In late summer 1971, one of the most significant art events in U.S. history took place inside a beloved but defunct movie theater in the heart of Fifth Ward, a historically Black Houston neighborhood. “The De Luxe Show,” which took its name from the iconic DeLuxe Theater that still stands today, is credited as one of the first racially integrated art shows in the country. It brought together works from leading abstract artists such as Sam Gilliam and Ed Clark and prompted a renovation of the theater, creating a gallery space that would live on as the Black Arts Gallery for a few years before it sat vacant for decades.
Today, the space is an art destination once more, hosting a small but dynamic exhibition, “Art for the People: Celebrating 50 Years of the DeLuxe Show and the 5th Ward Community,” which runs through September 23. Shows celebrating the anniversary are also on display in Los Angeles and New York. But “Art for the People” considers the legacy of “The De Luxe Show” from a point of view that has largely been unconsidered: Fifth Ward’s.
The new show, curated by Project Row Houses’ curator and art director Danielle Burns Wilson and organized by Harrison Guy, director of arts and culture at Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, is both an homage to and a critique of the original exhibition, which brought together Houston art patrons Dominique and John de Menil, New York artist Peter Bradley, and local leaders such as a young Mickey Leland, who would later serve as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The 1971 exhibition was a high-concept show, meant to challenge what art historian Darby English called a “crisis of artistic freedom” confronting Black modernists, who, English argued, had to contend with efforts to banish them “from the cultural landscape” in favor of a narrower, almost hegemonic definition of Black art. The idea for it emerged out of several simultaneous conversations in the art world about Black representation. Earlier that year, in New York, the Whitney Museum’s exhibition “Contemporary Black Artists in America” opened to boycotts from Black artists accusing the Whitney of not having consulted with Black art specialists and of downplaying the show, which led to the withdrawal of fifteen artists, including Gilliam. In Houston, the de Menil–backed Institute for the Arts at Rice University had just put on a controversial show organized by the white artist Larry Rivers with images focusing on slavery and Black pain.
With Bradley at the helm and Gilliam, Leland, and others assisting, “The De Luxe Show” would instead be in the hands of Black artists and organizers. And it would send its message through abstract work from artists of varying races. Abstraction, English argues in his book 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, allowed the show to “reexamine a defining problem of American life—color and color relations—in an exhilaratingly open-ended way.” Bradley was particularly convinced of the power of abstraction to challenge what he saw as the dominating dictates of representational art for Black artists at the time. In an interview with Steve Cannon, he insisted that his criteria were simple: “I looked for anyone who was painting and making good, hard abstraction.”
The show welcomed thousands of visitors, including children bused there because Bradley believed they would be the most receptive to the work. Photographs from the Menil archives capture community members gathered outside the theater and peering at the work inside. Reflecting on the exhibition, famed Houston curator Alvia Wardlaw wrote in Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil that the “show galvanized the Fifth Ward community and created a rare interface between blacks and whites, one that was productive and goal driven.”
But for all the ways it challenged the art world, the exhibition came with challenges of its own, including the way it viewed both Houston and Fifth Ward. “It would be a gas,” literary agent Ronald Hobbs wrote to the de Menils in July 1971, after the Institute for the Arts show, “if in a prominent black community intersection, one could come upon a symbol of pride, dignity, and high artistic achievement, realized through the skill of local black talent.” That would not have been hard to find. At that point, John Biggers was still more than a decade from retirement from the art department that he helped build at Texas Southern University, the historically Black university in Houston. “I can’t put the emphasis, how important [Biggers’s art department] was—thousands of young impressionable minds to come to a cultural center and learn something about themselves that they hadn’t seen in any other way, form, or fashion,” says Houston artist Bert Samples, whose intricate mural Malcolm Marco Malcolm Marco is a permanent installation inside the DeLuxe but is included as part of the anniversary show.
But John de Menil would later reply to Hobbs, “A show by local black artists would have been a pacifier because they are from mediocre to bad.” He also defended going around local Black leaders such as civil rights activist Earl Allen, adding that the artists in the show “would not have wanted to come under the local black art establishment,” because, as he wrote, “[t]hey wanted direct access to the street.”
