“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 silica bronze-casting molds. When the bronze segments are cast and welded back together, the finished, freestanding sculptures seem to mysteriously levitate, confounding our expectations of mass and gravity while striking an edgy balance between old master elegance and suburban kitsch. For the MFAH Curtain, the two panels, each almost ten feet by ten feet, required a total of 177 separate molds; eschewing the traditional greenish patina, Havel acid-finished the bronze surface to an ashen, bonelike hue that seems at once as contemporary as minimalist sculpture and as ancient as a bleached marble caryatid. For all its dramatic simplicity, this Curtain invites museumgoers to take second, third, and fourth looks, to study the still-visible texture of the original muslin as if examining fossils in limestone, to enter a realm of strange physics where a timeless cascade of fabric ends a gravity-defying inch or so above the pavement. “There’s something so pompous about doing bronze panels for doors,” says Havel, referring to a tradition that stretches back to quattrocento Florence. “My work has always been about ‘ordinariness,’ about the possibilities of poetry in perfectly ordinary situations.”
Perhaps the unforgiving logistics of industrial-scale bronze casting offer a clue to Havel’s success in the left-brain world of arts administration. The Glassell school was running a deficit when he took over; now it’s sufficiently in the black that Havel has hired a staff curator and started regularly publishing classy catalogs to spotlight the school’s modest but important schedule of exhibitions focused on Texas artists.
“We serve the part of the community that may not feel it has real access to the museum,” says Havel. “It’s a very broad and interesting community that includes everyone from people who aren’t familiar with art and are intimidated by the museum to the contemporary arts community. We don’t have to do blockbusters. We can put a more intimate face on the museum.”
But it’s the Core program, running on less than a tenth of the Glassell school’s budget, that has put Houston on the map for the new breed of globe-trotting contemporary art stars. (A characteristic itinerary: Shahzia Sikander, born and educated in Pakistan, graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, 1998 Core fellow and Whitney Biennial participant, now one of New York’s hottest young painters.) Here, too, Havel has played a transforming role, elevating the program to a new level of professionalism. “When I came here, the whole language surrounding the program was that it was for young professionals, yet the residents had tiny studios and there wasn’t enough money to attract the best people. It was a lot more like a continuation of graduate school.”
Havel cut the number of residents but gave each a respectable studio and stipend, and he doesn’t drop in for grad-school-type “studio visits.” More recently he has brought in rising young curators and critics, with the expectation that they’ll spread the word that Texas is a place where important art gets done. “It’s sort of an ambassadorship for the state,” says Havel, who finds that as an artist he’s now reaping the rewards of his own institution-building acumen. “I’ve asked myself, ‘If I want to base my career in Texas, how can I help establish a community in which I’ll feel challenged as an artist?’ And I’ve been fortunate to be in a position to create a context for my own artistic practice, to make it okay to be an artist in Texas.”