CASETA – Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art

9th Annual Meeting Dallas, April 15-17, 2011

Approximately two hundred people attended Caseta’s annual symposium held this year in Dallas. Caseta defines “early Texas art” as that produced in Texas prior to the last forty years, a moving target which excludes current offerings, prevents stagnation, and forestalls arguments about what year “early” ends. Collectors, museum directors, librarians, art appraisers, authors, and just lovers of art attend. You begin to feel that Texas is a small place where everyone knows everyone else when you attend Caseta’s meetings.

The event also sponsored an Art Fair at which ten invited dealers had early Texas art for sale. The Art Fair included well established dealers such as David Dike Fine Art, Kevin Vogel’s Valley House Gallery, Heritage Auctions, and William Reaves Fine Art, as well as several well-known dealers who operate without storefronts. An important added attraction this year was a one-day exhibit of Claude Albritton’s Texas art collection held at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC). This private, but very professional museum and theater was founded by Mr. Albritton who collects extensively in early Texas art..

The symposium papers were of high quality and ranged from Kevin Vogel’s discussion of three Texas “memory” painters, Clara Williamson, H. O. Kelly, and Velox Ward, to Michael Grauer’s (Dictionary of Texas artists, 1800-1945) comments on Texas Impressionism. Susie Kahlil gave a spirited, almost emotional talk on Alexander Hogue whose retrospective is currently circulating at several Texas museums. Howard Taylor, Director of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, whose talk was postponed from Saturday to Sunday due to the wildfires in the region (Texas weather!), discussed an almost forgotten early Texas art colony at Christobal outside of San Angelo which existed in the 1920ies. Mr. Taylor, who moved from the Maritime Museum in Philadelphia to San Angelo, gave a very good answer to a question asked him by a former colleague in the East, i.e. “Is there any art in Texas?” Bill Cheek and Morris Matson, the latter representing the recently deceased A. C. “Ace” Cook, discussed collecting early Texas art, particularly in earlier days. Of particular interest to librarians was the presentation of Cindy Boeke, Southern Methodist University, and Neil Sreenan, Dallas Museum of Art, on digitizing Texas art collections held by these institutions and the Dallas Public Library. It is best explained by accessing the online site. This database is a work in progress and will contain much information of interest to Texas art collectors.

Without going into the details of each talk I’ll mention some of the highlights that remained with me.

Keith Vogel’s contribution was listed as “Three Early Texas Folk Artists, Clara MacDonald Williamson, H. O. Kelly and Velox Ward.” Keith said they were not folk artists which implied a continuing tradition of doing things; he preferred the term “memory painters.” These artists painted an assemblage of memories, not necessarily one event. The view of their pictures is from up above, a bird’s eye, or God’s eye view.

Aunt Clara Williamson’s “Sweet Adeline” shows a barbershop with lots of male activity going on in it as well as a barbershop quartet. She said nice women weren’t supposed to look inside a barbershop, but apparently she had looked enough to make an interesting picture of a male dominated space. Velox Ward was named for his mother’s sewing machine, a Velox, which advertised that it was “speedy and accurate.” “That me! Speedy and accurate,” he said. He accepted any job to make a living and did everything from trap skunks, whose oil he said prevented flu, to preach. He was a successful preacher as long as he preached from the Bible, but said once he went to a seminary his preaching was ruined. H. O. Kelly had an aptitude for painting animals. He devised his own way of figure painting. He painted the naked body first to get it right, then painted clothes on it. All were self taught and painted in a naïf style.

The life of Julian Onderdonk, (1882-1922), Texas’ best known impressionist, almost perfectly brackets the rise and decline of impressionist painting in the United States. By 1900 the three main painters of early Texas art, Emma Richardson Cherry, Robert Onderdonk (Julian’s father), and Frank Reaugh, had been exposed to French impressionism in France or other parts of the globe and either practiced or encouraged it in Texas. Frank Reaugh insisted the Dallas Museum of Fine Art (former name) buy its first Childe Hassam.

Three women who taught at what is now Texas Woman’s University, in Denton, came up in several contexts. Carlotta Corpron, a ground breaking photographer, whose work is not as well known as it should be, was reported to have said, “Light is a plastic medium.” She taught that photography was painting with light instead of paint. Coreen Spellman, a wonderful modern painter, was mentioned. Toni LaSelle, a pupil of Hans Hoffmann, was given the credit for bringing Moholy-Nagy to Denton during World War II.

The panel on collecting early Texas art yielded many anecdotes. A. C. “Ace” Cook who put together the famous Bullring Collection located at the Ft. Worth Stockyards started as an airline pilot. He was fired for refusing to cross a picket line during a strike. A friend gave him a job in a pawnshop and soon he owned three. He bought a second hand book on Texas art in Austin, read it straight through in one night and was hooked. Ace’s grandfather was a horse trader. The pawnshop and the horse trading made him a born art collector. He bought $100,000’s for $1,000’s. When collectors arrived to buy the contents of Kathleen Blackshear’s attic they found that Ace had been there before and bought fourteen paintings.

When asked to discuss “the one that got away” the panelists agreed that it might be the Everett Spruces that ended up in an Austin gallery after his death because storage rent wasn’t paid. Bill Cheek said he didn’t buy modernists and passed them up.

The question came up on how to judge good art? One panelist offered the advice of Ruth Carter Stevenson, daughter of museum founder, Amon Carter, to only look at masterpieces. Then you’ll know the junk when you see it.

One speaker made an astonishing suggestion. He said Caseta and other art lovers should exert pressure on The University of Texas to exhibit those Frank Reaugh longhorn pictures, the ones that hung in the Barker History Center before it became the Alexander Architecture Archives, and have been in storage unseen for forty years. So, Longhorns, if you see a group carrying pitchforks and charging up the mall, it’s not French Revolution re-enactors, but early Texas art lovers coming after the golden horde.

by Gwen Dixie