Modernism in Houston
Alison de Lima Greene
Why did Modernism come to Houston? Most authors who attempt to answer this question simply celebrate the individual histories of patrons and the institutions they founded.1 Uncovering the shared (and at times rival) endeavors of a circle of passionately committed patrons, artists and museum professionals, however, tells a more interesting story of when and why Modernism was promoted not only in this region but also in America.
In the late 1940s, Marius de Zayas wrote an extended letter to Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, titled How, When, and Why Modern Art Came to New York. In it, de Zayas provided a remarkable diary of how and when (leaving the why implicit) modern art arrived on U.S. shores. He described the Armory Show as follows: It brought to New York all that could be known of modern art in Europe, and it also brought New York to the mind of modern artists. Marius de Zayas later added: It must be remembered that the majority of the New York art public started its education in modern art, at the beginning of this century, from zero.2 The same could be said for Houston. Indeed, much as the New York vanguard looked towards Europe for direction, so too did Houston come to look towards New York for direction, and in time, New York returned its regard.
In the years before World War II, Houstonthen known as the Magnolia City of the Southcast a distant and slightly xenophobic eye towards New York and the new art from abroad. Stella Hope Shurtleff, in her 1926 chronicle of the progress of art in Houston, briefly recounts what happened in the larger American scene: In 1912 DuChamps [sic] Nude Descending the Stairs descended upon us. But the most startling art event in our history occurred in 1913, when the exhibition by Art Revolutionarists was held in the Armory in New York, and Modernism planted itself upon American soil.3 No such revolution was to occur in Houston, however, for many years. A young city, Houston lacked a formal museum until 1924, and very few of its patrons supported art that could be regarded as avant-garde. Indeed, although the museum hosted a number of exhibitions titled modern, as in most of the literature of the period, this term referred simply to art that had been produced in the recent past. Under the stewardship of founding director James Chillman, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston acquisition and exhibition programs remained largely local in focus, and monographic exhibitions that traveled to Houston looked no further forward than the work of George Bellows, Rockwell Kent and Ernest L. Blumenschein. Surveys tended to be modest in scale and mixed in quality, although Modern Mexican Art (1927), Modern French and American Art (1928) and Post-Modern French Paintings (1929) introduced Houston to works by Diego Rivera, Jan Matulka, Maurice de Vlaminck, Amde Ozenfant and Pablo Picasso, among others.
The MFAHs conservatism was not unusual for its time. Few other institutions in the United States offered a more advanced definition of Modernism. Exceptions were few and scattered and largely the result of a single collectors vision: Albert C. Barnes threw open his doors to a skeptical public in Merion, Pennsylvania, in 1925; A. E. Galletins Gallery of Living Art occupied a modest space in New York Universitys Washington Square campus after 1927; and Duncan Phillips welcomed the public to his collection in 1930 in Washington, D.C.4 It wasnt until 1929 that New Yorks Museum of Modern Art opened. While the canon of twentieth-century Modernism developed by Barr is now an integral (if debated) part of American art history, MoMAs inaugural exhibition was dedicated, at the wish of its trustees, to nineteenth-century painters: Paul Czanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh.
One Houston collector made a pioneering and spirited effort to assemble an important overview of modern works on paper: Ima Hogg. While best known for her celebrated ensemble of Americana, currently housed in Bayou Bend in Houstons River Oaks, Miss Hogg was an educated connoisseur of contemporary art from Europe, the United States and Mexico. On trips to Paris, Munich and Berlin in 1929 and 1930, Miss Hogg sought out drawings, watercolors, etchings, and lithographs by such artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Vasily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein. Among the American and Mexican artists she collected were Arthur B. Davies, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Roberto Montenegro and Jos Clemente Orozco. These works were loaned to the MFAH on several occasions, and in 1939 Miss Hogg donated the majority of this segment of her collection to the museum.
