The Modernist Impulse and Texas Art
To understand and appreciate modern art one must seek more than literal facts and imitations of nature. The visual experience that is intended by the artist is different from the telling of a story with words or looking at the surface appearance of nature. Modern art must be considered a VISUAL language and not confused with the language of spoken or written words. This is the first step toward understanding.
Robert Preusser, "What Is Modern Art?," ca. 1938
At the age of nineteen, the Houston artist Robert Preusser sat down at his typewriter and earnestly tapped out his theory of modern art. He then honed his argument with handwritten corrections in block letters.1 Preusser's declaration both revealed the precocious development of a single artist and succinctly encapsulated the fundamental challenge many artists would face over the next two-plus decades. How was one to present modern art to a public accustomed to pictures that resembled the "surface appearance of nature"? And for Texas artists, how was that to be accomplished in a state dominated by conservative tastes and geographically isolated from the aesthetically urbane areas of the country? By embracing modern art in Texas in the late 1930s, Preusser was a chronological outlier, ahead of many of his contemporaries. He benefited, however, from growing up in a city with competent and formidable art teachers, a rapidly developing patronage system, and the state's first art museum. It is unsurprising that one of Texas's first fully abstract artists emerged from Houston.
Within twenty-five years, artists all over the state discovered modernism, and by 1960 it had become the norm rather than the exception. Recalling the situation in Texas of the early 1960s, the art historian Susie Kalil lamented, "Pervasive throughout those years were flaccid, palette-knife renditions and methodical abstractions mostly emanating out of university art departments. Many artists . . . rigidly adhered to teaching modernist principles." Kalil's keen reflection suggests how thoroughly a formerly radical style had lost its efficacy.
Modernism in the arts first emerged in mid to late nineteenth-century Paris, although historians have since uncovered indications of an incipient modernist attitude in art forms across Europe and the United States during that period. In many ways, modernism was a response to or symptom of changes in society brought on by the Industrial Revolution. As Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon wrote in 2000, "No art form was unchanged by modernism but the degree and depth of change seems, in the visual arts, to have been especially extreme, involving the abandoning, in some of its forms, of centuries of craft, technical skill and even knowledge."
Abstract Expressionism, whose roots lie in European modernism, is distinctly American, having originated in New York City in the years around World War II. Generally, in the guise of either gently modulated color fields or gestural action painting, Abstract Expressionism once symbolized existential rebellion against conformity and indifference. But its expressive individualism, institutionalized and sanitized, soon lost much of its initial impact. New York eventually became the postwar center of the art world, and the abstract expressionist gesture spread like a blight across the United States. Although it was to last at least until 1960, one of the first critics to note this loss of effectiveness was Harold Rosenberg, who warned in 1952 that abstract expressionist painting risked becoming what he memorably labeled "apocalyptic wallpaper."
As the 1960s dawned in New York, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein countered the then-embedded notion that the spontaneous gesture implied an elevated content. Johns teased the machismo implied by the gestural drip, most comically in Painting with Two Balls (1960), in which faux-gestural brushwork covers a canvas that is pushed apart by two actual round balls. The Pop artist Lichtenstein famously parodied the abstract expressionist gesture in a series of enlarged brushstrokes and paint drips that emulated the depersonalized style of commercial art.
Midcentury Modern Art in Texas concentrates on the period when, to paraphrase Preusser's heartfelt declaration, the "modern artist's intuitive approach" held "validity." It covers the years in Texas when abstract forms, marks, and lyrical color fields still felt novel and provocative, before Abstract Expressionism became an orthodox style. My intent with this book is not only to reconstruct that initial enthusiasm, but also to argue for the continued vibrancy and effectiveness of midcentury painting and sculpture in Texas. The best Texas midcentury art is fully capable of profound visual communication, even fifty years after its creation and beyond the diffuse focus of an information-saturated global society.
Harold Rosenberg, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein worked in Manhattan, where they experienced and shaped cutting-edge art and criticism. Each had firsthand access to American and European aesthetic pioneers and movements. Rosenberg's "wallpaper" admonition appeared at a time when many Texas artists had barely discovered abstraction, much less the liberating potential of spontaneous expression. Such a temporal handicap would seem to have made Texas a latecomer to modern art—a party guest who arrived well after the champagne had gone stale. Yet it is apparent that the state's delayed introduction to modern art, and the mediation of that art through distinctly Texan channels, preserved and perhaps enhanced its expressive power. From the perspective of Texas, developments in Europe, Mexico, and the eastern and western United States could be taken at face value, reconciled with the local visual dialect, or ignored completely. The state's geographic insularity carried both a positive and a negative charge.
Before World War II, modernism in the United States encompassed a wide variety of styles. Around 1945, the aesthetic and critical values emerging from Lower Manhattan began to supplant the country's diversified modernist approaches, and New York's Abstract Expressionism came to represent, synecdochically, all American modernism. This concept has a precursor in the art historian Angela Miller's persuasive argument about nineteenth-century American art in which scenes created by the Hudson River school in one part of the country-.the northeastern United States—came to represent the whole of the country. Similarly, and for decades after World War II, the historiography of American art turned on the pivotal role of Abstract Expressionism. It is thus important to note that much of the art in this book was created before the canonization of New York Abstract Expressionism as American modernism. Modernist expressions in Texas were like a thriving bacterial culture in a petri dish just before it is subsumed by a virulent and foreign strain. (The double meaning of "culture" is invoked as a reminder that the United States at midcentury was filled with localized expressions of modernism.) The best Texas art in the middle decades of the twentieth century was at once conspecific with and blissfully separated from the northeastern strain, and its unique qualities relate to this duality of ideological and geographic positioning.
This issue segues into a pertinent question regarding how individual artists or schools practiced modernism across the United States. How does one construct the history of a particular area in a way that emphasizes its connections to national and international modernity while preserving its distinctive local characteristics? In New York, the question was largely obviated by grandly ambitious artists who rejected telltale local references in their paintings and sculptures. Undoubtedly, the apparently nonspecific, universalizing qualities of Abstract Expressionism in New York made it easier to argue that it synecdochically represented all American art. The irony is that Abstract Expressionism developed in one tiny district in the melting-pot bustle of postwar New York. One could argue that Lower Manhattan evinced its own regional style by virtue of its adamant rejection of the local. But in those days "regionalism" was a pejorative, and has been periodically since then, connoting the provincialism of rural artists who shunned city life.
Texas stood apart from the rest of the country in countless ways. Beaumont, Texas, greeted the twentieth century in 1901 with an explosion of greenish-black liquid, rocketing skyward. The repercussions were monumental. The well, soon dubbed Spindletop, produced millions of barrels of crude oil, and from that day onward Texas surged ahead of the rest of the nation in oil production. Spindletop's oil fields heralded the dawn of the modern oil industry, changing the course of both Texas and U.S. history. The harnessing of oil—a feat laden with Texas-sized perils—at the dawn of the twentieth century confirmed that the state's bountiful resources extended beyond the endless land to the subterranean domain beneath it.
