MFAH and the Menil Are Depriving Us of Local Art
Perhaps our Houston art museums have forgotten where they are. How else to explain the pitiful showing of Houston-made art in their galleries? Of the thousands of objects currently on view, I spy only five at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Okay, eight if you throw in outdoor sculpture. A shout-out to those who can tell me what they are. (I'm not counting photography, or the decorative arts in Bayou Bend's Texas room — those are fab, but different beasts from the big "A" art at the MFAH main campus.) And at Menil, zero.
Museum visitors to our city (and residents, too) might be excused for assuming that the only art we've ever had has been bought and brought from elsewhere. They'd know for sure that art had been made in New York and Paris, in Italy, Indonesia and Africa. But Houston? Not so much. Most of the time you can go through both of our major art museums thoroughly and leave without a clue that art has ever been made anywhere in Texas, let alone in Houston.
When I go to Rome or Paris, I pretty much expect to see a little Roman or Parisian art. Actually, I expect to see a lot; I look forward to it, and the museums deliver. That may be easy when you've got the likes of Caravaggio and Monet in your stable, but really, have we never produced anything worth showing in our museums?
When a museum-loving Parisian friend came to visit, I took him to MFAH and the Menil, of course. He loved some of the architecture; he complimented our Surrealists and was polite about our Impressionists (though I rather think he may have seen a good bit of both back home). But imagine my embarrassment when he asked to see Texas art. Sorry, I had to tell him, when it came to our museums.
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We rightly (though perhaps a little too often) give ourselves lots of credit for a vibrant contemporary art scene. There's art everywhere. The city is full of galleries and studios. It's no challenge to see art that's being made in Houston. But art that was made in Houston? Seeing that is almost impossible.
Our current vibrancy didn't come from nowhere. It didn't start yesterday. It has roots, and it would be great if we could learn about them, great if we could see the actual artworks (even if they aren't all on a par with Rembrandt and Manet). Great if we could find out how our art past connects to today, and to the other art the museums do find room to display.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that all the art in our museums should be from Texas. I like seeing all that other stuff, too. I'm just saying that some of it should be from Texas — and even that some of it should be from Houston.
In that regard, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Amon Carter in Fort Worth and a few others around the state are doing a better job. Both DMA and Amon Carter have mounted major shows of Texas art over the past few years — Julian Onderdonk, Loren Mozley, and the current and timely "Alexandre Hogue: The Erosion Series" at DMA; and at the Carter, "Intimate Modernism: Fort Worth Circle Artists in the 1940s in 2008," and more recently an ongoing gallery devoted to "Texas Regionalism," soon to be replaced by "Lone Star Portraits."
The DMA has actually integrated some of its Texas holdings into the general American galleries — treating it almost like real art — almost as though the museum is proud of it.
There was a time, pre-Sweeney (that would be James Johnson Sweeney, director of MFAH from 1961 to 1967, who came down from New York to show the provincials how art things should be done) — a time before the phrase "world class" came with an automatic gag reflex — a time when MFAH actually did support local art. (Menil wasn't a museum yet, so it gets something of a pass.)
Back then, MFAH staged fairly regular exhibitions of the work of local artists. It even held an annual juried show open only to residents of Harris County. What better way to show the art of HERE? But Sweeney swept that away in an instant: too rinky-dink. And though area shows have been revived over the years by Blaffer and Lawndale, they're not quite the same without the cachet of our "major" museum.
Sure, Menil did its Forrest Bess exhibit in 2013 — but only after Robert Gober had made him something of a rediscovered sensation in New York. And MFAH put on its big Texas show — 15 years ago — and "Fresh Paint: The Houston School" way back in 1985. (How many of us can even remember 1985 now?)
Surely our local museums could find at least a closet to devote to an ongoing look at our local art heritage — a closet they'd let us into, since they don't seem inclined to take the Houston art they own out of the storage closets they keep it in. (Never thought I'd be begging to go into the closet.)
It would be even better if they followed the DMA model, bringing Houston art out of storage and putting it in the context of a larger art history. But that might be asking too much — at least for now.
But really, once you've stopped laughing at that suggestion, consider petitioning the museums to help us learn more about the art heritage of our own area by showing it to us alongside the works they're showing us from every other place in the world. That would be "world class." After all, Houston's in the world, too.
Want to see some great Houston art? Here you go: "Houston Art You Won't See at the MFAH or Menil."
Think you know your Houston art? Take this quiz.
Here's a little Houston art history quiz for those of you who like a challenge. Fair warning: This is likely to be tougher than the New York Times crossword puzzle. (Answers are below.)
1. Which Houston artist shared a name with a Greek god?
2. Which Houston artist was the first woman known to have painted at Giverny, in 1888? (Additional clues: She also painted with Marsden Hartley; joined Hartley, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray as a member of the avant-garde Société Anonyme; and painted what are likely the first cubist works by a Texas artist.)
3. Which Houston artist, born in Mexico, set the visual tone of the city in the Jazz Age as artistic director of The Houston Gargoyle, our answer to Vanity Fair?
4. What is the name of the Houston artist and museum administrator who burned her own paintings in her backyard?
5. Which Young Turk among Houston artists — by the time he was 18! — was painting works more radical than his near contemporary, Jackson Pollock, would get to for years to come?
6. This Houston-raised artist was showing with Mark Rothko, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey in the 1950s in New York, and shared studio space with Cy Twombly in the early 1960s in Rome, where the art press talked about them in the same sentences. What is his name? (Additional clue: One of his watercolors was the only original art by another artist that Forrest Bess had on the walls of his new Bay City studio/bait shack in 1948.)
7. Which Houston artist sold shares in his future work to finance his art study trips to foreign lands? (Actually there were two, so either one, or both, will do.)
8. Which Houston artist won the Houston Annual Exhibition top prize in 1950 and helped bring about a major change in museum policy?
9. Which artist with Houston roots made a sculpture of Winston Churchill for the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.?
1. "Professor" Carl Christian Zeus (1830-1915)
2. Emma Richardson Cherry (1859-1954)
3. Crescenciano Garza Rivera (1895-1958)
4. Ruth Pershing Uhler (1895-1967)
5. Robert Preusser (1919-1992)
6. Gene Charlton (1909-1979)
7. Gene Charlton in the 1940s; David Adickes in the 1950s
8. John Biggers (1924-2001)
9. William McVey (1905-1995)
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