The Hogg gift came at a critical moment in the larger promotion of Modernism in America. It was during this time that an ever-increasing wave of intellectuals and artists came to the U.S. as refugees from Europe. American universities and museums expanded to meet this influx. The year 1939 saw in New York the opening of MoMAs Philip L. Goodwin and Edward D. Stone building on West 53rd Street and the inauguration of The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on East 54th Street. A more populist embodiment of Modernism was encapsulated by the New York Worlds Fair of that year, an unabashed and optimistic salute to the future. Barrs evangelical mission to support modern art flourished in this environment; through MoMA publications and exhibition programs, Barr cannily presented Modernism as less of a revolutionary departure than a natural and positive part of the evolution of art and society. MoMAs traveling program was particularly effective. As Alice Goldfarb Marquis has noted, within ten years Barr had sent ninety-one exhibitions on the road [to] 1,363 places.5
Houstons emerging support of Modernism can be traced directly to Barrs influence, as well as to Miss Hoggs generosity. In 1933 Modern Painting: Reproductions in Colorprint and in 1937 Drawings and Prints from the Permanent Collection of the Museum of Modern Art were hosted by the MFAH. These were MoMAs first traveling exhibitions to come to Houston, establishing a tradition that has been upheld through the present.6 In 1938 Chillman looked even further afield and brought from London Houstons first exhibition of nonobjective art, which included examples by Alexander Calder, Lszl Moholy-Nagy and Piet Mondrian. In response, artist Robert Preusser wrote in a letter to Chillman published in The Houston Post: The present show of abstract painting and sculpture has arisen in me such a tremendous stimulation that I am prompted to voice my thanks to you for bringing this most vital exhibition to Houston. I have sat up late hours discussing the show with other active artists of Houston, and we agree upon its value to us as young painters.7 Furthermore, the year 1939 saw the MFAH on firmer financial ground. The museum resumed publication of its annual report, which had been suspended in 1931, and attracted several major gifts such as Paul Manships 1918 Hercules Upholding the Heavens donated by Mrs. Mellie Esperson.
During the late 1930s, Houston itself became more receptive to Modernism and contemporary art outside of a museum setting. In 1937 Carol and Robert Straus, for example, commissioned Houston architect John Staub to create a sleekly modern home in River Oaks to complement their growing collection of modern art; in 1939 they added a pool house realized in the new International Style. The University of Houston established an art department in 1939the first in the city. Thus, while modest in comparison to New York, by the end of the decade, the Houston art community had begun to assume a more cosmopolitan outlook.
This brief era of openness halted with the entry of the United States into World War II. As in many museums across the country, the MFAHs European exhibitions all but ceased, American art was celebrated with more patriotism than insight, and only limited presentations of Mexican and Latin American art served to point beyond U.S. borders. In 1942 The Houston Press advocated melting down the MFAHs Manship for artillery,8 and by the mid-1940s modern art had been relegated to the MFAHs lounge rather than its painting galleries.9 Indeed, as late as 1950 abstract painting was dismissed by a visiting museum director as The insane scrawlings of a 2-year-old!10
It was in this climate that the Contemporary Arts Association came into being in 1948. Among the founders were artists Robert Preusser, Frank Dolejska and Edward Schiwetz; architect Karl Kamrath; and collectors Robert Straus and Alvin Romansky. Frustrated by the MFAHs almost exclusive emphasis on the art of the past, they sought to support not only the visual arts of their time but also literature, science and music. The collective nature of this endeavor was emphasized by the use of the word Association, although the organization subsequently embraced Contemporary Arts Museum as the name for its physical plant. The CAAs inaugural exhibition, organized by Preusser, confidently announced This Is Contemporary Art. Held in MFAH galleries that autumn, the exhibition reflected Preussers training at the Institute of Design, Chicago (popularly known as the New Bauhaus), and included work ranging from Joan Mir to Charles Eames. A second installation at the MFAH quickly followed: L.Moholy-Nagy: Memorial Exhibition. Over the following year, the CAA drew to its board Preston Bolton, Nina Cullinan, Walter Farmer, Susan McAshan and John de Menil and opened its own venue near downtown Houston in a radically conceived triangular building designed by Kamrath.
