By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
But oh, yes: It is a funny little museum. You know it as soon as you lay eyes on the building, a silvery onion-domed thing punctuated with spikes and a red plastic star, like a stoner's model of the Kremlin. A vicious-looking barbed-wire-and-chain-link fence protects the museum from a funky stretch of Heights Boulevard -- and perhaps more to the point, lends the place a tough, macho air. Nearby, a sign designates a grassy field as the museum's official parking lot. Next door, there's a Citgo station-cum-convenience store; across the street is Carmadillo, the hulking metal-scaled creature that lurks outside sculptor Mark Bradford's studio. The Museum District, this ain't. And that suits Harithas fine.
Outside, you see the kind of works you'd expect from something called the Art Car Museum -- that is, particularly splendid examples of the genre, of vehicles used as much for personal expression as for transportation. Under the tinny carport lolls a stretched-out David Best fantasy barely recognizable as a car. Shiny, bright-colored doodads cover every inch of the surface, layers of beads, buttons and cheap toys, the detritus of a thousand Happy Meals. A tubby plastic Michelin Man serves as the hood ornament. You can't help but look.
Inside, a rotating cast of such cars offers itself for your inspection. Depending on when you're there, you might see the one that looks like a starlet's red stiletto, or the one that resembles a giant bunny, or a particularly astounding low-rider. Some of the other exhibits feel like variations on the main theme -- not art cars, but car art. One of Andy Mann's video installations uses a stack of TV sets to run video clips from Houston's annual art car parade. Mel Chin covers a tire in snakeskin and calls it Road Killer. A backlit George Hixson photo captures smooth-headed car artist Mike Scranton, his eyes hidden behind goggles, a welding torch brandished like a weapon, a car in flames behind him.
But many of the museum's exhibits, including the two shows Harithas is now installing, have nothing at all to do with cars. Jim Hatchett's "Dirt Paintings" is four abstract canvases "painted" with soil and sand and rocks; Ron Hoover's "Mr. WTO" is a series of small unnerving paintings that mostly depict shadowy businessmen. Both shows make overt political statements: Hatchett's Butterfly Hill is named in honor of Julia Butterfly Hill, the eco-protester who spent two years living in a redwood; Hoover's nightmarish Mr. Maxxam, a/k/a Charles Hurwitz depicts her nemesis. Even the two shows' opening party, on the Friday before Memorial Day, will possess a left-wing social conscience: Houston's Green Party will be stationed at the door, soliciting last-minute signatures on its petition to add Ralph Nader to Texas's presidential ballot.
To the uninitiated, the museum's juxtapositions seem weird: Why, other than for color, is a car that looks like a starlet's red stiletto pump positioned in front of a pro-union painting of oppressed farm workers? Why would Ralph "Unsafe at Any Speed" Nader garner support at a place that celebrates cars?
But to Harithas, it all coheres. In his "Art Car Manifesto," posted near the front of the museum, he argues that art cars are revolutionary by nature: When a dull, mass-produced machine is transmogrified into something weirder and wildly personal, the artist is "rescuing the automobile from corporate uniformity," striking back against the bland consumer culture that suffocates our souls.
It's a '60s kind of argument; Harithas is a '60s kind of guy. When he calls something "subversive," he means it as high praise; "revolutionary" is even better. He knows, good and well, that the red star atop his museum can be read as something other than the Lone Star of Texas.
This latest opening excites Harithas, makes him edgy. It's a chance to show off artists he thinks the world needs to see; it's a chance to make a political statement; and it's a chance to host a raucous party, the kind he's always loved. Pacing the museum, he radiates a surprising star-of-the-school-play nervousness.
Surprising, because Harithas is hardly new to all this. At 67, he has curated hundreds of shows and presided over nearly as many opening parties. Thirty years ago, he was considered one of the hottest, most avant-garde museum directors in the country.
Such moments don't last long. In 1978, after Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum very publicly let him go, Harithas's career appeared to be over. And for nearly 20 years, it seemed that way. Harithas lay low.
But he has resurfaced, now, at this funny little museum. Obviously it's a place to show art cars and other worthy works. But it's also a place free of meddlesome board members -- which means that it's a place where Jim Harithas can make as much trouble as he likes.
