Controversy + Community: CAMH at 65

Fire, Bread, Flood, Ice and Insects, Plus a Side of Anarchy

Catherine D. Anspon  |  Photos by Gilbert & George, exhibited 1984, were among the greatest hits of the Linda Cathcart years. The artists’ "Young," 1983. Private collection, Houston., Cindy Sherman made her museum debut at CAMH, 1980, with staged portraits such as "Untitled Film Still (Hitchhiker)," 1979. Private collection, Houston., Femmes friendly: Barbara Kruger soloed at the museum, 1985. Courtesy CAMH., Where it all began: MacKie and Kamrath A-frame, 302 Dallas, unveiling November 13, 1949. Courtesy CAMH., Model museum: Gunnar Birkerts’ design for the future CAMH, grand opening March 18, 1972. Courtesy CAMH., Dorothy Hood got her due in “Recent Paintings,” 1970. Courtesy CAMH., Frank Gehry came to CAMH for his epic exhibition, 1987. Courtesy CAMH, Houston artist Jim Love also wore a curatorial hat; shown. "The Bear as Heffalump," 1972, from his first museum show the following year. Private collection, Houston., Robert Rauschenberg’s "Barge," 1962-1963, a 32-foot-long “Combine” painting, graced the A-frame, 1965. Courtesy CAMH.
Posted:
December 11, 2013

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston turns three score and five this year. Catherine D. Anspon delves into the history of the institution that defined the cutting edge — and one that was often edged in controversy. Cindy Sherman, Frank Gehry, Julian Schnabel, Francis Bacon and nascent Pop art. Read on.

High Jinks and High Points at 65 

If you wanted to understand the DNA of today’s thriving Houston art scene — the third largest community of working artists in America and a lucrative market shaped by discerning, powerful and independent collectors who have now lured two art fairs to town — you need to begin with the archives of one museum. No, it’s not the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Menil Collection or the Blaffer Art Museum. Look instead to the bold parallelogram of metal that punctuates Montrose and Bissonnet, aka Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.  

The current CAMH, which occupies a timeless structure by Gunnar Birkerts, opened March 18, 1972, as the third location and second building of one of the oldest institutions in America dedicated to the avant-garde. What can be said about the CAMH at 65 is mirrored in its building, which always seems to be shifting into the future. The gleaming stainless-steel structure (unveiled the same year as Louis Kahn’s immortal Kimbell Art Museum to the north and in advance of the Mies van der Rohe addition of its neighbor, the MFAH’s Brown Pavilion, dedicated in 1974) still seems architecturally of today. Its sculptural exterior leads into a cavernous 10,000-square-foot interior of raw, unbroken space, while the Kimbell and MFAH arguably are rooted in the earlier traditions of classical modernism.    

Then you get into the art programming. In a different manner perhaps than either Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum or the MFAH, a stance for Texas as an art-making place and a defense of the cutting edge were forged with this museum, which often was at the very forefront of artists and movements before they even hit, like a divining rod for fresh, destined-to-be-important talent. Along with that role, however, came a side of contention and a big heaping of controversy — that latter centering around the lightning-rod position of directors. A book could be written about this museum’s litany of larger-than-life directors — in advance of both their time and certainly their place, that list included game-changing women at the helm — who altered the course of contemporary art forever in Texas, often at the peril of their own positions, by mounting provocative shows that many times could be way too much for trustees or the public, leading to stormy resignations and a threat of the demise of the museum.

Here is a distillation of shows that set the bar, are still talked about in CAMH lore today and deserve their own chapter in the annals of Houston and American contemporary art history. When will that larger book be written, a successor to the seminal Finders/Keepers, done on the occasion of the museum’s 50th anniversary?

African Art Ascendant

“Totems Not Taboo” (1959) was organized by the museum’s first professional director, Dr. Jermayne MacAgy. A confidant of the de Menils, she influenced and shaped their collecting and is actually buried next to them in Houston’s Forest Park Cemetery and memorialized in a Warhol painting commissioned by the de Menils. The show was mounted during a time when MacAgy curated exhibits for the CAMH at the MFAH in the newly opening Cullinan Hall. “Totems” was actually the first show the CAMH presented in the new space, specifically noted in her bequest by building benefactress Nina Cullinan to be available for those purposes. “Totems” set the benchmark for a new way of looking at African art, which previously was viewed through a anthropological lens; it influenced the MFAH to begin collecting in this field (prior to a de Menil gift in 1963, the museum had no art from the African continent) and set the stage for the connoisseurship that would culminate, in the Menil’s African galleries decades later.

