Texas Abstract

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Lunar Mist
1953
Robert O. Preusser
Oil on Board
14″ x 28″
Harvell-Spradling Collection

The contemporary art scene in Texas is a vibrant one, with scores of exhibition venues located throughout the state, not only in the five big cities, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston, but also in a number of smaller towns. Less well known is the rich history of modern art in Texas dating from the late 1930s to the 1960s. A goal of the recent book, “Texas Abstract: Modern/Contemporary” for which I was lead author, was to bring together that history, and use it to provide a context for the contemporary art in the state. We began by examining the historic development of abstraction in Texas in the mid-20th century, and the varied movements that comprised it, while the second part of the volume is given over to a study of contemporary Texas abstraction. Texas-based writer Jim Edwards was enlisted to author short essays on each of the featured contemporary artists. What we found was a surprisingly rich history; not only does it tell us about the roots of the Texas art scene of today, but it gives a fuller picture of the evolution of American abstraction itself, which was far from monolithic.

A generation ago, the consensus among art historians was that American abstraction had been the domain of just a handful of artists in New York in the 1930s to the 1950s. However, during the last twenty years, this conclusion was deconstructed, as scholars, curators and collectors began to unearth evidence that abstraction was also embraced in several other places across the country. It may seem unlikely that Texas would be one of the places where early proponents of abstraction could be found, but it is a fact verified by the surviving abstracts from that time.

To discuss historic abstraction in Texas, we needed to consider four, distinct stylistic phases: Cubist-related Abstraction, Abstract Surrealism, Abstraction (a broader catch-all for a range of individual styles and expressions), and Abstract Expressionism. These tendencies run parallel in time, overlapping one another, though Cubist-related Abstraction and Abstract Surrealism appeared earlier, with Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism persisting longer.

Though Cubism appeared before 1910 in France, it would not be until the 1920s and ’30s that it effected art in America. Regionalism was the dominant style of the time in Texas, and across the country which led to the appearance of Cubo-Regionalism, a hybrid combining Cubism with Regionalism. William Lester, one of The Dallas Nine, achieved success with his Regionalist work in the 1930s. In the ’40s, his style began to drift toward abstraction. Lester abandoned traditional perspective and replaced it with a planar-conception of three-dimensionality creating exemplars of Cubo-Regionalism. Also noteworthy is his expressionistic handling of paint, which presages his abstracted scenes of the 1950s and 1960s. Another member of The Dallas Nine, Everett Spruce, likewise embraced a planar conception of pictorial space and moved simultaneously toward Expressionism. DeForrest Judd also did Cubo-Regionalist work in the form of semi-abstracted depictions of representational subjects that are vaguely Cubist. Arguably the Texas artist most impacted by Cubism was Cynthia Brants, who met Braque. She was part of the Fort Worth Circle, a group of early modernists who were consciously breaking with Regionalism.

The most advanced early abstraction in Texas was done by artists who took up Abstract Surrealism as early as the late 1930s. This style features organic shapes, lines, and all-over compositions; it was cutting- edge nationally at this time. The work of selected Texas artists may be compared to similar approaches taken by New York artists also working in Abstract Surrealism simultaneously. First among these vanguard Texas artists was Robert O. Preusser. He had been a student of Regionalist painter Ola McNeill Davidson, who drove him to Chicago so that he could study at the Moholy-Nagy Institute of Design, known as the New Bauhaus. He began to create completely non-objective work that was internationally advanced for its time; eventually, in the early 1950s, he left Houston to teach at MIT, with his mentor Gyorgy Kepes.

Sailboats
C.1949-1950
Michael Frary
Mixed Media and Oil on Board
16″x 20″
Collection of Charles M. Peveto

Another young abstractionist working in Houston in the late 1930s was Frank Dolejska, who, like Preusser, had been a student of Davidson’s, and who also became one of the first non-objective artists in Texas creating linear, all-over compositions. Yet another Davidson student, Maudee Carron, also emerged as an early Texas abstractionist, as demonstrated by her use of organic shapes arranged with a sense of spontaneity through the automatist technique. It would be no exaggeration to say that without Preusser, Dolejska and Carron, the appearance of pure abstraction in Texas would have been set back by a decade.

Gene Charlton, who later studied with Davidson, was, like the others, exposed to cutting-edge ideas in art. Charlton embraced automatic writing, creating enigmatic symbols. More committed to representational references in her work was Gertrude Levy Barnstone, another Houston painter. Barnstone’s approach to a nature-based abstraction is not unlike the work of Bror Utter, a major figure in the Fort Worth Circle. Another member of the Fort Worth Circle who also became a key figure in the development of Abstract Surrealism in Texas was Bill Bomar.

The Texas painters that pursued Abstract Surrealism, and later embraced Abstract Expressionism, were participating in national currents in advanced art during the 1940s to the early 1960s. Many other Texas abstractionists followed their own paths, creating work in a range of styles, with some being individual in the extreme. Fort Worth artist McKie Trotter specialized in using swaths of color, ultimately as an expression of pure abstraction. This is not unlike the approach taken by Houston’s Leila McConnell. Also in tune with the advancements in abstraction was Dorothy Hood, a Houston artist who spent many years in Mexico. Hood combines attributes of Abstract Expressionism, notably scabrous surfaces, with shapes rendered with hard edges.

Forrest Bess is a special case in the state’s art history with his aesthetic interests being unique anywhere. His expressionistic “visionary” work reflects his isolation, depression and mental illness. Though he lived in Bay City, he may be seen as being a part of the early abstract scene in Houston where he spent time. Interestingly it was Bess who was the first among the Houston Modernists to find national fame, showing frequently in New York during his lifetime with his reputation only growing in the decades since his death in 1977.