Frank Freeds Opening Night at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 1954, wittily captures the social dynamic of the CAA at this time, and many of the abovementioned board members can be identified in this gathering of patrons and artists.11 Early exhibitions of the CAA were generous in scope, but they also reflected the factions that inevitably arise among large and largely egalitarian boards. Preussers Bauhaus ideal was further expressed by Lyonel Feininger (1950) and Design in Nature (1952); John and Dominique de Menil ambitiously brought to Houston Vincent van Gogh (1951) and Max Ernst (1952); Alvin Romansky presented Rufino Tamayo (1952); Eleanor and Frank Freed curated Mexican Painting and Drawing (1953); and Herbert and Ava Jean Meers organized the first exhibit dedicated to African-American artists seen in Houston, Painting-Sculpture-Ceramics by the Students and Faculty of Texas Southern University (1953). The CAA also sought notable exhibitions from other institutions and established partnerships with the American Federation of Arts, Bostons Institute of Contemporary Art, and MoMA. In 1953, the CAA followed MoMAs example and instituted an art rental service, only the second such program in the country. At the same time, the CAA board debated whether it should become a collecting institution.12
Among the CAA board members, it was John de Menil and his wife Dominique who had the boldest vision for both the institution and the city. French migrs and residents of Houston since 1941, the de Menils were sophisticated and adamant advocates of modern art. In 1945, after meeting Father Marie-Alain Couturier, they began to collect in depth, and in 1948 they brought former MoMA curator and architect Philip Johnson to Houston to build their River Oaks residence. A decade later, Johnson designed and built the major part of the University of St. Thomas with de Menil patronage. It was John de Menil, moreover, who pushed the CAA away from the collectivist ideals of the Bauhaus towards what may be called high Modernism. He frequently acted as a liaison between the CAA and MoMA and, at the same time, urged the MFAH to dedicate more space to contemporary painting and sculpture.
Indeed, by the early 1950s both the MFAH and the city of Houston were poised to embark on a new era. Houston, which had donned a fresh postwar identity of the Petroleum Capitol, was growing exponentially, and the MFAH launched a similarly ambitious expansion scheme. Modernism, as Barr had predicted, now served as an ideal that could represent the best not only in individual expression but also in design and civic architecture. In 1952 Camilla Davis and John H. Blaffer donated funds to add a wing to the east side of the MFAH. The commission was awarded to New York architect Kenneth Franzheim, who also drew up a new master plan for the museum. As Stephen Fox has noted, Franzheims proposal was clearly indebted to the example of Goodwin and Stones streamlined and functionalist Museum of Modern Art. While the MFAH board only chose to build Franzheims proposal for the Blaffer wing, the urbane Modernism envisioned in his master plan offered an important alternative to the antique temple of art aesthetic that defined the museums original structure and spirit.13
In 1953 the Museum announced the appointment of Lee Malone to succeed James Chillman as the MFAHs first full-time director. While a specialist in Italian Renaissance, Malone was unequivocal in his support for modern art. Aline B. Louchheim, writing for The New York Times in December of that year, commented on the rifts that divided the Houston art community at the time of his arrival:
In Houston, a three-cornered situation keeps the art world at a heated pitch. One, there is the museum, controlled by a board whose membership like that of Eastern institutions is primarily of persons of power and prestige, which had for a long time shown little interest in modern art. Two, there is the splinter group, the Contemporary Arts Association, an ardent group of laymen, artists, architects and designers, aggressively democratic. [T]hey built their own building and they put on their own ambitious and often ingenious shows (which are, in fact, usually the best shows of modern art originated in the region). Third, there is the schism within the CAA, based on many factors: personality clashes, fear of domination by an individual, differing philosophies of professionalism versus cooperative endeavor, European versus American art.14
Shortly after Louchheims article appeared, Nina Cullinan, active on the board of both the MFAH and the CAA, came up with a sweeping proposal: she offered to underwrite a major expansion of the MFAH that would also provide a venue for the CAA. Within weeks, the MFAH and the CAA agreed upon a building committee to steer the project, consisting of Malone, Anderson Todd, Hugo V. Neuhaus, Preston Bolton and Richard J. Gonzlez.15 Louis Kahn and John Gaw Meem were among the architects given initial consideration, but by February 1954 the committee focused on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at Todds recommendation. This commission came at a turning point in Miess career. Mies had just undertaken New Yorks Seagram Building project, which, along with Gordon Bunshafts Lever House (1950-52), established Modernism as the dominant idiom of postwar urban architecture. He had also for many decades enjoyed a warm relationship with the Museum of Modern Art, which kept his work in the publics eye through both exhibitions and publications.16 Mies presented a master plan to the Houston trustees in June 1954, and by November the commission was formalized.
