DALLAS and FORT WORTH, TEXAS — Is Valton Tyler, the 73-year-old, self-taught artist who lives and works in a quiet residential neighborhood in an eastern suburb of Dallas, one of the greatest living painters in the United States today? Another way of posing this question might be: Why is the work of Valton Tyler, one of the greatest living painters in the US today, not as well known as it deserves to be?
Both of these queries find some persuasive, positive answers in Invented Worlds of Valton Tyler, an exhibition that is now on view (through April 30) at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the sprawling city immediately to the west of Dallas, built by big oil during the first part of the 20th century and now enriched by natural gas. Fort Worth boasts some of the country’s finest art repositories, including the Amon Carter, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth.
Organized by Amon Carter curator Shirley Reece-Hughes, Invented Worlds of Valton Tyler brings together many works from a group of some 50 etchings and aquatints the prodigious Tyler produced at the beginning of the 1970s, when he was in his mid-20s, along with a small sampling of the artist’s unusual oil-on-canvas paintings, which depict otherworldly forms resembling futuristic machines, imaginary buildings, mutant robots, or anthropomorphic plants.
Tyler was born in 1944 in Texas City, southeast of Houston, on the Gulf Coast. His father, who did paint jobs on cars at an auto-body shop, was a skilled practitioner of his trade and a masterful mixer of colors. In April 1947, when Valton was three years old, an event that became known as the worst industrial accident in US history took place when a cargo ship carrying more than 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and blew up in Texas City’s port, causing massive fires and further explosions as other ships and a nearby oil refinery went up in flames. In numerous in-person interviews I have conducted with the artist over the past several years, Tyler has told me that the terrifying images and emotions of that day have stayed with him all his life.
During Valton’s childhood, the future artist’s father suffered from debilitating bouts of depression and was frequently hospitalized. The Tylers’ family life was fractured. As a result, when Valton was a teenager, along with his mother and sister, he moved to Dallas, where his older brother already had settled and found work as a draftsman for an architectural firm. In Dallas, Valton enrolled in a technical high school but rarely attended classes, preferring to spend long hours at the public library reading about art, including the work and ideas of various Renaissance masters, Francisco Goya, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. He did hand-embossing and layout work for an engraving company and became a student at the school that is now the Art Institute of Dallas, although, once again, he rarely showed up for classes. Nevertheless, he eventually passed a high-school equivalency exam and earned a diploma.
As Reece-Hughes points out in a brief essay in the attractive, slip-cased catalog that accompanies the current exhibition, Tyler, who was an enthusiastic maker of pen-and-ink drawings, used to leave such works “on abandoned street corners in the middle of the night, hoping the sketches would be taken; if they were, then he was inspired to keep working.”
However, in 1970, Tyler’s older brother advised him that if he were ever to be taken seriously as an artist, he would have to offer his works for sale. He showed a batch of Valton’s drawings to Donald Vogel (1917-2004), a Milwaukee-born, Art Institute of Chicago-trained painter. Vogel, who had arrived in Dallas in 1942, later founded Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden, the city’s first gallery specializing in the work of regional contemporary artists and such well-known modernists as Georges Rouault and Henry Moore.
Today the gallery shows the work of contemporary artists from Texas, including the painter Sedrick Huckaby’s explorations of matriarchy, history, and the African-American community, as well as work by artists from outside the state, like the Georgia-based painter Miles Cleveland Goodwin. (In recent years, Huckaby has served as the private painting teacher of former President George W. Bush, who lives in Dallas.)
Donald Vogel’s son Kevin Vogel, who now runs the gallery along with his wife, Cheryl, recalled, “My father immediately recognized that Valton was a prodigy and asked him if he had any interest in making prints. Valton did — he was always eager to explore and learn about new materials and techniques — so my father arranged for him to be able to use the facilities at the printmaking studio at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, even though he was not enrolled as a student there.”
In less than two years, Tyler produced the large group of etchings and aquatints that is the central focus of the Amon Carter exhibition. They have been culled from a complete set of these technically inventive, sophisticated works the museum acquired from David H. Gibson, a locally based photographer and collector. At SMU’s workshop, Tyler received basic guidance from its director at the time, the printmaker Laurence Scholder, who recalls that Tyler often created entire printing plates in single, hours-long work sessions. In Valton Tyler: Flesh is Fiction, a new documentary film I have made in collaboration with the cinematographer and editor Chris Shields (a clip from which is on view in the current show), Scholder informs Tyler, “The students would arrive in the morning and find ashtrays filled with tall pyramids of your cigarette butts — and sometimes you, too, sleeping on top of a table after having worked through the night. In you, they saw something they hadn’t seen before — a real work ethic.”
Locally, Tyler became known as a lovable eccentric. Looking back to the years of his 20s and 30s, he told me, “I smoked too much, I drank too much and I had a good time, but I also worked very hard. I lived to draw and paint. As soon as I finished one drawing or painting, I couldn’t wait to start working on the next one.” There was the time, the artist’s friends remember, when he covered his jeans with drawings and — worn out from what would later be recognized as episodes of bipolar disorder — checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, although he did not stay long. Then there was the period of several years, during which the artist ate only baby food; he feared that regular, solid food might choke or poison him.
