This month's editorial series, True Grit: Houston Style, has sought to answer to what extent Houston embraces its Texas roots. To investigate how Houston artists have come to terms with their state's landscape, we went to William Reaves Fine Art, a gallery whose mission is to define modernism in Texas.
"We opened the gallery to convey a story about the evolution of modernism in our state," says the gallery's owner, William Reaves. He pinpoints Houston as the "birthplace" of Texas modernism for the community's willingness to display abstract works in museums and support award-winning artists as early as the 1930s. Artist-teachers like Emma Richardson Cherry and Ella McNeil Davidson had means to travel internationally and cultivated a generation of informed local artists like Robert Preusser and Frank Dolejska in the 1920s and '30s via institutions like the Art League and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Reaves notes that much ink has been spilt chronicling the first half of the 20th century in Texas art, but it was not until after World War II that the region received the necessary influx of knowledgeable artists to create an enduring community. Several local artists who stayed in Europe after the war brought back global influences. Paris was briefly home to a creative Texan expat culture, inculcating such minds as Herb Meers and David Adickes, who studied under the lionized Cubist painter Fernand Léger.
"This sort of French-looking, Texas cubist school that they created when they returned was very different from the bluebonnets people were used to seeing," says Reaves.
As the 1950s progressed, Houston became a "hotbed" for non-representational art, led by figures like Jack Boynton and Richard Stout (whose work from the era will be on view in an exhibition opening Friday). "A lot of this stuff from the '50s is new again because it's been kind of squirreled away in closets for awhile," says Reaves. "It comes off as fresh because there's a kinship with contemporary artists."
No doubt that international currents increasingly flowed into the local art mix, but did Houston artists ever completely turn their back on the Texas landscape?
"My impression is that it's a blend," says the gallery owner, citing Richard Stout as an example of an artist who has studied under other masters and blended that style with an impression of the state. Explains Reaves,
He paints in an expressionist style and has been informed by a lot of different artists over time. In addition, he was an art professor at UH for 25 years, so he's very aware of what's going on internationally. But Richard is also from Beaumont and his work almost always sees a landscape influence — a lot of coastal plains and rich atmosphere. Yet it is painted in a way that is informed by a lot of important artists from the New York School."
Similarly, Boynton and McKie Trotter presented work at New York galleries, yet their respective reductive landscapes and abstract expressionist works evince a horizon line evocative of the wide skies and flatness of Texas.
In truth, the link between Houston artists and their Texas roots is not a black-and-white issue. But to some extent, the answer is embedded in the cadre of works on view at William Reaves Fine Art. More than simply display and distribute artworks, the gallery presents curated thematic exhibitions that are accompanied by robust physical and online catalogues derived from research conducted at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Hirsch Library.
"The gestalt of what we're trying to do," says Reaves, "is trace a history of Texas art that may have been overlooked, but at its zenith, there's this beautiful, vital modernism."
The exhibitions Lone Star Modernism: A Celebration of Mid-Century Texas Art and Richard Stout: The Early Years open Friday, with a reception April 9, 5 - 8 p.m. A gallery talk will be held April 30 from 2 - 4 p.m. Both exhibitions are on view through May 7.