The Perfume of the Past Cohabits with Cutting-Edge

Contemporary Art with a Side of Mid-Century Design

On the day we entered the stately, art-packed 1895 Victorian home of game-changing gallerist Devin Borden and pilot Robert Briscoe, we found two whippets, a trove of cool vinyl, some intriguing Roman artifacts and a luncheon party in progress.

Strains of Schumann waft from an elegant late 19th-century Steinway grand piano, which is tuned into (and dates from) the exact year of the music parlor where it now holds court. The oft-played instrument occupies the epicenter of the first floor of this graceful, perfectly preserved 1895 residence, which proudly reigns in the West End. Miraculously, its original woodwork, working transoms and intact pocket doors have survived, existing as a portal back into the period of its birth. But because this is the home of one of Texas’ most significant contemporary gallerists and his partner, a captain of aviation, the house is not preserved in amber but brought forward to the 21st century, thanks to a sensitively installed collection of artists from our time, including those who often attend the hosts’ legendary luncheons and dinner parties. If the curtain to the past were pulled back, we suspect original owner Conrad Schwarz (1845–1919) — a German immigrant, vehicle manufacturer and enterprising carriage and early car dealer — would whole-heartedly approve.

Bidding wars: On how you and Robert acquired this pristine Victorian in the West End. Robert had just returned from his first tour of duty in Iraq. It was December of 2005. We stepped over the threshold, and it was not a question of if, but of how we would acquire this amazing house. Although the owners at the time had had it on the market for several months with no action, all of a sudden they were also entertaining a counteroffer from a law firm, which certainly had deeper pockets than us. Luckily the final negotiations were happening between Christmas and New Year’s; we think all of the law partners were in Colorado skiing. 
 
Musing on the past. I am in love with my new gallery at Isabella Court, which opened a year and a half ago. I am in the Evelyn Wilson Interiors space, which I remember from childhood because of its very Dorothy Draper black-and-white-striped awnings. My mother also brought me to Wadler-Kaplan Music when it was in the space at the other end of the building, which is now occupied by Kerry Inman. (I played the piano and still do. My first recital was in the Brown Auditorium at MFAH. I played Robert Schumann’s Wilder Reiter, which was perfect except for the last note.)
 
On a Yankee/Southern childhood. I was born in the East, but my father’s office was transferred to Houston from Rockefeller Center when Exxon consolidated in the Sunbelt. We first lived in Champions and later Cypress, where my parents built a Cape Cod saltbox and filled it with American antiques, eccentric for the time and place. Not to be pigeonholed as carpetbaggers, they kept chickens and horses and participated in the Salt Grass trail ride. At school, apart from reading and math, I learned to love chicken-fried steak, okra and black-eyed peas (not to mention corn dogs and Frito pies). At the same time, a good part of every summer was spent at my grandparents’ house in a little town in the Catskill Mountains. Clearly, it was a conflicted Yankee/Southern childhood.
 
First brush with art. My earliest art memories are the sculptures on the Princeton campus and at the MoMA, particularly the work of Gaston LaChaise. Later, I remember waiting in line with my mother to see the late Cézanne paintings at the MFAH. And although they are not fine art, per se, the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, especially the wolves running in the snow, completely captivated me.
 
On buying and selling. Part of our summer vacations visiting family back East would include buying antiques. We would return to Houston in August with a trailer full of treasures from all over New York and New England. My parents would resell the ones they didn’t want at antique shows on the weekends back in Texas, where I think I got a knack for buying and selling, as well as developing an eye. Later I became good friends with Susanna Sheffield, who worked for Warren Hadler in Houston and later had her own gallery here. I had my first painting show at Susanna’s space on Jack Street in 1988.

Dinner at the de Menils. My first art job, apart from occasional gallery sitting at Sheffield Gallery, was as a gofer for Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol’s business manager for 25 years and a protégé of the de Menils from his time at the University of St. Thomas. Fred was doing reconnaissance in Houston as the newly formed Warhol Foundation was searching for a director. The greatest thrill of that gig was a small dinner at the Menils’ house with Fred, two of the newly hired Warhol curators (Timothy Hunt and Steven Bluttal) and Walter Hopps. I had seen La Rime et La Raison in Paris in 1984, and as a young person interested in art this was a dream come true. There was an Yves Klein and an Arcimbaldo in the entry hall. No one said a word at dinner except Walter and Mrs. de Menil, who beseeched everyone to eat their pineapple.

