“We almost had Texas skies today.”
– Hank Thompson, singing
You can’t blame Hank for his sentimental crooning about the wild blue yonder of this immense land mass. Our firmament and the terrain over which it floats and soars have inspired countless artists. The land and sky even imbued the visual wisdom of a young Georgia O’Keeffe. “I couldn’t believe Texas was real,” she wrote, describing its blazing sunset and storied landscape as comprising a “big wonderful thing.”*
O’Keeffe, writes K. Robinson Edwards in the new book The Art of Texas: 250 Years, became “Texas’ pioneer modernist” while teaching in Canyon and Amarillo during the 1910s. Edited by Ron Tyler, the massive volume serves as the catalog for an exhibition of the same name at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, which Tyler curated with Dallas gallerist Michael Duty. The show is a stunning collection of greatest hits from Texas art history, supplemented with wild cards that surprise, challenge, and delight. The book is a tour de force of readable scholarship that pretty much encompasses the whole enchilada. Chances are, if you’re reading this and you’re into this stuff, you’ve already seen it. If not, and you can possibly get there before it closes at the end of this weekend, please, please do so.
“It’s been a generation since an exhibition of Texas art anywhere near this comprehensive was attempted,” noted Witte president and CEO Marise McDermott on a recent tour with the museum’s chief curator Amy Fulkerson and V. P. of communications, Katye Brought. Nearly a quarter of the 130 paintings and sculptures included were drawn from the Witte’s own collections; the other selections were provided by 88 different lenders.
The exhibition of works from 1750 to 2000 is not organized chronologically but rather in three main sections: “Vast and Varied Landscape,” “Peopling the Land,” and “Urbanization.” A fourth section, housed in the Russell Rogers Texas Art Gallery at the Witte’s north end, focuses on presenting art as it would have been displayed in the home. As befits an art exhibition (or anything else, really) that represents the state that invented the maverick, the categories are fluid and overlap. Before one even enters the “Vast and Varied Landscape” galleries, a totemic assemblage by the late Beaumont outsider Felix Fox Harris hints at the curators’ appropriately sprawling, eclectic approach.
O’Keeffe’s 1918 oil on board, Red Landscape, with its deep red, rust-rock, streaked-sky take on Palo Duro Canyon, leads into a gallery that samples the state’s eight ecological regions. A decade-plus after Georgia left the Panhandle, many of the area’s residents and much of its very earth moved on, as well. Alexandre Hogue’s dramatic, atmospheric 1933 oil painting, Dust Bowl, may have coined the term that, after its introduction by a journalist two years later, came to define the plague of soil depletion endured during the Great Depression.
Hogue’s Pulliam Ridge, Chisos Mountains, an oil painting created nearly half a century later, and Everett Spruce’s 1945 oil, Big Bend, offer contrasting visions of the state’s most spellbinding, otherworldly landscape. Susie Kalil crowns an illuminating, lengthy catalog account of the Hogue work by noting, “Standing in front of Pulliam Ridge is like seeing through the eyes of the last human on earth.”
Hung beside more traditional representations of Texas land and sky, two Dorothy Hood oil paintings draw one’s imagination out with seductive abstraction. Likewise, Mel Casas’ 1969 acrylic, Humanscape #57, a scientifically pop take on the state’s bluebonnet art, is neighbors with Julian Onderdonk’s 1912 oil painting Bluebonnet Field [see top image]. Rebecca Lawton describes the latter in a catalog essay as one of several “masterful examples of Onderdonk’s ability to express the grandeur of the Texas terrain, capturing its vibrantly colored luminosities and breath taking vistas in a manner few other Texas painters could match.”
Some of the works here, such as Dawson Dawson-Watson’s Cactus Flower, recall one of the state’s most singular, eccentric figures of the Texas oil industry, Edgar B. Davis, and the wildflower painting competitions he sponsored in San Antonio from 1927 to 1929. William E. Reaves, Jr., author of the book Texas Art and a Wildcatter’s Dream, writes in The Art of Texas that the contests and subsequent exhibitions “galvanized the state’s burgeoning art scene and catapulted Texas art into the national spotlight for the first time.”
