The current exhibitions at the San Antonio Museum of Art and its sister institution, the Witte Museum, weren’t planned in concert, but they neatly bracket the history of Texas art. “Art for History’s Sake,” at the Witte, takes us as far back as the dawn of statehood, while SAMA’s “The Perfect World in Contemporary Texas Art” marks the dramatic, powerfully original debut of a new generation of artists. Both shows run through January 12.
The Witte exhibit—gleaned from the Texas holdings of both museums’ parent organization, the San Antonio Museum Association—includes about one hundred works covering a span of roughly as many years, but the emphasis is on the nineteenth century, a period largely unrepresented in other Texas collections. As “Art for History’s Sake” makes clear, much of Texas’ best nineteenth-century art is currently in San Antonio because it was created there. And by focusing on images of the city and its people, curator Cecilia Steinfeldt, who has researched the collection for decades and is a prolific author on the subject, vividly recreates the era when San Antonio was the state’s uncontested cultural capital.
In the 1840’s San Antonio had something neither Dallas nor Houston could claim: a past. When Seth Eastman, a career soldier who became one of the most important artists to document American Indian life, was sent to Texas to command a company of mounted infantry in 1848, the San Antonio missions were already crumbling monuments to Spain’s vanished empire. Painting from sketches made during his two-year Texas tour, Eastman endowed Mission San José with the grandeur of a Roman ruin—its dome and long arcades gleaming russet-gold in the sun, the gray thunderclouds behind it adding to the romance of the image.
Other observers saw an equally glorious future. William G.M. Samuel, an Indian fighter who came to Texas shortly after the fall of the Alamo and later served as city marshal of San Antonio, painted four crude but colorfully detailed views of San Antonio’s Main Plaza as it appeared in 1849. Bustling with wagon trains, oxcarts, stagecoaches, a U.S. mailman, dogfights, and Mexican women serenely balancing clay water jugs on their heads, Samuel’s urban panoramas depict a raucous entrepôt of America’s newly won Western empire.
Much of the city’s growth was due to the industry of European immigrants for whom Central Texas had become the promised land of economic opportunity and democratic ideals. Theodore Gentilz studied cartographic drawing in Paris before coming to Texas in 1843 to help Henri Castro lay out the Alsatian community of Castroville; two years later he moved to San Antonio, where he was a local fixture until his death in 1906. As a painter, Gentilz was more tourist than poet, but his precisely detailed, postcardlike images offer insights into the city’s curiously harmonious mix of upwardly mobile European émigrés and disenfranchised Mexican natives. In Tamale Vendor, Laredo Street, San Antonio (circa 1890), a street merchant passes a characteristic Mexican house, the thin layer of whitewashed caliche peeled away to reveal the rubble-and-stick construction of the walls. A considerably more upscale ambience is shown in his 1882 rendering of St. Mary’s College, where he taught drawing for thirty years; the solid, no-nonsense Victorian architecture of the building was recorded in his deadpan style and neat-as-a-pin technique.
Hermann Lungkwitz, a German native principally remembered for his accomplished, broodingly romantic Hill Country landscapes, provided the best immigrant’s-eye view of aspiring San Antonio. In Crockett Street Looking West (1857), Lungkwitz created a strikingly beautiful cityscape, its skyline of towers, domes, and colonnaded facades, marble-white against a glowing blue sky, as exotic as Tangiers and yet as dignified as classical Athens.
A former star pupil at Dresden’s Royal Academy, Lungkwitz was by far the best-trained artist to work in Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. But his student Ida Weisselberg Hadra, born in Castroville in 1861, might have challenged her master if not for her untimely death at age 24 (married to an elderly gynecologist, she died in childbirth). In Hadra’s The San Antonio River at St. Mary’s Street Bridge (1883), the lush trees and mysteriously glimmering water convey the sublimity of Lungkwitz’s best work, but the central feature of the landscape is a then-high-tech iron bridge. If Hadra had lived, she might have fashioned a link between mid-nineteenth-century pastoralism and late-nineteenth-century realism.
Another intriguing figure in Lungkwitz’s circle was Carl G. von Iwonski, an immensely talented but largely self-taught artist who arrived from Silesia as a teenager in 1845. The son of a former Prussian army officer, Iwonski was a jack-of-all-trades who worked as a saloonkeeper, drawing teacher, tax collector, and photographer in partnership with Lungkwitz. Iwonski’s natural fluency as a draftsman is evident in Young Stieren (1863), a sensitive pencil portrait of a San Antonio boy. Iwonski’s painting technique, stiff at first, was later honed by a year of study in Berlin, and he returned to do exceptional oil portraits of San Antonio businessman Edward Steves (a Prussian immigrant who had worked as a carpenter and cabinetmaker before founding his own lumber company) and his wife, Johanna. In the paintings, done in 1872—73, Iwonski deftly combines his sitters’ plump, rosy-cheeked air of prosperity with a sense of the toughness and determination that got them there.
San Antonio was also a popular venue for itinerant painters. Bostonian Thomas Allen’s Market Plaza, painted during an 1878—79 visit to the city, records the Mexican community’s tradition of alfresco dining with the same gaudy extravagance with which a contemporaneous French salon painter might have imagined a scene from a seraglio. Like Allen, Robert Onderdonk had no intention of staying when he arrived in 1879; a Maryland native academically trained in New York, he hoped to make enough money painting wealthy Texans’ portraits, such as his enormous pastel bridal Portrait of Edna Geils Simpson Robertson (1890), to finance further study abroad. Onderdonk never did get to Europe; he remained in Texas as a vastly influential teacher and arts activist, both in San Antonio and in Dallas.
