Revolution in Chrome

In the '70s, Jim Harithas's radical chic collided with the CAM. Twenty-five years later, he's back, gunning his engines at the Art Car Museum.

"I'll go to Houston," he said.

"Okay," replied Harithas. "I'll pay your bus ticket."

As Mann remembers it, he arrived in Houston on the weekend Harithas and his wife were splitting up; Harithas isn't sure of the chronology. He says now that he "went a little crazy" after his divorce, though not in a way that affected his job. Even so, his timing was perfect: The early '70s was a crazy time, and oil-boom Houston was a crazy place.

Workers of the (Harithas) world: Kari Sellers, Gabriel Delgado, Tex Kerschen, Bill Patridge  and Bryan Taylor.
Deron Neblett
Workers of the (Harithas) world: Kari Sellers, Gabriel Delgado, Tex Kerschen, Bill Patridge and Bryan Taylor.

In some ways, Harithas fit Houston perfectly: a swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city. He was undeniably a carpetbagger; his voice still retains Yankee traces of his native Maine, and he was educated in Europe. But he had the outsize gall required to tell Texans what it meant to be Texan -- and furthermore, that the state didn't appreciate its own artists enough. "I feel Houston shouldn't follow New York, it should lead it," he informed the Chronicle after the museum announced his hiring. "The capability is there." It didn't hurt, either, that shows by little-known Texas artists were cheap to mount.

In September, Harithas opened the first show he'd curated for Houston: "12/Texas," a group exhibition whose dozen members included rising stars Luis Jiménez and James Surls. (Harithas quickly awarded each of them solo shows.) He soon followed with the now famous sculptures that John Chamberlain had concocted of crushed car parts; the pieces were owned by Stanley Marsh, the super-rich and famously eccentric antiwar protester who commissioned Ant Farm's Cadillac Ranch. Until Harithas called, Texas museum directors had avoided Marsh; he was not their kind of person.

Harithas's shows at the CAM were criticized as "uneven," but the highs were very high. Now-familiar names jump out from the list of the CAM's exhibitions: John Alexander, Dick Wray, Jesse Lott, Earl Staley and Terry Allen. In February '76, Harithas awarded a show to Julian Schnabel, the recent University of Houston graduate who would soon come to symbolize the excess of the '80s art world. At the time, Schnabel was working as a cook; he hadn't yet shown his broken-plate paintings in New York and been signed by (what else?) the Leo Castelli Gallery. Harithas was giving the young artist a break; Schnabel's work was shown in the CAM's basement.

But the CAM, under Harithas, wasn't just a container for art; it was a center of activity. Harithas surrounded himself with bright young curators like Mark Lombardi and Paul Schimmel (now the chief curator of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art). Houston's artists and art students gravitated toward the museum's openings. The parties were wild: Fistfights broke out almost as a matter of course, and the '70s art crowd felt it almost a moral duty to embrace mood-enhancing substances and sexual liberation.

Harithas was known as a ladies' man. "Jim was always very sexually potent," remembers Mann. "One thing you had to do in the art world then was take whatever love you could find." In the mid-'70s photographer Susie Paul shot Harithas and his old friend, the painter Norman Bluhm, in front of one of Bluhm's paintings. Bluhm was one of the last and sexiest of the abstract expressionists, a painter whose cushy abstract shapes conjured fleshy breasts and buttocks. In the photo, Bluhm and Harithas stand with their thumbs hooked in their belts like cowboys: the embodiments of machismo against an orgiastic background.

Fredricka Hunter ran (and still runs) Texas Gallery, which has long shown cutting-edge Texas artists. Hunter didn't count herself among Harithas's inner circle; she remembers it as a boys' club and a "scene," neither of which appealed to her. But she remembers listening fascinated to Harithas's monologues about art, traipsing after him as he talked, the same way that everyone else traipsed after him. She liked his manic enthusiasm and love of risk, both of which made him seem more like an artist than an administrator. "It certainly wasn't as corporate a time as it is now," she sighs.

But not everyone approved. Some CAM board members didn't like the museum's scruffy image. Others objected to Harithas's shameless regionalism: If the museum was any good, they asked, why was it showing local artists? What about New York?

Harithas's relationship with the CAM's board of directors was always strained, and the museum never had enough money. He blamed the board; the board blamed him.

Those problems grew worse in June 1976. Heavy rains sent water pouring into the CAM, and in 25 minutes, the lower floor -- a glorified basement used for exhibitions, storage and offices -- was flooded. Harithas says he and his staff went "diving for art," trying to salvage what they could. Luckily firemen cut off the museum's electricity before the staff electrocuted itself.

Some of the wet art was shipped to NASA to be vacuum-dried, and some was placed in freezers at upscale grocery stores. Much of it, though, was beyond repair. The damage, estimated at $1 million, included the CAM's membership records, 15 years of work by Washington, D.C., painter Gil Cautrescasas and some of Harithas's own collection, including works by Lennon and Ono.

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