Travelling recently to Houston for a family event, I had the opportunity to consider the differences between the Houston art scene and that with which I am more familiar, Dallas/Fort Worth. Unlike the art districts in Dallas and Fort Worth, the museums and galleries of Houston are a bit more scattered. When you are in one of the venues in Houston, you are not aware that you are in an arts area. It takes more work to take in all of them; considerable sweating occurs in getting from one to the next.
“Always Fresh, Always Free” is the motto of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, a stark two-level structure not far from the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Rather than canonical, the installations at this museum tend to be new, fresh and original. The exhibits are not uniformly satisfying, nor successful, but there is always openness to new ideas. An example of this sometimes scrappy style was Mark Flood: Greatest Hits on the upper floor. The exhibit was a survey of his work from the 1980s to 2016. It was a jolt of energy, if not necessarily profound. Contrary to museum conventions, pieces were leaned against the wall and viewers were encouraged to carry and place one of the hundreds of foot-long pieces of wood scrap that were painted uniformly with “LiIKE” in front of selections in the exhibit. The pieces covered a wide range, from paintings of patterns of lace to claustrophobic clusters of celebrity photographs.
Nearby at the Rice Gallery, an installation by the German artist, Thorsten Brinkman, presented a different experience. The exhibit, The Great Cape Rinderhorn, included an installation of objects that Brinkman collected by combing thrift stores and junk shops around Houston. He arranged chairs, clothing, fans, furniture, bric a brac, seemingly randomly placed, but with beauty and a secret sense of order to the piles of discarded materials. The reframing was playful. Color self-portrait photographs, which I initially mistook for paintings, completed the one-room installation. The enigmatic portraits combined the aesthetic of northern European Renaissance portraiture, with a Durer or Van Eyck realistic surface.
A completely different experience was the long-anticipated Frank Stella exhibition at the Fort Worth Modern. The entire first floor of the museum was devoted to the exhibit covering all phases of Stella’s career. This is the third of three major retrospectives in Texas in the past year of canonical abstract painters whose work gave rise to a new voice in American art. Unlike Rothko (exhibited at the MFAH last fall) and Pollock (recently on view at the DMA), Stella is not only alive, but still actively painting. He was able to bring his own perspective and judgments to the show, even to such minor points as decreeing which works could be photographed in the galleries. The Modern was a perfect setting for the exhibit. The polished concrete walls supported the monumental scale of the pieces. About half of the works exhibited were three-dimensional, but all were identified as paintings. Those who have not seen the pieces cannot appreciate the sheer physical size and presence of each work.
Throughout the galleries, there was a progression from the static protractor series of pure color and form to the turbulent and chaotic assemblies of raw and painted metals. Clearly Frank Stella continues to be a restless artist dedicated to problem solving through painting. He is not an artist who is satisfied to refine just one system or approach, but rather one constantly seeking new challenges, and leaving some unresolved. More than a few of the works in the exhibit produced a vertigo experience for me and my companion.
Thank you to Jolene de Verges, Director, Hamon Arts Library, for this contribution.
Frank Stella (1930 – )
Color Maze (1966)
63 x 63 in.; acrylic on canvas