Mr. Big

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

On a windy day in early November, Houston sculptor David Adickes is watching a handful of loyal volunteers from the city of Huntsville put the finishing touches to his mammoth memorial to Sam Houston that this fall, after three years of work, he was finally able to present to the community. Perched at the end of an extension ladder mounted on a fire truck, the Huntsville city manager is calmly patching a hole under the statue's left hand while wasps circle his head. Other volunteers are unifying the color of the work's concrete surface. Soon, Richard Fisher, intent on doing good deeds in the last days of his doomed campaign for the U.S. Senate, is scheduled to work for an hour on the piece. Carpenters are busily building an expensive visitors center at the sculpture's parking lot.

Standing before the ten-foot-high base of the 67-foot-tall concrete-and-steel tribute to Texas' greatest hero is Adickes, a short, plump, energetic man wearing a glen plaid shirt streaked with white slurry and a souvenir ball cap with his sculpture on it. He's swollen with pleasure. Just a week or so earlier, when the statue was officially dedicated before several thousand onlookers, the artist had wept unashamedly. "I did not expect that kind of adulation," he explains. For good reason. Adickes has found such adulation hard to come by, at least from an art world that disdains his sentimental patriotism, that sneers at his concrete sculptures as witless cartoon. But if the art crowd raises a disapproving eyebrow in Adickes' direction, he simply directs a disapproving look right back. Adickes considers the art world to be little more than a hypocritical club, one populated with artists who are supposed to look poor whether they are or not; one in which members search for customers even as they claim to be not the least bit interested in money, but only in what they have to say.

"What I am trying to prove," declares Adickes, "is the same thing Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty, was trying to prove: think big, do it right, people will come. Today, 108 years later, the Statue of Liberty is an icon. Two million people take a boat to visit it every year .... Two years after Bartholdi, Gustave Eiffel built a tower in Paris. Vehemently criticized, it later became the symbol of France, the icon to end them all. Incidentally, the Eiffel Tower is still owned, not by the city of Paris, nor the Republic of France, but by the descendants of the Eiffel family, who daily collect tremendous profits from ticket sales."

Bartholdi, Eiffel and ... Adickes? He is no more ashamed of putting himself in their company than he is ashamed of making money. It is the very grandiosity of these creators that inspires Adickes. He likes to point out that Big Sam, as his statue is familiarly called, can be seen from as far away as six miles south of Huntsville, even if at that distance it does look a bit like an upended grain of rice. Still, Big Sam is there, and the closer you come the more there he is, until finally he looms up, a full head taller than the surrounding pines, carrying a 32-foot-long cane and looking as if he'd just emerged from a walk in the woods.

Even before the granite facing of the base had been adorned with bronze letters spelling Houston's name, Adickes says, everybody knew who it was. The statue, he claims, will serve as an unforgettable trademark for the town in which he was raised, bringing to mind Huntsville much as the Golden Gate Bridge brings to mind San Francisco. And there is money to be made from this trademark.

Every day, approximately 45,000 cars drive by Huntsville on the way to Houston or Dallas or points between. Huntsville's chamber of commerce officials figure if just one percent of those cars are taken by Big Sam and stop a while, and if the passengers in each car spend just $10, in a year's time the city will rake in $1 million worth of new business. Big Sam is a big project, predicted to draw big numbers of people and make big money. All of which is fine with David Adickes, who may be Texas' leading advocate of the notion that in art, bigger is better.

Last summer, Adickes drove several thousand miles across the country to visit other large works, and is now proud to announce that his Sam Houston is the largest freestanding sculpture of an American hero to be found in the United States. You say the Statue of Liberty is more than twice as tall? Well, yes, but it represents a mythical figure. The gigantic heads of four presidents at Mount Rushmore? They're not freestanding. Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, Arkansas? Our Lady of the Rockies in Butte, Montana? Adickes has visited them both and, true, they're taller, but they're religious sculptures done in a naive or primitive style by amateur craftsmen.

No, if you want to put Adickes' ambition into context, you have to look outside the United States to the Russian city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), where he once made a pilgrimage to see the biggest freestanding sculpture in the world, a 1967 concrete construction of a mythical, sword-waving woman called "Motherland." When Adickes talks about doing more sculptures, he does not emphasize making his next sculpture more beautiful, more thoughtful or more refined. He talks about making it bigger. He talks about an Alabama philanthropist who's interested in a piece about the heft of Big Sam, an Arab sheik who's considering a 100-foot-tall sculpture of himself riding a horse. But most of all, Adickes talks about building somewhere in Texas, possibly as part of a theme park, a sculpture of a cowboy 280 feet high that will cost in the range of $5 million. He's already built a 28-inch-high model. All he has to do is expand it by a factor of 100. Why 280 feet?

