Mr. Big

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

Yet for most of his adult life Adickes has made a living selling his art. He invested the proceeds from the sale of early paintings in real estate in the Tomball area, and prospered. While he is by no means rich, he says, he leads a comfortable life and can do what he wants. He sells paintings mostly through his own client contacts. A charming and lighthearted man, he is an able salesman.

His big problem has been in finding people to take his art for free. In 1975, he offered the city of Houston a 16-foot-high painted sculpture of one of his artistes in honor of the 19th-century poet and musician Sidney Lanier. The piece was to be situated near Lanier Junior School in the Montrose area, but the gift foundered when one City Council member said he didn't understand it and another called it "hideous and something to scare off evil spirits."

Then, in 1983, developer Joe Russo commissioned Adickes to create The Virtuoso, a 36-foot-high sculpture of a cello player, complete with a music sound system that plays 24 hours a day. It was set before Russo's Lyric Center office building across the street from the Wortham Theater Center, and though Russo was apparently pleased with what he got, others intensely disliked what they saw as a blight on the street. University of Houston architecture professor Bill Stern grouses that the work is gimmicky. "It's cartoonish but without real wit," he complains. "It doesn't have the qualities we associate with great sculpture: materials you want to touch, beautiful form .... I think one of the requirements of public art is that we want to put things out that are lasting. The cello player just doesn't live up to that."

To Stern, perhaps not. But when Russo hired an opinion polling firm to interview downtown pedestrians who had seen the city's major downtown sculptures, among them works by art world favorites such as Louise Nevelson, Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miro, the survey found that people overwhelmingly preferred Adickes' work. (Whether the survey was honest or not may be a matter of debate. Russo was, among Houston developers, a particular patron of Adickes. He decorated every office and lobby wall of his former Ameriway Bank/ Woodway with Adickes' paintings. They still hang on the bank's walls, though Russo has been convicted of misapplication of funds and a new owner, National Commerce Bank, Woodway, has come in.)

Undeterred by critics, in 1984 Adickes again made an offer to the city. This time he presented a choice of three large sculptures, Stone Trumpet, French Telephone and Giant Running Shoes. The sculptures would range from 20 to 27 feet high, and would feature "functions." The gigantic French telephone, with a bearded face embedded in it, would have pay telephones; the running shoes might have had a water fountain, Adickes said at the time. In denouncing the proposal, Houston Chronicle art critic Patricia Johnson fumed that perhaps Adickes would want them to issue an appropriate aroma.

Such gifts must be approved by the Municipal Art Commission, a volunteer board charged with assuring that the city accepts only works of high quality -- or at least what the commission determines is high quality. Adickes obviously didn't measure up; his gifts were declined. The trumpet is now situated on Tremont Street near The Strand, and the telephone sits on at a lot Adickes owns at Quitman street near I-45. The running shoes were never built.

Adickes, who seems invigorated by such rejection, has as little good to say about the art crowd as it has to say about him. Driving around in Huntsville in his van to look at the cemetery where Sam Houston is buried and the street where he grew up, Adickes expounds upon being dismissed by the Houston arts community.

"I think there's a certain amount of jealousy there," he says. "Plus the fact that I cannot waste my time making the stuff that's being done today. The really junk stuff....

"You know what I'm talking about. Take somebody like the big hot star that used to live in Houston. He's probably the biggest star in New York today. Julian Schnabel. I cannot see it .... I was trained in France, in the French tradition of the Paris art school. The stuff was painted with the intention of elevating the spirit somehow or another, and of being around forever if possible. And Schnabel and those others do not elevate the spirit. If fact, it's just the antithesis. The word beauty is a dirty word."

From 1948 to 1965, Adickes says, painting was "exciting right down the line." But in recent years, he hasn't seen much that excites him. "Today in painting, I feel there is practically nothing happening that inspires me to want to join that movement, whatever it is," he says. "Each year becomes more disappointing than the last."

Adickes favors heroes. Young people have only sports figures and rock and roll stars to look up to, Adickes laments, and there's not a basis on which to build a value system. Thinking of his boyhood in Huntsville, he recalled a book called Six Foot Six, a young person's biography of Sam Houston.

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