One Davis award winner, Jose Arpa’s 1929 oil painting Picking Cotton, provides relevant social commentary nearly a century later. The child lugging a heavy cotton sack reminds viewers that American agriculture often relies on migrant labor that historically has been performed by entire families, including children. Born and trained in Spain, Arpa immigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and came to San Antonio in 1899, where he remained an important art-scene figure for many years. In The Art of Texas, Ricardo Romo quotes historian Caroline Perry in noting that Arpa’s skill in depicting sunlight earned him the nickname “Sunshine Man.”One of many standout show-stoppers here is Audley Dean Nicols’ Untitled [View of El Paso, Looking South]. Kalil calls the work “a dazzling, airless world that bathes the El Paso environs in a romanticizing glow.” Nicols, who moved to the Southwest from his native Pittsburgh in 1919 for his health and settled in El Paso, became especially known for his desert scenes. “The so-called gray of the desert is a mistake,” he told an El Paso journalist. “The desert is everything but gray. There are clean fresh blues in the skies, pinks and yellows in the sunset, opalescent purple, rose and lavendar in the distant mountains, dull greens of every shade in the vegetation, and reds and yellows in the rocks and earth — but never gray.”
The 193-inch-wide painting was originally commissioned in the mid-1920s by a downtown El Paso bank. When the bank closed, it was gifted to El Paso High School, where it hung until 1972. Somehow, it then wound up in a janitor’s closet until the turn of the century, when it was loaned on a semi-permanent basis to the El Paso Museum of Art, where it can normally be seen in the second-floor Tom Lea Gallery. Nicols’ grandson recently told the El Paso Times that family stories describe the artist as “very eccentric” (a term rarely applied to artists, right?). And a photograph of him in The Art of Texas that appears to be from a plein air session in Arizona underscores that description in a most delightful manner. (You can see a video with closeups of the painting here.)
I was also delighted to see the 1886 oil, Trinity River Near Dallas, by Richard Lentz. The North Texas area is well documented by 19th century photography, but artworks… not so much. Having opened his studio at 911 Elm Street to the public, Lentz is sometimes described as Dallas’ first professional artist. When his painting View of Dallas from Oak Cliff was exhibited, it caused such a sensation that officials added the first-ever fine arts component to the Texas State Fair in 1887. Lentz’ painting of a surveying crew camped on the Trinity’s banks captures the rosy glow of what appears to be early morning light with a sense that feels almost magical.
While Lentz’ work is one of those welcome new discoveries, Thomas Allen’s 1878-79 oil painting Market Plaza has long been a favorite for its lively account of al fresco dining tables, ox-drawn carts hauling wood for sale, and other features of San Antonio’s Military Plaza. A second cousin of the famed “Cowboy Artist” Charles Russell, Allen grew up in St. Louis, was trained in Europe, and settled in Boston. Though his two train trips through Texas in the late 1870s were relatively brief, art historian Heather Elizabeth White has written** that Allen “created what may arguably be his most sophisticated and interesting works during the short time he spent in Galveston and San Antonio.” And White cites Market Plaza as Allen’s masterpiece.
The Art of Texas includes a lesser-known Allen work, Toilers on the Plains (on the Old San Antonio Trail), that depicts the drama of an ox-drawn wagon train moving through the open terrain of a still-wild Texas. Viewing the catalog version with a magnifying glass, I thought a hair had fallen on the image, but the thin strand turned out to be the high-flying, curled wisp of a whip raised by a red-shirted, sombrero-ed teamster front and center. It’s a stirring scene.
