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Texas’ major museums have lately taken to revealing in public some of their best-kept secrets: They own substantial collections of Texas art, which are usually relegated to the storage vaults. Last year the Houston Museum of Fine Arts offered an intriguing sampler of its five-hundred-plus-piece Texas collection. The latest unveiling, at the Dallas Museum of Art, is “The State I’m In: Texas Art at the DMA,” more than one hundred items selected by curator Annegreth Nill from a trove representing at least 250 Texas-born or Texas-based artists. (Later this month, the San Antonio Museum Association will also air its collection of Texas art, some dating back to 1845, at the Witte Museum.)
At the heart of the DMA show is a group of Dallas artists who rallied under the banner of regionalism in the thirties. Informally known as the Dallas Nine, they advocated an unvarnished look at Texas rural life in the depths of the Depression, and their sophisticated but straightforward paintings and prints gave Texas artists an international reputation that they have only recently reestablished. The Dallas Nine make up a well-known chapter in the history of Texas art, but this show makes a surprisingly vigorous case for their lasting influence on subsequent generations. Texas artists of the nineties may be less self-consciously Texan than those of the thirties, but they clearly share a philosophical kinship with their precursors. This shared attitude is as unexpected as it is evident, a spiritual subtlety rarely attributed to Texas art.
Perhaps the most resonant image in the DMA exhibit is also arguably the best-known icon in Texas art. Drouth Stricken Area, Alexandre Hogue’s 1934 Dust Bowl landscape, portrays a broken windmill standing sentinel as the dunes devour an abandoned farmhouse. The hard-edged style and harsh palette were a reaction against the misty, pastel-hued sentimentalism of bluebonnet impressionist Julian Onderdonk, but Hogue’s almost biblical interpretation of nature’s plague indicates the spiritual fervor underlying his Depression-era realism. The parched West Texas landscape becomes a supernatural realm, every object or presence— an empty rain barrel or a starving cow—a charged symbol of some vastly greater force.
That sense of the land as a stage for cosmic morality plays is also present in the work of Hogue’s contemporary Everett Spruce. In a small thirties painting centered on a single barren tree that echoes the lonely vigil of Hogue’s windmill, Spruce creates a landscape that is both familiar and fantastic, like the precise little vignettes of the Italian countryside found in early Renaissance religious paintings, everyday places where miracles occur. Spruce’s Tree and Rocks (1932) is a symbol of torment—the tree is stripped of leaves, its naked branches whipped by the wind into a crown of thorns, martyred yet also promising some sort of resurrection. That rebirth takes place almost half a century later in James Surls’s sculpture Working in the Garden (1981), assembled from the massive root structure of a tree and a section of log shaped into a spinning, multi-eyed, multi-handed, ax-wielding woodland deity capable of accomplishing its own destruction and regeneration. Surls’s vision suggests Hindu rather than Christian cosmogony, but like Spruce, he finds in a solitary tree the powerful stirrings of myth.
The magic inherent in the material world is a persistent theme throughout the DMA show. Harry Carnohan’s 1934 opus West Texas Landscape was, along with Hogue’s Drouth Stricken Area, the sensation of an enormous exhibit of Texas art that accompanied the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. After studying with Frank Reaugh, who specialized in painting Longhorns, Carnohan went to Paris in the late twenties and absorbed the latest modernist trends. There is a surrealistic quality in the still, dry air of his parched landscape and the cryptic arrangement of discarded tools, human traces that take on a haunting presence in an otherwise lifeless realm. The current version of Carnohan’s sensibility is Joseph Havel’s powerful sculpture Harvest (1989), assembled from old farm implements, rockers, and cane chairs, all shaped into a clean, whooshing arc, as if they have effected their own animation.