Pop Was (and Is) Top

The CAMH mounted one of the country’s earliest exhibitions for the nascent Pop art movement — actually giving Pop its second ever museum show — in 1963. “Pop! Goes the Easel” showcased talents who would become the prodigal sons of the era, including Messieurs Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dine, Rosenquist, Wesselmann and Thiebaud. Pop did not disappear from CAMH programming. Roy Lichtenstein followed in 1972 and again in 1986; James Rosenquist in 1985, including the epic F-111; post-modernist Rodney Greenblat in 1988 (an elaborate tableau of hallucinatory colors and cartoony characters); and then painter Lari Pittman in 1996. In 2003, senior curator Valerie Cassel Oliver mined the genre in the engagingly smart “Splat, Boom, Pow!“ which explored sociopolitical content in Pop and marked an early museum debut for Robert Pruitt, who would go on to be in the Whitney Biennial 2006.

Design Triumphs

Nowadays, design is the darling of the art world. No collector would venture to Miami Beach during Art Basel time without setting foot into Design Miami, where Zaha Hadid desks and Marc Newsom’s chaises longues achieve the status of high art, not mere furnishings. Decades ago, design was already an integral part of the CAMH programming — starting with the very first exhibition, “This Is Contemporary Art,” a group view in multimedia that opened October 31, 1948, in a wing of the MFAH. That landmark show juxtaposed Russell Wright dinnerware and Charles Eames chairs with Matisse graphics and architectural renderings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius. The “Useful Objects” part of the show illustrated the impact of art upon daily living. When the Contemporary Arts Association moved to its first permanent home the next year (a jaunty MacKie and Kamrath-designed A-frame on a plot of borrowed land downtown), the inaugural exhibition was “Contemporary Art in the Home” — a full-fledged design show with a Bauhaus approach that christened the new space with a display of chairs, textiles, tables and lamps. The following decade was also design- and architecture-minded, mixing up gem-like shows such as “The Complexion of Interiors: An Interim of Color and Light” (1953, curated by Houston designer Herbert Wells); “The Common Denominator: Modern Design” (1958); “Ten Years of Houston Architecture” (1959); and Anni Albers: Pictorial Weavings” (1960) with exhibitions including “Collage International: Picasso to the Present (1958) and “The Romantic Agony: From Goya to de Kooning” (1959).

Flash forward decades later. The museum was one of the first to recognize the genius of Frank Gehry when he was considered a way-out West Coast architect using metal and chain link in his building practice. In 1987, it presenting a traveling exhibition that examined Gehry’s architecture as well as design, including ground-breaking cardboard chairs and the memorable fish lamp.

Bread and Roaches

CAMH frequently was on the edge — and sometimes falling off the precipice — regarding environmental movements and other wild forms of installation art. Witness the exhibition for the opening of its dramatic new home. The architecture, billed as “a giant silver machine” by Newsweek, was not all that ignited controversy. The inaugural view, “Ten,” featured 10 talents specially commissioned by CAMH “who are working in new statements reflecting our time,” then director Sebastian Adler told Post reporter Charlotte Phelan (Sunday, February 27, 1972). They certainly were new directions, with avant-garde components including a fly-by of the Goodyear Blimp sporting a design by participating artist Michael Snow; a wave of water in a 200-foot long ditch along Montrose mimicking meteorological phenomenon by Vera Simons in collaboration with St. Thomas University’s Institute for Storm Research; and Survival Farm by still-going-strong eco pioneer Newton Harrison, incorporating 50 varieties of plants, freshwater and saltwater fish. Any one of these would be considered novel and enthralling today. But the one that brought down the house, grossed out the audience and resulted in the resignation of the promising director Adler later that year was San Diego artist Ellen Van Fleet’s life-cycle piece. A series of stacked cages, vertically tiered, featured startling inhabitants: 100 female rats, 50 kittens, 50 pigeons, 200 mice and cockroaches. Forevermore, this would be known
as “The Roach Show” in the CAMH annals.

Adler’s successor, Jim Harithas — who tapped conceptual food artist Antoni Miralda (a forerunner to today’s fascination with art and banqueting memorialized in the Blaffer’s “Feast” for example — was also too much for the board. When Miralda’s show opened on October 28, 1977, it featured a bank of Rainbow Bread dyed in vivid colors and a scheduled performance by the Kilgore Rangerettes. The mayhem that broke out still is the stuff of legend and led to Harithas’ resignation.

