Modernism, Long Ago: A Texas Art Retrospective Scans the Years From 1935-1965

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Nineteen thirty-five seems a long time ago, in the fast-moving world of art, and indeed it is: almost 80 years. The exhibit "A New Visual Vocabulary: Developments in Texas Modernism from 1935-1965," presenting Texas art primarily from 1935 to 1965, showcases some of the Texas artists at work in that era, which of course included the cataclysmic event of World War II and the semi-idyllic postwar Eisenhower years, when America basked in prosperity, its manufacturing facilities undamaged by war.

The exhibition brochure suggests that Texas was "a vital current of modernist paintings and sculpture," yet the paintings and sculpture shown here tend to undermine that assertion. The artists are talented indeed, but the explosive force of dynamic change seems absent. France and Greenwich Village were alive with innovation, and the small town of Water Mill, Long Island, New York, and surrounding areas saw such diverse artists as Jackson Pollock, Bill de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Joe Cornell and many others.

The Texas art is wonderful, if not pioneering. Oyster Shucker (1946) by Lowell Collins captures the melancholy and danger of the sea, its loneliness and tediousness, and by showing a single expressive eye permits us a look into the worker's soul. It is powerful and haunting.

Bill Condon's Cathedral (1966) portrays a crowded downtown area filled with a variety of architectural styles, including a tenement at lower right. It is highly textured, which gives it an almost three-dimensional look and invites the viewer to take a walk among these buildings. Its brushstrokes parallel the work of the acclaimed French artist Bernard Buffet. Cathedral is pulsing with life.

Michael Frary's Construction on the Beach (1955) is probably my favorite, a hybrid combining cubistic elements with representational depictions. The beach is viewed through a window, perhaps that of a truck, and the ocean is gray and white, and the sands a different gray, yet there is a cheerfulness that is enticing, helped by accents of red. Though the painting is harmonious as a whole, the eye ricochets from element to element, uncertain where to settle. It is simple, mysterious and wonderful.

Of the sculptures included, Family Group (1959) by Charles T. Williams seems the most ambitious, representing a family of three on foot. Its strength is in its lower structure, as the fluid movement of walking is brilliantly caught, while the overall impression is ponderous and stolid.

Two other sculptures are humorous, the more successful portraying a Stetson hat, and the other depicting a bronze milk bottle with a cow's udders coming from its bottom, perhaps too literal a joke. I liked the small Wood Construction (1965) by Roy Fridge, with a column rising from what might be a butter churn to hold a top with a variety of kitchen implements. It is deliberately rough-hewn in parts, but the wood is warm and the sculpture has detailing and charm.

Two of the still-lifes shown seem posed, static. Still Life for Ann Holmes (1957) by David Adickes places the still-life on a pedestal (which may be the problem), and Don Edelman's Still Life (1953) seems to lack energy. Despite the genre's title, a "still-life" can be dynamic, a profusion of elements at play with each other.

While it's hardly modern, I was very impressed with Safari #9 (c. 1965-1970) by Martha Mood, a large tapestry of a peaceable kingdom, with 15 animals delineated. The work has a Grandma Moses feeling, and is detailed, complicated and soothing.

Some paintings are simply beautiful, such as Ruth Pershing Uhler's Earth Rhythyms #2 (c. 1935-1935), which shows a series of undulating hills, with softly curving lines, softer colors and an interesting sense of depth. I can't label as beautiful Iguana in My Backyard (1956) by Luis Eades, but can report that it has a fascinating blend of oranges, warm browns and blue, and is filled with volatile energy.

Floaters (1969) by Robert Morris is witty, presenting a military helicopter in the air with paratroopers emerging while gymnasts and swimmers float nearby -- an amusing contrast, and a powerful argument for diplomacy over war.

Untitled -- No Dumping (Figures) (1960) by Chester Snowden conveys a sense of anticipation as a man watches a prohibited area from a low rooftop, and provides an interesting juxtaposition of green hills with the dregs of civilization. And Peak and Canyon (1956) by Everett Spruce overwhelms with its dark, volcanic power under an angry sky.

The painting that I found most modern was Frank Dolejska's As Never (1938). It is abstract, with subdued earth colors against a background that might be the dark bark of a tree; perhaps it's a portrait -- is that an eye? -- and it is complex, depth within depth. Whatever meaning it may suggest, it is evidence of a master at work, with a command of his material and a sensibility to match. As Never alone seems to have the "aha!" factor that indicates art on the march.

As Never is small, 15.5"x16.5", and this was elsewhere an era of size -- with Peggy Guggenheim commissioning a Pollock mural at 8'x20' -- and of excitement, with Jean Tinguely creating a self-destruct sculpture in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, and Niki de Saint Phalle shooting at life-size bags of paint and elsewhere creating giant Nanas.

On a personal note, I had the privilege of knowing many of the Easthampton artists in the late '50s. Though I arrived on the scene after Pollock's death, I knew the others cited in the opening above, plus Pollock's widow, Lee Krasner; John Button; Jane Freilicher; and Jane Wilson and her husband, John Gruen, who wrote the book The Party's Over Now about that idyllic time, a lovely season of content.

Much of the art is for sale, and it may be worthwhile for collectors to check the prices, many of which seemed modest to me. The exhibition is presented by Arts Brookfield and curated by Sally Reynolds, in collaboration with William Reaves Fine Arts and the Anya Tish Gallery. All concerned have done Houston a valuable service by presenting this complex and involving exhibition. See it.

A New Visual Vocabulary: Developments in Texas Modernism from 1935-1965 Through October 8. From Arts Brookfield, One Allen Center, 500 Dallas, Lobby Level, open Mondays through Fridays 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., 713-336-2280, artsbrookfield.com

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