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.

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.

"I'm of the World War II generation," he says. "They blew the bugle and we all went. I don't think you'd find that today. It was a different period and everybody was sort of united. The world is just a different place today. Its values are falling by the wayside so fast."

Before Big Sam, Adickes' best-known sculpture was a larger-than-life bronze of former President George Bush that was displayed at the 1992 Republican Convention and will eventually end up at the Bush Library on the Texas A&M campus. Adickes has known Bush for almost 30 years, and the Bushes had a painting of his in the White House. Adickes was invited to the White House and spent the night in the Lincoln bedroom.

He took a series of photographs of Bush for the sculpture, which depicts a young Bush with his suit jacket flung over his shoulder. Both jacket and necktie are blown back by an almost gale-force wind. Bush carries a book titled The Winds of Change, which alludes to the collapse of communism during his presidency. Being blown by the wind doesn't seem like a very heroic theme, but Adickes is ebullient about the piece. He's especially proud of the song he has composed for a 60-voice chorus that he hopes will be sung when the statue is dedicated at the Bush Presidential Library. In an early draft, the lyrics went like this: "The winds of change are whispering 'Freedom' / The shifting of clouds, the shadows they cast / 'Freedom' is more than just a word to say / The truth is: it is anything but free, to / Keep it, there is a heavy price to pay, for / 'Freedom' is anything but free."

Admission to what Adickes would like to see as his next project won't be free either. He wants to build a franchisable theme park of American heroes; Adickes would make gigantic heads of American presidents with rubber molds, so that they could be reproduced and trucked to sites around the country. "Mount Rushmore on the ground is the idea," he says, "so you would be very intimate with these big faces."

Local heroes would be added according to the site. "Like one in Atlanta would include, obviously, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Martin Luther King and other American heroes that are locally oriented," he says. If Adickes is aware of any incongruities in this lineup in what is now a majority black city, he doesn't let on. As for women and people of color, he has a firm sense of whose sense of history would rule:

"This cannot be politically correct and represent all colors and sexes and what not," he says. "It's to be founded on historic facts: who were the most important people in the history of America. If there is a black in there, and Martin Luther King is one, then of course he would be included, but not just for the sake of blacks in there. And the decisions would be mine to make."

The winds of change are indeed blowing. Chances are, Adickes will never get a chance to build his Atlanta theme park without being a little more conscious of public relations, not to mention history. (Jefferson Davis was from Mississippi).

But Adickes isn't likely to become mired in such distinctions. He's far more focused on the theme that bigger is better. Big produces recognition, popularity and more commissions. It also produces a kind of permanence, one of Adickes' favorite values. He believes his paintings will last, but of course, he says, "history" will tell. Paintings last only when people continue to see something in them and keep them on display. A 30-ton sculpture, though, especially one built to withstand 500 mile-an-hour winds -- well, that can't easily be taken down and put into the closet.

If there were a sculpture of David Adickes somewhere, it would be subtitled "a tribute to optimism." There is something charming and corny and naive about him. At his Montrose townhouse and studio he is delving into his new projects and wrapping up old ones. Incongruously tucked behind his front patio fence stands the eight-foot-high bronze of George Bush, waiting to be delivered. A huge smiling head is also tucked inside the wall. He has a 28-foot-tall sculpture of a woman sitting in pieces that he wants to put on display somewhere in Houston.

He's relieved that the turmoil of dedicating the Sam Houston sculpture is over. Now he can turn to bigger dreams. He has more on his mind than traveling presidents, giant cowboys, giant sheiks and giant philanthropists, though. What about the Colossus of Rhodes? he muses. This wonder of the ancient world was a gigantic bronze on a hillside looking out from this Greek island. Perhaps the present government would like to restore its former glory.

The Colossus was thought to have bestrode the entrance to the harbor, so that ships had to sail under it. Engineering difficulties aside, the upward view as a ship sails between the behemoth's legs might be a public relations problem. Surely Adickes is not thinking of having his sculpture straddle the harbor?

Adickes gives one of his enigmatic smiles, like that on the gigantic head outside his front door. He is not ruling anything out. That is, after all, a prerequisite when you think big.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Houston Concert Tickets
Loading...