August 27 - November 5, 2022
“During the 1930s, art flourished in Texas, and Modernism, that most current of art movements at the time, made its way to the Lone Star State, even as the depression dug in and the dust bowl grew. But Texas is vast and varied, so the Modernism(s) that took root in the major cities and academic centers in the state was varied too.
In Houston and Dallas, Modernism became the central focus for two small groups of local artists,made up mostly of youngsters, along with their forward-looking mentors: in Houston, the Cherry-McNeill Group; and the Dallas Nine (plus) up north.
Though not even 250 miles apart, the approaches to Modernism of the two groups in the two cities were markedly different, and were in some respects a microcosm of the different paths to Modernism on the national level.
In Houston, the Cherry-McNeill Group consisted of Emma Richardson Cherry, the doyenne of Houston art, her student, Ola McNeill Davidson, and Davidson’s students, Gene Charlton, Carden Bailey, Nione Carlson, Maudee Carron, Robert Preusser, Frank Dolejska and Dean Lee, along with Forrest Bess and one or two others who sometimes worked and exhibited with them. Davidson herself named the group in a 1952 letter to Cherry, recounting what HETAG: The Houston Earlier Texas Art Group
they had been able to accomplish as teachers and students developing avant-garde art in the Bayou City.
Based on Cherry’s own long training and catholic art interests, stretching back into the 19th Century and coming forward to the most advanced art of her day, the Cherry-McNeill Group brought a “scientific” approach to art (as Cherry described it in 1920), concerned as much, or maybe more, with the way art is made than with the subjects depicted. Cherry drew her inspiration from extensive study in Paris and New York, and contact with such artists as Marsden Hartley, Marcel Duchamp and Andre Lhote. She enthusiastically embraced the Modernism current in Europe and New York.
The Dallas Nine, on the other hand, originally including Jerry Bywaters, Thomas M. Stell, Jr., Harry P. Carnohan, Otis M. Dozier, Alexandre Hogue, William Lester, Everett Spruce, John Douglass, and Perry Nichols, along with others who worked and exhibited with them through the 1930s, founded their art-making on the conviction, as Bywaters put it in 1928, that “art, to be significant, must be a reflection of life; that it must be a part of a people’s thought.” Technique in art-making was not immaterial to them, and indeed they looked for guidance to Italian primitives, landscape artists and even Surrealists, but the subject was all important, and the subject had to be the land and people of their own region. They actively rebelled against the “European domination of American art,” as Bywaters said.
They worked in concert with other American regionalists to find an American Modernism growing out of, and speaking directly to, their own region. Bywaters and the other Dallas Nine artists viewed as fellow travelers the Midwestern American Scene painters Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, along with John Sloan and Reginald Marsh, among others, in the East. And though they sometimes ignored the influence, they even shared basic values with the older Dallas artist, Frank Reaugh, who took the life and landscape of Texas as his only valid subject from the beginning of his career, in the 1880s.
The exhibition will focus on the period from the mid-1920s, when both groups began to develop conscious concepts of Modernism as applied to their art-making, to 1942, when the entry of the United States into World War II disrupted the groups and changed their focuses, as it did the entire country. Attention will also be given to the possible impact on the differing approaches to Modernism in the two cities of the fact that in Houston most (though not all) the artists involved were women or gay men, while in Dallas, most (though, again, not all) were straight men. In that time of racial segregation, neither group included artists of color.
By showing side-by-side the work of Cherry-McNeill Group and Dallas Nine artists, all working seriously as Modernists in Texas in the 1930s, the exhibition intends to explore the looks and philosophical underpinnings of two seminal aspects of the art history of Texas, which have strongly influenced later developments in their two cities, as well as the state in general. At the same time, the exhibition will serve as a demonstration that Modernism, when it came to America, was not limited exclusively to the art centers of the East and that it was not a single thing, even in a relatively contained region such as Texas. It was, rather a liberating force that could take its disciples along markedly different routes toward the shared ideal of creating a modern art for America.”
500 McKinney Street
Houston, 77002 TX