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.

The financial hit was nearly more than the struggling museum could bear, and the CAM remained closed for almost a year. When it reopened, Harithas informed reporters that with new funding, the museum would no longer need to focus on Texas artists.

He'd partially renounced his love of regionalism, but he hadn't renounced his rowdy ways. In May of '77 the CAM reopened with a retrospective of Salvatore Scarpitta, an Italian sculptor. Among his works was Rajo Jack, a meticulous replica of the car driven by the first black competitor in Southwest drag racing. It was a bravura exhibition of artistic technique, but more than that, the piece also made a social statement about speed and fury and racism. To Harithas, it was the best kind of art.

In a similar vein, Scarpitta's Lynx was a functional replica of a light desert vehicle from World War II. At the Port of Houston, authorities refused to allow it into the country. Never mind that its surface is intricately painted, they said; it's a weapon, and can be fully mobilized.

An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
Suzanne Paul
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.

Harithas reveled in the controversy. At one point, Joan Mondale, the vice president's wife, helped the CAM lobby the port, but as Harithas tells the story, the work's release had more to do with the head of the port, a former tank commander: "You can't tell me this is a tank," the man said, and Harithas knew then that he was home free. At the CAM, Harithas aimed the tank's guns diagonally across the intersection of Bissonnet and Main -- a declaration of war on the Museum of Fine Arts, and on the forces of bureaucracy and dullness everywhere.

But it was a few months later, in October, that the anarchic spirit of Harithas's era at the CAM crystallized into the single anecdote that everyone remembers. Antoni Miralda, a Spanish artist who specialized in theatrical celebrations, designed one in which 60 Kilgore Rangerettes first danced for the CAM opening crowd, then proceeded to build a 200-foot wall out of loaves of bread dyed red, green and blue.

Someone tore half a loaf from the wall and lobbed it across the room, hitting a woman in the head. The opening turned into a gigantic food fight. Crumbs rained down into the CAM's lower floor. Outside, a fistfight escalated into a general melee. The police broke up the party.

At his house, Harithas still keeps a black-and-white video of the Rangerettes' performance that night. He pops it into the little TV on top of his refrigerator and shakes his head as the drill team executes its trademark high kicks. "That's Texas," he says. "I went Texas."

The shenanigans further strained Harithas's dicey relationship with the museum's board. Harithas argued with the board over finances and aesthetics, and complained that its members didn't understand the museum. They didn't look at the shows, he said; they wouldn't talk to him about the artistic program. In May of '78, furious that the board had discussed hiring a business manager to handle the museum's books, he wrote a hotheaded letter of resignation. After submitting it, he thought better of it and tried to retract it. The board voted to accept it anyway. Harithas was out of a job.

"CAM supporters note cheerily that the museum's image can only go up," wrote Houston Post arts reporter Mimi Crossley. "The recent aesthetic has expressed itself in radical chic exhibitions formulated out of the '60s rebellion against formalism, the establishment and sexual mores." That fall the museum announced a fund-raising concert by jazz pianist Bobby Short, a society favorite; the evening would be smooth, safe and free of risks.

The CAM's Harithas era was over. But Harithas wasn't over the CAM.

In the '70s and '80s Andy Mann's friendship with Harithas was a prickly one. Harithas had a habit of throwing unwanted shadow punches at Mann -- a physical metaphor for their relationship. Sometimes they were close compadres: Harithas would help Mann land a show in Fort Worth, or Mann would spend a weekend camped on Harithas's couch; when they played chess, Harithas usually won. But sometimes they'd go for long periods without speaking. Looking back, Mann can't remember why.

Mann says that after Harithas's breakup with the CAM, Harithas began to fast; it was a cleansing ritual. The gesture annoyed Mann; at first, he thought fine, let Jim starve himself. But by day 20, even Mann was worried. Harithas's chess game had gone to hell, he looked weak, and his teeth were getting loose. He'd grown so thin that even passing acquaintances worried about him.

But not until day 42 did Harithas break the fast. Mann says that he started with a shot of scotch.

People talk now about Harithas's "lost years." For a long time, he lay low, keeping a polite distance from the Houston art scene he'd once led. In the late '70s he married Ann O'Connor Robinson, one of the founders of Robinson Gallery, which had stood next door to the CAM. Ann was an heir to the O'Connor oil fortune; she had a gravelly voice, a raucous laugh and four kids. Jim and his three moved into her sedate house on ritzy North Boulevard. Some of Jim's artist friends, like Mann, weren't sure they were welcome there. They weren't North Boulevard people.
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