A ‘Vast and Varied Landscape’: 250 Years of Texas Art at the Witte Museum

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Richard Naylor, Exhibit Carpenter for the Witte Museum, walks behind Sarah in the Summertime by Tom Lea.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Richard Naylor, exhibit carpenter for the Witte Museum, walks behind Sarah in the Summertime by Tom Lea.

“Major and massive” are words befitting anything Texan, given the state’s obsession with bigness. Thus the Witte Museum’s description of The Art of Texas: 250 Years, its new exhibition opening Saturday, is apt for a show that gathers more than 130 paintings and sculptures in an effort to define Texas art from 1750 to 2000.

Artists recognized the vastness of the landscape, said Ron Tyler, co-curator of The Art of Texas. “The early [Texas] artists were overwhelmed by the space and reacting to the space,” he said, even in landscape paintings that were generally used as surveying tools for explorers, railroad companies, and the military.

One challenge for such a comprehensive exhibition was deciding who exactly fit the definition of “Texas artist” and what the term “Texas art” encompassed, Tyler said. After four years of research, he and co-curator Michael Duty settled on a workable solution.

Into The Trail (With Electric Sunset) is displayed in the lobby.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

End of the Trail (With Electric Sunset) awaits power during its installation in the Witte Museum lobby. (The sunset will be electric during the exhibition.)

“The final answer is fairly indistinct,” Duty said. “I don’t know that you can really define succinctly what Texas art is, but this exhibition does a pretty good job of showing the diversity and subjects and styles that artists have explored for 250 years.”

The show begins in the Witte Museum lobby, with End of the Trail (with Electric Sunset), 1972-1980 by Luis Jiménez, a psychedelic fiberglass take on the iconic James Earle Fraser 1929 bronze of an exhausted native warrior. Jimenez’s version features 11 skulls, referencing U.S. Army and militia kills, painted on the horse’s backside, wryly crediting the reason for the warrior’s exhaustion and upending the usual narratives of the settling of the West.

“We wanted to show a broadness of scope that people don’t always think of when they think of not only Texas art but Texas in general,” Duty said. “It wasn’t our primary goal to defeat stereotypes, but we certainly were aware of trying to present a comprehensive picture of Texas and Texas art that defied stereotypes.”

The show is grouped in themes, starting with the Vast and Varied Landscape, moving through the Peopling of Texas, to the era of Urbanization. The arrangement sets diverse approaches side-by-side, resulting in such stunning juxtapositions as Mel Casas’ taxonomic Humanscape #57, 1969, scientifically depicting the bluebonnet plant, right next to Julian Onderdonk’s lush, lavender-toned Bluebonnet Field of 1912.

“You wouldn’t normally see these artists in the same gallery at the same time,” said Witte chief curator Amy Fulkerson, but “if you want to talk about bluebonnets in Texas, here are the two quintessential bluebonnet paintings” and two quintessential San Antonio artists.

While the show contains plentiful portrayals of men on horseback, longhorn steer, cattle skulls, nopal, cactus flowers, barbed wire fences, and other icons of the region, it also presents surprises, like James Brooks’ J.F.K., an abstraction painted in 1963 in reaction to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

A 1935 Brooks painting hangs in the adjacent gallery, a realistic image of an early oil well, encompassing the range of approaches not only of one particular Texas artist but the show in general. Though Brooks was born in St. Louis and gained renown as a New York abstract expressionist, he studied at Southern Methodist University and the Dallas Art Institute and was given a retrospective exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1972, solidifying his Texas ties.

Artists synonymous with Texas include the Onderdonks – father Robert and son and protegé Julian – of San Antonio; Frank Reaugh, who led a Dallas school of American regionalism including Alexander Hogue; and the European-influenced Emma Richardson Cherry of Houston.

Other artists not normally associated with Texas are also in the show, such as Robert Rauschenberg, born in Port Arthur; Forrest Bess, who worked quietly at his own idiosyncratic vision in Rockport; and Georgia O’Keeffe, strongly associated with New Mexico and the Southwest.

Whistle Stop (Spread) by Robert Rauschenberg.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Whistle Stop (Spread) by Robert Rauschenberg

“We’ve tried to make sure that we’ve got representation between the genders, different ethnicities, that we really have embraced Texas art in all of its expressions,” Fulkerson said.

Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott agreed and emphasized that the catalog essays by various scholars also address the cultural complexities and infusions “that [are] so important to the tapestry of Texas.”

Some famous examples of Texas art did not make it into the show, Duty said. The 1940 painting Oil Field Girls by Jerry Bywaters and the large 1940 mural by Tom Lea in Odessa called Stampede are not in the galleries, “but everybody agreed those are paintings we have to pay attention to” and are included in the catalog.

The voluminous catalog is an important facet of the exhibition, Tyler said, expanding the compendium to 250 images of Texas art, taking “a much more in depth look at the subject” than time and space would allow in the museum. But “the exhibition itself is a visual feast,” Duty said, and since the Witte is its only stop, “if you’re gonna see it, you’re gonna see it in San Antonio.”

One Lea painting rarely seen is featured in the show: Sarah in the Summertime, a near life-size portrait of his wife painted from as photograph he carried with him during his service in World War II. She is depicted wearing a luminous summer dress, in a towering close-up with finely detailed trees and mountains in the far distance. Lea’s family has kept the painting close but agreed to lend it for The Art of Texas.

“It has great personal meaning to them, but its also just an incredible work of art,” Fulkerson said.

The entire exhibition, including its companion show The Art of Texas: In the Home, is in some ways a family affair, she noted. The smaller exhibition in the Rogers Gallery features works made specifically for the homes of collectors, who often supported the artists of Texas before they won recognition by museums.

Artists also painted for themselves and their families, and In the Home contains a 1909 gem by Julian Onderdonk, an intimate portrait of his family playing cards. Father Robert peers over his glasses at his hand, with sister Eleanor next to him.

Eleanor Onderdonk was curator of art at the Witte Museum from 1927 to 1958, during its formative years, and personally knew many of the artists on view. The museum sponsored juried competitions that gave several artists in The Art of Texas their starts, just one reason the Witte came to host this unprecedented collection of Texas art, McDermott said.

“It’s our DNA,” Fulkerson agreed. She added that the Witte will again host a juried competition for Texas artists, The Spirit of Texas, during this exhibition, modeled on the 1927-1929 Edgar B. Davis Competitions once held at the Witte. The works of three winners will be displayed at the museum, and 20 other top artists will be featured on an online gallery.

Fulkerson will speak to Onderdonk’s significant curatorial influence during the two-day Conference on Texas 2019: 250 Years of Art for History’s Sake, May 3-4 in the Prassel Auditorium (registration is required). Other featured speakers include catalog essayists Tyler, Francine Carraro, Ricardo Romo, and special guest Becky Duval Reese, known for her curation of major exhibitions of Texas art in the 1980s.

The Art of Texas: 250 Years opens Saturday, May 4, and runs through Aug. 25, accessible with the museum’s Adventure Pass admission.

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