PRINT April 1985

Double Vision in Space City: “The Houston School” of Barbara Rose and Susie Kalil; William Camfield’s Houston Artists

ONCE BEFORE WHEN BARBARA ROSE predicted the future of painting, it was a critical scandal; the least important aspect of it is that her prognostication was way off, at least for the first half of the ’80s. The worst problem with her 1979 show, “American Painting: The Eighties,” may have been not only that Rose saw curatorial prediction as an appropriate, responsible art-historical method, but also that her style of curating involved implicating the artists in her thesis, regardless of sense or consequence. For Rose, as she stated in the catalogue of “The Eighties,” the decades of the ’60s and the ’70s were periods in which “the self-hatred of the artist expressed [itself] in eliminating the hand . . . ” Such a powerful wish to annihilate personal expression implies that the artist does not love his creation: The art of the ’60s and ’70s, she argued, was “practiced not out of love, but out of competition, hatred, protest . . . ” But, Rose continued, there were, through it all, certain artists—the ones she selected as stars-to-be for the ’80s—who “have stood their ground, maintaining a conviction in quality and values, a belief in art as a mode of transcendence, a worldly incarnation of the ideal” . . . “Their conviction in the future of painting,” she concluded, “is a courageous and constructive act of faith.” As far as the ’60s and ’70s went, Marcel Duchamp appeared to Rose to be the devilish sponsor who operated not through force but through guile. Art practiced in his tradition was described as “not only alienated but doomed.” “The tragedy of Duchamp’s life,” she informed us, “was that he could only study alchemy because he could not practice it. To transform matter into some higher form, one must believe in transcendence.”

Now, six years later, at the end of her period as first a consulting curator and then a senior curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Rose has left as a legacy to this city a new prophetic exhibition, “Fresh Paint: The Houston School,” co-curated with Houston critic Susie Kalil. Rose and Kalil chose 56 paintings by 44 artists and designated them a fifth major regional school in America (alongside Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco). A number of artists whom Rose and Kalil include in their Houston School arrived in Houston only within the last five years. Still, we are told that the city has influenced the work of these 44 artists along certain common lines, including “an unabashed pleasure in painting, a paradoxical humor, and a thoroughly idiosyncratic vision.” The “freedom from restrictive aesthetic dogma” that is said to go with living in Houston has led Houston artists, we are told, to a “risky sense of adventure” and a “freedom to feed their own highly personal forms of expressionism.” In other words, this “school” is characterized not by common stylistic elements but by their absence. It is defined not by its work—as were, say, Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism—but by its location; Rose’s phrase is apparently in the grand tradition of the “New York School” and the “School of Paris.”

The artists included in the show do not begin to exhaust the supply in this city of many artists. This reviewer would have liked to see a comparable array of other types of work from Houston, for there really is a scene here—not a school—which has begun to come out in the open but still waits to reveal itself in its full complexity. In the catalogue Kalil presents a workmanly history of the local scene entitled “Dynamic Pioneers: A Brief History of Painting in Houston, 1900 to the Present;” while Rose offers an essay called “Painting is Dead, Long Live Painting in Houston.” Rose's hostility to New York—for its fostering of the work of the ‘60s and ‘70s, among other things—is the leading theme of her essay; one shudders to think what its effect might be on the careers of these artists,m any of whom might like to bring their work to New York, some of whom have in fact done so already in addition to showing all over the country and in Europe. Do these artists really want to be described as “hostile to the New York art press;” as opposed to the influences of Duchamp, Donald Judd, and Andy Warhol? As “naive,” as caring for “plants, animals, and ecological concerns,” as dedicated to traditional techniques and crafts and, what is apparently first and foremost in Rose’s mind, as people who have studied drawing—all qualities that could as easily be ascribed to commercial or folk artists, or for that matter to student artists? Are they comfortable with their work being described as having little relationship to Modernism (that is, to art-historical context)?

The show is one in which the critic must review the curating before the work; the curating is so extravagant that the work can hardly be seen until one has blown away the cloud of claims that surround it. And when it is seen, it is found to be still without the frame or horizon which it is curating’s responsibility to provide. Above all Rose and Kalil have failed to present their Houston artists in a relation to the world. To say that these artists are gifted is not to say much. To argue that they somehow stand outside art history is not convincing. Kalil, as quoted in the press release, says that “because they realize no one is looking over their shoulders, Houston artists are free to explore various themes and styles, doing so with meaningful conviction, vitality and vision.” The subtext of this statement seems to be that art is better off without criticism, and that artists whose works are closely attended to by the art world cannot express themselves with “meaningful conviction, vitality and vision.” This position implies a large-scale rejection of art history—which despite certain important exceptions is primarily made up of artists active and recognized in their lifetimes—in favor of the romantic loner tradition. To have no one looking over one’s shoulder may make one breathe more easily—but does it really have anything to do with work? And is it any guarantee that one will avoid trends? Magazines, catalogues, and books do travel. To place these artists in such a limbo outside of history and awareness does not do them justice.