In '65 Harithas was the chief curator at the Corcoran, one of the oldest museums in the country, located only a block from the White House in stuffy Washington, D.C. In '68 he took over as the museum's director, and soon afterward dispatched his curators to lure "the freak community" to a museum opening; as hippie bait, he proffered a rock band and free food and drink. The freaks arrived in droves and, Harithas remembers proudly, "the dope smell was enormous." To conservative board members, he explained that times, they were a-changing, and if the Corcoran didn't get with it, it would remain the same boring institution it had been for 35 years. The Corcoran got with it. Harithas's short reign is now remembered as the beginning of the museum's lively golden period.
In 1971 he took over the Everson (pronounced "Ee-verson") Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York -- a nowhere, upstate university town that he was determined to blast onto the cultural map. Under Harithas, the museum danced on the bleeding edge. Harithas even curated the first-ever major show of video art: a little piece of museum-world history.
But the story that everyone tells first, when talking about the Harithas era at the Everson, is of the John and Yoko show. Harithas had met John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Leo Castelli Gallery, the New York art world's equivalent of Sam's Bar: Sooner or later everyone ends up there. Practically everyone alive knew Yoko as the woman who'd broken up the Beatles, and as an artist, she was important in the scruffy band of neo-Dadaists called the Fluxus movement. But for all her notoriety, practically no one had ever seen her way-out, high-concept work. Harithas asked if she'd consider the Everson.
Later, John and Yoko invited Harithas and a curator to their home near Central Park West. They were received, of course, in John and Yoko's bedroom. Yoko lay on the bed; John was sitting at its foot. The curator went into shock -- John Lennon! the cultural hero of the '60s! -- and Harithas worried he'd faint. But Lennon produced a pair of guitars and asked the curator to play a few songs with him. The curator remembered all the words. Lennon didn't.
The United States was trying to deport Lennon, an unemployed foreign national, and Harithas was delighted to make the process more difficult by offering Lennon a job as a curator. In fact, Harithas was delighted to turn over his entire museum to John and Yoko.
He'd judged the cultural moment precisely right. On Lennon's birthday, a cold, wet night in October '71, a mob was camped outside the Everson building, waiting for the show to open. A newspaper estimate put the number at 8,000, only half of whom managed to squeeze inside. Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton showed up. John and Yoko took refuge from the crowd in the museum's garden. The opening made national news. Harithas was ecstatic.
At the beginning of '74, he was 41 years old, a father of three, and a hot property. Not only had he positioned the out-of-the-way Everson firmly in the avant-garde, he'd made the bookkeepers happy. He'd quadrupled the museum's annual attendance, doubled its budget and wiped out its deficit.
Harithas was hailed as a kind of miracle worker, and Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum needed a miracle. Other than a distinctive new building -- the stainless-steel parallelogram was only two years old -- the CAM didn't have much going for it. The museum was nearly broke. Marilyn Lubetkin, head of the museum's search for a new director, told the Houston Chronicle that the board was not only looking for a director, but also "looking for money to sustain the exhibitions for 1974." Rumor had it that the CAM might have to let itself be absorbed by the rich, dull Museum of Fine Arts.
Harithas saw the CAM as a gigantic overripe challenge. Houston was the fourth-largest city in the United States but a hopeless cultural backwater, a place that needed to be woken up. He took the job.
Video artist Andy Mann had known Harithas since 1972, when Mann helped an artist friend install a show at the Everson. As Mann remembers it, Harithas got drunk one night and informed Mann that he didn't have to be a mechanic, that he should be making art of his own. "Anybody can say that," says Mann. But a year later, when he approached Harithas with an idea for a video installation, Harithas came through with money.
After Harithas accepted the CAM job, Mann ran into him at a bar in SoHo. Mann was sick of the New York art scene.
"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.
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?
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.
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.
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."
"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.
But slowly Jim and Ann transformed the house into something much wilder. As a wedding present, Jim gave Ann a toilet that California artist Larry Fuente had covered in bright-colored strands of beads. Alternating rings of nickels and pennies tiled the bowl, and a statue of the Virgin Mary stood enshrined atop the tank. Ann adored the toilet; it now commands a place of honor in the Harithas living room.
Ann asked Fuente if he'd give the interior of her new Lincoln a similar treatment. Fuente said he'd rather do a whole car, preferably a '50s Cadillac. Ann ponied up the money.
Ann, in fact, was in love with art cars. In '84 she curated the "Collision" show at the University of Houston's Lawndale Art & Performance Center. The show caused a minor sensation, especially Fuente's Mad Cad, the car that Ann had commissioned. Fuente had encrusted the '59 Cadillac with beads, buttons and toys, given it giant tail fins made of bejeweled flamingos and carousel horses, and set sparkly swans and ducks swimming along the roof.