True tale from your life as a gallerist. I will never forget staying up all night to finish executing a design of a chair by Robert Wilson that he had drawn the day before one of his shows in Houston. The day before. It was a pleasure, but I remember feeling woozy at the opening.

On your very first art acquisition — a Mark Flood canvas. This was in the late 1980s at Commerce Street studios where Mark, then John Peters, had a studio. I was a student, and I didn’t have much money. Mark was beyond cool to make an offer that if I brought him two stretched canvases, he would paint them both and give me one. I was back the next day with two stretched canvases. He said that although he had made that offer before, no one had ever taken him up on it. And he would be damned if he ever did that again. The other painting is in Bill Lassiter’s collection.

House music: Bach lives on. I have many favorites, and it seems like a shame to mention only one. The names are not unusual: Schubert, Schumann, Bach. I will say that if I could bring only one manuscript to a desert island, with a piano of course, it would be Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier Book II. The good news is that if my harpsichord happened to wash on shore, I’d be perfectly happy as well.

Classical versus vinyl. Classical is okay on CD because the noises of vinyl — the hisses and pops — can really be distracting in transparent passages. I really prefer jazz and rock on vinyl. Maybe because the technology and the art form are contemporary with each other? What I really like about vinyl is the ritual: getting out a record and listening to an album, the songs in order. Then it’s over. It’s quiet. Shuffle mode and the endless stream of Pandora and Spotify are great if you are driving, but at home I prefer a record — tons of jazz, Mingus, Holiday, Davis. I am really excited about some of the recent rereleases, like the Beatles catalog. EdithPiaf. Kraftwork. David Bowie’s The Next Day is out on March 19.

Night table. I love English history — David Starkey’s Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne; also the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Volume I (I think I was reading about Brahms) and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, a gift from Hiram Butler.

Cinematic moments. I can’t wait to see The Place Beyond the Pines. I think Ryan Gosling is underrated. Almodovar has a new film this spring, I’m So Excited.

Blockbusters. The Oldenburg works at MoMA this spring are not to be missed. There are also great shows coming this year to Houston, particularly “Picasso Black and White” at the MFAH and Forrest Bess at the Menil. The Blaffer will bring us Andy Coolquitt in May. I’m excited about “Outside the Lines,” an abstract painting show being organized by the CAMH and co-curated by Bill Arning, Valerie Cassel Oliver and Dean Daderko, but we have to wait until winter.

Digital and web loves. I am addicted to Swamplot, a perfect blend of architecture, development, restaurant openings and closings. And The Great God Pan is Dead. Houston is lucky to have an independent voice like Robert Boyd covering our art scene.

If a movie were cast about you I don’t know about me, but Robert can only be played by Robert Mitchum.

Fave city in the world. I will take Rome, and you can keep the rest. I was there for the umpteenth time this past summer but still managed to do something I had never done before on each day of the trip. Robert and I had the Pietro da Cortona ceilings at the Palazzo Barberini all to ourselves for 30 minutes. Conveniently, they had moved these couches to the middle of the grand salon, so we just lay back and took it all in. Our favorite meal was at L’Enoteca Cul de Sac.
 
Signature menu and libations. You are unable to leave my house without having at least one piece of Popeye’s spicy fried chicken or a tamale from the Texas Tamale Company. I love Belhaven Scottish Ale and the Belgian Ales from Ommegang Brewery from New York State, like Three Philosophers. If you were lamenting the passing of Dublin Dr Pepper, have no fear: The recipe with Imperial Cane Sugar is available at Central Market.
 
Never leave the house without… Well, within reason, my two dogs, Solomon and Millie. I consider myself the luckiest person alive to be able to bring my dogs to the office.
 
Wardrobe staple. Brooks Brothers no-iron and Munsingwear Penguin shirts, which I’m sure everyone is tired of seeing me in. Right now I like to dress them up with neon and Day-Glo unisex tees from American Apparel.

