Books

Tracing the Rise of Houston’s Art Community

Pete Gershon’s book about the Houston art community offers some simple advice: live around artists you respect and in a place you can afford to make work, even if no one buys it.

Puppet created for Anthony Braxton concert by Lawndale artists, 1982. Left to right: Robert Shuttlesworth, Mark Coughlin, Ed Wilson, Judy Long, Jack Massing, Kathy Wilson, Mary Jenewein, Kelly Alison, Bert Samples, and Jim Poag (photo courtesy Pete Gershon)

It was 1972. While the rest of the country sank into a recession, Houston was swimming in money from an oil boom. On the night of March 12, the Texas city marked its ascent with a new building for the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM). CAM’s young director, Sebastian Adler, outlined a bold vision with the opening of the exhibition 10. Stacked cages filled with pacing urban wildlife — “New York City Animal Levels” by artist Ellen Van Fleet — confronted visitors as they entered the barely finished museum. California artist Newton Harrison filled a gallery with plants under grow lights and a tub of worms in soil for his “Portable Farm. Outside, a trench was dug to house Vera Simons’s “Wave Transplant,” a five-horsepower motor attached to a wheel with a paddle meant to push water through the carved soil. Adler stated of 10 in Southwest Art Gallery Magazine (April 1972), “It’s not a safe, easy show, but anything less would have been insulting.”

Author and archivist Pete Gershon meticulously traces the craggy rise of Houston’s art community in Collison: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972-1985. The 425-page book is organized into 4 parts: the CAM, Women’s Caucus, University of Houston, and The Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The last section is the shortest, but each could be a stand-alone book.

The formation and evolution of the CAM takes up about half of Collision, as Gershon asserts that it was central to Houston’s arts journey. That spring gala in 1972 had Houstonians talking, but praise was scarce. Donors were confused or disappointed, the publicity was bad, and the museum’s board members were embarrassed. CAM employees endured the criticism, as well as Van Fleet’s rats and cockroaches, which escaped their confines, and the smell of felines dying of illness. Vera Simons’s wave machine never operated properly, producing only periodic ripples, and Harrison’s “Portable Farm” soon started growing marijuana plants, seeded by a visitor.

Patrons, artists, and dignitaries gather at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston at the 1972 opening reception for 10. Works by Richard Van Buren, Rober Grosvenor, Ellen Van Fleet, and Newton Harrison are visible (photo by Blair Pittman, Houston Public Libraries)

Ann Holmes of the Houston Chronicle argued the museum’s role was to test the boundaries of contemporary art, that “the Try, more than the Success or the Failure” should be evaluated. God may love a trier, but donors don’t, and Adler resigned by the end of the year. If Adler’s curatorial courage was derailed by execution, how would an art exhibition by unknown locals moonlighting as security guards and bookkeepers be judged? James Harithas did just that when he arrived as director of CAM in 1973.

Harithas was told by colleagues that a move to Houston was too far from the mainstream art world and would be career-ending. Yet he wrote artist and friend Thomas Downing that he found the city’s atmosphere to be a frenzy of curiosity that fulfilled a need to think of art “as a fundamental activity rather than a geopolitical hustle.” Harithas’s first show was Art of the Lower Crust. It featured the work of CAM staff members, such as Mike Hollis and Andy Feehan, the latter a student at University of St. Thomas at the time. He followed it with a major exhibition of a dozen mostly unknown Texas artists in 12/Texas (1974). The Rice University student newspaper observed that visitors wandered with amazement and enthusiasm for art developments in the state. The show was a success, enjoying 1,500 visitors at its opening, the largest crowed to visit the museum in a single night; this prompted Harithas to tell Texas Monthly, “I’m not competing with what’s happening throughout the country. The rest of the country is competing with me.”

James Surls and John Alexander at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, in 1975 (photo by Janice Rubin, courtesy of Pete Gershon)

Harithas looms large throughout the text, but no figure is too minor for inclusion when Gershon’s stories wander away from the CAM. For example, when the museum shuttered for two years from flood damage in 1975, the Houston Museum of Modern Art was launched by Sandra Stevens and Bill Petty. Every show of the grassroots effort, including its attendees and missteps, is detailed. Gershon seems determined to relinquish some readability in order to produce a complete record of a place. The book is both daunting and humbling in its impressive scope.

Collision was conceived in 2012, when the author visited artist Bert L. Long Jr. as a “legacy specialist” for the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy Project. When Long died in 2013 of pancreatic cancer, Gershon confesses in the book, “almost every day I thought of another question I had neglected to ask him.” As a result, Gershorn enrolled in a library science program, concentrating in archives with the objective of documenting Houston’s art history. The book proves Gershon’s facility with archives. He uncovers gems like the time Harithas got in a fist fight with Chicano muralist Leo Tanguma on a loading dock, the weed stash Julian Schnabel kept in a museum electrical closet, and the time the CAM air conditioning failed, turning Antoni Miralda’s 1977 installation of 4,000 loaves a bread into drunken food fight, with loaves launched like footballs.

Luis Jiménez, “Man on Fire” (1969), fiberglass in acrylic urethane resin on painted wood fiberboard base. Jiménez exhibited artwork several times at CAM under Harithas’s leadership (image courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Anchoring the delightful jostling between players in the art scene is a compelling subtext about how artists sustain their practices despite donors’ demands for masters on the wall or curators echoing coastal trends. “More about local vitality than about quality, it was the kind of show that made a lot of work look better than it probably was and evened out the odds against the rougher diamonds,” wrote Lucy Lippard for Art in America in 1978. She was evaluating CAM’s major exhibition Fire, featuring 85 artworks by Texas artists. Lippard’s measured observation in the book is accompanied by a Houston Post review, which applauded the show’s diversity and lack of a dominant aesthetic. Gershon repeats this exercise of juxtaposing consistently lukewarm national reception with local reviews.

The regionalism in Collision feels familiar to me, from my current home in Denver. The stories of every artist attending every opening, art spaces burning brightly but briefly, and institutions integrating local artists with mixed success reflect both 1970s Houston and many contemporary American cities. Houston’s warning to other metropolises growing in exciting and unwieldy ways is that validation from New York will never arrive. It also proves that while some collectives, alternative spaces, and other art and performance efforts feel like they are spinning in place now, they can eventually take root, gain ground, and contribute to the development of a unique art center.

At one point, Gershon time travels to the present, to a gathering of veteran Houston artists around a dinner table. They offer some simple advice: live around artists you respect and in a place you can afford to make work, even if no one buys it.

I wish every city a Pete Gershon to document its art scene.

Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972-1985 by Pete Gershon (2018) is published by Texas A&M University Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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