"This state loves a maverick," proclaimed Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman in 2006. "Always has."
Texans invented the maverick. According to the story that seems the most plausible, the term entered the American lexicon on the state's coastal plain in the mid-nineteenth century, when Samuel A. Maverick, then a resident of Matagorda County, accepted a herd of four hundred cattle as payment for a loan. As the stock was allowed to roam free and unbranded, unmarked strays found in the area were generally described as "one of Maverick's." The situation continued—and the name stuck—after Sam moved the cattle to his San Antonio ranch and then sold the herd, leaving the buyer to round up strays from several adjoining counties.
In time, explains David Dary in The New Handbook of Texas, "the term maverick came to refer to any living creature, human or otherwise, that goes its own way rather than acting as part of a group or herd." The word's application may have expanded beyond its original Old West context, but it's still the best definition I've seen of the Texas character, both historical and contemporary. It definitely applies to the individuals gathered in this book.
Active from the frontier era to the space age, these one-of-a-kind Texans inhabited the worlds of oil, ranching, real estate, politics, rodeo, metaphysics, show business, folklore, and art. Many of the folks assembled here might be seen as occupying that cultural niche of the American psyche known as the "eccentric Texan." A couple of them indulged their whimsy as prime examples of the archetypal "eccentric Texas millionaire." Most savored a quirky "sense of place" on far fewer resources. Many of the more inscrutable mavericks profiled here strike me as folk artists who worked in the wide-ranging medium of performance art.
"It's all right to lie about Texas," proclaimed Commodore Basil Muse Hatfield, "because it'll be the truth tomorrow." Indeed, the art of fiction has long been a primary element of the Texas character. The urge to make up a story in order to transcend a more prosaic circumstance (or for any number of other reasons) appears deeply woven into the region's moral fabric. Many, of course, would not view such expressiveness as lying. It is rather that time-honored tradition of stretching the blanket. Redecorating the facts.
To some Texans, describing an individual as eccentric can be just as offensive as inferring that the person is not on speaking terms with the truth. In 1958, for instance, a Houston matron wrote to Dallas Morning News Texana columnist Frank X. Tolbert, complaining about his characterization of Martin Parmer as the "eccentric old-time Texan for whom Parmer County is named."
"I come to a slow boil," wrote the Houston history buff, "every time I think of you calling poor Mr. Parmer, one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, an eccentric. What do you base this on?"
If a certain history of Livingston County, Missouri, penned in 1886 had been handy, the lady might have boiled more quickly upon reading that even nineteenth-century show-me-staters had considered Parmer "an eccentric character." Before heading for Texas in 1825, Parmer served in the Missouri legislature, where he informed fellow statesmen that he was "a Ring Tailed Painter [Panther] from Fishin' Creek, wild and woolly, hard to curry. When I'm mad, I fight, and when I fight, I whip. I raise my children to fight. I feed 'em on painters' [panthers'] hearts fried in rattlesnake grease."
Like beauty, eccentricity is most readily identified in the eye of the beholder, though it is perhaps even more difficult to define. Dr. David Weeks, an American neuropsychologist based in Scotland, attempted to shape a definition in 1984 after noticing that three of the four leading textbooks on psychiatry did not address the eccentric personality. The fourth text, Dr. Weeks wrote in his 1995 book, Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness (co-authored with journalist Jamie James), identified eccentricity as a form of "predominantly inadequate or passive psychopathy," and further stated that it is "usually difficult to distinguish the symptoms of eccentricity from schizophrenic manifestations."
Perturbed by such haphazard clinical observation, Dr. Weeks began analyzing the whims and ways of eccentric individuals in the British Isles and the United States. While acknowledging the subjective nature of his subject, Weeks' analysis of voluminous data collected in the study identified a number of traits shared by more than a thousand individuals, both living and dead, who were examined and determined to be, or to have been, eccentric. Interestingly, Weeks concluded that, in general, eccentrics were happier and healthier—both mentally and physically—than eccentricity-challenged folks.
