The Left Bank on the Bayou: Avant-garde Art & Theater in 1930s Houston

Nione Carlson's untitled portrait is believed to be of Edith Sitwell
Nione Carlson's untitled portrait is believed to be of Edith Sitwell
Photo courtesy of O'Kane Gallery

Houston became the largest city in Texas in population in 1939, ending the decade with 400,000 residents, before World War II caused a further rapid expansion. Major events in that decade were the University of Houston becoming a four-year institution in 1934, and later moving to its present location. Braniff Airways and Eastern Air Lines came in 1935 and 1936.

Underneath the growth was a burgeoning art scene, fueled by Margo Jones, dynamic producer and director who founded and directed the Houston Community Players in 1936, and almost single-handedly began the decentralization of American theater. The opening of The Little Gallery on Branard Street provided local artists with an opportunity to exhibit their works, including some that were (gasp!) abstract.

And now that era can be re-visited, thanks to a fascinating exhibition at the O'Kane Gallery curated with wisdom and enthusiasm by its director Mark Cervenka. One of the most striking works is a portrait by Nione Carlson, believed to be of the poetess Edith Sitwell, almost certainly a correct attribution when compared to other portraits of her. We see instantly the power of a commanding personality, and also sense the theatrical self-presentation for which the 6-foot Sitwell was famed, in addition to her luminous poetry. I heard Sitwell speak at Yale University in the early '50s, where she caused a tempest in a teapot by receiving the post-lecture accolades from Yale's distinguished academics while she remained seated and condescending.

Nione Carlson's Small Landscape with Tree is complex and powerful
Nione Carlson's Small Landscape with Tree is complex and powerful
Photo courtesy of O'Kane Gallery

Carlson also has a painting, Small Landscape with a Tree, that is eminently successful. The blue-green tree has a feathery quality, the steps might also be books, the tall buildings suggest dynamic growth, and the discarded window frames suggest the opposite - decay. The painting is complex and rewarding, and in my mind's eye I imagined the tree as a quill pen, with which a master artist had crafted a signature as forthright as John Hancock's.

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Robert Preusser's Dwarf Dwellings remind one of Hobbits gone urban, as small hut nestles next to small hut, like a Brazilian favela, with step stairs that also serve as walls. Under a dark-blue night sky, the crowded hillside is empty of dwarves, yet seems pulsing with life. Or are we the dwarves, and this a metaphor? Preusser's Receding Transit is abstract, with a brilliant use of small white spaces as magnetic accents, and is composed of globes, half-moons and what seem to be fabric-shaped slivers of color.

Carden Bailey's Title Unknown seems to be a set for a medieval play, with a castle turret dominant in the background, while in the foreground an actor, perhaps portraying a harlequin, lies recumbent. The tableau seems quiet, passive, yet curiously filled with explosive latent energy. It caught my imagination, and made me want to see the play.

Forrest Best's painting Male Figure Study shows a model standing on a small wooden block on a platform in a classroom, and leaning upon a table for support, yet managing to maintain a graceful pose despite the awkwardness of his footing. The platform and part of the classroom are blue but the warm flesh tones dominate, and one senses the creative energy of the unseen sketchers. The painting could exemplify the driving force of Houston art, perhaps with an early uncertain footing but maintaining its beauty and power with patience and serenity.

Many of the 1930s artists went on to national and international fame, but even those who did not had the satisfaction of being artistic pioneers who helped pave the way for Houston's emerging dominance as a Texan cultural center. Somehow, moving from painting to painting, the viewer senses the comradeship that must have been present, and is filled with admiration for these talented artists. The Left Bank on the Bayou: Avant-garde Art & Theater in 1930's Houston continues through October 16, Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 5 p.m., at O'Kane Gallery at the University of Houston - Downtown, One Main, 713-221-8042, uhd.edu/okane gallery.


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