Book Signing: Texas Abstract
March 28 from 3 to 6
Beck Building
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
5601 Main St.
713-639-7300
mfah.org 

Around 30 major contemporary Texas artists from every corner of the state will converge tomorrow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to celebrate the publication of Texas Abstract, a major new survey of 20th- and 21st-century avant-garde painting and sculpture that was published in December by Fresco Books. Those gathering to sign books and answer questions include well-known Houston-based artists Terrell James, Pat Colville and Gertrude Barnstone, as well as painters from El Paso, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. (See full list at bottom of story.) 

The book was co-written by Denver-based art critic Michael Paglia and Jim Edwards, the director of the UAC Contemporary Art Gallery at Houston Baptist University. Paglia, an expert on Western and Southwestern art, writes a weekly column for Denver alt-weekly Westword and has also published a book on 20th-century Colorado abstract art. Texas Abstract tracks the rise of non-representational art in the state from its first emergence in the 1930s and ’40s among a small handful of painters, mostly in the major urban centers, to its widespread adoption by contemporary artists. 

Michael Paglia

“Even in New York, artists before the 1930s were very resistant to abstraction,” Paglia said. (New York’s famous Armory Show of 1913, which introduced many Americans to the work of European painters like Picasso and Duchamp, was roundly ridiculed in the American media.) “Stuart Davis would be the exception. But it was really the 1930s with abstract surrealism, and the 1940s with abstract expressionism, that really made abstraction mainstream.”

Texas lagged well behind New York in artistic terms, but it wasn’t long before artists here began experimenting with abstract painting themselves. In Houston, art teachers Ola McNeill Davidson and Emma Richardson Cherry introduced their students to the work of the pioneering European modernists, although their own work remained steadfastly representational. “When I started this project I knew a lot about Texas art, but I also learned a lot,” Paglia told me. “One thing I learned is that Houston is the most important art city in Texas. In the 1930s and ’40s, Houston had the most advanced scene in Texas, and today of course there’s such a rich scene.”

Although the book focuses on artists who were pushing the boundaries, that doesn’t mean they were representative of the broader Texas art market, which has remained relatively conservative. “One of the things that struck me in doing research is how persistent more conservative forms of art were in Texas at the same time that these abstract artists were working,” Paglia said. “A lot of artists who were taken seriously were doing more reactionary work, so these abstract artists were pretty courageous, especially for being in the middle of nowhere.” 

Today, of course, Texas is as plugged into the international art world as any other state. The latest developments in art anywhere in the world are almost instantly available online, and the ease of travel allows artists to attend biennials across the globe. Given our growing interconnectedness, what does it mean to be a Texas artist these days? Is there such a thing? Paglia said he struggles with that question. “I’m very invested in the idea that there are these regional centers with distinct identities. Then again, artists in the ’40s would have had to go to Chicago to see abstraction. Well, now anyone with an Internet connection can see the latest art, so that has a universalizing effect.”

Here's the most up-to-date list of the artists scheduled to attend tomorrow's event:

David Aylsworth, Gertrude Barnstone, Kristen Cliburn, Lucinda Cobley, Pat Colville, Brad Ellis, Ibsen Espada, Garland Fielder, Henri Gadbois, Linnea Glatt, Larry Graeber, Sam Gummelt, Roberta Harris, Jane Helslander, Jane Honovich, Terrell James, Michael Kennaugh, Leila McConnell, Jesús Moroles, Steve Murphy, Tom Orr, McKay Otto, Aaron Parazette, John Pomara, Sam Reveles, Robert Rogan, Margo Sawyer, George Schroeder, Howard Sherman, Charlotte Smith, Richard Stout, Lorraine Tady, Mac Whitney, Leslie Wilkes, and Sydney Yeager.

  

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