The five most important and common characteristics identified by the neuropsychologist's study are, perhaps unsurprisingly, nonconformity, creativity, curiosity, idealism, and a happy obsession with "one or more hobbyhorses." To a lesser degree the eccentrics were generally found to be intelligent, opinionated, aware of their uniqueness from early childhood, and to possess a "mischievous sense of humor." The data also suggested that the percentage of "classic, full-time eccentrics" living amongst us is somewhere between one in five thousand people and one in fifteen thousand people. As a lifelong resident of a region that has proven such a fertile breeding ground for eccentrics, I would have estimated a much higher percentage.
One steamy August night in 1976, I stood in an Austin convenience store parking lot and watched a man pour large bottles of Coca-Cola into the radiator of his Lincoln Continental. The man wore a cowboy hat and a sheepskin winter coat, and he chuckled elfishly as he muttered something about his Continental's fondness for imbibing the soda water.
A snippet of out-of-the-ordinary activity framed in my memory, the replayed scene began to exhibit the formal qualities of an art piece. In its brevity and topsy-turvy reality, it possessed some of the characteristics of the sintesi, a performance form developed by the Italian avant-garde movement, active from approximately 1909 to 1933, known as futurism.
In Futurist Performance (1971), Michael Kirby notes that the sintesi form was "very short and non-naturalistic." The works "ranged in style from symbolist and didactic to alogical and nonrepresentational. In them can be found the origins of Dada, surrealism, and theatre of the absurd." Over the last several decades the form has also been one of the myriad influences that shaped the eclectic phenomenon that has come to be known as performance art.
Expressed in perhaps the broadest of terms, a fundamental objective of much twentieth-century art and art theory was to encourage a greater awareness of the omnipresence of aesthetic experience, to explore the thin and often vanishing line between art and life. After contemplating some physical or visual expression of minimalism, for instance, in the formalized, exalted setting of a museum or gallery, one might perceive the same sculptural richness in, say, the architecture of a highway overpass or hay bales dotting a field. Similarly, a choreographic dimension may be suggested by the most mundane of movements. Random sound, any sonic phenomena, might achieve the character of an organic musical performance. In an unexpected moment, a fractured narrative may offer a mirror to one's own fragmented perception of reality. An everyday environment might suddenly flush with a heightened, cinematic quality. And it's in that intersection of art and life, where the frame dissolves and encompasses all, that performance art is often created and perceived.
In her 1979 book on the subject, curator and critic RoseLee Goldberg asserted that "by its very nature," performance art "defies precise or easy definition beyond the simple declaration that it is live art by artists. Any stricter definition would immediately negate the possibility of performance itself. For performance draws freely on any number of references—literature, theatre, drama, music, architecture, poetry, films, and fantasy—deploying them in any combination." In a 1980 issue of the Los Angeles art magazine, Dumb Ox, artists Allan Kaprow and Paul McCarthy offered an encyclopedic list of the developmental sources of performance art:
futurism, Dada, surrealism, happenings, events, actions, body works, land art, conceptualism, environmental and action music, absurdist and structuralist theatre, concrete and action poetry, the dance of everyday movement, film, video, architecture, arts criticism... as well as outside art proper in radical politics and feminism, spiritual disciplines and rituals, education, spectacles, public demonstrations, sports, and the social sciences.
In the quarter century since those descriptive attempts were made, the concept of "performance art" has assumed a wiggly presence in mainstream culture—partly due to the medium's proliferation in the 1970s and '80s and to extensive media reports of the withdrawal of NEA funding from some purportedly shocking artists. Thus, it has not been uncommon over the last twenty years or so, when encountering someone or a group carrying out some unusual activity, for the observer to comment wryly, "Oh, that must be performance art."
Some years ago, for instance, a young insurance salesman from the Great Lakes area went to a Dallas Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium in Irving dressed as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. The man stole onto the field and managed to join the gals in a little cheerleading before security wrestled him to the ground. Previously, the insurance salesman had donned a professional baseball team uniform and hung out for a while in the dugout during a game. If this man had advanced his unusual hobby as a performance project—perhaps with a component of research on gender roles in sports—it would quite possibly be enthusiastically received and accorded a deserving credibility within the reference of at least some sectors of the contemporary art world.