Spindletop serves as a metaphor for the oil-related extravagance that helped define the world's collective vision of Texas. The fortunes of iconic fictional figures, whether in the guise of Jett Rink (from the film Giant) or J. R. Ewing (from the television show Dallas), rose and fell on the availability of oil. Before the oil boom, ranchers and cattlemen stood as the state's emblems of hardiness, strength, and boldness. From someplace between oil, ranching, and the Alamo, the image of Texas conjures up a horde of historical figures and hackneyed images: Davey Crockett, Sam Houston, cowboys, boots, oil derricks, longhorn cattle, rattlesnakes, and bluebonnets. Artists living in or simply passing through Texas have made countless depictions of these subjects and more. Its action-packed history and fierce reputation for independence provide the twenty-eighth state with numerous factual and tall tales to elicit the interest of people from all countries; its near-mythic status encourages the perpetuation of such stories. For a state so proud of its size, self-reliant individualism, and sovereignty, the paradox is that its popular visual imagery tends toward the utterly conventional.
Yet from the same Texas soil, modernist forms of painting and sculpture emerged. Not nearly as ostentatious as the oil boom and its attendant grandiosity, modernist art in Texas nonetheless retained an essential connection to the land, and thrived. Greeted neither by elated crowds nor by throngs of reporters, it was scarcely noticed by the average Texan. By highlighting this less conspicuous but equally indigenous Texas product, the following chapters trace the development of modernist and abstract tendencies from the early explorations of a handful of artists in the 1930s through the biomorphic and geometric forms that peppered art in the state in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Lone Star modernists absorbed and interpreted the latest, most extreme formal lessons of the twentieth century. They rarely cohered into a single group; that is, we cannot look back and recognize a "School of Texas Modernism." With few exceptions, modernism in the Lone Star State emerged quietly and independently. A standout early practitioner was Georgia O'Keeffe, who—during her few years in Texas—painted and drew radical abstract work in the Panhandle as early as 1914. More commonly, those who picked up modernism began their work in the 1930s or the 1940s. A number of skilled teachers, students, and independent artists viewed abstraction as an invigorating and enlightening pictorial language.
The origins of twentieth-century modern art were antithetical to the independent spirit of Texas, which had struggled against and rejected foreign intervention.12 Popular taste in paralleled that of the majority of Americans, who favored traditional modes of art. Texas might have been one of the last states of the Union where a person could expect to find a vital current of modernist painting and sculpture in the mid-twentieth century. Ultimately, however, the same Texas that encouraged political independence and free-spirited citizens turned out to be fertile ground for an autonomous spirit in sculpture and painting. The state's vast geography and secessionary zeal allowed artists to work in whatever style of art they pleased. Many drew literal and metaphoric inspiration from the land; still others abandoned any semblance of mimetic representation.
Beginning in the 1930s, certain Texas artists started to engage in abstraction to varying degrees; some hardened the edges of recognizable landscapes that yet departed from nature, while others embraced nonobjective, geometric imagery. Between these poles lay a wide range of styles. Significant for pushing the limits of abstraction were Preusser of Houston, Forrest Bess of Baytown and Chinquapin, Seymour Fogel in Austin, Dorothy Antoinette "Toni" LaSelle in Denton, the former Denton resident Myron Stout, and Ben L. Culwell in Dallas and Temple, among many others. Although modern sculptors were rarer than painters, the Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston areas nurtured several stellar three-dimensional artists, including Charles T. Williams and Jim Love. Welcoming and internalizing abstract modes of art, these were among the state's modernist aesthetic pioneers.
As New York City attained art world primacy, in part because of prewar immigration by Europeans and postwar devastation, many Texas artists exhibited there, holding their own against other soon-to-be-famous artists. "American art" was defined by the leading modernist institution, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and Texas artists visiting the city were not unaffected. Occasionally, and for short spells, small artistic gatherings coalesced into quasi movements, as in the case of the so-called Fort Worth Circle. The circle's artists deliberately flouted the prevailing trends of relatively conservative art in Texas by engaging in what they considered a more avant-garde approach, strongly influenced by Surrealism, Paul Klee, and Amedeo Modigliani. Some members of the circle ventured briefly into full abstraction, but for the most part their imagery was grounded in recognizable figures and scenes with a distinctively modernist touch.
As Texas colleges and universities developed art departments, some artists found teaching positions that permitted them to innovate in their own art, and their teaching reflected, naturally, the concepts they embraced in their work. Other artists held primary jobs in other vocations but made abstract art on the side. Modernist pockets existed from Austin to Houston, Denton to San Angelo and, up north, into the Panhandle.
The history of modernist art in Texas has been overshadowed by both an abiding preference for realistic or Impressionist-style art and the state's self-perpetuating lore. There is, nevertheless, a treasure trove of Texas modernism, much of it having been secreted away in the basements of museums or held within a limited number of private collections and artists' inventories. Only in recent years have national exhibitions and publications begun to "rediscover" midcentury modernist artists and movements that seemed to be invisible to the broader American art world. Well-rehearsed explanations for what happened historically always revolved around the dominance of the New York School and its subsequent stranglehold on modern American art. But starting perhaps twenty-five years ago, East Coast–centered overviews of the American terrain have begun to yield their once canonical authority. Two overarching themes—"heroism" and "landscape"—recur throughout the study of Texas modernism. Where there are heroes, there are often antiheroes. Similarly, landscape requires space. Although Texas artists gleaned much from European and New York avant-gardes, and shared much with them, these leitmotifs, which interrelate and overlap, have a peculiarly Texan tenor.
Consider what the Manhattan editor of a financial magazine intoned before the Advertising Clubs of Texas in 1923: "Your State's greatest assets," he reminded his audience, are its "history and heroism." This adman's perspicacity was wholly accurate; nothing fascinates Americans and Europeans like the lore of Texas, some of which reads like a classic revenge fantasy. What first comes to mind is the Battle of the Alamo, with its overwhelming rout of the Texians (what the early Texas colonists called themselves), followed by the Texas army's victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, the determining event in Texas's fight for independence. With its scant two hundred defenders, including William Travis and James Bowie, the Alamo is synonymous with zealous independence, although "Remember the Alamo!" may be heard more frequently today in parody than in earnest. During this turning point in Texas history, Moses Austin, Stephen F. Austin, Samuel Houston, Travis, and Bowie all earned reputations as stalwart, irrepressible heroes. Sifting fact from fiction is challenging, but Texas will always be associated with grand acts of bravery, real or imagined.
