The Oracle of the Lens

George Krause

The first Prix de Rome recipient for photography, MoMa artist, double Guggenheim winner and miner of visions, renowned photographer George Krause irrationally lands in Texas — Wimberley, to be exact — and opens his ranch house and studio.

A drape of diaphanous fabric swished in a graceful arc over the back of a beautiful nude, a girl in an old-fashioned dress and straw hat ascending a flight of steps, a young African-American boy luxuriating in a column of cascading water, an old crooked woman who casts an ominous shadow against a white stone wall, European grave markers bearing photographs imprinted with the spirit of the deceased, a man grasping a gargantuan tortoise with only his hairy legs and bare feet visible, a sculpture of a saint that you swear blinked peeking from a cathedral portal, large-format portraits where the sitter is enveloped in a white light that makes their features resemble a topological map and, finally, three-dimensional figures that channel saints and martyrs and exist in our time as well as the distant, distant past.  

These are just a few of George Krause’s most seminal images — photographs that crawl into our subconscious and are as indelible and haunting for all who know them as the Mona Lisa or Night Hawks are for audiences of great paintings. Founder of the department of photography at the University of Houston (1975), Krause’s five-plus decades career began with a big break in 1964, when he was exhibited at MoMA in a five-person show at the tender age of 26. Fame, fortune, a Prix de Rome (the first ever awarded to a photographer), two Guggenheims, three NEA grants and a Texas Artist of the Year followed for this fearless, evocative and bold photographer who can summon both emotion and the inexplicable with a lens and viewfinder. Best of all, this talent resides in our midst. Enter the kingdom of Krause, sited on a hillside in Wimberley, Texas.

In the beginning … The George Krause Hardware Store, 1833 to 1967. My father, George the IV, was a wanderer and an artist. The family business, the George Krause Hardware Store in Lebanon, Pennsylvania — where one could buy almost anything from guns to toys and electric refrigerators to boats (a prototype of the department stores that were to follow) — celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1933. It was assumed and expected that young George IV would continue the royal line. Instead of attending Brown University, as had the other George Krauses one through three, he rode the rails in boxcars with fellow hobos, down to Mexico. There he managed to survive by drawing/sketching the natives in exchange for something to eat and a place to sleep. Then ill and exhausted, he would pull himself onto a train headed north and appear at the door of Red Gables, the family mansion, an unrecognizable stranger, to be nursed back to health. The last hardware store still stands empty in the heart of Lebanon, and I have a copy of the 1933 Lebanon Daily News with 20 pages devoted to the history of the George Krause Hardware Company, including tributes from many other companies, among them DuPont and JC Penney.

How I came to be in Houston, before Wimberley. My first wife, Patsy, was from Darlington, South Carolina. After my two-year tour of duty in the army, I returned to Philadelphia, where she joined me. She was not happy there or in Yardley, a small lovely town in Bucks County. She wanted desperately to return to the South. As I had recently begun teaching photography in and around Philadelphia, I put the word out that I was looking for a teaching position in the South. There were many offers, and amazingly two were for positions in North Carolina. When I told my wife the good news, she became very depressed. She explained to me that North Carolina was not the South. Angered, I asked what in her mind was the South. “San Antonio and New Orleans” was her quick response. She had served as a WAF and had been stationed at two bases in those cities. A few months later at party in Philadelphia, I met up with a former teacher from my days at the Philadelphia College of Art. When he asked how things were going, I told him the above sad story. He informed me that he was now the chair of the art department at the University of Houston and that Houston was halfway between San Antonio and New Orleans. Would I be interested in coming to Houston to create a photography program? Yes, I said. Patsy, our two young children and I moved to Houston in 1975. Houston at the time was a crazy and difficult place to live, especially for a family with two youngsters. In an attempt to escape, I applied for the Prix de Rome fellowship and to the Guggenheim Foundation (I had received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967). A year passed, and just as we were beginning to find our way around this new kind of city, I received word that I was a recipient for both grants. We set off for a year in Italy, looking forward to coming back home to Houston.

On my night table. The last book I read, I think, was Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay.

