Visual Arts

"Statements," at MFAH, Is a Remarkable Exhibit of Artistic Steps Forward

You don’t often get the chance to see in person a work of art that changed the course of history, but you can see one now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And not just any history, but Houston’s history. Even the history of MFAH itself, in fact.

The work of art is The Cradle, a 1950 drawing in Conté crayon of an anguished mother cradling her children in her emaciated arms. It was drawn by John Biggers, founder of the art program at Texas Southern University, and it’s on view in the exhibition “Statements: African American Art from the Museum’s Collection,” which recently opened to coincide with Black History Month. The show of 47 works by 37 artists, which spans eight decades, is curated by Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of contemporary art and special projects, who is assisted by Althea Ruoppo and John Semlitsch.

In 1950, The Cradle was awarded the top prize in the Houston Annual Exhibition, a juried show held at the museum and a big deal at the time, not just in art circles but for the whole city. The image is powerful: a graphic distillation of the suffering and survival of African-Americans in slavery and after; you can see that with a web search. But the hand of the artist who made the image undeniable — that can only be sensed in person. Standing before the drawing, seeing the deliberate, textured strokes of black crayon across the no longer quite white paper, it’s easy to understand why it won the prize. There’s no question that the jurors in 1950 made a good pick.

The challenge was that the artist who made the image was black, and so, according to the segregation policy of the museum then in place, and throughout much of American society at the time, he couldn’t attend the celebration to accept his prize.

It’s rightly a reason for chagrin that notices such as this one from 1930 routinely appeared in Houston newspapers:

“The Museum of Fine Arts will be open to negroes [sic] from 8 to 10 p.m. today instead of Thursday as is the usual custom. Houston Chronicle, Sunday, Dec 21 [1930]”

Twenty years later, through the power of art, John Biggers worked with MFAH Director James Chillman Jr. to right that shameful wrong and open the museum to all visitors at all times, in a small but relatively early step toward the end of Jim Crow segregation in Houston. Art changed history.

Biggers is also represented in this show by a beautiful (and surprising, because I wasn’t aware that he did sculpture) terra cotta from 1951 titled Mother and Child. It has a pathos and defiant power that remind me of the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose work reflects a mother’s devastation and anguish at the loss of sons and grandsons to 20th-century wars. Though the details of their own oppression, and that of their people, differed, both artists found the image of Mother — suffering, anonymous but uncrushable — to convey a shared sense of determination to triumph through nurturing and sheer survival.

Themes of art may arise out of particular circumstances expressed by very different artists — in many ways Biggers and Kollwitz could hardly be more different — but they can find connection through universal elements. The “particular” can be ethnicity, as with this group of African-American artists. It can also be place.

Many of the 37 artists in the show (I haven’t counted, but it must approach a third) have been Houstonians, either by birth or adoption, some brought here by the museum’s CORE Program through the Glassell School of Art, which brings artists and critics to Houston for postgraduate residencies. Many stay; others continue their careers elsewhere, but with an infusion of Houston that persists.

It’s an exciting aspect of “Statements” that so many Houstonians are included and that MFAH has often explicitly mentioned their Houston roots in the wall text of the exhibition.

Ghettoizing art is usually no better an idea than ghettoizing people, since the point often is to suppress or delegitimize. But some insights and some art of beauty and value can emerge even from the ghetto (shall we call it “the particular place apart”?) when they might not emerge elsewhere. That has to do with the nurturing power of place and circumstance.

Just as it’s important to show subsets of art, such as African-American, for many reasons (among them honor, acknowledgement and inspiration), it’s also significant to show the art of a place, both past and present, in that place, as much for the sake of those who see it as for those who made it — even when the place is Houston rather than New York or Paris.

At times I’ve had some critical things to say about what I perceived to be a decision by our friends at MFAH to show too little Houston-made art, so it’s only right that I should commend them now for including so much of it in this show (and also in a few others lately), where it fits and holds its own — for making it the core of the show, in fact.

As I said, John Biggers is one of many Houstonians in the show — too many for me to mention them all, but I’ll name a few. There’s a stoneware vase with a glazelike tree bark by Carroll Simms, who came here in 1950, at the invitation of Biggers, to establish a ceramics studio at TSU. There are the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Basketball Players in papier-mâché by Jesse Lott; photographs of stark contrast by Earlie Hudnall Jr. that juxtapose Houston’s Fourth Ward against the sleek skyline, and by Louise Ozell Martin taken at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and more recent works by younger artists including David McGee, Robert Pruitt and Trenton Doyle Hancock.

And there are many works from places other than Houston: “Circa 1992,” a recent accession, by Mark Bradford, who acknowledges Houston’s Project Row Houses as partial inspiration; Log Cabin (Bricklayer), a Gee’s Bend quilt by Loretta Pettway; Soundsuit by Nick Cave, which isn’t a crazy quilt, but a crazy rug assembled for wearing; Roosevelt: A Handicapped Man Got the Cities to Move by Thornton Dial Sr., an outsider artist whose work MFAH showed in a major exhibition in 2005, and who died only a couple of weeks ago at age 87; as well as Kara Walker, Glen Ligon and others now world- (or at least art-world-) famous.

The earliest works in the show, both from 1935, are the limestone Eagle of monumental bearing by William Edmondson; and Richmond Barthé’s powerful, and at the same time graceful, sensual, even erotic, Feral Benga in bronze, an image of the black male that compels both the male and female gaze, straight and gay.

For me, these last-mentioned works, made 15 years before Biggers drew The Cradle, prompt provocative questions about the time before he got to Houston, in 1949, an event that begins the known history of African-American art here.

We’ve heard about the Harlem Renaissance; was there a Houston version? There was a Negro Art Guild here in the 1930s, but aside from a photograph or two and a few names, little is known about it. Even before the 1930s, there must have been Houston African-American artists, but nothing at all is known about them. So more research remains to be done, and future exhibitions mounted.

But for now, MFAH visitors who see “Statements” can have no doubt that art of value has been, is being and (by extension) will be made by African-American artists, in Houston as well as elsewhere. What a great message for MFAH to give viewers of all ages, races and places in the way that it can do best — by showing the art.

Full disclosure: I am a member of the Board of CASETA, The Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art, and coordinator of HETAG, the Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. I do not, however, have any financial stake in either organization or in the work of any of the artists included in this show.

Even fuller disclosure: Since there was no national consulate to provide a lavish sit-down lunch at the press preview of “Statements,” as the Austrians had done in conjunction with “Habsburg Splendor” last summer, MFAH offered a free lunch in the new Museum Café — which I ate. Not bad. Pretty good, in fact, for a museum cafe, but, rest assured, not nearly good enough to sway my opinions in this review.