Other San Antonio-related works in the exhibition include Irish Flats by the pioneer Latina landscape painter Santa Duran, river scenes by Ira Hadra and Robert Onderdonk, San Jose Mission scenes by Seth Eastman and Stephen Seymour Thomas, Arpa’s Guenther’s Upper Mill, and W. G. M. Samuel’s 1849 oil West Side Main Plaza. Samuel arrived in San Antonio shortly after the Battle of the Alamo. He served under Bigfoot Wallace in the Mexican War and then became a deputy sheriff in the Alamo City. His four folk-arty views of Main Plaza, painted from each of the four directions, offer a lively portrait of plaza life between statehood and the Civil War. Another informative oil painting, Hermann Lungkwitz’ Crockett Street Looking West, San Antonio, is a work that I have looked at a lot through the years. But not until I read Kenneth Hafertepe’s essay on European immigrants’ contribution to Texas art did I realize that the painting’s near-bird’s-eye-view of 1850s San Antonio includes a rear view of the Alamo chapel.
And Gentilz. No Texas art history exhibition, especially one held in San Antonio, should stand sans Theodore Gentilz. The Witte show features four of his works: On the Trail, The Alamo, Ox Cart Returning from Town, and perhaps his most beloved, Un Fandango en Casa del Gobernador Cordero. I have seen so many reproductions of this work that it was a thrill to see the actual painting. (On one article-writing trip to San Antonio years ago, I saw reproductions prominently displayed everywhere I had appointments — at the Navarro House, the Alamo, and the Kleberg galleries of the Witte.) It has often been theorized that the fandango Gentilz painted was one operated by Madam Candelaria in an ancient adobe on Main Plaza, but the full title of the work establishes that the location was the Spanish Governors Palace on Military Plaza. Amy Fulkerson mentioned during our tour that Martha Utterback at the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library has recently completed work on a Gentilz catalog raisonne. Maybe it’s time for another one-man show on this important chronicler of old San Antonio.
Francine Carraro’s catalog essay posits that the Texas Centennial of 1936 “brought national attention to Texas art and to the Texas artists who were declaring artistic independence and practicing their own stylistic expression of Regionalism to visualize a new image of Texas.” Carraro states that the “Texas scene was the American Scene in the art of the 1930s.” The theme that Texas culture is basically American culture on steroids was taken up again, albeit rather garishly, in John Bainbridge’s 1961 opus, The Super Americans, and revisited much more reasonably in works like Richard Parker’s 2014 volume, Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America. Works in the Witte exhibition that exemplify this Depression-era new regionalism include Florence McClung’s pastoral Comanche Peak, Glen Rose, Texas, which offers a view of the site pre-nuclear plant. Two oils by Jerry Bywaters, On the Ranch and Texas Subdivision, offer visions of old and new Texas. The still life of ranch-life artifacts is almost an archeological display, and the subdivision scene presages the post-war suburban boom as developments gobbled up more and more of the state’s virgin cactus patch and prairie. And the binding and tying down of the Texas landscape depicted in Coreen Mary Spellman’s iconic oil Road Signs is just as much a continuing issue today as it was when she painted it in 1936.
John Biggers’ powerful casein on muslin mural, History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas, followed a similar path to the Witte exhibition as Nicols’ El Paso painting did. Commissioned by Phineas Y. Gray, principal of the then-new George Washington Carver School for Negroes in the northeast Texas hamlet of Naples in 1954, the mural was installed in the school until the early 1970s when integration came to Morris County. Carver was retooled as an elementary school, and with its lowered ceilings it could no longer accommodate the mural. Thus, the artwork was rolled up and eventually stored in an audio-visual equipment shed. Nearly two decades later, it was discovered, conserved, and installed in the library of Northeast Texas Community College in nearby Mount Pleasant. “This event marks for me the climax of my career,” Dr. Biggers stated at a 1989 rededication ceremony. “I need nothing else. I told a story with meaning for this community which you have kept alive all these years. This is why I paint. There is no greater satisfaction.”
Along with the struggle for civil rights and educational equality, of course, we have expressions of space-age angst, perhaps best illustrated in Frank Freed’s 1964 oil The Climate of Opinion. Tiny heads, fretting what others might think, peep out from behind flat planes that mimic an ad-hoc skyline. During our tour, Katye Brought commented that the piece gives her anxiety. Witte curator Amy Fulkerson said the piece could be an analogy for modern life and our failure to connect on human levels. “Teenagers really get it.”
