Six Pioneering Abstract Expressionists at Texas-size Exhibit

In the late 1950s two emerging artists – one from Fort Worth and one from Beaumont – moved to Houston and shared studio space on Waugh and later on Nance, developing their individual expressionist styles and eventually showing at the premiere art gallery of the time: Katherine Swenson's New Arts Gallery. The artists, Jack Boynton and Richard Stout, were at the forefront of a burgeoning art scene in post-war Houston. It was during this period that Houston began to gain cultural recognition on a national level, made even stronger by contributions from Dick Wray and Leila McConnell and, in the 1960s, by Dorothy Hood and Charles Schorre. Large-scale works by these six leaders in the abstract expressionist movement are on view at William Reaves | Sarah Foltz Fine Art in "Texas Originals" Six Bayou City Expressionists."

“[Boynton] had been a student of McKie Trotter’s at TCU; he really is one of the earliest proponents of abstract expressionism in the state,” says William Reaves. “Another prominent person of that time was Charles Williams, leading modernist sculptor.” With Boynton's 1955 arrival in Houston, he brought the aesthetic of both mentors and began to paint his dark and powerful modernist abstractions. Early exhibits included the Whitney Museum of American Art "Young America" series in 1957 and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's "Younger American Painters" in 1954. He was a professor at the University of St. Thomas (1969-1985) and his works are in collections at the Dallas Museum of Art, the Whitney, and New York's Museum of Modern Art, among others.

Stout, who grew up in Beaumont and attended the Art Institute of Chicago, moved to Houston about 18 months after Boynton. “He and Jack actually shared a studio from the late '50s to about 1962 and they were working independently but also working together,” says Reaves. Sixty years later, Stout remains an influential presence in our community, creating paintings, sculpture and drawings in his Montrose studio, with works in both private and public collections. He served a thirty-year tenure at the University of Houston (fine arts faculty) and was named 2004 Texas Artist of the Year by Houston Art League.

“Then, two other people who were actually on the scene but emerging as new artists were Leila McConnell and Dick Wray,” says Reaves. She attended Rice University (in their architecture program) and studied briefly at San Francisco's California Institute of Art where Mark Rothko was an instructor. While her earlier works were Cubist-inspired, which was popular at the time, she moved towards contemplative minimalism. “So she moved into a style that has a kinship to Rothko’s, more minimalist, ethereal sort of type of expressionism,” says Reaves. By the early '60s she was producing her “sky paintings” and had adopted her soft, blended and misty style, often with a sun or moon.

Houstonian Wray also began to paint during this period. After graduating from the University of Houston's architecture program, he “made a trip to Germany early, and [was] profoundly affected by expressionists,” says Reaves. “He was a maximalist, really muscular, and just finishes every inch of the canvas. Highly energetic, supercharged canvases. One of the important artists of his period." Wray was an instructor at the Glassell School of Art for almost 20 years and a retrospective of his work was held in 1975 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Although Dorothy Hood was living in Mexico, she had maintained ties to Houston and moved back in the early 1960s. “[She was] very influenced by Mexican surrealism, the Mexican modernism moment,” says Reaves. “And then Dorothy Hood becomes the most prominent American woman painter, abstract painter, of that era.” She exhibited at MOMA and, in 1973,  achieved the American Academy of Arts and Letters Chide Hassam Award. After her death in 2000, much of her art and personal papers were given to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, which plans to show her paintings and works on paper in an exhibit titled “Dorothy Hood: The Color of Being/ El Color del Ser,” set to open in September.

“And then, sort of the latecomer in all the group, nonetheless really important abstract impressionist artist was Charles Schorre,” says Reaves. “He went to UT, originally was an illustrator and an advertising design artist but he really, early on in the '70s, he got on at Rice and taught a figure painting class at Rice and began to turn out colorful, brisk, bright canvases, large scale canvases.” In 1986 the Art League of Houston named Schorre Texas Artist of the year.

“[These artists] established Houston as a real epicenter of what’s going on in that period,” says Reaves, adding that they helped “to call attention to Houston as a major art center.”

While all six artists are in collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the “Texas Originals” exhibit contains not only large scale pieces which have shown at the gallery before, but also newly acquired works which have come on the secondary market and will be new to Houston viewers. It is the first time that this group of “pioneering abstract expressionists” has been shown together.

There's an opening reception 6 to 8:30 p.m. February 13. A gallery talk with Pete Gershon, historian and coordinator of the CORE Residency Program at the Glassell School of Art, will be held 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, February 20.

“Texas Originals: Six Bayou City Expressionists” opens February 12 and continues through March 19 at William Reaves | Sarah Foltz Fine Art, 2143 Westheimer, open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 713-521-7500, reavesart.com.

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