The Mod Squad

Is Modernism dead? Not in Texas, where a superb new exhibit suggests the movement has been rejuvenated by a generation of emerging stars.

March 1996By Comments

“TEXAS MODERN AND POST-MODERN,” which runs through March 3, is the final installment of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s superb two-part survey of its sprawling Texas collection. While part one, last fall’s “Texas Myths and Realities,” was dominated by familiar names and images, much of part two comes as a revelation. That’s largely because during the two periods in which Texas artists attained their greatest exposure—the thirties and the eighties—their work often pictured the state’s changing social or physical landscape. By contrast, Modernism’s frequently baffling aesthetics, one-world internationalism, and utopian social aims have always run contrary to the Texas ethos, inspiring periodic civic complaints about communist art and unrecognizable piles of junk. Working at the margin of an already marginalized art community, Texas modernists traditionally have been outsiders’ outsiders, a few isolated voices in the wilderness. The big surprise here is the strength and clarity of those voices.

The first faint stirrings of Modernism were visible in Texas in the mid-twenties, a full decade after the watershed 1913 New York Armory Show introduced American audiences to revolutionaries like Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. The handful of Texas artists who looked seriously at modern art didn’t take their lead from Paris or Berlin, however, but from Santa Fe and Taos, which had become fashionable outposts for the American avant-garde. Earth Rhythms No. 3 (1935), by Ruth Pershing Uhler, the MFA’s first curator of education, resembles the elegantly composed abstract landscapes painted by Georgia O’Keeffe only six years earlier during O’Keeffe’s first extended sojourn in New Mexico. But the difficulties in tracing the early lineage of Texas Modernism are illustrated by Everett Spruce’s remarkable Catalpa Tree Landscape (1929), a three-part standing screen painted on both sides. The stylized catalpa tree, painted in stitchlike brushstrokes, is merely generic New Mexico moderne. But the back of the screen, painted in the antique brown tones of pre-World War I analytical cubism, is something else altogether. The entirely abstract, tendrillike shapes are geometrized in swirling patterns that recall Synchromism, the one early-modern movement that was uniquely American, but they also suggest the organic, biomorphic forms introduced by European pioneers like Constantin Brancusi and Joan Miró. Whatever the actual influences, the result is wholly original.

For Texas art in the thirties, the back of the catalpa tree screen also represents the road not taken: Spruce and his most talented contemporaries turned to a heightened realism to convey the suffering and transformation of rural Texas during the Dust Bowl era. It wasn’t until the forties, when the influx of talented European refugees had shifted the artistic balance to this side of the Atlantic, that mainstream Modernism got a foothold in the state. Hungarian painter and photographer Lázló Moholy-Nagy, an esteemed instructor at the Bauhaus, the German design institute that literally shaped this century, came to Texas Woman’s University in Denton for a semester in 1942. When Moholy-Nagy visited, TWU art instructor Carlotta Corpron was already dabbling in avant-garde photography; two years later, Moholy-Nagy’s colleague Gyorgy Kepes spent a year working with Corpron, who put aside her still lifes and began making photos of light itself. A tiny black and white print from Corpron’s 1947 “Fluid Light Design” series was composed from rippling reflections on the plastic covering of a painting, but it appears to be an image captured by arcane scientific means, as though she were able to crack open and look inside the basic building blocks of the cosmos.

Toni LaSelle, who taught at TWU from 1928 until 1972, was mentored by Bavaria-born Hans Hofmann, arguably the most influential teacher to immigrate here. In 1944 LaSelle started spending her summers at the Provincetown, Massachusetts, studio where Hofmann preached the power inherent in pure structures of line and color. She recites those lessons with striking originality and self-confidence in Puritan (1947-59), a stark but serenely evocative symphony in gray, green, and black on a white background; in addition to the muscular simplicity acquired in Hofmann’s studio, her shapes also have an austere balance and refinement reminiscent of Piet Mondrian and his American disciples.

A few Texas artists acquired their Modernist credentials through less-formal associations. Ben Culwell studied art in New York in the thirties but did his most important work while serving on the U.S.S. Pensacola in the South Pacific during World War II. Personal Lifescope in Guadalcanal Campaign (1942-44), a small graphite, ink, and tempera drawing, is just one leaf of an extraordinary visual diary he kept of his war experiences. A black miasma enveloping layers of cryptic primitive symbols and human fragments, Culwell’s surrealistic abstraction conveys more raw emotion than the similar and roughly contemporaneous drawings of Jackson Pollock, the Wyoming wild man who put postwar American art in the international vanguard.

If Culwell’s was a rare vision, Forrest Bess’s was indisputably unique. During the fifties, the Baytown bait fisherman shared his bizarre theories of sexual dimorphism with Carl Jung and showed his paintings in the same New York gallery where Pollock exhibited his breakthrough work. But Bess insisted that his paintings came entirely from visions observed on the inside of his eyelids. To him, the rows of blue and white stripes in his untitled 1958 abstraction weren’t exercises in the kind of serial, minimalist painting they seem to anticipate—they were symbols of a primordial inner landscape where he struggled to find the secrets of immortality. The intensity and sincerity of Bess’s vision are evident in the uncanny saturation of the colors—a symbolic sky redder than blood—and the painful placement of every labored brushstroke. This is the work of a man who considered the paint-flinging Pollock nothing but a mannerist poseur.

Joseph Glasco, who grew up in Tyler and moved to New York in the same year—1949—that Bess began to show at the Betty Parsons Gallery, frequently appeared in group shows in New York’s major museums throughout the fifties. But his star never rose, and his radiant Salome (1968) illustrates how timing is often more important than talent in determining art world success. Veiled by layers of luminous purple ink, the eponymous stripper has been reduced to a primitive rectangle, like some archaic figure only partially extracted from a block of stone. Ten years later—and painted by an artist thirty years younger—Salome would have been on the cutting edge of Postmodernism. In the late sixties, however, Glasco’s expert synthesis of abstraction and figuration merely violated the rarefied canons of late-modern painting.

