If you’re an artist living outside of one of the major art centers, a scary question inevitably comes up, usually sooner rather than later: “should I stay or should I go?” Basically, as the Clash lyric suggests, you’ve got just two options: pack up your studio (or, more likely, dump its contents) and move to New York/Los Angeles/London/Berlin/Mexico City, and bid farewell, hopefully forever, to whatever small town or third-tier city you find yourself in; or try to scrape together some kind of career in the boonies. Throughout the twentieth century, the logic of center and periphery was nearly irresistible: ambitious artists usually felt they had no choice but to migrate to some place with big museums, numerous art galleries, a vibrant intellectual life, some kind of art press, a vital bohemia, and, last but not least, adventurous art collectors. Of course, some of those who chose to stay behind still produced great art, but often at the cost of isolation, poverty, and mental breakdowns.
Although the number of cities boasting a viable art scene has greatly expanded in recent decades, as has the flow of information and communication, it’s generally as hard as ever to launch a career from out-of-the-way places. There may be more art capitals to choose from, but the existence of multiple centers doesn’t do away with provinciality and marginalization.
These reflections are prompted by Pete Gershon’s recently published Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972–1985, a hefty, richly illustrated book that examines a tumultuous period in Houston’s art history. Gershon, a Houston-based writer and educator, who also wrote Painting the Town Orange: The Stories behind Houston’s Visionary Art Environments (2014), chronicles the fortunes of the artists, museum professionals, and patrons who championed new creative forms in a boom-and-bust city with little exposure to adventurous art.
A large part of Collision is devoted to the history of a single institution, the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM, now known as CAMH, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston). You might think a profile of an art museum would be fairly dry, a record of exhibitions, collection building, and maybe some ambitious architectural projects. Yet in the case of the CAM(H), at least in its first decade, the account is anything but drab. It is, rather, brimming with controversy and drama. Some of the drama can be attributed to the cultural and social realities of Houston and, more largely, Texas; some to the period (the 1970s were pretty crazy everywhere); and some to the personalities involved.
The CAM opened in 1972, having evolved out of the Contemporary Arts Association (CAA), a modest organization of local artists and art lovers frustrated by the failure of the city’s major art institution, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), to pay attention to contemporary work. During the 1950s and 1960s, the CAA operated out of a modernist glass-and-metal A-frame building so small that it was once cut in two and moved from one site to another on a flatbed truck. Despite some brilliant directors, including Jermayne MacAgy and, briefly, fiction writer Donald Barthelme, the CAA didn’t make much of an impact on Houston culture. One problem was that, like the much larger MFAH, it paid little attention to local artists. Nonetheless, by the time it rebranded itself as the Contemporary Arts Museum, the organization had acquired enough backing to erect a much larger building designed by architect Gunnar Birkerts on a prime corner across the street from the MFAH.
THE CAM’S FOUNDING director, Sebastian Adler, decided to inaugurate the new building with an exhibition titled “10,” featuring cutting-edge sculpture, video, and installation art by the likes of William Wegman, Richard Van Buren, Robert Grosvenor, and Newton Harrison. Of the ten artists in the show, only one, Vera Simons, hailed from Houston. The centerpiece of the exhibition was Ellen Van Fleet’s towering wall of stacked chicken-wire cages filled with, in ascending order, cockroaches, mice, rats, cats, and pigeons. It was titled New York City Animal Levels and all the specimens on display were alive, at least in the beginning. Predictably, many of the opening-night attendees were dismayed by the piece. As the days went on, things got worse. Most of the cockroaches escaped and infested the museum, and the poor felines, surrounded by diseased insects, rodents, and avians, began to drop dead. A museum employee Gershon interviewed recalls: “For a cat owner, it was a rather unpleasant job to start the day with, collecting the dead cats.”
Nearly all the museum’s big donors withdrew their support, and within nine months, Adler was gone, bitterly remarking to a journalist: “You can’t cram tough art down their throats or squeeze money from those Texas jet-setters.” Houston wasn’t particularly kind to museum directors in the 1970s. Gershon quotes another departing institutional head, Philippe de Montebello, who left the MFAH for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: “The unmitigated joy of boarding my last flight out of there, without a return ticket—I cannot describe it.”
Adler’s replacement would prove even more disruptive: James Harithas, a visionary curator and administrator who had helped pioneer the presentation of video work in his previous position as director of the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. Harithas believed that the CAM should devote a substantial portion of its programming to Texas artists. To this end, he and Mark Lombardi (later to gain fame for his diagrammatic “conspiracy” drawings, but then an aspiring curator who had followed Harithas from Syracuse) embarked on a research road trip around the state. As Harithas recalled, “We just got in the truck and went town to town.” The resulting exhibition, “Texas/12,” was notable for its inclusion of sculptor James Surls, Galveston visionary Michael Tracy, and Latino artists like Mel Casas and Luis Jiménez. Harithas also invited many of Houston’s African American artists, such as Jesse Lott and Bert L. Long Jr.
The tales of how the museum was staffed while under Harithas—the director of publications was recruited when one of the curators wandered into an ice cream parlor and fell into conversation with a young writer working a dead-end job behind the counter; a young artist approached Harithas in a parking lot after a talk and soon found himself hired as a curator—offer a striking contrast with how museums operate today. Disrupters like Harithas have vanished now that museum boards keep a tight rein on directors, and pot-and-alcohol-fueled road trips qualify as fireable offenses. Then as now, Harithas, who subsequently established two unconventional Houston venues (the Art Car Museum and the socially engaged Station Museum of Contemporary Art), saw the importance of exhibiting art that reflects the diversity of Houston’s populace and not just the Eurocentric tastes of its elites.
HAVING SPOKEN to seemingly everyone still alive, and having done much archival trawling, Gershon presents a thorough chronicle, giving the reader in-depth summaries of Houston’s alternative spaces and grassroots art organizations as well as its museums, galleries, and individual artists. He doesn’t flinch from reporting on scandals and controversies, such as Barbara Rose’s troubled tenure as a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, from which she was fired in 1984. The high point of the book may be his minute-by-minute account of how the spectacular opening of an Antoni Miralda show at the CAM in October 1977 turned into a drunken brawl that had to be broken up by the police.
The Lawndale Annex, an alternative exhibition and performance space in a giant warehouse, was also the site of much anarchy. Gershon tracks down reports of musical events there that ranged from transcendent appearances by Sun Ra, Robert Ashley, and the Neville Brothers to glorious disasters at the hands of Black Flag and the Replacements. Lawndale also hosted the 1984 exhibition “Collision: Independent Visions,” which jump-started Houston’s art-car culture and gives his book its title.
Despite the subsequent expansion of Houston’s art world (especially since the opening of the Menil Collection in 1987) and the increased attention given to local art by the city’s museums, it’s still a challenge for Houston artists to achieve national recognition, let alone international success. Although a few stalwarts have become widely known (Trenton Doyle Hancock, Mark Flood, Rick Lowe), many younger artists still don’t feel that Houston, for all its big collectors and ambitious museums, is a place where they can build a major career. The pull of New York is strong, just as it was in the 1970s for Houston exiles like Julian Schnabel and John Alexander. Perhaps by recovering the early history of Houston’s contemporary art scene, Gershon’s book will attract more outside attention to this city’s artists, and encourage still more local patronage in a metropolis that is the fourth largest in the country and growing ever more ethnically and culturally diverse.