Or take the case of Monsieur Mangetout (Mr. Eat It All), who appeared in Amarillo in 1979 to eat a waterbed as a promotional event for a local merchant. Mangetout was then scheduled to go to Tokyo and eat a helicopter. I was doing clerical work in a contemporary art museum when I discovered Mangetout and fantasized about the curators inviting him to come and eat some of the less appealing items in the museum's permanent collection as a performance event.
An episode in which mainstream media sought to gently mock (or perhaps to pay homage to) performance art was planned for the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin shortly before the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. In response to Sallie Jacque's avant-garde performance on the bridge entitled 100 Beds, John Kelso, humor columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, announced plans for his own performance piece, 100 Lazy Boys. The performance would have featured 100 recliner-potato males drinking beer and performing maneuvers in their Lazy Boys, but was postponed out of respect for the victims of the bombing. The art community has awaited a rescheduling ever since.
Performance, in the perspective employed here, encompasses everything from formal presentation in an art-world environment to actions, projects, and situations in the "everyday" world that somehow transport participants and audiences to an enhanced mode of experiencing the everyday. Citing the work of sociologist Erving Goffman as an influence, notably his 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Jens Hoffmann and Joan Jonas propose in their 2006 book, Art Works Perform, that "culture—in particular the connection between ritual practice, staged situations, and the overall process of civilization—is now viewed as performance."
Hoffmann and Jonas observe that in the last few decades several "common terms, such as 'body,' 'identity,' 'multiculturalism,' or 'gender' ... have been used repeatedly as a means of classifying performance-related work." Artists have tortured their flesh and had themselves shot as sculptural activity. They have posed for extended periods of time as the opposite gender, as invented selves in both fictive universes and the "real" world, as persons living in a previous century. Some have publicly explored their sexuality in manners both beautiful and grotesque. Others have ripped into raw, intimate territory and shared their naked humanity as political statement. A surprising number have felt compelled to inform the world of their fetish for condiments.
Much of the more compelling contemporary work involves several and sometimes all of the elements identified by Hoffmann and Jonas. The performances of Guillermo Gómez-Peña, for instance, resemble anthropological exhibitions in which Gómez-Peña and associates present themselves as part-Mesoamerican, part-futuristic border-crossers in "living dioramas," where they are costumed as "CyberVatos," "ethno-cyborgs," "transgender mariachi cyborgs," "Zapatista strippers," "El Mexterminator," "El Naftaztec," "Border Brujo," and other hybrid entities. Their work often explores the ironies of cultural tourism. "Through the performance ritual," Gómez-Peña explains, "the audience vicariously experiences the freedom, cultural risks, and utopian possibilities that society has denied them. Audience members are encouraged to touch us, smell us, feed us, defy us. In this strange millennial ceremony, the Pandora's box opens, and the postcolonial demons are unleashed."
The work of German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) explored similar cultural demons. In his 1974 action, Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me, Beuys lived in the René Block Gallery in New York for several days with a coyote. "The Texas wolfhound represents pre-Columbian America, which still knew the harmonic living together of man and nature, in which coyote and Indian could live together with one another before they were both hunted down by the colonialists," wrote critic Caroline Tisdall of the piece. As Beuys sought to establish a connection to the coyote and the animal urinated on copies of the Wall Street Journal, the installation-performance took on an anthropological context. "The represented environment," Tisdall concluded, "must effect the modern consciousness originally, archetypally, and beyond the times."
"Art alone makes life possible," Beuys stressed in an interview with Canadian artist Willoughby Sharp. "I demand an artistic involvement in all realms of life... I advocate an aesthetic involvement from science, from economics, from politics, from religion—every sphere of human activity. Even the act of peeling a potato can be a work of art if it is a conscious act."
