anti-establishment type, controversy is his middle name … compelled to clash, politically charged director/curator… rogue and radical, iconoclastic and independent … Houston’s rebel with a cause, voice of the underdog … once subsisted on bread and water … past director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston … knows how to fist fight … married to Ann harithas, who began the art car movement.
In an era of rarefied art aesthetes and prissy scholarly types, museum owner Jim Harithas is a man who’s not afraid to break out in a brawl to defend his institution. Or brave the jungles of Nicaragua and traverse the Gaza strip to discover the next Rauschenberg, Rosenquist or Warhol. Catherine D. Anspon has a sit-down with a man who’s used martial arts more than once in his art career.
On meeting Ann in the heat of a brawl. I was tough when I came down here. Yes. I gave this Mexican artist a show when I was the director of CAMH. It was time to move the piece, and he didn’t want to, so then he hit me. We started fighting, out of the museum into the street. When I finally knocked him down, Ann was walking by and immediately asked a friend. “Who’s that fighting out there?” Her friend said, “It’s the new museum director.” And she immediately became interested in me because I won the fight.
On dealing with a Brady Bunch family? We were married in ‘78. I have three kids; Ann four. I had daughters. She had daughters and one son. Seven kids. That’s a new problem every day, so that prepares you for war. Most of them are girls. They’re tough. I learned how to treat women carefully and correctly.
I also had sisters, and seven aunts on my father’s side.
Lessons learned growing up. My mother’s a painter. My father was military. Field artillery. He was a good father. He was born in the 19th century. The emphasis, especially when raising your kids, was character. Which meant courage and honesty and truthfulness. My old man was the leader of men, so he was tough. My old man’s system was: The moment your eyes open up, your feet should be touching the floor. My mother was the strength. She insisted on a certain kind of obedience.
Philosophy. We need a revolution. A lot of my ideas about politics, especially for the Station, are that we had to take a stand. People will say to me, “You grew up in the military, and you’re a lefty.” It’s because I grew up in the military that I’m a lefty. I take my citizenship seriously. And if it’s not urgent, why even show it.
Why I now drive a Lexus. I had an old Suburban for so long that Ann wouldn’t get into in it any longer, it was so beat up.
Military kids don’t have cars. No, I’m not really interested. I grew up in the military. Kids didn’t have cars. I asked my father when I was 17. He looked at me and said, “You don’t even know how to wear a suit and walk down the street like a man. Don’t mention cars to me.”
On developing camouflage-chic style. I don’t know if it’s chic or not chic. When I was in the Army, that put the stamp on how I was going to dress the rest of my life. That and Mephisto walking shoes. I wore my good shoes for you.
Talent you wish you had? Writing. It’s hard for me to get a sentence straight. I really was a painter originally. Writing was not part of my education ... The only time I write is at the computer now, trying to say something significant about an artist … It’s always the same old essay. Real literary writing, that’s what we aspire to.
The importance of headgear. I always had a cap as a kid. And for a lot of my museum career, you couldn’t wear a cap. But when I got to Texas, you could wear a cap anytime. I liked that, and my cap is also promoting the Art Car Museum, which I think is great.
Why I don’t hunt or fish. I like to travel, and I like to travel and look at art. I did spend that whole period of my life in the ’80s going to Central America. As a military person, the idea of being in a war zone was not as terrifying to me. And once you get used to going, you want to do something to help the cause. So we used to bring antibiotics. We would make stops at mainly Catholic churches. They were helping people.
Next stamp on my passport. The big trip we have ahead of us is Pakistan. That’s the next place we’ll probably do a show about. My immediate trip is to Europe. Documenta [Kasel, Germany]. I also want to go to Munich and to the Berlin Biennale.
Why I will never blog. I like books. I love books. Inundated. I have stacks. All my rereads. Practically every book that I ever liked, I want to read again. Ann and I have that in common.
Brad Pitt will not play me in a movie. Some old guy would play me. I like foreign movies. I don’t pay any attention to regular movies. The last movie I saw was The Violin. Made in Mexico. It’s one of the most sophisticated movies about Mexico and the problems there that I’ve ever seen.
