“It has been a really good year,” says Joseph Havel, modestly acknowledging an annus mirabilis that climaxed during a single week last spring. On March 23 Havel’s enigmatic bronze sculpture Curtains went on view in the 2000 Whitney Biennial in New York, the controversial but career-making contemporary art showcase that usually certifies an artist’s arrival on the national scene. Two days later, when the much-heralded Audrey Jones Beck Building formally opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, more than twenty thousand visitors passed through another Havel Curtain, a massive, two-part bronze relief flanking the entrance to the new building—the kind of high-profile civic commission typically given to a venerable international art icon. To use a sports metaphor, it was as if the 46-year-old Havel had been named to his first all-star team and had his number retired in the same week.But the public exposure shouldn’t obscure an equally remarkable behind-the-Curtain success story. For the past nine years the articulate, politically adroit Havel has quietly run the Core Residency Program at the MFAH’s Glassell School of Art, a postgraduate talent incubator that remains little-known in Texas but has become a coveted entry on the résumés of ambitious artists from all over the world. (Recent Core fellows include the entire Texas representation at the 1998 Whitney Biennial and the two youngest and most talked-about members of the state’s contingent in the 2000 Biennial, Argentine sculptor Leandro Erlich and Paris, Texas, native Trenton Doyle Hancock, who will begin his residency this fall.) Since 1996 Havel has also served as the director of the Glassell school, one of Houston’s most valuable culture-nurturing assets, with studio and art history classes for six hundred adults (ranging from retirees to some of Texas’ best young artists) and a burgeoning community-outreach program that now embraces about ten thousand participants annually, many of them disadvantaged children. To continue the sports metaphor, just add coach and general manager of a playoffs-bound team.
Born and raised in Minneapolis (his father was a quality-control engineer for 3M), Havel had the kind of art-deprived upbringing many older Texas artists can relate to and the kind of epiphany, courtesy of a world-class museum, now within reach of many Texas kids. “Between my last year in high school and my first couple of years in college, I saw three sculpture shows at the Walker Art Center [Minneapolis’ highly regarded contemporary art museum]: Claes Oldenburg, Alberto Giacometti, and Joan Miró. If you mixed those three shows together, you’d have the work I’m doing now.” After getting a graduate degree in ceramics at Pennsylvania State University, Havel came to Texas in 1979 to teach at Austin College, in Sherman. It was a time when ambitious Texas artists still felt compelled to leave the state, and Havel says he felt like he was “in the middle of nowhere.” He stayed and soon underwent a creative crisis as well. “I was tired of making things that declared themselves too simply as art,” he says of his ceramic sculptures. “Things that initially said, ‘You’ve got to like us because we’re high-minded, we’re art.’ I wanted to make things that revealed themselves in more puzzling ways.” Havel gave up ceramics and started to cast arrangements of quotidian “found objects”—chairs, farm implements, kitchenware, tree stumps—in bronze. In other hands this formula might have made for routine gallery fare, but Havel, a superb draftsman, gave his pieces a swirling, rapturously baroque quality of line, as though all these ordinary things had been caught up in some supernatural vortex, bound for heaven like an Old Testament prophet in a divine whirlwind. “I thought about all the effort, all the heat, all the energy—all the calories—that go into transforming something into bronze,” he says. “I wanted you to be able to feel the calories, to feel the transformation in the final piece.”A few years ago, searching for even more-prosaic subject matter, Havel visited his neighborhood Value Village resale shop, bought some used curtains, and started transforming them in a startling display of bronze-casting virtuosity. Hanging from wires in Havel’s studio, the curtains are saturated with wax and shaped into the kind of voluptuous folds and whorls that animate the drapery in so much Renaissance and Baroque art; the wax-stiffened draperies are then cut into fragments to make complicated sets of