Modernism, Long Ago: A Texas Art Retrospective Scans the Years From 1935-1965
Nineteen thirty-five seems a long time ago, in the fast-moving world of art, and indeed it is: almost 80 years. The exhibit "A New Visual Vocabulary: Developments in Texas Modernism from 1935-1965," presenting Texas art primarily from 1935 to 1965, showcases some of the Texas artists at work in that era, which of course included the cataclysmic event of World War II and the semi-idyllic postwar Eisenhower years, when America basked in prosperity, its manufacturing facilities undamaged by war.
Courtesy of Private Collection Ruth Pershing Uhler, Earth rhythm #2
The exhibition brochure suggests that Texas was "a vital current of modernist paintings and sculpture," yet the paintings and sculpture shown here tend to undermine that assertion. The artists are talented indeed, but the explosive force of dynamic change seems absent. France and Greenwich Village were alive with innovation, and the small town of Water Mill, Long Island, New York, and surrounding areas saw such diverse artists as Jackson Pollock, Bill de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Joe Cornell and many others.
The Texas art is wonderful, if not pioneering. Oyster Shucker (1946) by Lowell Collins captures the melancholy and danger of the sea, its loneliness and tediousness, and by showing a single expressive eye permits us a look into the worker's soul. It is powerful and haunting.
Bill Condon's Cathedral (1966) portrays a crowded downtown area filled with a variety of architectural styles, including a tenement at lower right. It is highly textured, which gives it an almost three-dimensional look and invites the viewer to take a walk among these buildings. Its brushstrokes parallel the work of the acclaimed French artist Bernard Buffet. Cathedral is pulsing with life.
Michael Frary's Construction on the Beach (1955) is probably my favorite, a hybrid combining cubistic elements with representational depictions. The beach is viewed through a window, perhaps that of a truck, and the ocean is gray and white, and the sands a different gray, yet there is a cheerfulness that is enticing, helped by accents of red. Though the painting is harmonious as a whole, the eye ricochets from element to element, uncertain where to settle. It is simple, mysterious and wonderful.
Of the sculptures included, Family Group (1959) by Charles T. Williams seems the most ambitious, representing a family of three on foot. Its strength is in its lower structure, as the fluid movement of walking is brilliantly caught, while the overall impression is ponderous and stolid.
Two other sculptures are humorous, the more successful portraying a Stetson hat, and the other depicting a bronze milk bottle with a cow's udders coming from its bottom, perhaps too literal a joke. I liked the small Wood Construction (1965) by Roy Fridge, with a column rising from what might be a butter churn to hold a top with a variety of kitchen implements. It is deliberately rough-hewn in parts, but the wood is warm and the sculpture has detailing and charm.
Two of the still-lifes shown seem posed, static. Still Life for Ann Holmes (1957) by David Adickes places the still-life on a pedestal (which may be the problem), and Don Edelman's Still Life (1953) seems to lack energy. Despite the genre's title, a "still-life" can be dynamic, a profusion of elements at play with each other.