Indeed, “the street” became a critical part of how the show has been framed over the years. Critic Eleanor Freed, for example, wrote in the Houston Post that Fifth Ward was “better known for urban decay than for aesthetics.” In his letters to potential artists for inclusion, Bradley wrote that the show’s intent was “to bring first-rate art to people who don’t usually attend shows.” When they renovated the inside of the DeLuxe Theater with help from Black contractor Sawyer Bynam, they left the run-down exterior alone, playing up the image of decay. All of this contributed to the show being viewed by some as, in Freed’s language, an “experiment.”
For many Fifth Ward residents, then and now, that image is incomplete. “Those people that had that point of view, like the ones that established that exhibition, did not recognize the creativity that existed within Fifth Ward,” says artist and longtime Fifth Ward resident Jesse Lott, who was recently named a 2022 Texas State Artist and has contributed some of his work to the “Art for the People” exhibit. The 78-year-old remembers the original show’s high-handed concept presenting itself as taking “the real deal down to the ghetto so we can show people what it’s about.”
Lott’s studio is just down the road from the DeLuxe, and he remembers the constant ingenuity he witnessed in his neighborhood growing up. “[W]hen you needed something you had to go ahead and make something,” he said, “pulling it out of thin air … transforming one function for another function.” He also remembers the zydeco on Sundays in church parking lots, reflecting the area’s Creole roots and musical legacy. For Lott, the 1971 show’s focus on the debate over abstraction and representation is ultimately unproductive. “You stand in front of a blank canvas and you put your first piece of color on it, that’s as abstract as you can get,” regardless of how it ends up, he says.
After Bradley’s show closed, the space became the Black Arts Center’s Black Arts Gallery and, thanks to funding from the de Menils, staged several more shows. The relationship, as Wardlaw notes in her essay, was not without its complications. Black arts leaders wanted more control over curatorial decisions and the de Menils saw their financial involvement as being “catalytic rather than perpetually sustaining.” It wasn’t long after the de Menils ended the lease in January 1976 that the gallery closed, according to Wardlaw. For decades, the theater sat unused, until the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation purchased it in 1998 and began its years-long redevelopment project. “Art for the People” is the first art exhibition held in the space since its 2015 reopening, according to Guy, the redevelopment corporation’s arts and culture director.
The current show sidesteps some of the original’s preoccupations and instead tries to draw attention to the neighborhood’s own cultural legacy with works from significant artists with ties to Fifth Ward. “The artwork is really about reviving the space,” says curator Burns Wilson, “seeing the art as possibilities.” Two geometric sculptures by George Smith are classic examples of his work inspired by the Dogon peoples of West Africa, and they seem to produce their own gravity. On the other side of the room, Lott’s sculpture of a woman with arms raised as if she’s climbing through the air has its own expressive spirituality and urgency. And Mel Chin’s Wheel of Death uses shreds of tires on wood formed into a boar, snake, and rooster to represent ignorance, avarice, and lust from the Buddhist wheel of life. But just as significant, perhaps more so, are photographs from the Menil archives of Fifth Ward residents attending the 1971 show, which are displayed on large canvases around the gallery. The prominence of the photos recasts their subjects from “experiment” subjects to neighbors. No longer framed through the optics of the original show’s spectacle, the images transform into something like family photos on the walls of the DeLuxe, inviting more personal connections.
“What I’m hoping is that we’ll have an annual DeLuxe show,” says Guy, “give [the original show] homage but also flip it on its head.” Though the current exhibition is up for just a couple weeks, those involved hope it represents the start of something substantial and ongoing, building off the Texas Commission on the Arts’ 2020 designation of Fifth Ward as an official cultural district. Guy says he sees this exhibition in conversation with the original show. “I really love that it will be a continuum,” he adds. “The way that this is different,” he continues, “is not only did we turn the lens back on the people and made them the art, we’re really celebrating Fifth Ward artists as well.”