String Theory

Digging through the CAMH archives, online and offsite, reveals rich images, newspaper dossiers and catalogs for progressive shows that museum directors crafted and boards green-lighted including: Vincent van Gogh (1951, which the de Menils helped organize); Max Ernst (1952, again the de Menils stepped in); Mark Rothko (1957); Francis Bacon (1964); Josef Albers (1965); John Chamberlain (1975, well before his de Menil fame; his CAMH show, fabricated in Amarillo on Stanley Marsh’s ranch then trucked to town for its museum debut, later became the core of his permanent installation at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa); Bill Viola (1988); Ann Hamilton (1997); Jenny Holzer (1997); James Turrell (1998); and Yoko One (2001).

One of the first shows that shocked me in its utter simplicity was Fred Sandback’s in 1989, a decade before his exhibit at DIA. Twenty later, the string installation — monochromatic filaments of yarn that seemed to disappear in the CAMH’s vast geometric interiors — is still unforgettable. Also defiant (and possibly setting director Suzanne Delehanty on her way out of town) was the performance of a singe piece of music for 24 hours, a perfect response to Sandback extreme minimalism and a nod to an longstanding commitment to performance. 

The Firsts

Those attending openings in the ‘70s and ‘80s, were the first museum-goers in the world to see Cindy Sherman’s films stills (1980) and Julian Schnabel’s plate-strewn canvases (1976), the latter tapped by Harithas. A decade earlier, the CAMH prophetically had light and color on its radar, mounting “Light in Art,” a 1966 group show that included Latin American modernist Gyula Kosice. Other big and generous shows were the Robert Rauschenberg three-venue retrospective in 1998 that included a gurgling mud bath and, four decades earlier, a solo for Rauschenberg where his 32-foot-long Barge combine painting anchored a wall of the museum’s original A-frame (1965), as well as a provocative Rauschenberg performance with John Cage (1981-82). Also still talked about is the debut for Brit duo Gilbert & George (a Delehanty-mounted show in 1984), which is still considered a high in all-time smartness, which later segued into presenting the YBAs in “Brilliant! New Art from London,” including the outrageous Chapman Brothers and Tracey Emin (1996).

Texas on Fire

Throughout was an undercurrent of interest in Texas, which was first ignited by Jim Harithas, who forever transformed the dynamics of what happened at the CAMH. Major shows for notables who would never be merely local have been a constant: Dorothy Hood (1970), The Art Guys (1995), Rachel Hecker (1995), Vernon Fisher (1989) and, above all, the raucous “Fire” organized by James Surls in 1979. That  forerunner to the MFAH’s “Fresh Paint” the next decade proved that the energy of our scene was both primal and worthy. Occasionally that energy finds its way back to the museum, as in then curator Toby Kamp’s “Houston: No Zoning,” (2009). This was a high point of my coverage of the scene, while the catalog remains one of the staples of a Texas art library for its fascinating timeline of pop-up spaces throughout our town before the word pop-up even existed.

The Triumph of Diversity

The Gorilla Girls needn’t look here. Nor the African-American community complain. Another hallmark of programming throughout the decades has been an emphasis on diversity, often hard won. (Harithas relayed the story of how his first Latino artist showing at the CAMH led to a fist fight in the 1970s, when that artist was reluctant to have his work taken down after the show’s run; admiring the brawling director was his future wife, Ann, who fell in love after observing his prowess defending his turf in a old-fashioned street skirmish). Shows that defined this inclusive policy include “Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics by the Students and Faculty of Texas Southern University (1953, in the era before desegregation); “Mexican Painting and Drawing” (1953); the aforementioned Dorothy Hood (1970); Contemporary Black Artists (1970); Suzanne Paul (1976); Marisol (1977); Chicano Art (1977); the striking text-based painting of Barbara Kruger (1985); Benito Huerta (1990); Agnes Martin (1993); and the not-to-be-forgotten performance of a multi-ton ice sculpture by Bert Long Jr. in 1992 to celebrate his triumphant return from his Rome Prize Residency. Other artists who have explored the African-American experience with sensitivity include Nancy O’Connor, whose photographic installation “Milam’s Journey” chronicled black cowboys in Victoria (1985-86). The hire in 2000 of curator Valerie Cassel Oliver also signaled an emphasis in diversity; her signature shows have ranged from “Radical Presence: Black Performance” (2012-13) to a retrospective for the only black member of the
Fluxus movement, Benjamin Patterson (2010-11). 