Entering the “Fresh Paint” show in the Miesian space of the museum’s Cullinan Hall is both shocking and stimulating. The visual clamor is deafening. Walking through it is like riding waves of sometimes discordant music. The ordering element that centers the whole installation is the breathtaking expanse of Joseph Glascd’s collaged Screen, 1983,with its nocturnal black side lurking as a surprise for the viewer who has already been convinced by its primary sunny side. This is the ultimate signifier of the show, and reminds us that there are currents of abstract art here that sprang from the New York root between 10 and 30 years ago and blossomed into forms that may not have precisely occurred in the central lineage. Basilios Poulos’ strong abstraction, Ornomenos, 1984, with its extremely attenuated hints of reference and iconography, belongs in this category, as does Dick Wray’s expert de Kooning-esque force field, Untitled, 1983, with its massive flow over the arch of the sky. These artists, and others including Gael Stack, Robin Utterback, and Richard Stout, would seem to be the most misrepresented by Rose’s celebration of their alleged separation from mainstream Modernism.

A second category is made up of sophisticated post-Modernist figuration. Bob Camblin’s wry thanks for his studio, The Studio, 1981, expresses quintessentially the artist’s relation to this ambiguous socio-economic web. (His “Wow of Silenz” page in the catalogue is the most creative use of the space each artist was given there.) Melissa Miller's bears and rams, in Flood and Territory, both 1983, act out their dramas in worlds without humans or human frames of reference. Jimmy Jalapeeno, in Two Nikes Leading a Bull to Sacrifice, 1982, quotes a broken classic frieze, which has the poignancy of time upon it, and upon its relationship with the newly spawned likeness of itself. Derek Boshier’s business—men, amid a computer, rifle, and a jet plane (in Corporate Business, 1984), stare straight at us as vases of flowers fall. Earl Staley’s Ship of Fools, 1978, sails on. A third major category—indeed, perhaps the largest includes the many content-saturated allegorical works: often showing Mexican influence, by such artists as Bert Samples, Malinda Beeman, Jeff Delude, Robert McCoy, and Bert long. The sophisticated, seemingly non-allegorical graphic sense of Lucas Johnson’s _Castaneda-like vision, in The Apparition (La Aparación), 1981, and the suggestions of irony in Kermit Oliver’s mingling of religious allegory and classical quotation, Who is This That Cometh From Edom with Dyed Garments from Bosrah?, 1980–83, put these artists at the periphery of this group.

To walk through the “Fresh Paint” show with the question of a school in mind is chaos. Everywhere are conflicting values which annihilate one another. The curators have not supplied a critical frame of reference that would render their decisions meaningful. They have relied instead on appeals to quality; but when no frame is in place an appeal to quality is an art-critical fallacy. It is like the attitude of a philistine who only needs to know what he or she likes. The exhibition includes wonderful, sensitive work, as well as work that would not stand out in an excellent student show. Anyway, much of the work is strong enough to assert its independence from the curating and express itself as itself.

The Museum of Fine Arts has paired the “Fresh Paint” show with another, more modest—but also more focused and more carefully thought out—exhibition, curated by William Camfield and entitled “Works on Paper: Eleven Houston Artists.” (This show was first seen in a slightly different form at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 1982.) The Museum has chosen to present these two shows very differently—lavishly for “Fresh Paint” frugally for “Works on Paper”—but the decision does not reflect the relative values of the two shows. Although the shows contain work by some of the same artists, their catalogues express opposite positions on the question of a “school.” Camfield writes that his exhibition “reflects the fact that there is no Houston ‘school’ or even a dominant movement. The best art is simply very and individualistic.” The point is to an extent merely linguistic: the same quality that leads Camfield to deny a school (individualism) leads Rose and Kalil to posit one (“freedom from restrictive aesthetic dogma”). The psychological distance, however, is immense. Camfield’s lack of projection seems eminently noticeable alongside “Fresh Paint”’s brash ambience.

Camfield’s show is in many ways the better of the two—not only is its selection more focused and coherent, but its curating is more considerate of a scene that is still really formative. Both shows reflect the unevenness of quality—indeed the whole raw, root-level uncertainty surrounding the idea of quality as an exclusive measure of esthetic meaning and worth—that infests the cultural scene here. Many of the finest pieces are in the “Works on Paper” show, where, in its comparatively quiet and contemplative setting, the work can actually be seen better than in the “Fresh Paint” room, where the visual ambience is like loud syncopated music. The exquisite illuminated miniatures of Dee Wolff, in “Works on Paper,” are the most radiantly metaphysical of the many would-be metaphysical works in both shows. Stack’s piece in the “Fresh Paint” show is sophisticated and mysterious, and her works on paper in Camfield’s little hermitage out back are even more so. Utterback, who also is in both shows, exhibits in “Works on Paper” a series of sensitive variations and approximations of monochrome painting in graphite, charcoal, and other media. Michael Tracy’s work is represented only in the Camfield show. Some of his most surprisingly beautiful works are here—photographic reproductions of Sienese religious paintings, which Tracy has painted roughly over with gold powder, creating a kind of blinding metaphysical thickness from which the hand or eye of a madonna reaches into the world.

Much of this work should be shown, and known, more widely. It can make its way in the world without the artificial and ultimately stifling protection of being declared a regional school. When a regional school is designated, certain developmental limits are tacitly imposed. Within such narrow identity boundaries a thriving scene can close up, and be induced to become a style. This artificially imposed identity is evidently intended as a compensation for artists who are supposedly located outside the flow of history. But no one is outside history in the global village of 1985.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.