A Beautiful Testament to the Power of the Outsider

Plumbing the Treasures of the Very Private Founder/Chief Patroness of the Orange Show

The intriguingly curated interiors of collector Marilyn Oshman — a privileged peek inside her venerated home the month she produces her annual magnum opus, the Orange Show Gala.

You could subtitle our featured house “The DNA of the Orange Show movement: the rarely told tale of how Marilyn Oshman saved one of America’s most beloved outsider art monuments.” But that would only be part of the story of the owner of this spacious neo-Georgian River Oaks home that serves as a repository for a collection of depth, significance, strength and refinement — important sculpture and paintings by luminaries ranging from Chris Burden and Ed Kienholz to Ed Ruscha, Thornton Dial, Leonora Carrington and James Surls, alongside fantastical and often shamanistic objets, handsome hand-hewn furnishings, custom architectural fixtures and other exquisite flourishes. Above all, this residence manifests a dialogue across ages, continents and tribes among visionary artists, top-tier Texas creatives, modern and contemporary provocateurs and some of Surrealism’s most illustrious lights.

In 2008, Oshman moved from a 1930s antebellum-style home on River Oaks Boulevard where she, her husband and two children had lived for 35 years. But the hunt for a new domain that could house her ever-expanding art collection was arduous. Finally she spotted this home, snapped it up, then began another arduous task: remodeling and freshening. One-and-a-half years later, the project was complete, including highly lacquered walls, smooth as milk, employing automotive paint to create a level-five type of finish that was inspired, says Oshman, by the luster of a Lamborghini. Then Oshman tapped Texas artist friends whom she’d always collected to concoct something quite special in terms of the architecture. Biggest wows begin at the entrance, with Ed Wilson’s sinuous three-story metal stairway, which reaches its apogee in a stainless-steel dome by James Surls, while in the living room Dorman David has his way with wood via a carved fireplace that melds whimsy with a contemporary nod to Art Nouveau.

More than a house to contain art, this house became a work of art.

Pivotal moment that propelled you into the art world. Oh, my goodness. I think it all started when I was a senior in college in Manhattan, and I ended up in a contemporary arts class with Ivan Karp as my teacher. This was in 1960. Ivan had just become the director of the Leo Castelli Gallery, which was just a block from my dorm. I took the class because a girlfriend of mine that lived in the same apartment building had gotten married, and her in-laws had given the couple a collection of French contemporary art. I would have tea with her every afternoon and look at the walls and say, “What is that? What is that, that looks so strange!” Growing up in Texas, even though I had taken a year of art history, nothing hit me until she said, “Well, my in-laws said if I don’t take a contemporary art appreciation class, they’re going to take all of the paintings back.” So she told me she was taking this class, and I said, “Well, I’ll take it, too.”

I was at Finch College. In this course, Ivan just spun my brain around. I was an English major and a history major, and he was able to tie all of these strange forms, ideas — what came to be iconic images — to the world of literature. He gave us poetry to read that was based on a lot of the same thinking. It started to make this extraordinary sense, just because of the way he taught and the way he thought.

I told him, “I’m going to be your worst student,” because I always picked a fight with him. He would say things like “Have you ever considered eating things from a wooden spoon? Natives did that. I mean, why do we eat out of metal spoons? It’s cold; it’s hard; it doesn’t taste that great.” He always did these counterbalances of different ways to look at the same thing. He was a fantastic teacher. And years later, he said I was the best student he ever had. It changed my life. When I moved back to Texas, all of a sudden I was asking people like Meredith Long, “Well, where is the pop art in Houston?” Pop art in Houston in 1961?
Forget it! And that’s how it all started.

Other adventures with Ivan Karp, Castelli’s talent scout, the discoverer of Warhol. He took us to the first art happening that Jim Dine ever had as part of a field trip. I was married when I was a senior in college, so I took Alvin Lubetkin, my husband, to the happening. I could not believe it. I started to really think about it, and it got me. Then when I got back to Houston, ultimately I met up with a woman named Louise Ferrari, a dealer who carried the Surrealists. She had Christo; she would bring these unusual people to town. That was the beginning of my collecting.

First forays into collecting. I bought some stuff from Louise, and at the same time, I was becoming involved with the Contemporary Arts Museum. I guess I never really thought of myself as a collector until about three or four years ago, when I finally broke down and admitted to it. I looked around and saw that I had a lot of stuff here. I just always thought of the art as adding something really special to my environment.

I never considered the art as investments until they became serious investments, and nobody was more shocked than I was. I always looked at the pieces as: “Are they going to be interesting over time?” And, of course, you never really know until you live with them. And when they “die” on the wall, it means, for me, that they go into storage. So the things that you see here now are things that … have life. And they talk to each other. They can communicate.

On collecting the Texans. Over the period of time that I was involved with the CAMH, and after we hired James Harithas as the director, my thinking got redirected. I had always looked to New York for what I thought was the happening thing. Right before Jim came to Houston, we began traveling West for the family business (Oshman’s Sporting Goods), and I started meeting some really interesting artists who were working on the West Coast, people like Ed Ruscha and Wallace Berman. So, I began to buy these works; I really had a collection of East Coast stuff with a European Surrealist influence, and then the West Coast works.