Early examples of fine art recorded and embellished these courageous events, and the act of portraying red-blooded history could impart a degree of heroism to the artist himself. Two books by female authors, Frances Battaile Fisk's A History of Texas Artists and Sculptors (1928) and Esse Forrester-O'Brien's Art and Artists of Texas (1935), are among the first comprehensive attempts to document the state's historical and practicing artists. In each one the author equates the act of painting heroic subjects with an artist's own mettle. In her opening chapter, Fisk describes the historical painter Henry Arthur (Harry) McArdle (1836–1908) as follows: "Born near Belfast, Ireland, July 9, 1836, the very year in which were enacted the stirring scenes in the drama of Texas Independence which he was destined so vividly to portray in his splendid historical paintings." Once in Texas, she continues, "the artist consecrated his life to his dreams." Forrester-O'Brien likewise makes note of McArdle's birth as occurring in "the very year of the stirring day of Texas drama," adding, "Fate most certainly decreed that his brush should portray these historic happenings." Once the Irishman arrived in Texas, Forrester-O'Brien explains, he "became so imbued with its past that he decided to remain to tell its dramatic story on canvas"; McArdle's Battle of San Jacinto becomes "a thrilling picturization of the culminating triumph in the closing chapter of the fight for Texas independence." Forrester-O'Brien eulogizes McArdle as "a soldier, a patriot, a crusader in the cause of patriotism, a scholar, an historian and an artist of genius."
Forrester-O'Brien's account of William Henry Huddle (1847–1892) pushes the concept of the artist's heroism further still; after all, this is about Texas, by definition larger than life. The biography of this "self-sacrificing" artist "should be written indelibly in the minds and hearts of present and future generations." Why? "He dipped his brush not in mere paints, but in those ingredients which make character, personality, history, wars, and painted as though inspired, the story of the State of Texas." Indeed, "it would be safe to say that no other artist painted individually and collectively so much man-power, for in those pioneer days in Texas it took men not only of mental and moral strength but of physical strength." Such hagiographic rhetoric, in part accounted for by the 1935 date of Art and Artists of Texas, one year before the Texas Centennial celebration, seamlessly merges physical virility with painterly heroism.
Both chronicles, predate most modernist activity in the state, as well as the Texas Centennial, making 1935 a valuable terminus ante quem ("limit before which," that is, the latest time) for early Texas art and thus a year at which we can also set the beginning of Texas modernism. Several artists in Forrester-O'Brien's compendium—such as Dickson Reeder and William Lester—had not yet employed abstraction. Forrester-O'Brien does, however, dedicate two paragraphs to Georgia O'Keeffe. With no reference to the modernist content of the Wisconsin native's art, she attributes O'Keeffe's success to her fawning husband: "As the wife of Alfred Stieglitz, the New York photographer, Georgia O'Keefe [sic] has found fame and fortune, and an appreciative and understanding companion. In the gallery, 'An American Place,' in New York, owned by her husband, O'Keefe's [sic] latest paintings are always on exhibition." O'Keeffe's Texas period receives further attention in the latter half of this chapter.
"The paradigm of the artist-as-hero is in no way applicable to Bess."
John Yau, "On the Life and Art of Forrest Bess"
The ingrained concept of heroism in Texas history—and as Fisk and Forrester-O'Brien explicate it, within the artists themselves—is unavoidable. Some Texas modernists were indeed independent minded and free-spirited, embodying a new incarnation of the Texas myth. But if some brought great machismo to their process, others engaged in decidedly antiheroic activity. Neither their personae nor their aesthetic styles appear to carry the robust vigor and tough-mindedness associated with the pantheon of Texas heroes.
Advanced by Rosenberg's "American Action Painters" essay of 1952 and reified in Irving Sandler's The Triumph of American Painting (1970), the twentieth-century concept of artist as hero became synonymous with New York Abstract Expressionism. New York artists, heavily championed by a bevy of critics and curators, were given plenty of room to remake themselves and thereby reconstitute the conventional understanding of heroism. Barnett Newman's iconic Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–1951) signaled his lofty and straight-faced certainty of the spiritually heroic potential in abstract art. Back in Texas, the challenge lay in shaking off the yoke of the state's ingrained heroism. Texas painters and sculptors occupied the crossroads between the existential New York action painter and Texas's mythologized nineteenth-century heroes.
One of Texas's finest modernist painters, Forrest Bess, thwarted the traditional hero category so effectively as to make it seem risible (for more on Bess, see chapter four). At least, that is, if one construes heroism as equivalent to robust masculinity. Yet as I will argue, Bess's paintings and persona perhaps manifest a new locus of heroism, taking metaphysical determination and physical willpower to unprecedented heights. Since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, modernist painting has inverted standard tropes and expectations, tending to elevate the antihero and the renegade. For example, in lieu of the smooth, near-invisible brushwork of successful academic painters, the French realist Édouard Manet eschewed chiaroscuro and painted with tangible, tactile brushstrokes. And rather than portraying Napoleonic battles or mythological scenes, Manet elevated courtesans and dandies. Compared to New York abstract expressionists, artists such as Bess may, paradoxically, have more thoroughly inhabited the essence of modernism—and even offered a new spirit of "Texan independence"—in the mid-twentieth century.
Landscape and Space
For centuries, Texas has been shaped by the geologic characteristics of its land as well as by the rugged determination of those who choose to inhabit it. This thematic underpinning of the ensuing chapters concerns the physical and metaphorical landscape and space of Texas. That is, abstraction has an integral relationship to the state and its geography. To many artists, horizon and sky imply infinity, a quality that can only be hinted at in painting, sculpture, printmaking, or photography. Any literal depiction of the land constitutes an approximation, just one mode of re-creating the feeling of vastness. For some artists, a literal or figurative representation of the landscape is insufficient, driving them toward an existential freedom in their recognition that the horizon stands in for an unknowable, inexpressible terrain. Abstraction, too, has a greater capacity than representational art to evoke a wide phenomenological field and may be a more potent equivalent of the vast and sublime land and sky of Texas.
The term "space" is multivalent. It can refer, externally, to the endless Texas landscape or, internally, to the space developed within a painting or sculpture. In abstract art, space can be psychological or metaphysical. These connotations can be embodied in a single object when the artist internalizes and then represents the vast expanse of the land. American art history, too, constitutes another type of space: this book periodically addresses how Texans fit within that established historical terrain. In a catalogue essay written in 1992, "Texas Vision: Through the Looking Glass of History," Michael Ennis highlights episodes in Texas art history from 1836 through the present, focusing on objects collected by Richard and Nona Barrett. The Barretts' somewhat heterogeneous collection includes a concentration of Texas painting and sculpture from its origins to the late twentieth century. Ennis points out that the relationship between Texas art and its history relates to the frequently raised question of whether American art is distinctively "American." He articulates what he characterizes as his renegade position in the late 1980s and early 1990s:
I intend to argue—quite unfashionably—that the answer to the question "Is there such a thing as Texas art?" is an emphatic "yes." What is Texan about it is not as simple as an affinity for bold strokes, whether emotional or literal. It is a pervading sense of place, a fundamental Texan-ness most directly evidenced in a strong tradition of narrative and landscape art, but that also emerges through a more subtle appropriation of the same language in which so much of Texas's history has been written: the language of myth.