Cullinans goal of uniting the CAA and the MFAH was in part abandoned as plans went forward for the Mies addition. The MFAH board was highly territorial, and, wary of losing its identity within the larger organization, the CAA ultimately chose to maintain its independence. In December 1954, the association moved the Kamrath building to the 6900 block of Fannin, and as The Houston Chronicle reported: Describing themselves as true followers of Modern Art, some members leaped into their waiting cars and followed [the building] and the din of the incessant horn blowing, which probably roused the Warwick Hotel guests about 1:30 a.m., was merely the salute of one Museum as it passed another Museum in the night.17 The building was expanded to increase exhibition space and a sculpture court was added as well.
In September 1955 Jermayne MacAgy came to Houston from San Francisco to be the CAAs first professional director, marking the institutions new maturity and confirming its independence. During her tenure, the collective ethos originally upheld by the CAA board was replaced by a single and extraordinary vision. Over a four-year span MacAgy mounted twenty-nine exhibitions, which both responded to and challenged the MoMA canon of Modernism. Her presentations of Abstract Expressionist painters, for example, closely followed Dorothy Millers Americans exhibition series. Like Barr, MacAgy also proposed a lineage for Modernism that embraced Goya, utilitarian objects and African art. MacAgys seemingly intuitive juxtapositions, however, came out of a tradition of Dada and Surrealism rather than the formal rationalism upheld by Barr. As Dominique de Menil recalled: Her exhibitions seemed to prove Marcel Duchamp right. The spectator completes the creation. Each of her installations produced an atmospheric miracle.18
Cullinan Hall, the core segment of Miess master plan, was inaugurated on October 10, 1958: the steel and glass structure irrevocably reshaped both the Houston art community and local standards of urban architecture. Instead of the functionalist Modernism seen in MoMAs 1939 building, Mies gave Houston a highly theatrical stage for arta soaring space that demanded a reevaluation of scale and purpose. Unfortunately, Malones inaugural exhibition, a survey of the figure in the history of art titled The Human Image, was diminished by poorly designed partitions and platforms that took little advantage of Miess grand enclosure, and Malone left the MFAH staff the following year. The second installation, in keeping with Cullinans original vision, was turned over to the CAA, and MacAgy rose to the occasion with the still-celebrated survey of tribal art Totems Not Taboo.
This was MacAgys parting salvo as director of the CAA. With a board unable or unwilling to meet the budget her installations demanded, MacAgy joined the staff of the University of St. Thomas in 1959. There, through the patronage of the de Menils (who had stepped back from the CAA with MacAgys departure), she chaired the Art Department and continued to create innovative, if somewhat more modest, exhibitions. At the invitation of the MFAH, MacAgy staged two more exhibitions in Cullinan Hall: From Gauguin to Gorky (1960) and Ren Magritte (1961). Robert C. Morris succeeded MacAgy as administrative director of the CAA, and over the following decade the CAAs program shifted to give greater emphasis to the performing arts and film. One final CAA exhibition was installed in Cullinan Hall during this transitional period, the 1960 Architectural Graphics presentation curated by board members Jim Culberson and William Pena.
