It's not often one can stroll into a gallery and see a Robert Rauschenberg hanging on the wall, let alone an Ellsworth Kelly, a Frank Stella or an Agnes Martin.
But with a current exhibit of prints on view at his eponymous art space just below Washington Avenue, Hiram Butler is taking Houston on a journey through 20th century American art with some of the biggest names in postwar modernism.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by a rather show-stopping trio of Jasper Johns prints — two lithographs and a silkscreen depicting the artist's instantly recognizable flag.
"All three of these prints are in the collections of the Museum of Modern and the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Butler explained. " You can own works of art that are good enough to be at the Modern."
"For collectors, Johns is a phenomenal figure whose work is very hard to get," Butler told CultureMap on a tour of the show. "We decided to pull out the stops and show three . . . and they're all sold."
With a career that began in the print department at the Museum of Modern Art, the gallerist has launched more than 500 exhibitions since the 1984 opening of the Hiram Butler Gallery, which is housed on a shaded block of Blossom Street in a building largely designed by Butler himself. He credits Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., as his original architectural inspiration.
The world of prints, he explained, has been central to his work as curator, gallery owner and as an adjunct professor at Rice Univeristy, where he teaches a course on the history of printmaking.
"Frequently, galleries outside the main art centers sell what's leftover, but I don't do that," Butler said. "If I can't get the very best, then we don't sell it. One way of doing that is with prints and multiples."
Walking towards the Johns, he continued. "All three of these prints are in the collections of the Museum of Modern and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So, you can own works of art that are good enough to be at the Modern."
The walls of the gallery area to the left of the entryway are covered with works by modernist legends like musician-artist John Cage, whose three-foot-tall Global Village was created using smoked paper. A huge 1968 lithograph by Robert Rauschenberg titled Autobiography fills the north side of the room, while an adjacent wall features a 1990 print from a series of works by James Turrell, whom Butler represents.
Only days remain to catch Butler's exhibition of prints, which also includes works on paper by painter Terry Winters and minimalist sculptor Fred Sandback as well as pieces — get this — by iconic artists Sol LeWitt and Cy Twombly. The show is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Saturday, so get there while you can.