With such titles as “Tickle Me” (1970), “Avenue 11” (1970), “Joy” (1971), or “A Salute to a Sphere” (1971), Tyler’s prints make visible a fantasy world in which strange architectural forms sprout like plants out of the surface of the earth, or where peculiar, organic shapes assume the sturdiness of monumental, if unclassifiable, architectural follies. In quoted remarks that appear on the exhibition’s wall labels, the artist comments on the character of some of these early works, whose subjects gave rise to the more rounded, expertly modeled figures (“my shapes,” he calls them) that have appeared in his paintings, which are characterized by superb illusions of three-dimensional form and depth.
Tyler not only believes that his art-making prowess is a gift from God, and that he is merely the vehicle through which such a divine gift must be dutifully expressed, but he also regards his drawn or painted “shapes” as somehow alive. Thus, rather than speaking in typical design terms about the compositions of his pictures, he says the forms he depicts within any particular image are “in conversation” with each other. Describing his 1971 etching “We’re All Here,” he stated, “These forms are at a family gathering talking and having a good time. Adults and children are gossiping and sharing their news.” About his large, oil-on-canvas painting “Give Us Sound” (circa 1993), he noted that “a design can be all about the shape of sound.”
The Amon Carter exhibition offers a few fine, medium-size and large-format paintings that clearly demonstrate the evolution of Tyler’s distinctive vocabulary of unusual forms, along with his skillful handling of color and oil paint. Sometimes he blends colors right on the canvas while fleshing out his “shapes”; he also uses a kind of wash-upon-wash glazing technique, although he is loath to call it by such a recognizable name, in which layers of semi-transparent color come together to produce his full-bodied subjects’ luminous glow. (Astute viewers will notice how effortlessly Tyler seems to employ relatively limited but balanced palettes of selected primary and secondary colors, sometimes throwing an earthy brown into a cool, blue-green range, or, as in “Sherlock Holmes” (oil on canvas, 1986), energizing an already powerful, black-white-and-gray monochromatic composition with a single brick-red line in the foreground as a representation of his strange landscape’s terra firma.)
“Valton’s work is unique in many ways,” Reece-Hughes said. “It’s not only hard to classify in terms of familiar modern-art categories, but also, for viewers who are familiar with what is known as ‘Texas art,’ with its landscapes and images of nature, Valton’s art is something completely unexpected.” If, indeed, memories of the Texas City Disaster of 1947 have stayed with the artist since childhood, so, too, Reece-Hughes observes in her catalog text, have his impressions of the local terrain. “[I]n most of his work,” she writes, Tyler’s “motifs are set against landscapes of infinite space that, one could argue, seem inspired by the immense distances of Texas’s geography.” Having spent most of his life in the coastal and north-central parts of Texas, Reece-Hughes adds, “Tyler’s familiarity with flat expanses of land explain the always present horizon lines in his paintings.”
In Valton Tyler: Flesh is Fiction, typically downplaying his own agency as the creator of his extraordinary compositions, Tyler says, “Gauguin said that the shapes will tell you pretty much what their colors should be, and that is sort of the way I feel. […] Some designs like to be just one color, and then some like to be mixed colors.” Of the images he conjures up, he also says, “Nothing has a meaning. Everything is just — shapes. I try to make them communicate with each other. […] Each shape has feelings.”
Although Tyler has been a prolific art-maker for many years, and although his work is fairly well known locally and regionally, it has not received the attention it has merited from a much broader audience. This could be because, for starters, it does not fall into any neat art-historical or art-market category, and if there is one thing many curators and art dealers seem to love, it’s slapping an easy label on an artist’s work in order to help position it — in their own thinking or, they may assume, in their presentation of a body of work to the public. In fact, Tyler’s work has sometimes mistakenly been called “surrealist,” but it has nothing to do with the surrealists’ preoccupations with the subconscious, the dream state, the psycho-exotic or the psychosexual; Tyler’s art is completely, unstoppably, the expression of his fertile imagination.
Also, even though, in the past, he enjoyed a working relationship with Valley House Gallery in Dallas for a couple of decades and saw his work presented in a handful of solo gallery shows in New York right through the early 2000s, Tyler’s art has always been something of a hard sell. Indeed, in recent decades, instead of working through galleries, Tyler has produced many of his paintings on a private-commission basis, an arrangement that has allowed him to create some of the largest-format, most ambitious works in his wide-ranging oeuvre. (“Give Us Sound” (circa 1993), a painting from the Dallas-based Albritton Collection that appears in the exhibition, is a good example.)
The tide may be turning, however. Fort Worth’s venerable Amon Carter Museum, which houses definitive collections of works of the American West by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, along with a treasure trove of 19th- and 20th-century American masterworks by such canonical figures as Frederic Edwin Church, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Stuart Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe, provides an august setting for this presentation of Tyler’s prints and paintings. They are, to be sure, strange, intriguing, compelling and truly visionary. And, for what it’s worth, in the company of such recognized greatness, unmistakably, they also hold their own.
Invented Worlds of Valton Tyler continues at the Amon Carter Museum (3501 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Forth Worth, Texas) through April 30.