To fund their various projects, Ann and Jim set up the Ineri Foundation, a private entity with themselves (and not a board) firmly in control. For Ann, those projects often involved art cars. Jim's projects, though, had little to do with art. Instead, he made trips to Russia, Cuba and Central America, driving to remote towns and villages and personally handing out medicines to people who might need them.
It's hard to say what those trips meant to Harithas. They were undeniably a way for him to do something good and useful, and he probably took a certain macho satisfaction in driving through, say, El Salvador, crossing checkpoints manned by teenagers with machine guns. But it may be that those trips were purgatives, like his fast: not only a way to avoid the Houston art world, the scene of his defeat, but a way to flush the bitterness from his system.
Art cars were as indigenous to Houston as cockroaches, and Harithas had always supported regional movements. They also appealed to his sense that art should mean something in the real world. Cars were about speed and movement and freedom, the great themes of the modern city; art cars also had an added layer of meaning, one that wasn't at all what Ford or Toyota had intended. "All art cars are subversive," Harithas proclaimed in his '97 "Art Car Manifesto."
The Art Car Museum, which opened quietly in '98, is likewise subversive; it hijacks the very notion of a museum. For starters, it's intentionally not located in the Museum District; Harithas believes art shouldn't be segregated from ordinary people's lives.
The bulbous, exuberant building -- the work of artist David Best -- can be read as a rebuttal to the CAM, Houston's other silvery museum. The CAM's sleek building feels cool and detached, a slice of minimalism in a noisy, extravagant city; the Art Car Museum looks hot and engaged, and even weirder than its neighbors. From the street, the way-out building raises unnerving questions: Is that thing really a museum? Is it safe to go inside? Why does it need that barbed wire? Are they trying to keep the weirdos out, or to keep them in? But you do not suspect, even for a second, that the place will bore you.
On closer inspection, the Art Car Museum reminds you how much other institutions cast themselves as devices for the tasteful display of wealth. For instance, when you enter the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's impressive new Beck building, you see donors' names carved into a massive limestone wall, enshrined for the ages. The Art Car Museum is pointedly not called the Harithas Collection, and in fact, Ann and Jim's role as its patrons is hard to discern; there's not even a plaque to tip you off. You might see Ann's name next to her collages, or Jim's on something he has written -- that is, they might present themselves as an artist or a curator, but not as benefactors. The art is enshrined; the money behind it remains invisible.
"This is Texas," growls Harithas. "You can hang 'em on the ceiling."
Normally Harithas and his bright young curators aren't actually in the museum. They work from the Ineri Foundation's headquarters, which is to say, in Ann and Jim's backyard, in the maid's quarters behind the mansion on North Boulevard. And in point of fact, half their work seems to take place in the kitchen or at the backyard table. Andy Mann and Jesse Lott wander down the driveway without calling first; other artists drop by for opinions on their work, or for help moving a large piece. The place exudes a laid-back, improvisational vibe, like the quad of a college campus, and the arguments -- most often between Harithas and Tex Kerschen, the fiercest of his young curators -- seem downright recreational.
But this morning, a Wednesday, Harithas and his curators are hanging their next shows. Finished with the Hoover paintings, Harithas leaves the little front gallery and walks into the museum's large room, surveying it with an eye toward Saturday night's opening. He still deploys his old formula to draw a crowd: Besides the art, there'll be free food and drinks, plus Kerschen's rock band, Japanic. And here, at the museum without a board, he's free to overtly use left-wing politics as bait: Nader's Greens will show up for the petition-signing party Friday, and maybe they'll come back.
On one side of the room are Jim Hatchett's freshly hung "Dirt Paintings." On the other is one of Harithas's favorite art cars, Betsabeé Romero's Ayate, a 1955 Ford Crown Victoria whose windows are filled with dried roses, its body covered in what looks like floral-patterned upholstery. It's a deeply feminine expression of immigrants' crushed dreams, and Harithas has installed it in a kind of border stage set, atop a little hill of reddish soil.
"There's dirt on both sides of the museum," he exults. The symmetry pleases him; he enjoys making the works fit together.
Faith, another art car, is as ebullient as Ayate is meditative. David Best covered a 1984 Camaro with bezillions of cheap religious souvenirs, Buddhas mixing easily with Madonnas. To the front grill, he attached the head of a water buffalo. "This one," says Harithas, grinning, "it's all about the influence of acid."