Commonplace objects are often overtly symbolic. William Lester, a student of Hogue’s who later spent decades teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, finds profundity in the detritus of failure in The Three Crosses (1935—36); the symbols of crucifixion are suggested by the remains of a wood-and-wire fence, another relic of yet another abandoned farm. This conventional religious image is inventively updated in Randy Twaddle’s charcoal-on-paper Three on a Hill (1989), the abstracted, velvety black silhouettes of three power station transformers. Twaddle’s message is provocatively ambiguous: Will technology save us or crucify us? In Hogue’s 1936 lithograph End of the Trail, a steer’s skull, a plow lying useless in the dust, and tangled barbed wire become memento mori, forebodings of our own mortality. Sculptor Tracy Hicks, in a 1985—86 assemblage titled Clear Cut, uses similar means—bones, fence posts, and a rusty saw—to warn that natural resources also have limits.
Just as mundane objects acquire transcendent meanings, so do ordinary lives. Otis Dozier, another of the Dallas Nine, painted The Annual Move in 1936, a starkly composed scene of a sharecropping family packing everything they own into their Model T, moving on to another one-room farmhouse and another soon-to-be-exhausted plot of land. Despite their meager circumstances, Dozier gives his figures the monumental dignity of a latter-day flight into Egypt. In Sharecropper (1937), by Jerry Bywaters, perhaps the most aggressive polemicist of the Dallas Nine, the battered farmer’s black cap gives him an ecclesiastical mien; as locusts consume his crop, he confronts the viewer with the admonishing stare of a Dust Bowl Jeremiah.
Hard times were even harder for black Texans. Willard “The Texas Kid” Watson’s untitled series of drawings from 1980, done in a sophisticated folk art style, narrates his own humble beginnings on a Louisiana “plantation”: “The midwife stepped outside and waved a flag that I was born to my father who was plowing in the fields not more than 350 yards away,” Watson writes in painstaking script beneath his drawing. “He unhitched the mule and walked the other way to Mississippi to cut wood. He wouldn’t see me untill Christmas Eve six months later. Daddy didn’t think that I was his child.” If Watson’s life has the elements of classic drama, David Bates makes an epic figure of Ed Walker Cleaning Fish (1982). The elderly black man, his huge, angular white-shirt-clad torso looming over a bucket of fish heads, has a massive, mythic presence.
Even the most obdurately self-referential works in the show share the prevailing metaphysical mood. Richard Shaffer’s Platform With Stairs (1980—81) is a large realist painting of the artist’s studio done with a breathtakingly abstract, almost Rothko-esque economy, all purple-black shadows and a few straight lines. The mysterious in Mark Rothko’s brooding abstractions seems to emanate from within, but Shaffer depicts that soft incandescence literally, a golden glow coming from a little square window high in a corner and a slightly cracked door at the edge of the picture. Like the deserted West Texas landscapes painted by Carnohan and Spruce in the thirties, Shaffer’s empty studio seems inhabited by infinite possibilities. But Shaffer’s work compares most directly with Donald Judd’s untitled wall-mounted sculpture (1988), a minimalist sequence of aluminum and Plexiglas cubes. Judd, already a fixture of art history texts, has been working and living in Marfa long enough to merit inclusion in this show, and this work suggests that he has not gone uninfluenced by his surroundings. What Judd’s work doesn’t reveal is more important to him than what it does, but the interior of each carefully machined cube, backed with yellow Plexiglas, has a hard, thin, curiously dusty glow—something like the mystic West Texas light that ultimately emerges as the leitmotif of this show.
Of course “The State I’m In” doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive history of Texas art. It represents one curator’s selective response to an almost century-long, often inconsistent acquisition process at the DMA and its predecessors. And the seriousness of this offering is punctuated by raucous humor, particularly in the Texas funk of artists like Bob Wade, Jim Roche, and George Green, which to many observers was the dominant influence in Texas art only fifteen or twenty years ago. But the spiritual subtext that appears so strong in the exhibit suggests that other powerful intellectual undercurrents are at work in Texas art—perhaps quite different than those proposed here—that no one has yet bothered to investigate. Texas museums have made waves internationally with brilliant explorations of ancient Mayan or seventeenth-century Italian art and society; it might be just as interesting to see what such a concerted art historical investigation could tell us about ourselves.