 

Two Buildings, 7 Decades: A Timeline  

1948: The Contemporary Arts Association was founded during a meeting in the home of Walter I. Farmer, who went on to become the CAA’s first president. On October 31, the fledging organization mounted its first show in borrowed space at the MFAH. 

1949: On November 13, the CAA opens its first show in its new home titled the Contemporary Arts Museum (Houston was added to the name in the mid-1990s) on borrowed land. (The address was 302 Dallas, next door to the historic Kellum-Noble House, one of the gems of the Heritage Society in Sam Houston Park). The architect of the A-frame, affectionately referred to “the Quonset hut,” was innovative Houston firm MacKie and Kamrath, one of Texas’ leading disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright modernism. It was modeled after his desert camp at Ocatilla (Arizona).

1954: On December 6, the MacKie and Kamrath building’s midnight move from downtown to the medical center was the occasion for a party, as the distinctive CAM A-frame rolled to another borrowed land lot on the grounds of the Prudential Life Insurance Building, 6945 Fannin at Holcombe.

1972: On March 18, a black-tie benefit ($250 per couple) with a series of private dinner parties was capped off by the midnight grand opening of today's futuristic metal-clad structure. This served as the first reveal of the new CAM on Montrose and Bissonnet, designed by Latvian-born, German-trained Gunnar Birkerts. Time would prove he was even more ahead of the curve than Mies in anticipating museums as sculpture. 

1976-1977: A little more than four years later, a devastating flood on June 15, 1976, challenged the trustees to keep the museum open. A Flood Relief Auction on March 11, 1977, enabled an infusion of cash into the museum. Ultimately, $1 million was raised, spearheaded by young board chair Marilyn Oshman, and miraculously the precariously funded institution was saved from closing or becoming an annex of the MFAH.

1997: On May 10, the museum reopened after a brief closure, relocating offices to the newly acquired 5201 Bayard. A $2 million tweak overseen by architect Bill Stern left the original Birkerts structure updated but made few changes other than adding a new punctuation point for the entrance and opening up the downstairs galleries. The CAMH would be physically and financially set for the next millennium. 

 

Roll Call of CAMH Directors: Who Made the Greatest Impact  

Dr. Jermaine MacAgy, 1955-1959: A Confidant with the de Menils, MacAgy changed it all with “Totems Not Taboo,” a show that set the de Menils on their collecting path. MacAgy is also remembered for other eye-opening shows of equally exquisite connoisseurship and surprise, particularly 1958’s successive exhibitions “The Disquieting Muse: Surrealsim” and “The Trojan Horse: The Art of the Machine,” the latter co-curated with Houston artist Jim Love.  

Sebastian Adler, 1966-1972: Known as Lefty, this defender of the avant-garde, reigned during the pivotal period of the building campaign for the museum’s first non-nomadic home. He was the victim of his future-looking shows.  

Jim Harithas, 1974-1978: Still considered one of the best if not most radical director of all, Harithas was always ahead of the trustees. Eventually he was forced to resign, a contentious situation that prompted 54 Houston artists to take out a letter in the Houston Chronicle Zest magazine on Sunday, July 2, 1978, demanding a response from the board for Harithas’ departure and other policies. After his CAM exit, Harithas and his wife, Ann, went on to found Art Car Museum and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, where they show some of the most political and socially conscious art in the nation. 

Linda Cathcart, 1979-1987: Another finely tuned curatorial vision in the director’s seat, Cathcart is credited with bringing shows such a “Gilbert & George” to Houston. A notoriously uncompromising administrator, she professionalized the museum’s staff and instilled order while organizing exhibitions such as “Southern Fictions” and “American Still Life” (both in 1983).     

Marti Mayo, 1994-2007: Mayo earned a reputation for being a keen administrator: She began her decades-long tenure at CAMH as a curator (1980-1986), moved to the directorship of the Blaffer, then was wooed back to CAM after Cathcart decamped. The longest serving director to date, she empowered curators to work in autonomy. During her time: Rauschenberg (1998), Turrell (1998) and Holzer (1997). However, the abrupt exit of Mayo in 2007, who appeared to be forced out by the board, was not the highest-minded chapter in the museum’s history. 

Bill Arning, 2009 to present: A brilliant, nonstop mind who’s informed on the latest tech and digital improvisations, Arning makes it nearly impossible to keep up with him intellectually and conversationally. He is renowned for his insider art-world ties, as evidenced by his coming show for long-time pal Marilyn Minter (set for 2015), as well as a keen ability to coax art luminaries to donate to each and every CAMH Gala Auction, which has restored the museum to financial sure-footing.    



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