“I was my family’s seventh child, the first one born in the twentieth century,” says Dorothy Antoinette “Toni” LaSelle, the venerable Denton artist who will be one hundred years old in November. Though LaSelle stopped painting about a decade ago, her rigorous yet poetic geometric abstractions continue to surprise if not shock, as evidenced by the effect her recent one-person show at Dallas’ Barry Whistler Gallery had on second-generation postmoderns long inured to animal corpses floating in formaldehyde but apparently startled by the austere purity of old-fashioned modern art. Failing eyesight having done little to diminish her laserlike acuity and fierce independence, LaSelle still stands as a towering eminence in our cultural landscape: Texas’ first true modern, the oldest living veteran of the artistic revolution that reshaped our world.That LaSelle’s life should so neatly span the past century is only fitting for a story that could be a panoramic, Michener-esque novel titled “The Moderns,” about the improbable entwining of a small-town girl’s life with personalities and events at the center of the twentieth century’s defining aesthetic. Born in the prosperous farming town of Beatrice, Nebraska, LaSelle entered a world whose generational markers were conflicts we now regard as ancient history: Her father’s brother had fought in the Civil War, and her eldest brother ran off to enlist in the Spanish-American War just three years before she was born. The family owned a large pasture along the Big Blue River, where they kept bees and raised dairy cattle. “The rhythms of nature,” LaSelle recalls, “were a very mysterious and wonderful kind of reality to grow up around.”
LaSelle also grew up around art. “I can still remember my first art lesson in the first grade,” she says; her two sisters were china painters and dress designers while her aunt, “one of two town artists,” taught her to paint watercolors. But LaSelle yearned for something beyond Beatrice; she pored over art books in the town library and regularly read the literary supplement to the London Times: “I was dying to see if I could catch on to what they were talking about.” When LaSelle was sixteen, Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft came to Beatrice to lecture and publicly sculpt a clay bust. Afterward, LaSelle went home in utter despair. “I put my head in a pillow so my mother wouldn’t hear me and cried for an hour,” she says. “I cried in frustration, because after seeing what this man could do, I realized how ignorant I was.”
LaSelle became a voracious student at Nebraska Wesleyan University, in nearby Lincoln, where she majored in English and studied zoology, geology, and psychology in addition to her literature and art courses. But her real awakening came during her senior year with the arrival of an art teacher who had seen the sensational 1913 New York Armory Show, the sprawling introduction to European modernism that had rattled the foundations of American culture. “She woke us up to the Post-Impressionists—Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh,” LaSelle says. “The opening of the modern movement from 1890 on. There it was, just like a miracle, right there in the middle of the Middle West.”
Working odd jobs to support herself, LaSelle went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where she studied the new imagist poetry, audited modern-dance classes, and made regular weekend visits to the Art Institute of Chicago (which had a roomful of Monets and a small Picasso). Aware of the influence of African and Oceanic art on European modernism, she wrote her thesis on the New Guinea masks in Chicago’s Field Museum. After receiving her master of arts degree in 1926, LaSelle made her first trip to Europe, heading south from Paris through Italy, recording in her sketchbook fluent little studies of towns, cathedrals, and peasants, always searching for the geometric structure beneath everyday appearances. In the fall of 1927, leaving Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, she ran into a parade of black-shirted men that culminated in a harangue by Benito Mussolini, a chilling prelude to the Fascist repression that would expatriate so many of the continent’s leading artists.
LaSelle came home to look for a job. At the University of Chicago’s placement bureau, she ran into a recruiter searching for someone to teach art at a small college that would later become the Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman’s University) for the 1928 summer session. Arriving at the Denton campus, LaSelle found a “fairly well-developed, surprising art department”; she was offered a full-time position when the summer ended and decided to stay. At the time, Texas art was about to enter one of its most fertile periods, an explosion of sophisticated, modernist-inflected representational art—much of it portraying the brutal impact of blowing dust and falling cotton prices on rural Texas—led by a group of painters known as the Dallas Nine. “I went to all their parties and whoop-de-dos,” LaSelle recalls with girlish enthusiasm. “It was great.” But despite the personal friendships, LaSelle, whose work at the time was largely figurative abstraction, remained a school of one, still searching for something beyond.
In the early thirties LaSelle took a one-year sabbatical to study at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Later in the decade, working with architects O’Neil Ford and Arch Swank, she supervised the design of the stained-glass windows for the Denton campus’ Little Chapel in the Woods, a landmark Texas building that inaugurated Ford’s signature synthesis of lean modern forms and rich natural materials. While working on the project, LaSelle noticed Ford and Swank perusing a book by the Hungarian-born painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy, a principal author of the curriculum at the Bauhaus, the German design school that has become almost synonymous with twentieth-century style; when the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus in 1933, Moholy-Nagy fled Germany and settled in Chicago, where he founded the New Bauhaus (later renamed the Institute of Design).
After reading Moholy-Nagy, whom she found “electrifying,” LaSelle arranged for him to lecture at the Texas State College for Women in