Mr. Big

Houston sculptor David Adickes has one message for the art world: large is good

Because, he says, it's taller than 270 feet -- which is the height of the Russian monument at Volgograd.

For a man who says he admires Picasso more than any other artist, David Adickes seems an unlikely candidate to combine the aesthetic of Marxist-Leninist realist-gigantism with Gilded-Age patriotism. It's a field he has to himself.

A few other artists are making big art. Cristo wraps entire landscapes, but, Adickes points out, his installations are impermanent. Adickes is interested in permanence. And Claes Oldenberg's whimsical, gigantic sculptures can be seen in many American museums. Adickes admires Oldenberg's wit. He tells of seeing Oldenberg's 18-feet-high shuttlecocks on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, an installation that visually plays with the museum building as a gigantic badminton net. But there's not much wit in Big Sam, which Adickes reverently titled "a tribute to courage."

Some of Huntsville's younger citizens haven't gotten that point. During the construction phase, high school and college students used the site as a make-out site, and the sculpture was known fondly as the Sam Houston erection. But while Big Sam has its local critics, Adickes seems to have enlisted nearly the entire town of Huntsville in support of his project. The Huntsville community has given close to a million dollars to Adickes' vision. Sam Houston State University contributed a building site and living quarters for Adickes. A prominent local family donated the land on which Big Sam stands. Individuals have donated $160,000 in small gifts, commemorated by inscribed paving stones that will be placed around the site. Huntsville officials estimate the city will spend $680,000 on the monument, including assembly costs of the statue, site preparation, the sculpture's base, structural engineering, parking, lighting, sewage facilities and a $324,000 visitors center.

Here tourists will be directed toward the other charms of Huntsville, which include the Sam Houston museum, the house in which he died and, of course, Huntsville's prison museum. Here also they will be able to buy cotton throws with the image of Big Sam woven into them, baseball caps and T-shirts with the new icon displayed on them and miniature reproductions of Big Sam. Adickes has retained the copyright to reproducing images of the sculpture; he estimates that his royalties for souvenirs might amount to $10,000 a year.

And while Adickes and several friends and supporters contributed the $200,000 cost of the sculpture, he's said he will have the statue appraised. Then he'll sell his share of the costs to a contributor, and all the contributors will take tax deductions based on the appraisal value, a value that will presumably be higher than their contributions. So for Adickes, the entire project will probably be a financial wash, except for the revenue stream from the royalties and the value of the publicity the sculpture has generated regionally and nationally. No wonder he invokes the financial savvy of the Eiffel family.

But while Adickes may be the hit of Huntsville, when he returns south to Houston, praise is harder to come by. His commercial success is the despair of the self-styled cognoscente, who wonder if Houstonians will ever grow as sophisticated as they are, sophisticated enough to see through Adickes' surface. While Adickes has been able to sell his art in Houston, he has had trouble when he tries to give it away. In Houston the city, Houston the statue might have had serious trouble finding a place to stand.

But with his boundless enthusiasm, Adickes is undeterred by criticism. At 67, he hardly looks his age. He grew up in Huntsville, where his great-great-grandfather was postmaster during Sam Houston's time. After military service during World War II, he studied mathematics and physics at Sam Houston State Teachers College in his hometown; he attributes his interest in the technical problems of large-scale sculpture to this background. He used the G.I. Bill to study art at the Paris studio of the great French painter Fernand Leger, and while there developed a painting style that he still uses, one featuring elongated figures, sidewalk cafes, wine bottles, flowers, fishing boats in dry dock and longhaired, bearded artistes.

When Adickes returned to the fledgling Houston art scene in the early 1950s, he was its fair-haired boy, winning the local museum purchase prizes and showing in the town's major -- and nearly only -- contemporary art space, Dubose Gallery. He traveled in Europe and the Far East. In a Tokyo hotel he met writer James Michener. Michener, an avid collector of art, was charmed by Adickes and in 1968 gave him a nice write-up in a book printed by Adickes' dealer.

But then Houston's art scene changed. Oilmen who favored wildlife art were lured into the national and international art market. The universities offered professional training in the arts. The museums became more numerous and more concerned with sophistication. As the galleries multiplied, so did the artists, and Adickes was no longer one of a few practicing painters and sculptors in town. And while Houston changed, Adickes, for the most part, did not. His style remained frozen in the 1950s, and partly as a result, his pictures can't be found in any of Houston's many galleries.

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