Note how Ennis's self-described "unfashionable" opinion is the art historical equivalent of the antihero stance, of going against the tide. On the whole, he identifies many of the same themes that motivate a majority of observers and scholars of Texas art—including numerous collectors who discuss what moves them about particular objects as well as gallery directors, curators, and historians who attempt to situate the work thematically or historically. Other writers who have broached the matter from different points of view—including Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, Francine Carraro, William Goetzmann, Michael Grauer, Alison de Lima Greene, Patricia Covo Johnson, Susie Kalil, William Reaves, Becky Duval Reese, Barbara Rose, and Rick Stewart—discern a manifestation of Texas identity in much of the art. What Ennis identified as "unfashionable" in 1992 has been borne out by looking.
Yet the case for the integration of identifiably Texan qualities into abstract art presents itself less tangibly. It would be simplistic to reiterate Ennis's emphatic yes or to argue against it. There are playfully and deliberately iconic Texas modernist paintings, such as Kathleen Blackshear's Texas Synthesis or Jack Boynton's midcareer cowboy boots and maplike renderings of the state. In the syncopated rhythms of familiar Texas scenes, such as Bill Condon's Houston Ship Channel or any number of oil derricks as interpreted by modernist painters, one finds a Texas-specific modernism. But in nonobjective or purely expressionist art, what periodically surfaces is an abstract sensation of the Texas landscape, myth, heroism, and its antonym. These works transmute an aura of place or circumstance into pictorial means.
The first task of Midcentury Modern Art in Texas is to highlight key manifestations of the work and to consider the causes that spurred its creation. Readers familiar with early Texas art will find recognizable names here as well as some heretofore unknown. For them, I hope the book offers a refreshing review as well as deeper insights. And I hope that those unfamiliar with this art discover much that will be valuable and compelling. I do not attempt to delineate a complete history of Texas modern art or its artists. The names of some practitioners do not appear; in general this is either because an artist's chief contributions were modern but not principally abstract, or because scant information was available to me. Of the large number of Texas modern artists who are discussed, lengthier consideration is given to those who took modernism beyond vacuous formal conceits or whose work relates to a historical circumstance that warrants greater attention. Occasionally, this means distinguishing between art that was merely derivative and that which was truly innovative.
I draw comparisons to better-known American and European modernist art and movements in order to demonstrate how the finest Texas artists fit within a larger aesthetic scheme. Although I implicitly and explicitly consider the aforementioned perennial question "What is 'Texan' in this art?" its creators should be treated as artists first. My intent is to avoid Texas jingoism and instead to situate the artists properly within the larger, ever-unfolding framework of American art. At the same time, their work and inspiration often conveys a quality of Texan-ness that subtly undergirds much of their production. It is true, just as the artists Alexandre Hogue and Myron Stout knew, that the local offered a path that could be followed to the universal.
The second half of this introductory chapter introduces early Texas art, offers a synopsis of American modernism, and defines key terms. The chapters that follow demonstrate, through several lenses and framings, the disparate ways that diverse artists across Texas incorporated and exhibited the modernist impulse in their work. The chapters are structured chronologically around energized areas or events. Sometimes a modernist verve took hold of a city; other times it was most prominent in individual artists who practiced alone. For example, the 1936 Texas Centennial in Dallas offered Texans a chance to take stock of who they were and where they stood within the national artistic setting. Thus, to revivify the striking local form of modernism created by Texas regionalists, chapter two dedicates considerable discussion to the Centennial. Although some modern artists, in later years, would dismiss the work of the Dallas Nine in the 1930s as overly "regionalist," the members of that group displayed a magnified sense of realism, a heightened attunement to local motifs, and a peculiar compression of space, all indicative of a modernist impulse. The artists have been treated admirably by historians such as Rick Stewart and Francine Carraro, but my goal is to situate them within the specific context of abstraction as progenitors and even shepherds of later forms of modernism.
Focusing on early work in Houston, to circa 1940, chapter three explores how the Bayou City came to be the state's leader in arts. Chapter four centers on individual artists who embraced and expressed the modernist fervor relatively early and made their work outside the state's main metropolises. These include some truly radical abstractionists, such as Ben L. Culwell, Toni LaSelle, Myron Stout, and Forrest Bess. Concentrating on the Fort Worth Circle, chapter five describes the only cohesive group of Texas modernists that existed in Fort Worth in the 1940s and early 1950s. A single city is once again in focus in chapter six, which surveys the modernist zeal that reverberated throughout the Art Department at the University of Texas in Austin. In the chapter that follows, Houston's vibrant contemporary art community at midcentury is explored through three crowning achievements of the late 1950s. The core of energy covered in chapter eight is Charles Truett Williams's sculpture studio in Fort Worth, a site to which artists traveled from Dallas and Houston. And chapter nine is a case study of Texas modernist artists who exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, tracing its midcentury Americans exhibitions in order to contextualize Texans within the broader art world.
Early Texas Artists
The earliest visual representations made in the state portray the relationship between the people and the land. Texas is home to hundreds of prehistoric and historic petroglyphs and pictographs, most notably in the Pecos River area near the Rio Grande. Starting in the late seventeenth century, the Spanish influence in art emerges prominently in architecture, as can be seen in the grand, locally modified baroque missions of San Antonio. Still later, responding to indeterminate expanses of land and sky, the best-known fine artists, such as Karl Friedrich Hermann Lungkwitz, Frank Reaugh, Robert Onderdonk and his son Julian, Jose Arpa, and Porfirio Salinas, inclined naturally toward landscapes. The preponderance of landscape painting in the twentieth century fostered the affectionate but occasionally scornful nickname, the "Bluebonnet School."
Although Texas may have been slow to foster the growth of fine art, the entire United States lagged considerably behind Europe. In the seventeenth century, art academies, confraternities, and training were firmly established in Europe, while settlers in the New World kept busy simply trying to stay alive. The scant number of Americans who considered fine art as a profession trained abroad, sometimes remaining there. America's greatest colonial period export, John Singleton Copley, lamented that his fellow Bostonians regarded painting as they would any "other usefull trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a carpenter, tailor, or shew maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World. Which is not a little Mortifying to me."
The first Texas artists were mapmakers. From the cartographic documents of Spanish expeditions in the sixteenth century through the map of Texas territory made by General Stephen F. Austin in 1839, itinerant mapmakers translated the land into a picture. Like the sixteenth-century watercolors of John White's Virginia and Jacques Le Moyne's surviving gouache of St. Augustine, Florida, early Texas images were made by those who traveled with exploration parties. Thus, the earliest portable recorded images of the state tend to be documentary: French, Spanish, or Mexican drawings or engravings of maps, plants, people, and the land. In a sense, Texas's early surveyor-artists helped contain the vastness of the land. By contrast, twentieth-century artists found in abstraction a potent analogy for the state's boundlessness.