The same impulses and perspectives are seen in the subconscious forces that drive artists we commonly describe as "self-taught," "outsider," "folk," or "vernacular." In catalog notes for the 1997 exhibition, Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the Twentieth Century, curator Lynne Adele notes that the 1980s and '90s witnessed a sharp increase in public awareness of "self-taught" artists. While noting that many artists work in a gray area between the "academically trained" (or those who perhaps were not academically trained but found inspiration and acquired ability in an art-world perspective) and the "outsider" artists, Adele established practical criteria for exhibition selections. The curator chose artists "whose work represents a unique vision and style developed on their own, uninfluenced by other artists, trends, or formal art traditions," artists whose works "document their unique and sometimes eccentric views of the world, and yet somehow speak to the viewer in a universal language."
That's largely the way I feel about Bobcat Carter, Governor Willie, Cyclone Davis Jr., and many of the other mavericks profiled here. Their "unique vision and style" compelled them to express "their unique and sometimes eccentric views of the world" in actions, events, lifestyles, and other forms that suggest the perspective of performance art. Bozo Texino and George Ray may be seen as performance folk-artists who more clearly utilized traditional visual arts (drawing and environmental installation). Others explored the nature of identity in intriguing ways that reaffirmed the Texas tradition of reinvention of the self, established by such marquee eccentrics as Bigfoot Wallace and Judge Roy Bean. Commodore Hatfield's love affair with the Trinity River could be interpreted as a land-art project. And I can't look at the magnificent frontiersman's suit created by Texas pioneer Robert Hall without thinking of the performance attire worn by Dadaist Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich circa 1916.
The political performances of Cyclone Davis Jr., Governor Willie, and Bicycle Annie seem to presage the art campaigns of 1976 California gubernatorial candidate Lowell Darling and 2006 Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. Darling—who carried a fat rubber hand on a stick, with which he shook the hands of California voters—proposed the elimination of all jobs and a thirty-thousand-dollar annual stipend for citizens "just for being themselves." To achieve such a budget, Reverend Ike, the colorful radio evangelist and prosperity consciousness pioneer, would have been put in charge of California's finances. All billboards in Darling's California would have been moved to one location that motorists could drive through like an animal safari park. (The artist ultimately polled some sixty thousand votes.) Friedman, of course, is the only candidate for governor in Texas history who sold an action figure depicting himself. The most difficult aspect of Kinky's campaign for many voters was deciding whether he was running in the "real" world or the "art" world.
The distinction can be even more problematic in subtler, more nuanced performances. And performance art can sneak up on a person in such a manner that the demarcation between art and life simply evaporates.
In the 1990s, I began to notice a woman repeatedly standing by the side of the road in Austin on one random day after another. Swathed and cloaked and hooded in fabric and other materials that draped her still figure with a strange foreboding, she stood with a blank, disturbing gaze that glared through passing motorists. I wondered intently about Why and What. There was a troubling presence in the countenance, a sense of alien expression. I felt oddly conflicted about making eye contact, gawking. Some days it seemed as if she were defying those who traveled the road to look directly into her harrowing visage. On other days, to look seemed a required rite of passage. At times, passersby wondered if the woman suffered from some misbehavior of the mind. At other times, she seemed to possess a power that transcended such menial differentiations.
At some point it dawned on me that I hadn't seen her for a while. And then one day she was there, in the newspaper, her obituary, a photo of that transfixing gaze. I was surprised to read that it was Helen Mayfield, an artist and dancer with whom I had been slightly acquainted in the 1970s when we had both been members of a loose-knit artist collective. The review of her life's course noted that she had worked as an arts and crafts counselor at Austin State Hospital, where she inspired the well-known, self-taught artist Eddie Arning to begin painting. Her encouragement led to Eddie's release from the institution, which allowed him to spend "the last 30 years of his life in freedom and creativity." And then I read:
In recent years, many university-area observers enjoyed her unique and ephemeral performances as a walking art form in splendid costumes which she had designed and constructed from ordinary materials... As beautiful and misunderstood as a wild mustang, she now runs free.