Robert Onderdonk’s most distinguished pupil may have been his son, Julian, long vilified as the father of Texas bluebonnet painting, but on closer scrutiny a painter of talent and depth who deserves a prominent position on the second tier of American Impressionists. Julian lived and studied in New York for almost ten years before returning to San Antonio in 1909; Scene Near Sisterdale (1909), painted in an earthy green and sienna palette, seems more like New England than Texas. And the younger Onderdonk’s bluebonnet-speckled landscapes were nothing like the clichés they inspired; Dawn in the Hills (1922), painted just before Julian’s death at age forty, is a transcendent vision of pale sunlight struggling through a dusty purple mist.
Julian Onderdonk’s demise marked the end of San Antonio’s artistic hegemony; Dallas became the hotbed of Texas art in the thirties, and Houston usurped the title in the early seventies. But in recent years San Antonio has experienced a contemporary art revival that should quicken with the opening of SAMA’s new William L. Cowden Gallery, a vast warehouselike structure intended to function more like a freewheeling alternative space than a sedate museum salon. The inaugural show offers the best of both worlds, the professionalism of a major museum installation and the off-the-wall (often literally) excitement of an alternative setting. Scouring the state for new talent, SAMA curator Jim Edwards has come up with several dozen young, generally little-known artists who have created a remarkable assortment of thoroughly post-modern artifacts and agitprop: twenty-foot-tall totems assembled from lawn mowers, lamps, and myriad other household objects; a thousand-pound bomb stamped with passages from Longfellow and the Bible; inflated globes bobbing on the updraft of whirring fans; live doves defecating on passages from the Bill of Rights.
Surprisingly, most of these visual theatrics have a point and succeed in making it. The show’s title, “The Perfect World,” is a pun on the Post-Modernist faith in the world’s imperfectibility (in contrast to the Modernists, who believed that straight lines and perfect curves could solve most of society’s problems.) But if this is a particularly skeptical generation of artists, it is also unusually issue-oriented, tackling everything from sexism to censorship to Gulf War jingoism. Jean Goehring’s billboard-scale Then: Light Mechanical Laughter (1991) depicts a row of rifles against great streaks of lightning, an obvious reference to Desert Storm; the title of the piece, printed in large type beneath the image, offers a trenchant commentary on our armchair consumption of a war with a made-for-television happy ending.
Most of the artists in “The Perfect World” similarly play language against image. Joe Allen’s Stayin’ Alive (1990) appropriates the title of a seventies disco favorite for his color photocopy of nineteenth-century French romanticist Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa, a melodramatic scene of desperate shipwreck survivors, over which Allen has stenciled a mock personal ad: small group of dallas area couples seek other couples who enjoy boating.... In the context of AIDS, Allen’s text, title, and borrowed icon create a new composite message that is both cautionary and grimly humorous.
Few idols are spared, and more than a few strange new ones are invented. The art world gets a dose of self-criticism in Mark Flood’s Untitled (1990), a painting that consists largely of silk-screened, paid advertisements from various Houston galleries and nightclubs. The Western myth is lampooned in Chase Yarbrough’s assemblage Surrounded by the Faintness of a Honky Tonk Love Song…(1991), a post-apocalyptic, life-size white rocking horse with a bomb slung beneath its belly, a toy train running through its neck, and a miniature Boot Hill cemetery on its rump. Helen Altman creates an ironic domestic mythology by converting fifties kitchen appliances into magical artifacts of a suburban golden age; Vesuvius (1990) features a row of flickering, flamelike light bulbs seemingly popping out of a chrome toaster.
Even the most high-minded pieces have an appealing sense of uncertainty. Rachel Ranta takes the ordinary into the realm of metaphysics with a series of small, ghostly, monochrome-on-flat-black paintings of isolated objects—silverware, a bottle, a string of pearls—accompanied by a single word. A pair of spectral, almost skull-like dice seem suspended in the void; the caption, “gravity,” suggests the inevitability of their fall, and in a broader metaphor the ineluctable physics of death and decay. Kate Breakey, an Australian-born Austin artist, recreates high school physics experiments in a series of large, hand-tinted photographic prints. In Surface Tension (1991), the principal of molecular attraction is illustrated by a double-edged razor blade floating on the surface of a bowl of water placed against a dark velvet backdrop; the elegiac, antique-looking image has a taut undertone of psychological drama.
The exhibition also includes a two-and-half-hour video program featuring fourteen separate pieces; instead of interminable Warhol-esque video vérité, today’s video artists go for snappy, com- mercial-quick cuts and MTV brevity. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t subversive. Gomer Pyle Is God (1983), by Jim Kanan, with music by El BJ, is a hilarious, remarkably professional send-up of music videos, while Robert Cook’s quirky Mac Tonite: of Marx, Sharks, Burgers, and Brecht (1990) intercuts scenes from various film versions of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera with a repeated McDonald’s commercial, suggesting the progressive trivialization of art by an omnivorous popular culture. The most compelling piece is James Chefchis’ 63 (1988), which mixes original footage of school hallways with newscasts of the Kennedy assassination. For baby boomers who first heard the news at school, Chefchis’ eerie montage—accompanied by a score by Stan LePard that includes Telstar satellite telemetry, chanting monks, and spectral bits of period pop songs—is a spooky journey through the corridors of memory.
“The Perfect World” is the most exciting and iconoclastic exhibition of Texas art in recent memory. Less than ten years ago Texas artists were suddenly being discovered as accomplished allegorists working predominately in traditional forms of painting and sculpture; with this show we witness the clamorous arrival of an entirely new generation of social satirists who create decidedly nontraditional art. The sweeping pace of change underscores the extraordinary vigor of contemporary art in Texas; whenever we think it has arrived, it’s already moving somewhere else.