When Jim came to the CAMH, he really put out this perspective — and it took me a long time to accept it — that some of the best art is in Houston, or in Texas, and had I really seriously looked at the people who were working right next to me. It really rubbed off on me because I was the president of the CAMH board and worked very closely with him. That’s how I met Orange Show creator Jeff McKissack.

Encounters with the mythic John Alexander and James Surls. I met John Alexander in 1974, saw his work, and it took me four years before I bought any of it — and then I only bought one. He used to tease me, “When are you going to buy something of mine?” And I said, “When I find the right thing.” … Surls was more gentlemanly; he never really asked me when I was going to buy something, but I knew he was interested since I bought his best friend’s work … And then, over time, John and James and I became friends, but it took me a long time to start to collect their work. But now I’m truly a believer. Since then, John introduced me to Ron Hoover and Sharon Kopriva, and then I met Ed Wilson, and he has pieces all over this house.

One of the things that’s important to me is the entry hall. I think it’s really beautiful. And when you look at all of the things that really make it beautiful … there’s the stairwell by Ed Wilson. If you look up at the ceiling, there’s the beautiful work in the dome by James Surls. The works were done for the house, and they are site-specific, and I think incredible. Then hanging on the wall over there is a Paul Kittelson. So that’s three wonderful Houston artists, and they’re here in one room. And these people are available … we have such a creative art resource.

To me, all of the pictures have one thing in common, and it’s this essence of something exciting, mysterious, challenging, and protective. I feel better when they’re around; they’re like guardians. And I really began, over time, to acknowledge the importance of women in the history of art and searched out those that I thought had been underexposed or under-served.

On you and Mr. Orange Show, Jeff McKissack. The person that introduced me to Jeff McKissack was Jim Harithas in about 1975. He was the director of the CAMH at that time, and I was the chairman of the board. So, in a moment of jest, he said, “I know who the best artist working in Texas is, and you don’t.” He threw it out as a challenge, with a big smile on his face. And, I said, “Well, can I guess?” And he said, “No, you never would guess it.” And I said, “Okay, who is it?” And he said, “Come on, get in the truck and I’ll show you.” I hopped into that truck, and we went out to Munger Street … He was right, I really didn’t know. I never would have taken the Tellepsen exit … and I just fell in love with the Orange Show when I saw it. I couldn’t believe that this man had dedicated 20 years of his life to building this place. It was so surreal, because it didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen. But it had a kind of reality because you knew it came straight out of his mind, not out of some magazine or something he had ever seen. It was really everything that was inside of him.

On palling around with Mr. McKissack. I went to see him all the time. The CAMH had a lot of out-of-town visitors; I formed a connection by taking everybody to see the Orange Show, because I thought it was
so moving.

On keeping McKissack’s life’s work going. It occurred to me that when he died that somebody had to do something. In his papers, he left the Orange Show to his nephew. When they found a note by McKissack, it said “Call Marilyn … She’ll know what to do.” How the hell did he know? I didn’t have the first idea what to do; I only knew that I was going to do something, and I was going to try. He must have known I would try. And that’s what I’ve doing all these years, since he died in 1980.

On circus remembrances and childhood enchantment. When I grew up, we lived right over on Holcombe. There was a gravel road, which ran alongside the bayou and at the end was a house that belonged to one of the Ringling Brothers. All of these animals were there, and all of these beautiful cars and paintings, and those are some really early memories of mine. At one point there was a fire, and almost all of the animals died, and, of course, they moved from there, but they left two stone elephants, which my sister and I bought years later when the property was being sold. I have always thought that my fascination with things that are real but that have some kind of magic, were linked to that experience. I got that same feeling when I went to see the Orange Show. In a way, it was the greatest curse, because it’s become my third child.

On the Orange Show and Dominique de Menil. When I began to discuss the Orange Show, I actually met with Dominique de Menil. In the early ’80s, I had started doing some trips with her, and she was one of the original donors to the Orange Show, as was Nina Cullinan … Twenty-one people each gave $500; we raised $10,500 … Dominique told me how important the Orange Show was, and that, whatever happened in the future, I should never let it be seen as a children’s work of art. She felt that it was a mature work of art; that it deserved to be supported, and it deserved to live. That really made a difference. Some of the first donors were ZZ Top, which was not that surprising. They loved it, and they used to come out there all the time. The first artist that came there was Willem de Kooning; he’s the one that called it the best art in the state of Texas. I took Frank Zappa there … oh my gosh, people from everywhere.

On the demeanor and character of Mr. McKissack. He was a Southern gentleman. He had these steely blue eyes, and when he spoke, he looked you right in the eye. Courtly, clean-cut and with a beautiful smile. When he talked about the Orange Show, he would tell you about every one of the materials, and then he would give you a history of where he got them, how he got them, and how he transported them back. He really wanted people to know about how he did it. He was a single man, close to 80 when he died. He never married. He never had children. The Orange Show was his child.

Looking forward to this fall. The Orange Show Gala (November 2)!