There were several artists in Texas who can be grouped stylistically because of their shared interest in geometry. Dorothy Antoinette “Toni” LaSelle, from Denton, is a prime example. She was exposed to abstraction through her studies in the late 1930s at Chicago’s New Bauhaus with László Moholy-Nagy, and in the 1940s when she studied with Hans Hofmann. LaSelle enjoyed a long career but is best remembered for her Constructivism. Two artists in Austin, Michael Frary and Donald L. Weismann, both employed free-hand geometry, as LaSelle had, to create their works. Abstract Expressionism was a distilling of European ideas, which had come to this country via the modern artists fleeing the Nazis before and during World War II. It is considered to be the first internationally significant style to originate in America. However, Abstract Expressionism can
also be thought of as the heir to Abstract Surrealism, with both styles featuring an all-over approach to composition, with automatism and spontaneity being valued. A number of Texas artists embraced this then-new sensibility in the 1950s.

Lapstrake
2002
Jesús Moroles
Fredericksburg Granite
22′ x 17′ x 5′
Photo: courtesy Texas Tech University, Lubbock

Ben L. Culwell came to Abstract Expressionism early on, after a period of working in Abstract Surrealism. Culwell found ready acceptance with his work having been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as by many art institutions in Texas. Having an obsession with dense compositions, in many ways not unlike Culwell’s, was Bill Reily, who was born and raised in San Antonio, and who spent most of his career there. While a student Reily was mentored by the aforementioned Spruce, who would himself adopt Abstract Expressionism.

In the mid-1950s, a new group of Abstract Expressionists appeared on the Houston scene, which, owing to the pioneering abstraction by Preusser, Dolejska, Carron, and others, had been the undisputed early center for Texas abstraction. The scene there was bolstered by artists who relocated to the city, and by those young artists who emerged during this time. An artist with a firsthand connection to the New York School was Ary Stillman, who spent most of the 1950s until his death in 1967 dividing his time between Houston and Cuernavaca, Mexico. Two young Houston artists who developed into Abstract Expressionists in the mid-1950s were Dick Wray and Richard Gordon Stout, each of whom would dedicate long careers to the pursuit of non-objective abstraction.

When these pioneers of abstract art in Texas were working and laying the ground work for contemporary art, abstraction was the most advanced current of the time. Today abstraction is one of a number of competing styles and sensibilities. By the end of the 20th century, abstraction seemed to be fading, but surprisingly, abstraction has caught a second wind in the 21st. Today Texas abstract artists are exhibited internationally and with the greater ease of travel and improvements in communication, they are now routinely participating in international trends.

One of these contemporary currents is Post-Minimalism wherein the standard features of classic Minimalism are appropriated, especially the use of straight lines, but is somehow tweaked with anti-Minimalist moves. In the case of David Aylsworth, for instance, an expressive approach to the paint is juxtaposed to the chastity of his compositions. Aaron Parazette’s pieces are related to Aylsworth’s, although more simply enunciated, creating non-repeating patterns that often produce the illusion of three-dimensionality. Leslie Wilkes does dense hieratic patterns of geometric shapes in lurid colors; her compositions are utterly formal, fanatically symmetrical arrangements of shapes.

Clearly, Expressionism has established itself as the main source of inspiration for contemporary abstract artists in Texas. A number of artists employ variants of automatism, which they’ve updated in various ways. Like the Post-Minimalists, Michael Kennaugh has a taste for straight lines, but being that he uses them freely in a thoroughly unorganized way, his work is much more within the concerns of Expressionism. The same kind of intuitive approach lies behind Sydney Philen Yeager’s otherwise very different work. Yeager uses short arching brushstrokes woven into complex shapes placed on the picture plane, set in front of a recessive ground. Pat Colville scatters shapes and patterns across the surfaces that have a similar figureto- ground relationship as Yeager’s works. However Colville’s forms are multifarious and disconnected, resulting in compositions marked by lively formal tensions.

White Net
2011
Pat Colville
Acrylic on canvas on panel
36″ x 46″
Photo: courtesy of the Artist and Moody Gallery

Artist Brad Ellis builds his paintings by stacking, assembling, and overlaying freely-drawn abstract shapes. Carried out in a rich array of colors, Ellis sometimes goes in to reinforce the shapes through outlining. There’s a scribbled quality to Ellis’ work, and that’s also the case with the creations by Ibsen Espada. Some of Espada’s paintings are a riot of lines, while others also sport geometric volumes, the product of his cutting up his pieces and reassembling them. For Howard Sherman, tearing and reassembling are keys to his highly three dimensional work that literally rises off the canvas panels. His mark making often has a graffiti character. The polar opposite of Sherman’s dynamism is the contemplative character of Liz Ward’s takes on color fields. If Sherman is interested in having his work rise above the surface, Ward embraces the opposite tactic, staining her compositions into the paper itself.

It is worth noting that the focus of “Texas Abstract” was not entirely given over to paintings; sculptors were also included. I mention this as a kind of postscript because Jesús Moroles, a master of non-objective granite sculpture, sadly died in a car accident just months after the book was published. Renowned for his large-scale, public artworks, Moroles was one of the best-known artists included in “Texas Abstract,” and his presence on the scene in the state is sorely missed. Certainly, sculpture is part of the picture, as evidenced by such diverse artists as Steve Murphy, Tom Orr, Margo Sawyer, Mac Whitney, and many others. Although the book features over sixty artists, many more could have been discussed as part of this ongoing, richly complex story.

“Texas Abstract: Modern/Contemporary,” by Michael Paglia and Jim Edwards, was published by New Mexico’s Fresco Books with a layout by SF Design, 2014.