Modernist orthodoxy was finally toppled in the late seventies. One who gave it a push was Waco native Robert Wilson, whose Stalin Chairs (1973/1977) was inspired by his twelve-hour-long postmodern theatrical epic, The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. Modeled from the fabric-draped chairs that appear in photographs of Stalin’s apartment, the wrinkled lead sheets over wood armatures have the massive, monochrome presence of minimalist sculpture, but their rumpled surfaces and campy historical context substantially subvert Minimalism’s monumental seriousness.

If Modernism represented a progressive unloading of art’s historical baggage, Postmodernism gave artists the freedom to mix and match periods and styles with reckless abandon. While that freedom has been too often abused, Gael Stack’s The Christmas Picture (1987-88) shows postmodern painting at its most refined. A black background serves as chalkboard for a few disparate notations—an infant, sketched in a chalky white line as deft as a Renaissance draftsman’s, and a stencillike tapestry of Day of the Dead skeletons—that evoke a timeless theme of death and renewal.

The rise of Postmodernism paralleled, not coincidentally, the explosion of the Texas art scene in the late seventies and early eighties. The MFA’s exuberant 1985 “Fresh Paint” exhibition fostered the image of Texas artists as historically indifferent to Modernist theories and almost hysterically grateful to be liberated from the austerity of abstract art. But in “Texas Modern,” curator Alison de Lima Greene debunks the lingering “Fresh Paint” myth by highlighting a contingent of artists, many still in their twenties and thirties, who work in Stack’s restrained mode, employing postmodern history mining to reinvent Modernism itself. Melvin Edwards was one of the first black students admitted to the HMFA school in the fifties; his “Lynch Fragments” series (1986-1990), wall reliefs made of welded chains, spikes, and steel blocks, refers to the metal sculptures of Picasso and David Smith while viscerally conjuring up the issue of racial injustice. Annette Lawrence similarly borrows a lick from modern sculpture while making the kind of point forbidden by Minimalism’s reticent art-for-art’s-sake aesthetics. Her Rock Writing (1992), a rectangle fashioned of white limestone rubble spread on the floor, echoes the constructions of Minimalist Carl Andre, except that Lawrence prints a caption on it with chunks of black lava: “They must don’t know who we are.” The words are a dining companion’s remark on being ignored at a trendy restaurant; Lawrence’s defiant use of black urban patois reflects a postmodern culture not only increasingly divided between black and white, but between somebodies and nobodies.

Postmodern art has also had a great deal to say about the male-female divides, but rarely with the visual wit and originality of Rachel Hecker’s Bait (1995). Instead of throwing out the usual grab bag of pop culture rip-offs, Hecker excises her motifs with surgical precision. A flat, jet-black Felix the Cat cavorts over enormous airbrushed beige nudes that are so dramatically cropped and absurdly hard-bodied that at first they seem to be a surrealist landscape; the title is painted in a mock digital readout in the upper left corner of the canvas. As in the best abstract painting, the image transcends the sum of its parts, creating a convergence of sexual stereotypes that is provocative, amusing, and discomforting.

Some of the most compelling works in “Texas Modern,” though, don’t raise extrinsic issues—they simply revisit Modernism with the benefit of historical hindsight. Joe Mancuso’s Vessel (1993) looks from a distance like another minimalist primary form. But the barrellike sculpture, handcrafted from dozens of painstakingly shaped wooden laths, conveys a subtle and strangely sensuous human presence; its height exactly matches the artist’s own measurements. This is late-modern reductionism wedded to pre-industrial craftsmanship and the Renaissance faith in man as the measure of all things. Far busier but equally well crafted is David Aylsworth’s mural-scale painting Bereft of F. (1994), which is crammed with references to early Modernism, from Fernand Léger to Marsden Hartley. But Aylsworth assembles them with an aplomb that can’t be borrowed, and his beguiling palette of public-restroom greens and washed-out purples owes nothing to the modern masters. Just 29, Aylsworth handles large-scale abstraction with eye-catching precociousness.

“Texas Modern” comes full circle with Brian Portman’s Vertical Dances (1994). Painting in the same rich, analytical cubist antique browns found on the back of Spruce’s screen, Portman shows what a talented young artist can do with the entire history of twentieth-century art at his disposal. Layered almost like an archaeological site, the image reveals its cubist ancestry in the faceted, gridlike structure visible beneath the translucent dark glazes; at the surface is a dancing pattern of calligraphic strokes recalling Cubism’s American descendent, Abstract Expressionism. But Portman’s contemplative work isn’t animated by nostalgia for Modernism’s glory days. Instead, it asserts the continuing capacity of paint, form, and gesture to evoke the deepest emotions.

Presented in the same space and format as its companion show, “Texas Modern and Post-Modern” almost demands a comparison with “Texas Myths and Realities.” It may be true that the issue of internationalism versus regionalism is largely moot now that Houston has become an art capital in its own right and Texas has become a place more like anywhere else, yet even so, “Texas Modern” resonates with an emotional depth, an intellectual authority, and a sheer viewing pleasure its predecessor—despite significant merits—just can’t touch. Among Generation X artists, the matchup is even more lopsided; “Texas Myths and Realities” ran out of gas when it got to the nineties, while the new kids on the scene light up “Texas Modern.” The Modernism that Texas artists allegedly never cared about evidently hasn’t been buried by almost two decades of Postmodernism any more than it was banished by several generations of Texas yahooism. It’s merely being reworked and recycled by many of our rising stars.

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