Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Much Has Texas Shaped Modern Art?

When you think of modern art, does Texas come to mind? According to Katie Robinson Edwards, curator of Austin's Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, it should.

Her new book “MidcenturyModern Art in Texas” highlights the localized manifestation of modern art in Texas, covering the Dallas Nineand the 1936 Texas Centennial, early modernism in Houston, the Fort Worth Circle, and artists at the University of Texas at Austin. But one of the book's central, provocative questions is  whether Texans are Americans within and without art communities.

Edwards explains to The Texas Standard's David Brown that many people know about the Abstract Expressionism movement in New York City, but few people can name notable Texans who contributed to midcentury modern art, which covers art in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.

She gave three examples: Forrest Bess, Benjamin L.Culwell, and Robert O. Preusser.

Bess received a lot of national attention for his eccentricity in his art and beliefs.

“Bess had a true belief in androgyny, that a human being should be emerging of male and female. He studied a lot of alchemy, he read extensively, and he’s notorious because he tried to physically change his body so he can be both male and female,” Edwards said.

Benjamin L. Culwell was drafted into World War II, and on his first day, he went to Pearl Harbor. During this time, he painted and drew. His work caught the attention of Dorothy Miller, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art at the time.

“He would get whatever paper he could from his officers. He would get crayons and melt them on a hot plate and make these encaustic works that are very expressionistic – they look like German expressionism – and horrifying," she said. Edwards attributes the graphic nature of his work to what Culwell witnessed during the war.

Preusser grew up in Houston, studied art in Chicago, and acts as the “hero” of the book, with his artwork starting and ending the book. Aside from his artwork, he also taught at MIT.

“He ends up going to MIT [in 1954], spending the rest of his career uniting art and science,” Edwards said. “He gets very intense in always believing in the interaction between the visual, the performative, science, art, merging everything, putting architecture together and so a lot of what he did at MIT was teaching people that you need to function with all your engines at once.”

In addition to these artists, the books includes many other modernist painters and sculptors from Texas. One resource for Edwards was researching Dorothy Miller, one of the first curators hired by the Museum of Modern Art . 

Miller began the "Americans" exhibitions, a series of shows that highlighted, often yet-undiscovered, American modernists.  Edwards found that many Texan artists made it into these exhibitions. At the time, however, Texas was still seen as a foreign place by the art world, according to Edwards. That perception is changing, says Edwards, and that's why she included a chapter on answering the question, "Are Texans American?"

 “Absolutely, [Texans] are Americans. What has happened is that we have an idea of American art that is very New York-specific and we haven’t been paying attention to what else was going on,” Edwards said. "That [Texan] independent spirit, go your own way, make your own art, affected modern art." 

David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.