It wasnt until the appointment of James Johnson Sweeney as director of the MFAH in 1961 that Modernism truly came into its own in Houston.19 Invited by the de Menils, Sweeney came to Texas from New York already rich in experience and with a highly distinguished publication and exhibition record behind him. In the mid-1940s he had been a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and most recently he had served as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where he had supervised the construction of Frank Lloyd Wrights fantastic spiral structure. Sweeney felt an immediate kinship with Miess vision, and he quickly invited the architect to return to Houston to undertake the second stage of his building.
Sweeney embarked on a grand exhibition and collection program that charted modern art across the twentieth century, while simultaneously casting a scholars eye on historical precedents. Unlike MacAgys installations, which subtly tamed the scale of Cullinan Hall, Sweeney celebrated the vastness of the space with installations that ranged from the epic Three Spaniards: Picasso, Mir, Chillida (1962), to the understated Six Master Paintings, Two Glasses, and One Sculpture (1963), to the brilliant The Heroic Years: Paris 1908-1914 (1965), in which Cubist masterpieces floated below the thirty-foot ceiling, suspended by delicate wires.
Sweeneys era at the MFAH was essentially retrospective. While admiring of such young artists as Robert Rauschenberg, he did not engage in the emerging Pop Art scene of the 1960s. Nor did he respond to the advent of Minimalism of those years. Rather, Sweeney assembled a collection devoted largely to artists who had already entered the Modernist canon, thereby establishing a permanent legacy that placed modern art on the same footing as the museums collection of old masters and antiquities.20 Among Sweeneys greatest acquisitions were Constantin Brancusis A Muse (1917), Mondrians Composition with Gray and Light Brown (1918), and Jackson Pollocks No. 6 (1949). Sweeney also acquired a number of outstanding works within a year of their production, including Picassos Woman with Outstretched Arms (1961), Robert Motherwells Black on White (1961), and Claes Oldenburgs Giant Soft Fan (Ghost Version) (1967). With the support of The Houston Endowment, Sweeney was also able to commission Eduardo Chillida to create the monumental Abesti Gogora V for the Museums South Lawn in 1966.
Sweeneys tenure ended in 1967, as did de Menil support of the MFAH. The de Menils turned to other projects, including the Rothko Chapel, and in 1969 they launched the Institute for the Arts at Rice Universityan expanded art department, a media center and the Rice Museum.21 Philippe de Montebello became the director of the MFAH in 1969, and The Brown Foundation made it possible to complete Miess design. Brown Pavilion opened in January 1974 with The Great Decade of American Abstraction: Modernist Art 1960 to 1970. In 1970 the CAA commissioned Gunnar Birkerts to design a new Contemporary Arts Museum. Clearly, Modernism, to paraphrase Stella Hope Shurtleff, was firmly planted in Houston soilindeed, Post-Modernism was to sweep in within a decade.
Over the half-century that spanned the opening of the MFAH to the completion of Miess building, Houstons patrons created an art community that was both competitive and elastic, selective and generous, with no single art museum ignoring the citys energy for the contemporary. Ima Hoggs push to create a core collection of Modernist works; the CAA board with its liberal exhibition programs; Nina Cullinans commitment to create a brilliant arena for the MFAH and the CAA; and the de Menils unflagging will to transcend provincialism together created a climate where art could thrive. However, the arrival of Modernism in Houston is not just a local tale. From the very beginning, MoMA was the muse of Modernism in Houston. Almost every major step that helped establish Modernism in Houston during this era can be traced to an example set by MoMAs staff and board. Perhaps it is Alfred Barr and the institution he founded, then, that should finally be acknowledged as the compelling force that explains why Modernism came to Houston.