The earliest known painting of a historical event in Texas was created in Mexico City around 1765, perhaps by José de Páez, who worked in the studio of one of Mexico's most significant eighteenth-century painters, Miguel Cabrera. The grand scale of the San Sabá Mission Painting depicts Caddo, Comanche, and Wichita warrior attacks on the Spanish mission. Questionable factual accuracy notwithstanding, the San Sabá canvas is the first known professional painting of a historical event in Texas.
German immigrant painters made the first landscape paintings. The surge of German immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century brought a scattering of academically trained painters. Karl Friedrich Hermann Lungkwitz and his brother-in-law Richard Petri both trained in Dresden in the Romantic style, of which the greatest practitioner was Caspar David Friedrich (1774– 1840). Among many Germans who settled in Texas at the time, Petri and Lungkwitz were in search of a fresh start after the European revolutions of 1848. Two other noteworthy immigrants were the Prussian Carl Gustav von Iwonski (1830–1912), who operated a photography studio in San Antonio with Lungkwitz in the 1860s and 1870s, and the Swiss naturalist Conrad Caspar Rordorf (1800–1847).
Documentation of the fall of the Alamo, in 1836, soon to become the state's most mythologized event, initially existed solely in the form of written accounts and newspaper illustrations. But over the next fifty years, the Alamo and the decisive response at San Jacinto began to accrue greater artistic cachet. In 1848–1849, the West Point–trained artist Seth Eastman (1808–1875) created some of the finest watercolor and gouache depictions of the ruined Alamo and other Texas scenes. Eastman, who began as a mapmaker and later gained fame for his portrayal of Native American life, displayed magisterial draftsmanship. Henry Arthur (Harry) McArdle (1836–1908), the Irishman lauded by both Frances Battaile Fisk and Esse Forrester-O'Brien, was a Confederate veteran whose birth year indeed may have given him a special affinity for the Texas army when he painted the monumental companion paintings Dawn at the Alamo (1875; 1905) and The Battle of San Jacinto (1898). McArdle's attention to detail is both commendable and biased; for example, in his Alamo painting, James Bowie is attacking a Mexican soldier with his namesake knife. McArdle's paintings hang in Austin at the Capitol along with another early history painting, The Surrender of Santa Anna (1886), by William Henry Huddle (1847–1892). Théodore Gentilz (1819–1906), a French painter and surveyor active in San Antonio, also painted a Fall of The Alamo (1844, no longer extant), along with many carefully observed scenes of southwestern Mexican and Texan culture. Lithographs of the Alamo dating to c. 1850, allegedly made by Lungkwitz, show a sensitively trained hand.
Elisabet Ney (1833–1907) was exceptional for her neoclassical sculptures and her determination as a woman sculptor. A trailblazer in her native Germany, she was the first female student at the Munich Academy of Art. At her Berlin studio in the 1850s, Ney sculpted the busts of prominent sitters, among them the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the German composer Richard Wagner, and the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck. Immigrating to the United States during the Franco-Prussian War, she moved her family into a rundown Greek Revival plantation house near Hempstead, Texas in 1873. Ney won a substantial commission to provide statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and in that year she built a limestone home in the newly named Hyde Park area of Austin. Her persistent campaign for increased academic attention to the arts ultimately led to the founding of the Texas Fine Arts Association in 1911, although Ney did not survive to see it. She likewise lobbied for a formal art department at the University of Texas in Austin; the department was finally founded in 1938, thirty years after Ney's death. Because she sought commissions in lieu of teaching, Ney's legacy consists of her sculptures and promotion of the arts.
By contrast, Charles Franklin "Frank" Reaugh (1860–1945) taught and mentored students and colleagues for most of his life. One of the finest draftsmen, painters, and teachers ever to explore the state, the Illinois-born Reaugh moved to Texas in 1866. After a first sketching trip in 1883, he trained in St. Louis and in Paris at the Académie Julian. Nicknamed the "Painter of the Longhorn" for his hundreds of pastels and paintings of the subject, he reportedly documented Texas longhorns before they were crossbred later in the nineteenth century. From 1889 until 1940, Reaugh took annual sketching journeys throughout West Texas, bringing numerous students on his plein air pilgrimages. With his European training, mentoring skills, and determination to record the inhospitable areas of the state, he became one of Texas's most distinguished artists.
The Onderdonk family was equally vital to the development of true fine art in Texas. Born in Maryland, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (1852–1917) studied at the National Academy of Design in New York, joining the splinter group of students who left it in 1875 to open the Art Students League of New York (hereafter, the Art Students League; in 1893 he re-created that kind of training school by cofounding the Art Students League of Dallas). Onderdonk moved to San Antonio in 1879, and he, too, weighed in on Texas's cherished historical event with his The Fall of the Alamo (1903). Most of his career was dedicated to commissioned portraits.
Two of Robert's children established fundamental positions in Texas art: Robert Julian Onderdonk (called Julian, 1882–1922) became the state's preeminent bluebonnet painter. He followed his father's footsteps at age seventeen, studying at the Art Students League, where he worked with William Merritt Chase (including spending a pivotal term at a summer school in Shinnecock, Long Island) and took a night course with Robert Henri. The curator William Rudolph has argued persuasively that Onderdonk's repeated use of the bluebonnet motif is the equivalent of Claude Monet's water lilies theme. Onderdonk's paintings helped establish the aforementioned Bluebonnet School in the state. A prime example, Dawn in the Hills (1922, Witte Museum, San Antonio), is especially poignant for being one of the last canvases he completed before his untimely death at age forty. Onderdonk employed modern paint handling, passed on to him through William Merritt Chase and the French Impressionism he encountered abroad. His Impressionistic canvases were in Edgar B. Davis's mind's eye when he launched his awards for wildflower paintings, although the younger Onderdonk never lived to compete for one of them.
Julian's younger sister Eleanor also trained at the Art Students League. Her most significant contribution to Texas art came not through her paintings but from the thirty years she dedicated to curating at San Antonio's Witte Museum (1927–1958). Eleanor Onderdonk was a powerful, forward-thinking artist-educator who presented a broad array of exhibitions in virtually all media. She supplemented exhibitions of artists such as Diego Rivera, Carlos Mérida, and Pablo Picasso with a lecture series that brought to San Antonio the avant-garde Russian artist Alexander Archipenko, the American regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, and Walter Pach, the writer-artist who was instrumental in organizing the Armory Show of 1913. Even this briefest summary indicates the breadth and range of training of many artists who settled in or came through Texas.
