Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Deep In the Art of Texas: A Century of Paintings and Drawings

Deep In the Art of Texas:  A Century of Paintings and Drawings

The following is excerpted from "Deep In the Art of Texas:  A Century of Paintings and Drawings", published by the TCU Press and featuring essays by J.P. Bryan, Michael Duty, and Dr. Ron C. Tyler.  The book was published in conjunction with an exhibition that will be on view at the Art Museum of South Texas until Jan.4, 2015.  The book and exhibition were a collaboration between the Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas and the Center for Texas Studies at TCU. This excerpt is from my essay, "Frontier Images and Modern Views:  The Bryan Museum Collection of Texas Art." I was pleased to serve as guest curator for the exhibition and editor of the book.

Merritt Mauzey, A Church in Galveston (detail),1935
23"x29", oil on canvas
Few people would argue with the notion that Texas has had a particularly rich and colorful history.  One of only three states to have once been a Republic, Texas has emerged in the 21st century as one of the most populous states in the nation with three of the country’s largest cities within its borders, an economy that has been buoyed by new developments in oil and gas extraction technology and a burgeoning high tech sector. Its population has rapidly diversified in recent years to the point where there is no longer a majority ethnicity.  
Theodore Gentilz, "Corrida de la Sandia San Antonio (Dia de San Juan)"7"x9.5",
1848, oil on canvas
In many ways Texas’ blending of cultural groups, its reliance on a variety of economic forces and the direction of its population growth point toward the future of the United States as a whole.  Yet for many, not the least of which are Texans themselves, the image of the state is more deeply rooted in its history rather than in its present or future.  The Texas that is often conjured up in the popular imagination is a land of sparsely populated wide open spaces more closely akin to a scene from the movie, “Giant,” than bustling and cosmopolitan urban centers.

Such a persistent dichotomy between entrenched image and modern reality has not been lost on those folks charged with creating a less stereotypical portrait of the state.  The city of Houston, for example, has recently embarked on an ad campaign that cleverly points up the differences between what many people think Houston to be and what it, in fact, is.  In one television spot, Jim Parsons, the star of the popular series, “The Big Bang Theory,” and a Houston native tells viewers that he has lived in both New York City and Houston and saw more horses in New York and more art in Houston.  The ad which is aimed at people beyond both Houston’s and Texas’ borders works precisely because the prevailing image of the city and state is not one that conjures up fine art centers and a long history of artistic development.
Jose Arpa y Perea, A Laborer, San Antonio,
1903, 35"x20.75", oil on canvas

The idea that one can see an abundance of art in cities like Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, not to mention El Paso, Midland, Tyler, Corpus Christi, or even little, Albany is quite farfetched for those who still see the state through the lens of an increasingly distant past.  As is often the case, that lens did not lend itself to a particularly accurate view of the state’s history in the first place.  While the popular media often characterizes Texas as a land of cowboys, Comanches, and capitalists (the latter primarily falling into the “wheeler-dealer” category immortalized by the TV series, “Dallas”), the actual history of Texas is both more subtle and more grand.  And yes the state can boast an abundance of art scattered in cities large and small within its vast borders. And yes, art has been created in Texas even during the earliest days of statehood.