Film that inspired me and the actor who would play me. It is impossible to have one favorite film. But if I’m pressured, I would have to say Marcel Carné’s 1945 The Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). All about love and art. Since I no longer have to wear eyeglasses, many people have told me I remind them of Bruce Willis. I don’t know what to make of that.

How I ended up in Wimberley. A Houston friend and Sunday football buddy, Louis Parks, told me he had bought some land in Wimberley, where he and his wife, Susan, planned to build a house and eventually retire. He raved about the beauty of the Hill Country and hinted that I would be wise to follow his lead. The next Sunday, Tammy and I were enjoying a Mexican breakfast, and Tammy checked out, as she always did, the homes for sale in the classified section of the Houston Chronicle. There among the many listings was one for a property in Wimberley. After breakfast, we set out for Wimberley, and there in a magnificent setting we found Louis’ future home site. The day was still young, and we decided to check out the house for sale. As we pulled up to the driveway, I noticed the number 291 on the mailbox. The hairs rose up on my neck as I thought of the historic 291 Gallery in New York, where Alfred Stieglitz had exhibited many of the great American artists in the early 1900s. It was a nice ranch-type house set on two acres with a stable for the owner’s Tennessee walking horses. I thought, ‘What a great studio this barn could become.’ When I casually asked the couple what price they were asking, I was stunned to hear myself say, “Sold.” In that split second in the early spring of 1999, my life changed drastically.

A mean game of pool. The pool table doubles as a workspace, especially for the large (44” by 80”) Sfumato Nudes. Tuesday evenings, friends come over, and it becomes a pool table again. We generally play eight ball, cut-throat or a game I learned at the American Academy in Rome called cowboy. I spent two wonderful years there as the recipient of the first Prix de Rome ever awarded to a photographer. My poolroom is a replica of the one at the Academy, with a fireplace and walls that are covered with art created by my family and friends.

Why I’m turned on by saints. In small village churches, I’ve witnessed men and women cry and plead with a figure of Christ or read a love letter to the Virgin of Hope. The santos’ robes are covered with the photographs of their sick and dying loved ones. Often the heads of these figures are covered with wigs of real hair and have eyes of hand-blown glass. The parishioners regard these statues as alive and able to hear and answer their prayers. These sculptures were mostly carved by anonymous 18th- and 19th-century artists/artisans in wood and then polychromed. As many of the ancient churches they inhabit are restored to their pristine state, these santos are disappearing. I find many of these figures to be among the most powerful and beautiful works of art ever created. The modern religious statues found in many churches today strike me as sad rip-offs of great contemporary artists and sculptors such as Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore. These drippy crucifixions and pseudo abstractions do not allow the average parishioner a chance to transcend into the spiritual world. And so I have decided to see if I can reinvent the art of the santos, using some of the ideas and techniques I’ve learned from the past.

What’s next. Last January on my birthday, I went to visit friends in the lovely town of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. I taught at the art school there one summer long ago. The success of my Sfumato Nudes exhibit in Austin a month earlier was still fresh in my mind. “Why not bring the show to Mexico?” asked my friends. [Krause’s exhibit opens next spring in San Miguel and marks nearly 90 solo exhibitions in a career that began in 1960.]

House music. I listen mostly to classical music, from medieval to contemporary. Ethnic music, especially true flamenco and fado, touches me.


My secret pasta sauce. I enjoy cooking, and I’m thinking of taking a class or two. I grew up in Philly’s Little Italy, and the mothers of my friends took pity on my widowed mother and me and shared their meals with us. Most of these Italian/American families had recently come to America. In Italy they were poor and their meals plain and simple, but now they could afford the best ingredients to prepare their dinners. My favorite dish was a pasta sauce (they prefer the word “gravy”) that once consisted of just tomatoes and spices but now included every type and kind of meat. Beef, pork, lamb in big chunks as well as ground, sausage, etc. I make a variation of this New World recipe, much to the delight of my family and friends.


George Krause is represented by Harris Gallery, Houston. His next solo, Sfumato Nudes, opens March 2, 2013 in San Miguel de Allende (venue TBD), Mexico. For more info, georgekrause.com.

 



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