There’s a Lot of Art in Texas: A CASETA Symposium Report

The Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art, CASETA, marked its tenth anniversary in 2012, holding its annual symposium in the art city of Ft. Worth. Though small in numbers, the organization always provides scholarship, information and the chance to see a variety of what’s for sale in the field of early Texas art at its art fair.

Andrew Walker, new Director of the Amon Carter Museum, welcomed members to the conference with a speech stressing the importance to museums of collectors, Collecting for Social Purpose. Committed collectors often recognize outstanding art before museums become interested. They can be more free wheeling. Collectors preserve local history. Hopefully the best of these collections end in museum collections. Museums have obligations to preserve locally. Changing taste and space considerations sometimes require de-accessioning. Mr. Walker gave as an example of this, artist Joe Jones, a Missouri regionalist of Depression years who glorified workers and painted them realistically. Jones’ work can be seen at the Amon Carter and Crystal Bridges Museum. But it has recently been de-accessioned by the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Walker said that de-accessioning is ethical as long as it is done responsibly and the procedure is transparent. Interestingly, the collector who bought these de-accessioned items was in the audience.

Some of the other presentations were:

Professor Emeritus Jack Davis of the University of North Texas sharing his scholarship on Women Artists in the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition. Unsurprisingly these women did not receive equal billing with the men in catalog, exhibit space or location of art. Most of these women artists were well-educated and all were committed to art of the highest quality, often modernist. Their careers and work showed that women did not just teach art education and art appreciation, but could hold their own as artists with the men. Professor Davis discussed Coreen Spellman, Ella Mewhinney, Martha Simkins and Florence McClung. He also included lesser known women such as Edith Brisac and Marjorie Baltzel.

J. P. Bryant, Houston, owner of the Torch Collection, the largest collection of Texana in the world, took a text from Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpeneth iron” to describe the relationship among three El Pasoans. Tom Lea artist, Carl Hertzog printer, and Jose Cisneros self-taught graphic designer and artist, worked together for four decades making mostly books but also other designs like the seal for The University of Texas at El Paso. They worked all together, two together and separately, but each enhanced the work of the other. In a talk titled "Iron Sharpens Iron", Mr. Bryant noted the extreme attention to details including fonts, book cuts (in which text appears next to appropriate illustration), book coverings, completely factual drawings, and of course, art, made for a literary magic which likely will not be matched again. In commenting on the work of these three men Mr. Bryant quoted Michelangelo, “Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle.”

Austin College Professor and former State Historian, Light Cummins, gave a full and well-researched biography of Dallas sculptor, Allie V. Tennant Southwestern Regional Sculptor, which traced the sculptor’s work from Beaux Arts student at the Art League in New York, to classic garden statuary, to professional and fully-formed modernist in Dallas. (ARLIS Texas/Mexico members, she did the famous Tejas warrior atop the porch of the Hall of State in Fair Park Dallas which you saw in 2008.) In latter years Tennant influenced local art by serving on committees and boards including the institution that became the Dallas Museum of Art. Mr. Cummins brought a larger than life-sized black basalt sculpture of a cat, made by Tennant, which had not been seen for forty years. Called Pretty Boy Floyd, this stray wandered up to the sculptor’s studio and stayed to be sculpted into her favorite work of art. Professor Cummins will soon publish a complete biography of Tennant.

Mary Bones, Curator of Art at the Museum of the Big Bend, has researched an almost forgotten summer art school held at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. In a talk called The Lost Colony: Texas Regionalist Paintings, Rediscovering an Artistic Past, she described a successful summer art school with plein aire painting trips and instruction that existed from 1932 to 1950. No one knows exactly why it began or ended. Many well-known Texas artists taught here including Xavier Gonzalez, Otis Dozier, Coreen Spellman, William Lester, and “the dean of New Orleans painters,” Paul Ninas. Part of the success of this undertaking was the outstanding physical beauty of the area which drew both students and teachers. “The Big Bend country is the most paintable place I have ever worked,” said one, Mrs. Ruth Lovelady, a 1940 Art Colony student.

CASETA is not all given over to Texas landscapes and themes. An outstanding overview of Houstonian, Dorothy Hood: Pioneering Texas Modernist, was given by Curator Deborah Fullerton of the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi. Hood moved with her Bolivian composer husband to Puebla and Mexico City where she knew Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Kahlo. Pablo Neruda arranged her first one-person exhibit. Hood’s abstract work using staining, veining and pooling would have been as at home in New York as Texas.

A panel discussion by representatives of major Texas art dealers who took part in the weekend’s Art Fair ended the meeting. They agreed that the market for Texas art was good despite a general economic downturn. Several collection suggestions were offered, from particular artists, to paper art which is less expensive (though not listed in any index databases), to condition issues, to sending mistakes to Heritage Auctions. But the general guide to new collectors was to buy what you like, not name or deal; study hard; and narrow down to some type of scope, a theme, region, or time. Then it becomes a collection.

If you are interested in a fuller discussion of this organization or event go to: www.caseta.org

By Gwen Dixie, Librarian, Dallas Public Library