An exhibition called “Holy Barbarians” has just opened at The Menil Collection, curated by Clare Elliott. Be warned: It’s not about religion and it’s not about oafs from the Middle Ages — though I suspect the Menil could do a show about either by delving into those chockablock permanent collection storage vaults, which is where most of the art in this one came from. No, as the subtitle tells us, this show is about “Beat Culture on the West Coast.” I’ll bet that’s an art history topic most of us haven’t thought about in a long time.
Some things don’t seem to make any sense no matter how much you puzzle over them: like how the recent election turned out the way it did; or how there can be a moon rock that’s real rock in the Rice University Library when everyone knows the moon is made of green cheese; or why there’s enough art by beatnik California artists in the Menil permanent collection to put on an exhibition like this.
Even after much puzzling, I’m still puzzled by the first two, but I’ve figured out the secret of the third (confirmed by the curator): Walter Hopps III. He’s probably not someone that most of us think about much, unless we’re arty types, but he had a huge impact on art in our town.
Hopps, scion of a prominent Los Angeles family, was slated to become a scientist until he discovered art. He arrived in Houston in the early 1980s as founding director of The Menil Collection, later becoming curator of 20th-century art. The California art he had long championed came with him, which is what makes “Holy Barbarians” in Houston possible.
Hopps is even in the show, as portrayed by Edward Kienholz — who became a Houstonian himself later on — in his assemblage titled Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps (remember the “III” in his name). From 1957 to 1962, Hopps and Kienholz partnered in running the Ferus Gallery, one of the most influential galleries in L.A. during a period of avant-garde explosion in art out there. Andy Warhol (to throw in a name you probably do know) had his first West Coast solo at Ferus, in 1962.
But it was California artists that made Ferus famous, so it’s no surprise that at least half of the artists in “Holy Barbarians” showed there, and that all of them — even the ones from San Francisco — knew each other and sometimes worked together. It’s because of Hopps’s advice — and even bounty, since he gave some of the works to the Menil — that so much of such unlikely art is now in Houston.
Of all the pieces in the show, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps is the one you’re most likely to have seen before. If memory serves, it greeted visitors at the Branard Street entrance of the museum for a while not long ago. It’s a near life-size caricature infused with the little truths that come from knowing the subject intimately (as a friend and business partner, to be clear; not that intimately).
If you can get close enough and squint hard enough to see it, note the subject’s watch, which says “LATE,” as Hopps always was, I’m told. The piece is even a collaboration between artist and model, since Hopps wrote the lists on little bits of paper stuffed in the brain/heart/innards cubbyholes in back. The vertebrae, however, though real, did not come from Hopps. The piece is a funny, familiar, maybe even wacky but still serious tribute to a person, a partnership and a do-your-own-thing/question-authority/don’t-compromise zeitgeist that made all the work in the show possible.
Assemblage, which is what Walter is, was big all over at the time. There was Rauschenberg in New York, of course, and even Antonio Berni from Buenos Aires, whose work we saw at MFAH a few years ago. So it’s not surprising that there’s lots of it in this show by different artists, each with a different twist. Kienholz takes a biting, social-commentary tack; George Herms is a bit more lyrical with his Greet the Circus With a Smile; Bruce Conner is just plain creepy in Crucifixion, with its black-waxed figure and nylon-stocking cobweb.
There’s a sort of sex-charged subtext to many of the works. One of the artists — Wallace Berman — was even taken off in handcuffs for public obscenity from his 1957 Ferus Gallery show. Gallery owners Hopps and Kienholz were not, so once again the artist suffers while management goes free.
The incident goes to show that L.A. hasn’t always been so liberal, which is part of what these artists, and the whole Beat Generation, were fighting against. According to Lawrence Lipton’s 1959 book, Holy Barbarians, the source of the title of this show, the scene was fueled by sex, drugs and jazz. (Note that the sex and drugs are constants in rebellions against authority like this, though the type of music changes.) Reading the glossary of Lipton’s book is an educational nostalgia trip itself, with definitions for groovey [sic] lingo like “bennies,” “busted,” “chick,” “gay boy,” “with it” and “work” — which is defined as “sexual intercourse,” so maybe being a beatnik wasn’t as easy as one might think. It reads like roll-your-eyes stuff now, but as Lipton says, the artists and others were also fueled by a real quest for “…intellectual honesty and artistic integrity.”
John Doe, another Kienholz piece, gets at many of these issues, depicting, as it does, a quadriplegic everyman, 1959 California style, blood-drenched, with a Christian cross for a heart but, on the reverse, a huge detachable penis that can be safely stored in the included penis drawer when not in use. Practical, perhaps, but it makes me a little queasy. And poor John Doe, with no hands, has to rely on someone else to take it out of the drawer. It’s a depiction of pathetic helplessness that doesn’t seem completely passé even today. (The penis is in storage for this show, by the way.)
There’s more than assemblage in the show, though that’s what stands out most because it’s so right there in the middle of the gallery. But to be fair, I should at least name the other artists, since there are so few: John Altoon, Jay DeFeo, Robert Alexander. I think that’s all.
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I still find myself asking: A museum show in Houston of not-so-well-known California artists from 60 years ago? What sense does that make? Especially since even Houston art from 60 years ago so seldom makes it into our museum galleries (and as a result, right now you can see a lot more Houston art in museums elsewhere in the state than here — a Dorothy Hood retrospective in Corpus Christi; Jack Boynton and Robert Preusser at the Amon Carter in Fort Worth; more Preusser at the Dallas Museum of Art). If you’re going to “regional” and 60 years ago, why not go Houston first? Or at least Houston too?
But that being said, I’m glad to have seen these California Beats and I thank the Menil for showing them. “Holy Barbarians,” full of work with a countercultural take on the political, social and sexual repression and rebellion of an earlier pivotal period, opens at a time that many of us find troubling, even depressing and frightening, in ways that we could hardly have imagined just weeks ago. It doesn’t offer any solutions to our issues, and actually not even much hope.
What it does offer is a little dark humor in the face of it all, and the cold comfort of knowing that others have faced the troubles of their own times and made art out of it. That may not make things better, but maybe at least a little more tolerable. Which is probably as much as we can reasonably ask of art at any time.
Holy Barbarians: Beat-Culture on the West Coast
Through March 12, 2017. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, menil.org.