Yet by the 1920s, it was apparent to the rest of the country that Texas was not known for its fine artists. Time magazine summed up the state's reputation cruelly in 1928: "The state of Texas has never been closely associated with the production of good, or even mediocre, paintings." Time had been drawn to the tale of the Texas oilman Edgar B. Davis and his national competition, which encouraged paintings of Texas wildflowers and ranching scenes. Through the San Antonio Art League (which today houses the Purchase Prize paintings), Davis promised what was then the highest monetary award ever offered in a painting competition: the first-place winner earned $5,000 cash. In three years, he awarded more than $53,000 directly to artists and more than $350,000 for traveling exhibitions and publicity. The Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions, short-lived and long ago, encouraged countless artists to create Impressionistic landscapes or genre scenes of ranching, cotton fields, and cattlemen. Although many Wildflower Competitive Exhibition paintings are skillfully rendered and in no way "mediocre," as Time's critic noted, very few of them engage modernist techniques or subjects.
In their painterly origins, most of the Wildflower Competitive Exhibition paintings could be traced stylistically to French Impressionism, a movement that, half a century earlier, had truly represented the vanguard of modernism. In their day, Impressionist paintings were dismissed by critics for their sketchy, unfinished appearance and their rejection of the highly polished, morally edifying production of the French Academy (the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture). By the first quarter of the twentieth century, as the output of European artists traversed the most radical visual forms ever developed up to that time, countless Texas painters embraced the misty, soft-brushed version of 1880s Impressionism. In some ways it was appropriate. Impressionism's once-revolutionary pictorial language captured the effects of light outdoors, making it an efficacious choice for artists working in the vast and varied landscape of Texas. Some local painters had been introduced to the style firsthand, through travels across the Atlantic; others picked it up at the National Academy of Design in New York; and still others learned it from colleagues and teachers in Texas. Despite key exceptional painters such as Julian Onderdonk or Dawson Dawson-Watson, a Davis award–winning Englishman who had studied at Giverny near Monet's home, many local artists engaged a hollow style whose potential for disruptive observation or even true invention had long been evacuated.
In Texas Art and a Wildcatter's Dream: Edgar B. Davis and the San Antonio Art League, the historian William Reaves proposes that Davis's wildflower competitions provoked an artistic response that focused and colored Texas regionalism of the 1930s. Although some of the younger artists who entered the competitions were influenced by modernist trends, the Davis judges consistently showed "conspicuous preference" in awarding prizes for more conservative works. The competitions and their jaw-dropping cash awards became a lightning rod for burgeoning Texas regionalists. But as Reaves perceptively notes, the heavy praise for conventional painting bolstered the regionalists' resolve to reject Texas Impressionism.
One group of regionalists, Jerry Bywaters and Alexandre Hogue among them, forged a path for modernism in Dallas over the next decade. The group acquired a nickname, the Dallas Nine, and although its numbers and influence extended beyond the 'Nine,' the moniker acknowledges the group's against-the-tide determination, a marker of heroism. Contrary to Time's dismissive estimation, in 1927 the national art magazine Art Digest had sensed an incipient reaction: "Not all the artists of Texas go in for wild flowers, in spite of San Antonio's famous contest. In fact there is just a suggestion of revolt against themes of this sort, and its center is Dallas, where there is an art colony whose members are winning national recognition."
If Davis's wildflower competitions set a negative example for progressive painters, that was not unusual. Modernism, in Texas as elsewhere, developed through a series of reformist stances. Modernist artists share one important quality: they tend to reject older styles of art as they respond directly or indirectly to modernization in the world. Depending on one's point of view, the wildflower competitions might have been the grit in the oyster's maw that created the pearl of the Dallas Nine. Alternatively, one might see the Dallas Nine's aesthetic as gritty compared with the loosely painted bluebonnets that dominated Davis's competitions.
A National Context for Modernism
By the 1920s, Texas Impressionism had gained national attention, but its atmospheric brushstrokes were already out of fashion. As a country, the United States witnessed abstraction in its most famous public incarnation at the New York Armory Show in 1913, yet at that early date, Texas harbored virtually no known abstractionists or modernists. Installed in New York's 69th Regiment Armory and officially titled The International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory Show boldly introduced the United States to modern "American and Foreign Art," showcasing more than twelve hundred works by three hundred artists. Nearly a hundred thousand viewers filed in a single month through the vast former armaments building on Lexington Avenue, flocking to the European galleries to see outrages of modern European art in its evolution from Realism to the contagious new trend of Cubism, which famously abrogated established rules of composition and perspective. The emphatic nature of this work was buttressed by pioneering shows at New York's Macbeth Gallery and Alfred Stieglitz's galleries, and the U.S. art scene was profoundly affected. Modern European art effectively mounted a siege on American shores in that massive 1913 exhibition.
The show was chiefly organized by three members of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, who spent more than a year preparing for it. By the time the exhibition closed in Chicago and Boston, more than 250,000 people had passed through the galleries. The Armory Show remained the touchstone of modernist activity for American artists; its monumental impact on artists and the public was felt for decades.
The Armory Show presented an opportunity for comparisons between European and American avant-garde activity, although its pedagogical impact was diminished by press reports sensationalizing Cubism as well as enfant terrible Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). American galleries showcased the latest modern efforts, including the work of the so-called Ashcan school of artists. They had been promulgating a small but thriving form of avant-garde art for the past five years. In 1908, Arthur B. Davies, one of the Armory Show's organizers, cofounded a group called the Eight. His circle included Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, and George Bellows. Their gritty urban realism quickly acquired the appellation Ashcan school.
Another critical and vigorous promoter of modernism was active long before the Armory Show: the New Yorker Alfred Stieglitz, the son of Jewish German immigrants. Since the mid-nineteenth century in Europe, artists had formed groups or organized exhibitions in protest against the restrictive atmosphere of official art schools and academies. For example, the Vienna Secession, founded in 1897, was created in reaction to the conservative teaching environment at the Vienna Künstlerhaus. Stieglitz took both a cue and nomenclature from such artistic outcries, particularly the Austrian group, founding the Photo-Secession in New York in 1902. The Photo-Secession was dedicated to raising the status of photography as a fine art by promoting its expressive and pictorial aspects. The following year, Stieglitz began publishing the quarterly magazine Camera Work. In 1905 he opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue. The Little Galleries morphed into the first major modernist American art gallery, called 291. The gallery's roll call of exhibitions remains astonishing today: it was the first American venue to exhibit work by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. At 291, Stieglitz exhibited Japanese prints as well, along with—in advance of their widely viewed appearance at the Armory Show-.works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Manet, Henri Rousseau, and August Rodin. Yet throughout his life, Stieglitz maintained a deep commitment to American artists. His stable included devoted modernists: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Max Weber. Although Stieglitz was forced to close 291 in June 1917, he reopened galleries in other incarnations after World War I and held an unwavering commitment to modernism until his death, in 1946.
