicted, and executed in 2009. Khrystian had been Kermit's model in many paintings, including an image of Christ resurrected that hangs over the altar in the Morrow Chapel at Trinity Episcopal Church on Holman. (Oliver has had great success as a painter, however, including a solo exhibit at the MFAH in 2005.)

Did Fresh Paint point the way forward for Houston art? To an extent, yes. After all, most of the participants kept on painting, and many stayed here in Houston to practice their art. However, if one were to discuss the art produced in Houston between 1985 and now and to make a list of the most significant artists, it wouldn't be the Fresh Paint people. It wouldn't really be painters for the most part, or else it would be artists for whom painting was just a part of their overall practice. The Art Guys had their first solo show in 1983, for example. I think the most important work in Houston has been more conceptual, more performance based, and more community oriented. I think of Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses or Jim Pirtle and Notsuoh. I think sculpture in the broadest sense of the word (including social sculpture in the Joseph Beuys sense) has been pretty key. One need only think of artists like Paul Kittelson, Havel and Ruck, and Lee Littlefield. And fundamentally, the Houston art scene seems a lot more diverse and eclectic than what one would have expected from Fresh Paint. I feel pretty confident in saying that it would make no curatorial sense to try to do a big but tightly focused exhibit like Fresh Paint today. And indeed, what we now see are curators who assemble shows out of smaller, more focused groups of Houston artists.


  1. A fun little note to add to this thread.

    Sometime between 2005 and 2010 Barbara and I were talking about the great artists in Washington, DC that never received much attention. (Barbara is from the Washington area, originally.) The conversation segued to this "show [she] did in Houston called "Fresh Paint.""

    It seems collectors in Houston didn't think there were any great painters in the area. Like the big-wig collectors in DC, they'd just go to New York or Paris and buy third rate Picassos. If I recall correctly, one of these collectors declared that there were so few decent painters in Houston that you couldn't put a sizeable survey of their work together.

    It's like that time Willem de Kooning slandered Leo Castelli, saying you could give him a couple of beer cans and he'd sell them. So, Jasper Johns bronzed a couple of beer cans and Leo sold them.

    Barbara, told that she couldn't find enough painters in Houston to put together a survey of contemporary Houston painters, went out and and found enough painters in Houston to put together a survey of Houston painters.

    End Scene.

  2. My uncle Luis Fernando Garza participated in this show, he was a sign painter, that was his 9 to 5, you can see some of his work displayed on the walls of Del Sol Taqueria, and some other Houston restaurants. He’s still alive and in an old folks home since he’s pretty old, but he never stopped painting until recently. I just want him to be remembered, somehow.