The manipulated objecthood of found art is handily represented in Dave McManaway’s 1995 mixed media work, Jomo Board. The piece is a cabinet of curiosities with each figure or object — a cowboy playing an accordion, a pink flamingo, an ice cream cone — lodged in its own cubicle. According to the internet, ‘JOMO’ is an acronym for the Joy of Missing Out….i.e., one doesn’t worry that others are enjoying more gusto in their existence but rather he or she finds contentment in their own tunnel-vision hobby-horse or rabbit hole. And the assemblage definitely gives that impression. Katye Brought noted that her musician husband especially loves the piece because it reminds him of the work of Bruce Conner.
So much to see here. One must mention an included artist whose work provided a name for this website. In her catalog essay, K. Robinson Edwards quotes Holland Cotter’s NYT review of a 2017 Rauschenberg exhibition. In the late 1960s, he wrote, Janis Joplin passed a note to the artist in the popular NYC hangout Max’s Kansas City. It read, “We’re the only two people who ever got out of Port Arthur, Texas.” At the Witte, and in a full two-page catalog spread, Rauschenberg is represented with his enigmatic 1977 work Whistle Stop (Spread). The mixed-media piece of solvent transfer, fabric and paper collage, screen doors, and train signal light on wood support is dedicated to the artist’s father, and if you think Sam Shepard had father issues in his work, read this illuminating account of the Rauschenberg piece by Mark Thistlethwaite.
Other artists included in the 250 year roundup include John James Audubon, Carl von Iwonski, Frederic Remington, John Mix Stanley, Frank Reaugh, Merritt Mauzey, Otis Dozier, Julius Stockfleth, Pompeo Coppini, Xavier Gonzales, Tom Lea, Kelly Fearing, Jim Love, Jesus Moroles, Buck Schiwetz, Luis Jiménez, Michael Frary, Forrest Bess, and many more. Texas outsiders in the Witte show include Hector Benavides, Fannie Lou Spelce, Chelo Amezcua, Charles A. A. Dellschau, H. R. “I am a magnificent diamond” Clark, and Eddie Arning. Amy Fulkerson pointed out two female artists in the Rogers gallery, Louise Wueste and Elisabet Ney, who made their living as full-time artists in Texas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The walls that held Wueste’s studio still stand at Alamo and Caesar Chavez in San Antonio, and Ney’s Austin studio is, of course, now the Elisabey Ney Museum.
What’s next? “I’d like to see an exhibition this comprehensive of contemporary Texas artists,” says Fulkerson. “Through the 250 Years exhibition, we’ve seen Texas in a different lens, with artistic styles that offer something for everyone. It shows us who we were and are as Texans. And it’d be great to bring that right up to the present.” I’m there.
‘The Art of Texas – 250 Years’ continues at the Witte Museum in San Antonio through August 25.
*This O’Keeffe quote will appear on the cover of Stephen Harrigan’s forthcoming history of Texas entitled Big Wonderful Thing (UT Press). Big Wonderful Thing and Tyler’s The Art of Texas: 250 Years (TCU Press) will likely be the Texas publishing events of the year. In addition to the contributors and subjects named above, Sam Deshong Ratcliffe wrote about Texas history as depicted in paintings for The Art of Texas. Light Townsend Cummins covered Texas sculpture, and Richard B. McCaslin wrote about Pompeo Coppini. Jay Wehnert contributed a chapter on Texas outsider artists, and Scott A. Sherer wrote about early African American art in the state. There’s plenty of cowboys and cattle in the exhibition, and Michael R. Grauer penned the catalog essay Horsemen, Passed By? Editor/curator Ron Tyler provided an eye-opening chapter on Texas art before the Civil War. He quotes the early art historian, artist and poet Esse Forester-O’Brien, who noted, “Art is especially slow where scalping is in style.”
**Some Thomas Allen information was gleaned from Heather Elizabeth White’s essay, Thomas Allen’s Sketches and Paintings of Texas, 1877-1879, published in the 2014 volume, Itinerant and Immigrant Artists and Artisans in 19th-Century Texas.