There are two works by Harithas's old friend Jesse Lott, who has been billed as "the star of the Art Car Museum." Lott, like Hatchett and many of the museum's other artists, tends to work in "found" materials. Black Madonna, left from Lott's show last year, looks like an icon carved from driftwood; the new one, Spartacus, is a nearly human-size crucifix constructed from wire and scrounged metal. In part, Lott chose his materials from necessity: Stuff you find is cheaper than stuff you have to buy. But the discarded materials also give the works a haunting flavor; they seem more personal, more homemade, more a part of the world we live in now.
In the back room, there's Know-Mad, a video game designed by Mel Chin and a team of programmers from MIT. It's basically an arcade driving game, the kind with a steering wheel and gas pedal. The screen depicts a nomadic camp somewhere in the desert; the player drives from tent to tent seeking gold balls. The text on the wall explains the piece's heady artistic intentions -- the juxtaposition of modern cultures with traditional ones, the effect of speed on a nontechnological society, the beauty of traditional rugs set against the beauty of driving -- but the high-flown ambition doesn't frighten away neighborhood teenagers, who play the game after school.
Chin is another old friend of Harithas's. Like Lott, he grew up in the Fifth Ward; unlike Lott, he left Texas and became nationally prominent. "Mel Chin, John Alexander, Julian Schnabel," says Harithas, shaking his head. "They had the sense to leave." His meaning is clear: Houston doesn't support its own.
Octo Quad Ring, Andy Mann's latest video installation, glows in the back room. Seventeen TV screens beam versions of the same image, oriented differently, as if reflected in a kaleidoscope, and in the center is a mirrored pentagram. The images, of flowers and clouds and fire, are natural and timeless; if you position yourself just right, you see your own face reflected in the pentagram's sides, part of all that swirling beauty and terror. At the end of the cycle, the screens go dark. The effect, to use one of Harithas's favorite words, is "spiritual."
Andy Mann was recently diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and the news hangs heavy on Harithas's mind. Mann, he declares, has always been a terrific artist -- "the first socially conscious video artist! one of the best cameras in the world! Houston is lucky to have him!" When Mann told Harithas that he had cancer, Harithas pushed him to work, pushed him to consider his audience: "You want them to think better of you than they do now, don't you?"
It must be Houston's lousy air, Harithas grumps: Everyone he knows is undergoing chemo, or dying, or dead. It's hyperbole, of course, but it contains a grain of truth. Lately he has felt surrounded by death.
Only days before, Ann's mother died. A few months ago artist Mark Lombardi, once one of Harithas's bright young curators at the CAM, committed suicide. And last year Harithas's old friend Norman Bluhm, the sensual abstract expressionist, died of a heart attack.
Harithas delivered Bluhm's eulogy at the Whitney, and he wrote a moving essay for a posthumous Bluhm tribute show. In the essay, you can hear echoes of Harithas's life: Bluhm's work fell out of fashion, but he stuck stubbornly to his vision of the world. Bluhm's work wasn't fully appreciated "by the New York art establishment." He lived a life "that tolerated no compromise." And his late phase -- the mature works, the last ones he painted -- was his most profound.
You figure that Harithas thinks a lot about his own late phase, that he wants "them" to think better of him than they do now. Sometimes, when he talks about the future, he's bullish. He and Ann are considering sites for a second little museum in yet another Houston neighborhood. The new one might or might not show art cars; they haven't decided. And after that, there might be even more little museums -- maybe a whole string of them -- scattered through Houston, like so many rebel bases. Soon, he says, his young curators won't need him anymore; they'll be ready to run the places on their own, and he'll show up only to watch them work.
Other times, Harithas is quieter. He and Ann might leave the Art Car Museum and its offspring to the city of Houston, he says, but he's not sure the city is interested.
He stares for a few seconds at Andy Mann's video screens, then snaps to attention as Bryan Taylor, the museum's shaggy front man, ambles into the main room.
Taylor explains art to visitors, and Harithas wants to make sure he gets it right. Harithas gives him a penetrating look and points toward Jim Hatchett's show: "What are you going to say about these 'Dirt Paintings'?"
"I don't know," shrugs Taylor. "I just saw them half an hour ago."
"Well, you can say this. Say, 'Texas artists have been treated like dirt for so long that now they're working with it.' "
Taylor nods, and Harithas once again starts pacing.