My nights on the town. We like to go to Kata Robata. We went there with 17 artists after an opening. Then we go to Mr. Gino’s, a blues place in the Fifth Ward. It’s a great place for listening to music on a Sunday night. It’s $5 admission, and you have to pay for your beer. They used to feed you for the $5, and the food was great.
How I discovered millet. I really don’t like food. It always seems like it takes so much time to eat. Although, when I miss dinner and breakfast, I talk to my pal over there [chief curator Alan Schnitger] and, God, when we’re starving to death, we go to Beck’s Prime for a cheeseburger or to Maria Selma and I get the chile relleno or fish. But when you’re in the middle of a project, you want to keep going, and food is not critical. I once did a 42-day water fast. I’d go out to restaurants with the family and just drink water. It got on people’s nerves. Then I didn’t know what to eat when the fast was over, and then I finally discovered millet. Bread and water, that’s the only thing that will bring you back after that kind of fast.
Exercise is for sissies. I did kung fu for 14 years. Shing Yi, which was a very hard thing. I went all the way up to what is equivalent to a black belt, which really helped me when I started going to Central America.
Power tool. My favorite is an M-16. I want to protect my house.
Styling product ... and why my hair looks like linguine. Olive oil.
Bath accoutrement I can’t live without. Larry Fuente’s wedding gift: a toilet shaped like a throne of the Virgin Mary. It was one of his first significant pieces.
My cruising music. Right now I’m listening to hip hop. It’s so good. Lil’ Wayne. From New Orleans, lives in Houston … Don’t you love this [playing Shooter on his Lexus stereo]? Southern hip hop is much more melodic. It’s richer. It’s not as hard as the Northern stuff.
I told Ann the other day, “I don’t care if someone steals my car as long as they don’t get my books.” Right now, [I'm reading] The German Genius. What the Germans figured out was that if they educated people, they would get more geniuses, they got more Nobel Prizes, yet this remarkable genius was cut down in his prime by Adolph Hitler. It’s intellectual history and a wonderful book. And a biography of the Austrian novelist Robert Musi — one of the great critical and imaginative minds of the 20th century. I love the book The Last Days of Titian. I see Titian as the origin of social realism. Well, I think Titian might be the greatest artist who ever lived because he influenced everyone ... Rembrandt, Velazquez, that whole generation after him, in his late work. I read Z Magazine passionately, the most political magazine in the world. When I’m reading these books, I’m always carrying them with me.
Dissecting the mustache. When I went in the Army, I still couldn’t grow a mustache, and I was bound and determined to have a mustache as an expression of manhood. So as soon as I was able … I must have been 24 before I really had a mustache that didn’t look ridiculous. I’ve had it ever since. Maybe it’s a Greek thing.
How Jackson Pollock saved my life. Art is obviously a better religion that nationalism, I’ll tell you right now. We’re lucky to be in the art world, I think. You can go anywhere. When we started doing the show about Palestine, it hadn’t been my concern [but when we went there], it was amazing how much we had in common. Another experience was driving down to Nicaragua through three wars and 10 combat areas. Finally we arrived in Managua and stayed with a family. One night we were coming home. They’d been bombing. There was no light and no electricity. We’re sitting ducks. Then we pulled up to an area with lights, but it turned out to be a military installation, and we were immediately arrested. The officer came, and we started talking. And he was a poet. And then he said, “Well, it’s obvious you know too much about Picasso and Jackson Pollock to be a spy. Let us take you to where you are staying.” What can one person do? You can at least bear witness. In our own way, that’s what we try to do with our shows. I thought it helped to do the Palestinian show. There are 35,000 Palestinians living in Houston, 450,00 Muslims living in Houston. And we haven’t had an incident, because this is such a diverse town.
“I don’t remember why, but I was in Venice in 1952.”
Jim Harithas, 2012, at The Station
Ann Harithas’ Nest Egg, 2012
Circa 1968, in an artist’s studio, Washington, D.C.