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.

“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

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