The young Georgia O'Keeffe's first solo exhibition was held at 291 in 1917. As mentioned above, she is credited with developing the first wholly abstract paintings in Texas, and her modernist production in the state stands alone. O'Keeffe, who lived in the Panhandle for only a few years, will forever be among the outliers in Texas art. There is scant evidence of her pedagogical impact, and her career matured across the border in New Mexico. Historians, curators, and critics are split on whether O'Keeffe's work fits the label "Texas art," but such academic bickering is beside the point; her Texas work was profoundly affected by the light and sky of Palo Duro Canyon.
Originally from Wisconsin, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. During a summer drawing course at the University of Virginia in 1912, O'Keeffe was introduced to the writings of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow encouraged abstraction by promoting harmonious arrangements of line, color, and notan, the Japanese term for balancing light and dark values. His shadow loomed large over American abstract artists, since his theories favored pure design over literal, mimetic naturalism. It is vital to emphasize that Georgia O'Keeffe spent two distinct periods in Texas: the first from 1912 to 1914, and the second from 1917 to 1918. In August 1912, she accepted a position as supervisor of drawing and penmanship in the Amarillo public school system. She remained there until 1914, when she enrolled at Teachers College, Columbia University. While in New York, she attended exhibitions at Stieglitz's 291 gallery, where she saw paintings, drawings, and photographs by the Americans Marin, Hartley, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and Paul Strand, as well as the Europeans Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, and Picasso. Seeking to return to Texas, she accepted a position at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon from late 1916 to early 1918. While O'Keeffe was in Texas, Stieglitz held a solo exhibition of her work in April 1917. Her great modern abstract landscapes, a result of her exposure to avant-garde art at 291, were made during her second stint in Texas. Among the best known of these are the "Light Coming on the Plains" series, the "Evening Star" series, and Painting No. 21 (Palo Duro Canyon). Red Landscape (c. 1917), a spectacularly bright oil on board, represents one of four surviving oil paintings from the second Texas period. Fittingly, the painting belongs to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, a gift from the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation in 1994.
As the art historian and curator Barbara Haskell wrote, "For O'Keeffe, the Panhandle landscape was what oceans and mountains were to other artists: expansive, metaphoric and elemental." O'Keeffe said, in a letter to Stieglitz in 1916, "The plains—the wonderful, great big sky—makes me want to breathe so deep that I'll break"; she commented around the same time to her friend Anita Pollitzer, "I belonged. . . . That was my country—terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness." O'Keeffe put words and images to what many Texas artists feel about the influence of the landscape on their work. Like O'Keeffe, many of them internalized the landscape and the sensation of Texas's expanse to develop lyrical and compelling abstract art.
Modernism, Abstraction, Avant-Garde, and Nonobjectivity
Objective: related as directly as possible to the sense of order of the known outside world. Non-objective: the sense of order of desire and aspiration resting, of course, on the kind of knowledge of the outside world, but because it is a personal vision it can have an absolute quality, and it is this which people call abstract.
—Myron Stout, journal entry, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1953
For more than a century critics have poked fun at what they perceive as an obfuscating tendency in modernist art and the language used to define it. In general, the modern period describes the historical phase that began in the nineteenth century as Europe and the United States became more industrialized. Relatively quickly, the Western world advanced in breathtaking leaps in science, medicine, communication, transportation, architecture, and other technology-based fields. Steam trains transported people quickly between cities, electricity surged into homes and businesses, and merchants and trade centers bustled with shoppers. As cities and urban centers expanded, human lives became altered by modern conveniences. People who lived in the modern era were affected by the changing pace of the times. Alongside technological advancements came developments in social sciences such as psychology and sociology. The general quality of life improved, but at a cost: crowding and a faster pace of life often led to anomie. As the objective world changed dramatically, so did people's interior lives.
Chronologically, "modern" can refer to virtually any person or event after the mid-nineteenth century. This does not mean that all artists living in the modern period created art that reflected or took account of modern life. Artistic modernism refers to expressions that are contemporary with the artist's time and in which the stylistic manifestation or formal characteristics of the object (the artwork; generally, a painting or a sculpture) reflect modern life.
Early rumblings of modern art occurred in Paris, whose medieval identity was revamped as the city was forcibly modernized in the mid-nineteenth century. The Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire reveled in the changing Paris and offered now-classic early definitions of modernity. For him, the modern embodied an entire mode of being. Baudelaire flitted through the city streets with a poet's eye, dressed in an elegant black suit, cravat, and top hat. In 1864, he defined modernity in a way that retains its relevance today: "By modernity I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable." Modernity tends to reject tradition in its embrace of the new.
Such carefree abandonment of tradition is problematic for many who confront modern art. Like a young upstart, modern art seems to cast aside all it should have learned, forsaking traditional beauty even as it rejects or parodies timeworn forms. Yet the modern era demands new approaches to the changing world. A hundred years after Baudelaire and an ocean away, a leading American abstract artist expressed this point of view: "It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique." That artist, Jackson Pollock, created paintings that stymied many Americans, whose responses ranged from tickled dismissal to outright irritation.
American Scene painting of the 1920s to 1930s gave way to a subjective, internalized art in the World War II era. A group of New York artists notable for their proximity to one another, similar political inclinations, meetings at artists' and drinking clubs, and exposure to a steady stream of European artists and theories forged a distinctive style in the 1940s. The postwar period in American art has long been dominated by Abstract Expressionism, sometimes termed the New York School. Every aspect of their lives felt vibrantly important, urging them to a level of unprecedented productivity. These artists-.Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman are only the best known of those who benefited from the cultural crucible they helped create—were absolutely American painters. At the same time, their success hinged on an inversion: it necessitated the abandonment of anything that mimetically resembled earlier American art.
Replete with ironies and counterintuitive aesthetic phenomena, the situation in midcentury New York was in many ways appropriate only to that particular artistic climate. And that climate permitted the artist's mark—the physical manifestation of a painted or dripped mark on the canvas—to reign. If removed from that historically specific context, the same mark would take on a different meaning. Both the expressionistic mark making and the subtly modulated color fields of the New York School reached Texas in the 1950s.
Modernity is associated with a time period; modernism suggests a condition, system, or philosophy. The parade of modernist movements, the isms of art—Realism, Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Dada (the most rebellious form of modernist art was purposefully not an ism), Surrealism, and so forth—demonstrate an engagement with modernity in new and frequently shocking ways. Modernism takes an active stance against traditional modes of art, something beyond merely making art and being an artist in the modern era.
