Texans Versus Shapes

Nearly a mile away, a woman in a wet suit rides on the back of Shamu the killer whale. But here, at the opposite end of Sea World in San Antonio, on a gentle slope shaded by mesquites and live oaks, sixteen statues of notable Texans stand along a curving walkway lined with flowers.

The life size statues are mounted on black marble stands less than a foot tall so you can look them right in the eye. There are no prohibitions against touching them either. Small children crawl between the legs of Charles Goodnight and Quanah Parker; older people in particular seem to like to touch the statues’ hands, squeezing a finger or rubbing a palm. Whole families stand on the pedestals to have their picture taken with the statue of, say, Sam Houston, just as if he were their stern old grandfather, which for Texans he pretty much is. Smart alecks who come upon the statue of astronaut Ed White like to put their head in the space helmet he holds in the crook of his right arm, then shout and wave for attention. More-solemn spirits bend down to learn the title of the book Walter Prescott Webb is reading from—Webb’s own The Great Plains —or try to decipher the graphs and mathematical formulas on the notes held by Robert Wilson, a Houstonian and a Rice graduate who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1978, the only native Texan to become a Nobel laureate. Other responses reveal a huge cultural confusion. A crew of boys about ten years old stopped briefly in front of the statue of Eisenhower. He has the famous Ike grin and is dressed in his World War II uniform and peaked hat and Eisenhower jacket. “Who’s this?” one of the boys asked. “Bob Hope?”

In addition to Goodnight, Parker, Houston, White, Webb, Wilson, and Eisenhower, the Texas Walk has statues of Barbara Jordan, Katherine Anne Porter, William Barret Travis, Henry B. Gonzalez, Howard Hughes (not the nutty billionaire but his father), Lyndon Johnson, Babe Zaharias, José Navarro, and Admiral Chester Nimitz. Elsewhere on the park grounds are statues of Stephen F. Austin and Scott Joplin.

Some people might have quibbles with this list. I thought I did, but as I substituted my names for those on the Texas Walk, I found I liked the resulting list less than the original one. These sixteen people represent every important area of Texas life, with the exception of farming. The list includes three ethnic groups and both genders; it spans the history of Texas from its founding to the present day; it has some predictable names and a number of pleasant and well-warranted surprises; and it does all of that rather effortlessly, without sounding a false note. That’s true even of Henry B. Gonzalez, who, it’s safe to assume, would not be included were Sea World anywhere in Texas but San Antonio. But it is in San Antonio, where Gonzalez has been the leading political figure for thirty years. Why shouldn’t he be honored in his own home?

The statues, though extremely realistic, manage to flatter their subjects without distorting them. Similarly, taken together, the statues present a flattering but not distorted picture of Texas and Texas history. I was intrigued by the individuals I did not know and was moved to reconsider those I thought I knew. One of the reasons the Texas Walk has such a powerful effect is that seeing a modern portrait statue, much less sixteen of them, is a rare event.

In Texas, according to an unpublished inventory by Carol Little of Longview, some 692 sculptures have been commissioned for public spaces since 1960. About half were realistic, and half were abstractions. In public areas in front of important buildings, the sculptures are inevitably abstract. That is the result of the last one hundred years of artistic styles and theory. The heroic statue of a man on horseback has long been a rarity, and statues commemorating some eminence are equally scarce in cities, although they are still popular in small towns.

During the boom, every major building was incomplete without an abstract sculpture from a famous artist. Thus, the plazas of Texas are littered with the work of Jean Dubuffet, Claes Oldenburg, Louise Nevelson, the ubiquitous Henry Moore, and many others. The most spectacular triumph of all is Personage and Birds , by Joan Miró, which stands, sassy and brilliantly colored, in front of the Texas Commerce Tower in Houston. Also in Houston is one indisputable masterpiece, Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk , on the grounds of the Rothko Chapel.

Other modern pieces range from the very good down to a couple of clear disasters. But even assuming that these abstractions were all the greatest works from the greatest artists, wouldn’t there still be room—wouldn’t there still be a need—for public portrait sculpture of notable men and women? Such monuments are a way of saying to ourselves and to the future, “This is what we looked like, this is what we did, and these are some of the people who were important around here.”

Still, artists who concentrate on portrait commission find it nearly impossible to earn any recognition from the art establishment. The six sculptors who worked on the Texas Walk—Jim Reno, Glenna Goodacre, Larry Ludtke, Juan Dell, Armando Hinojosa, and Elizabeth Hart, all of whom either were born in or work in Texas or both—have had their share of successes and honors within their own world. But their work is not in any major art museum in Texas or elsewhere; they are most likely unknown and certainly thought to be beneath consideration by serious students of contemporary American art. Although they sell to famous collectors—Dolph Briscoe, John Connally, Burt Reynolds, Winthrop Rockefeller, Jr., Richard Nixon, Bill Hobby, and former Mexican president José López Portillo—those collectors are famous for reasons other than their taste in art.

For the first fifty years of this century almost all statues in public places

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