1 See In Our Time: Houstons Contemporary Arts Museum 1948-1982 (Houston: The Contemporary Arts Museum, 1982); Finders/Keepers (Houston: The Contemporary Arts Museum, 1997); and Texas: 150 Works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2000). The contributions of the de Menil family haves been detailed in numerous articles, including: Anne Holmes, Dominique de Menil: From Jeune Fille to Renaissance Woman, ArtNews (January 1983); Dominique Browing, What I Admire I Must Possess, Texas Monthly (April 1983); and Calvin Tomkins, The Benefactor: How Dominique de Menil, unfashionable and unpretentious, transformed Houston into a world art center, The New Yorker (June 8, 1998).
2 Marius de Zayas, How, When, and Why Modern Art Came to New York, ed. Francis Naumann (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996), 41 and 126.
3 Stella Hope Shurtleff, Art Progress in Houston, June 26, 1926 (MFAH Archives).
4 The Wadsworth Atheneum and The Philadelphia Museum of Art were among the very few historical institutions to inaugurate contemporary programs in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
5 Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Missionary for the Modern (Chicago: Contemporary Books, Inc.), 123.
6 At the time of this writing, the MFAH has just closed The Heroic Century: The Museum of Modern Art Masterpieces, 200 Paintings and Sculptures.
7 Robert Preusser, quoted in Exhibit of Abstractions at Museum is Drawing Praise of Young Artists, The Houston Post, c. February 1938 (MFAH Archives).
8 Vance Trimble, Its Art for Artillery NowEven Statues May Help Win the War, Houston Press, July 9, 1942.
9 See The Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston vol. 9, no.1, Spring 1946, n. p. It should be noted that outstanding works were being added to the museums holdings during this era, including Ima Hoggs exceptional collection of artifacts from Pueblo and other Native American cultures (donated in 1944), Edith and Percy S. Strauss brilliant ensemble of Old Master paintings and sculpture (which also came to the MFAH in 1944), and Sarah Campbell Blaffers magnificent gift of Madame Czanne in Blue (donated in 1947).
10 This was the remark of Francis Henry Taylor, director of New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art, when he was asked what he thought of most modern art during visit to Houston. See Most of Modern Art Labeled as Insane Scrawls: Metropolitan Museum Director Maps Show Plans Here, The Houston Chronicle, February 7, 1950.
11 The CAA never sponsored an exhibition that brought these paintings together, although the Baziotes, Glarner, and Tobey were all featured in MoMAs 1951 Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America. See William A. Camfield, More Than a Constructive Hobby: The Paintings of Frank Freed (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1996), 2627. 12. John de Menil persuaded John Hay Whitney, a key trustee of MoMA, to donate van Goghs The Novel Reader to the CAA in 1951, and other gifts soon followed from both New York and Houston collectors. Reflecting the associations exhibition program, the board also purchased works by Calder and Ernst. Ultimately the CAA, lacking storage, decided to deaccession these works when the institution moved to Fannin Street in 1954.
13 Stephen Fox, An Architectural History of the Museum 192453, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Bulletin (Winter-Spring 1991), 5659.
14 Aline B. Louchheim, Diverse Museums, The New York Times, December 27, 1953.
15 Three members of this advisory board were architects: Todd, Neuhaus, and Bolton.
16 MoMA had introduced Mies to the American public first in Henry Russell Hitchcocks and Philip Johnsons landmark Modern Architecture: International Exhibition of 1932, and later in depth with a monographic exhibition dedicated to Mies in 1947 (the catalogue of which was republished in 1953 to reflect his newest work).
17 Museum Journeys to New Doorstep, The Houston Chronicle, December 7, 1954.
18 Dominique de Menil, Jermayne MacAgy: A Life Illustrated by an Exhibition. (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968), 10.
19 See Toni Ramona Beauchamp, James Johnson Sweeney and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: 19611967. M.A. thesis: University of Texas at Austin, 1983.
20 The de Menils and their family were the signal patrons of Sweeneys acquisition program, but he also drew support from the Goodrich Foundation, the Brown family, the Farishes, and the Houston Endowment. Sweeney was not always successful working with Houstons patrons, however, and he disastrously alienated Sarah Campbell Blaffer.
21 For close to two decades the Rice Museum served as an incubator for The Menil Collection, which opened its doors in 1987.