Modernism indicates a school of thought, propagated through critical writings, discussions, curating, and collecting practices. In the mid-twentieth-century United States, a relatively small number of artists and an even smaller number of art critics had a disproportionately powerful impact on the period's history. The most vocal of these critics was the American Clement Greenberg (1909–1994), who developed and espoused an influential lineage for modernism that reverberates today. From his first major art essay in 1939, Greenberg identified characteristics common to modernist art. He noted that beginning in the nineteenth century, modern art began to be characterized by the self-referentiality of its medium. Each branch of the arts started to exhibit telltale signs of self-consciousness about its own boundaries. Modern painters increasingly attended to the qualities of paint itself and to the flat surface of the canvas. For millennia, artists (painters, here) strove to develop a pictorial space that extended past the two-dimensional limitations of their surfaces toward three-dimensional illusionism, masquerading as a window on the world.67 The Renaissance invention of linear, one-point perspective and the development of modeling served to magnify the illusion of three dimensions.
Greenberg focused on the qualities related to the form of art: composition, medium, color, line, and so forth. Qualities extrinsic to form (for example, the artist's biography, the narrative story of the artwork, the pasted bits of physical material in a collage) were irrelevant to his formalist criticism. His theories evolved over the decades, culminating in the major essay "Modernist Painting" (1960), in which he recapitulates his theory: "The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence." Painting's "area of competence" relates to the application of pigment to a two-dimensional canvas. In the modern era, three-dimensional, pictorial sleight of hand is no longer an appropriate form. Modern painting had been progressing historically, ineluctably toward the adamant assertion of its own flatness—its "area of competence." For Greenberg, nineteenth-century Realist paintings by Édouard Manet were "the first Modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted."
Such a notion seems deflating, particularly because viewers since ancient times have delighted in painting's illusory appeal. But, as has been mentioned, the sweeping industrial effects of the modern period brought about aesthetic changes as well. Here Greenberg borrows loosely from Immanuel Kant's Enlightenment philosophy: each discipline becomes self-critical, questioning its own limitations. Greenberg's theories have been digested, pilloried, and reconstituted since the 1960s, yet his influence was formidable for many decades, affecting countless artists, students, professors, and historians and shaping the very history of art. Indeed, it is Greenberg's modernism that has most profoundly determined what is published in survey texts and histories of American and European twentieth-century modern art.
One of many restrictions corseting Greenberg's modernism is that it severely reduces the possibilities for painting and sculpture. For Greenberg, the best paintings of the 1960s were thinly painted on unprimed canvas, because "staining" the canvas allowed the weave to show, thus emphasizing its structure and flatness. (His favorite practitioners were the color field painters Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski.) In the area of sculpture, if the medium of steel moves increasingly toward emphasizing its own materiality, bringing steel to the fore, and painting toward emphasizing paint (or the fibers of the two-dimensional canvas), where could those forms go next? The history of art solved that conundrum: it was no coincidence that just as Greenberg was defining the limits of modernism in the early 1960s, the postmodern era was already underway. Observers today are divided over whether postmodernism is modernism's true antithesis or its historical extension. However one chooses to bracket art of the later twentieth century, after about 1960 much of the art begins to question modernism itself. In a massive return of the repressed, postmodernism reveled in crossing categories by incorporating such things as mixed media, performance, gender issues, biography, and autobiography.
Since the 1960s, Greenberg's modernism has steadily been complemented by a substantially more heterogeneous modernism. Twenty-first-century historians tend to use a definition of "modernism" that embodies a variety of styles. For example, the current Twentieth-Century American Art (in the Oxford History of Art series), written by the American art historian Erika Doss, includes many modernist styles that Greenberg would have tossed out. The retrospective view of American modernism today incorporates figurative forms (such as those used by the Ashcan school), social forms (such as those used by the social realist Ben Shahn), and abstract forms (such as those used by the abstract expressionists). With historical distance, we reevaluate the earlier eras with fresh—or at least alternate-.eyes.
As artists sought to create new modes of art, abstraction was a logical path. In 1937, the art historian Meyer Schapiro underscored the profundity of abstraction in painting: "Just as the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry gave a powerful impetus to the view that mathematics was independent of experience, so abstract painting cut at the roots of the classic ideas of artistic imitation." Schapiro's insight into abstraction proved to be less influential than the linear teleology and obiter dicta of Greenberg.
The origins of "abstract" come from its Latin root, "abstrahere," "to draw out from" or "to exclude." But abstraction in the context of picture making is a challenge to define, because all art is necessarily an abstraction from an actual object. Any line in a picture that represents something in the visible world is abstracted from, or a reduced form of, the original object. For example, an extremely realistic painting of a wooden house is nonetheless an abstracted representation of the real house. An artist must make decisions about how to paint lines that will stand in for the lines of the eaves and windows, how to represent the color of the wood with pigment, and so forth. Recognizing this first fact about abstraction is crucial for understanding the more bewildering forms used in abstract art and for edifying those who shy away from severe abstraction, such as a painting composed entirely of unrecognizable subjects.
Although abstraction is a complicated concept, its more familiar connotation in the twentieth century is relatively straightforward. Twentieth-century abstraction tends to refer to paintings and sculptures that take liberties with the visible world or deliberately avoid any recognizable representation. In the twentieth century, the style was often denigrated by those who asserted that abstract artists have no talent. Yet along with idea that the art was unskillfully made was the (perhaps ironic) concomitant belief that abstraction was elitist, speaking to a select few. In his introduction to the monumentally ambitious Cubism and Abstract Art Exhibition catalogue (1936), Alfred H. Barr, Jr., notes, "It is customary to apologize for the word 'abstract,' but words to describe art movements or works of art are often inexact." He continues, in his avuncular manner, "This is not to deny that the adjective 'abstract' is confusing and even paradoxical. For an 'abstract' painting is really a most positively concrete painting since it confines the attention to its immediate, sensuous, physical surface far more than does the canvas of a sunset or a portrait." Barr's observation is at once utterly simple and counterintuitive. That sense of making a "most positively concrete painting" is how the best Texas abstract artists busied themselves over the next few decades.
Abstraction can include figurative abstraction, which takes liberties with visible form while retaining identifiable subject matter. For example, Pablo Picasso's iconic brothel painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) includes five figures easily recognizable as women whose bodies are composed of angular and geometric planes. Picasso never engaged strict nonobjectivity, even when he drastically abandoned traditional modes, as in his coinvention of Cubism with Georges Braque. By contrast, nonobjective artists deliberately avoid depicting the visual, "real" world. Because it originated at the turn of the twentieth century—a time of intensive technological, political, and social change—artists have prized nonobjectivity for its utopian promise.
In mid-twentieth-century American lingo, "modern art" was practically synonymous with "avant-garde," a term with military origins. "Avant-garde" refers to art that is "advanced" or "on the front lines." Avant-garde art was characterized, as it is today, by its rejection of the traditional past and by its experimental, revolutionary quality. The art of Texans at midcentury fits any conception of modernism. It has, like much of American art, been left out of the canon, partly because of the dominance of New York School painting and sculpture. Throughout this book, I refer to how Texas modernism fits both the narrower and the broader view of modernism in the period that coincides with the rise and establishment of the United States as an international modernist artistic force.