Joseph Glasco

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Every once in a while you see a museum exhibition that you know is being shown at exactly the right time in exactly the right place. “Joseph Glasco, 1948–1986,” organized by Marti Mayo for the Contemporary Arts Museum,was such a show In the first place, Glasco remains, at 61, an extraordinary abstract painter; his career harks back to the classic “15 Americans” exhibition organized by Dorothy Miller for the Museum of Modern Art in 1952, and his work was the hit above all else in the exhibition “Fresh Paint: The Houston School,” seen here and in New York last year. He is also clearly one of the premier artists working in Texas, though his work has hardly been seen here.

To see this retrospective was not only a delight for the work itself but also a perfect demonstration of another side of Texas art. Part of a tradition of abstraction that exists in direct contrast to the more widely seen figurative art made here, Glasco’s sophisticated and highly personalized form of Modernism needed to be seen in a museum context—a museum that had given equal weight only a year ago to the work of Glasco’s near-contemporary but far more famous colleague Milton Resnick.

This show clearly demonstrated that Glasco’s abstract collage work of the past decade is his strongest yet. He earned his early reputation in the ’50s with idiosyncratic figurative paintings and sculpture that showed the limited influence of artists such as Jean Dubuffet, yet carried with them highly personal and always haunting Surrealist overtones. This early work seems somewhat dated today, but it remains interesting mainly for what it tells us of the content underlying the abstract surface of the recent paintings. One striking image is that of two women standing on what might be a cobblestoned street, in Salomé, 1955. Both are barefoot, but while one is clothed in a dress, the other stands naked from the waist down. Typical of Glasco’s figurative work, these women are constructed in sectional and often disproportioned parts, like dolls hinged at the joints, and do not at all seem to refer to any observed world. They stare out into space, avoiding eye contact with each other or with us. Glasco’s horror vacui is already evident here; every inch of the painting’s background is filled by a bricklike pavement interrupted only by oddly disjointed geometric shapes that somehow complement the ovoid geometry of the figures.

In the context of such dense and puzzling early figurative works, the recent paintings appear all the more compact and haunting. Following their chronological sequence shows us that Glasco began moving toward abstraction in the mid ’70s (just as many artists were moving away from it), and that he took to heart lessons learned in the ’50s from the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Jackson Pollock, with whom he’d exhibited in New York. Similar to Pollock’s overall drip paintings, Glasco’s collaged, abstract surfaces at their best maintain a kind of rhythmical movement over a large surface expanse.

However, Glasco’s work stands out from his predecessor’s in some essential aspects. Because his method is one of overlaying his brushstrokes with cut-and-painted canvas, Glasco is making a technical synthesis of painting and sculpture similar to Henri Matisse’s in the late paper cutouts. Glasco applies a Pollock-like density of gesture to Matisse’s interlock of cutting and color, resulting in a dense, almost neurotic surface. Glasco’s horror vacui continues to govern his collage paintings, but now he avoids any narrative connotations, leaving us with only the intensity of feeling conveyed by his gestures.

These late works look like a psychological battleground, and as such they represent a vitality of mind and spirit that is very challenging to see. The incredibly good feeling in this show stemmed from the fact that, even after nearly 40 years of mature work, some of which has garnered fame and some of which has been left in obscurity, Glasco is only getting even better.

Susan Freudenheim