Last art acquisition. I purchased a wooden construction by Nathan Green from Art Palace at the Texas Contemporary Fair. It is simple and beautiful. I also recently acquired a Devon Britt-Darby painting from his exhibit at PG Contemporary and a gorgeous yellow and blue print by Charles Wiese.


Next art acquisition. I have my eye on a Ted Gahl painting at David Shelton Gallery and a wonderful primitive sculpture by Clark Derbes who had a show with Gus Kopriva at G Gallery this winter.


Guilty pleasure. If it is a quiet day at the gallery and I can get out, I will go through the entire MFAH. The entire museum. I pick a favorite object in each gallery. The re-installations of African, pre-Columbian and ancient art are sublime. Do not miss the Indonesian gold. The Korean galleries are amazing. I love seeing what changes are happening with the Old Master installations. Emily Neff is a magician with the American painting galleries. I usually intend to stay for an hour but I walk out after three.

How you and Robert met: the Romans as matchmakers. We started talking about Roman history, and we both loved Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. That’s a pretty good indicator that you are a match.

Blacksmith to philanthropist: On tales of the original homeowner, the mythic Conrad Schwarz. We knew about the grave of Schwarz in Washington Cemetery (adjacent to Glenwood Cemetery) from Karen Hallet, who owned the house before us. We went down and found it: a majestic obelisk made of granite. I found his obituaries in the Houston papers at the library, and we had a copy of his will. But the
rest was a mystery. Through a friend in Germany, we discovered that there is still a Konrad Schwarz Strasse in Niedenstein, about 15 miles from Kassel [of Documenta fame]; unfortunately, the monument he built in 1911 to the Veterans of the Franco-Prussian war was destroyed. The street was named for him to honor his trust, which still provides a modest amount of money to needy people in the area. Pretty amazing stuff for a blacksmith from Houston, Texas.


Inspirations. Susanna Sheffield taught me to look for honesty and integrity in mark-making. My time with Hiram Butler — for five years as his director and then 15 as his business partner — was an ongoing education in art dealing. Hiram’s knowledge of prints and works on paper is incredible, and witnessing his ability to “think big” is inspiring. Susanna didn’t suffer fools gladly, and neither does Hiram.

The pull of the past in contemporary art practice. I love history, and I look for understanding of history in contemporary art. I have as little patience for artists who don’t know that they are replicating something that someone did 10, 20 or 30 years ago as I would for someone who doesn’t know that Madonna didn’t write “American Pie.” I am fortunate to work with smart and talented people like Laura Lark, Geoff Hippenstiel, Jillian Conrad. I could name so many more, who I might add are also really nice. And they are serious about what they are doing.


Artists mining history: Darryl Lauster and Ted Kincaid. I totally respect that Darryl’s current work does not shy away from tough political discourse, although he doesn’t hit you over the head with it. His earlier cast furniture works were an examination of what “American” art means. Ted’s knowledge of photography and the history of photography comes into play in such wonderful subtle ways in his fake/real photographs that they still leave me shaking my head. That’s not the moon ...

On you as an archaeologist. Actually [I’ve been on] just one dig, but several times: the Via Gabina dig near Rome which ran from 1978- to 1990. I participated in the late ‘80s. Just last month, we celebrated a reunion for all of the excavators, especially to honor the two men who organized and directed it, Walter Widrig and the late Philip Oliver-Smith. There is a wonderful book about the excavation and lots of information available at viagabina.rice.edu. Our greatest find, an exquisite mosaic, is prominently displayed at the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome.

Parallels between searching for ancient artifacts and sleuthing out extraordinary artists. I think the commonality is looking. And patience.

Upcoming for Devin Borden Gallery. I open a show every month this year; Nicholas Kersulis from Los Angeles will be up through April 2; Geoff Hippenstiel opens March 8 and runs through April. I am looking forward to major installations by Melissa Thorne and Jillian Conrad.

Last art jaunt. I just got back from Mexico City with my brother Dan, who was visiting from Berlin. It was a quick trip to enjoy some beautiful architecture and some good food. The Red Tree House in Colonia Condesa is near great restaurants, and the Art Deco architecture on the Avenida Amsterdam is inspiring. The William Spratling Silver exhibition at the Franz Mayer Museum was especially good. The huachinango at Merotoro was delicious. It’s the second restaurant by Pablo Bueno and Gabriel Camara of Contramar fame.



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