Reid Kendrick Crowell, Portrait of a Black Cowboy,
21.5"x17.5", oil on canvas

Surprising to some, perhaps, is the fact that the development of a thriving and dynamic art community in Texas is not a particularly recent phenomenon.  As the paintings in the current exhibition, Deep In the Art of Texas, Selections from the Bryan Museum Collection,  attest, Texas has long been home to talented artists who have created images of the state, its land, people, and culture, that present a multi-faceted, highly diverse, and stylistically varied history of the region.  The exhibition is currently on display at the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, where it will remain until January 4, 2015.  The paintings in the exhibition and the larger collection assembled by the museum’s founder, JP Bryan reveal much about the state’s history and much about its artistic heritage.  All of the paintings in the current exhibition will be showcased in the Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas, which is set to make its debut next spring.
William Lester, Yellow House, 19.5"x20.75", oil on panel
To be certain, there are numerous images in the exhibition and collection that fall within the parameters of what many people expect to see in Texas.  For example, Texas’ heritage as the home of the cowboy is well represented, which is highly appropriate given the fact that the figure of the cowboy is really a Texas creation.  Following the Civil War, thousands of hardy longhorn cattle roamed freely over the south Texas plains, a ready supply of beef for the burgeoning cities rapidly developing all across the country.  The problem was how to get the supply to the demand.  Enter the Texas cowhand who blended the traditions of the Mexican vaquero and the Southeastern cow herder.  The image of the cowboy quickly became a favorite subject of both artists and writers and the image of Texas as a land of sagebrush, cactus, and distant horizons was fixed in much of the popular imagination. 
Harry Anthony DeYoung, Pinnacle Rocks in Fort Davis,
1927, 29.5"x34.75", oil on canvas
Such images tell only part of the story. Texas was and is much more than cowboys and cattle. The Bryan Museum Collection offers a wide survey of the art of Texas over roughly a century, including images that speak more to the urban nature of Texas than its frontier roots. In terms of subjects, styles, and artistic techniques, the collection is as varied as the Texas landscape and as nuanced as the many cultures that make up the personality of the state.
Florence Elliot McClung, Preston Road Farm,1940,
17.5"x19", oil on canvas
The exhibition covers a lot of territory, both literally and figuratively. It ranges across several decades beginning with the earliest days of Texas’ statehood and ending with the state’s shift from a rural population to a largely urban one in the 1950s.  It is geographically diverse as well, with images of East Texas cotton fields, scenes painted along the Gulf Coast, early modernist interpretations of North Texas farms, landscapes from the Davis Mountains in West Texas, and of course, wild flower studies from Central Texas.  Stylistically, the exhibition moves from the realism of Captain Arthur T. Lee’s study of an adobe house in Fort Davis to William Lester’s surrealistic take on a farm house painted nearly one hundred years later.  In short, the exhibition, and the collection it is drawn from, constitutes a tour of Texas geography, Texas history, and Texas art.
While sheer variety is one hallmark of the Bryan collection, artistic excellence is another.  Bryan’s choice of the individual components of the collection reveals a sharp eye and highly developed aesthetic sense. Not only does the collection include works by most of the major figures in early Texas art, but paintings of a high caliber of quality as well.  Dawson Dawson-Watson’s Cotton Pickers, is arguably among the artist’s finest works, as is Florence McClung’s Preston Road Farm, and Merritt Mauzey’s A Church in Galveston. Bryan has built a collection that presents a broad overview of Texas art, but also narrow’s the focus to truly exceptional works of art.
Such a combination of the “big picture” view of the whole of early Texas art along with an emphasis on individual masterworks, allows one the opportunity of seeing the great panorama of Texas art unfold, while at the same time concentrating on the contributions of a number of unique artistic talents.
Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, Market Plaza, 1880,
23.5"x41.5", oil on canvas
Dawson Dawson-Watson, Cotton Pickers,
29.5"x39.5", oil on canvas
Much changed in Texas during the time frame covered by the exhibition and much changed in the world of American art during that same time period.  As Texas was poised to enter a new era at the midpoint of the twentieth century, one that would be marked by an increasingly urban population shift, its artists were searching for new ways to express themselves and the themes that had long been rooted in Texas history.  That search would naturally lead many away from the styles and techniques of Texas’s earliest artists. 

 Artists such as Otis Dozier, Everett Spruce,  William Lester and Merritt Mauzey refined their skills and developed distinctive styles while living in Dallas, which had surpassed San Antonio by the mid twentieth century as the leading art center in the state.  These artists brought new perspectives to many of the subjects and locales that earlier artists had explored.  One of the great advantages of the Bryan collection is that it offers dramatic comparisons between traditional and modernist viewpoints.  It offers a sweeping overview of early Texas art over a period of time that saw the state move from an era of budding villages and frontier towns to one with booming modern cities.  Along the way a complex identity was formed that mixes healthy doses of myth, romance, and reality.
Robert Julian Onderdonk, Noontime on a Clear Day, Southwest Texas, 1916
9.5"x13.5", oil on canvas mounted on board.

Everett Spruce, Big Bend, 1945, 23.25"x35.25", oil on board

Texas artists have played a key role in both reflecting and developing that identity.  Today the art of Texas is as multifaceted as the state itself.  Texas artists are a diverse group, hard to categorize, and difficult to pigeonhole.  Like their predecessors they contribute to an evolving state personality and offer cogent commentary on that personality.  Earlier Texas artists played much the same role.  We can see how the state developed through their eyes and their talent at presenting different viewpoints and visions.  Those visions are preserved and presented through the Bryan collection which offers a glimpse into a unique environment and history.  The Bryan Collection does indeed cover a lot of territory from mountain peaks to coastal towns.  It presents a dynamic picture of Texas over a critical period of time, a picture that is sometimes surprising and always fascinating.

Jose Arpa y Perea, Big Bend, West Texas, ca.1928, 13"x20.25", oil on canvas

(all photos are courtesy of the Bryan Museum, Galveston, TX and the Center for Texas Studies at TCU)

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