I was having a conversation with some friends yesterday, and I told them my theory that any city of a certain size has an interesting cultural history, even if it's not necessarily well-known--even within the city itself. This is a theory I developed over the years after spending time in cities with what seemed to me to be unusually rich cultural histories--Rio de Janeiro, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Of all the big-ish cities I have lived in, only Tampa, Florida, seems pretty devoid of cultural history. And maybe in Tampa I just didn't dig deep enough. Scott Gilbert could probably set me straight.
Houston is kind of the acid test for this theory. I say this because Houston, to most Americans, seems totally nowhere. The only culture we've had that impinges on the national consciousness is our rap scene. Unlike New York, L.A., or Chicago, we don't have any well-known cultural industries--no big publishers were here or record labels. Nor was there ever a nationally-known "scene" that nurtured a group of artists or writers--except for a blues scene and later a rap scene. But if my theory is correct, Houston actually does have an interesting cultural history--just one that has kept its secrets.
William Lester, Still Life with Sunflower Seed, oil on board, 1947
William Reaves Gallery is devoted to aspects of that semi-forgotten cultural history. The current show, Lone Star Modernism: A Celebration of Mid-Century Texas Art deals with a lot of it. He is taking the whole state as his subject--for instance, William Lester is associated with Dallas and Austin, where he taught art at U.T. for several decades. What I find fascinating about this painting is how derivative it is. I realize that this judgment will come across as condescending, but I don't mean it that way. Texas is not an island, but it was a backwater. So while artists like Wilfredo Lam and Joan Miro and Jackson Pollack (in his pre-abstract phase) were pioneering these kinds of loaded symbolic surrealist paintings, it's not surprising that they would profoundly influence artists in "the provinces" around the world. That's what I see here. Lester probably saw this kind of work and was excited by it, inspired by it. And this painting is a result--quite a lovely one.
Robert Preusser was a painter in Houston who enjoyed a good deal of local success--about as much as an artist of his generation could enjoy--before being tapped by MIT to teach studio art there in 1954. One aspect of the cultural history of Houston will always be brain drain. Because Houston historically lacked a supportive infrastructure for artists, the temptations to move were hard to resist. There are very good reasons why Donald Barthelme and Julian Schnabel moved to New York, or Gilbert Shelton moved to Austin then San Francisco then Paris. Nonetheless, Preusser spent a good part of his career here where he produced paintings like this:
Robert Preusser, Untitled #1, mixed media, 1936
Robert Preusser, Ecclesia, oil on board, 1952
Again we have works that are likely to remind some viewers of better-known European masters--Kandinsky seems to be the inspiration for Untitled #1 and Roberto Matta for Ecclesia. It was hard for local artists working in abstract styles to be completely original. The most original local artist from this period--and in my opinion, one of America's great eccentric painters--was Forrest Bess. But there are no Bess paintings in this show, unfortunately. But I would also give props to Dorothy Hood (who has some drawings in the show) and Jack Boynton, who's two modest drawings are my favorite pieces in this exhibit.
Jack Boynton, Same Old 6 and 7, graphite on paper, 1959
Jack Boynton, Untitled Drawing 9, mixed media, 1957
Boynton started his career doing interesting and original abstractions in the 1950s, and weirdly enough became more and more a representational painter over the course of his career. I hesitate to ascribe a motive, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was at least partly an economic move. Doing cutting edge work is difficult, and the small market for such work is discouraging (especially in 1950s Houston). Maybe Boynton evolved into doing work that was easier to sell. Whatever the case, I find his early abstractions extremely appealing, as in these two casual, almost accidental drawings.
Another artist who has switched back and forth between abstraction and realism is Stella Sullivan. As I have written before, I took painting lessons from Sullivan when I was in high school. Some of her work is hard-edge minimalism, so it was funny that Reaves chose this painting for a modernism show.
Stella Sullivan, Portrait of McCracken, oil on canvas, 1957
For Sullivan, abstraction and realism were not important categories. If one can ascribe a theory of painting to her work, it's the relationship of colors to the underpainting. Sullivan would always paint a layer of color over the white gesso before starting on the painting. That layer of color would have its own texture. Then everything on top of that layer would be related to the underpainting. Her painting style was never completely opaque--the underpainting had to affect the surface that was seen by the viewer. You can see how this process would work equally well for abstraction as for realism. So even if McCracken is crashing a modernist party, I value its inclusion. It's a beautiful painting.
Stella Sullivan, Portrait of McCracken detail, oil on canvas, 1957