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Saturday, September 29 at 6PM
speaking & signing
Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972-1985
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Houston emerged as a significant city for the arts, fueled by a boom in oil prices and by the arrival of several catalyzing figures including museum director James Harithas and sculptor James Surls. Harithas was a pioneer in championing Texan artists during his controversial tenure as the impassioned, uncompromising director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. He put the state's native artists on the map, but his renegade style was too hot for the museum's benefactors to handle and after four years of fist fights and floods (and of course, some truly innovative programming by both Texans and artists of international stature including Surls, John Alexander, John Chamberlain, Sal Scarpitta, Norman Bluhm, Luis Jimenez, Julian Schnabel and others), he wore out his welcome at the museum.
After Harithas’ departure from the CAMH, the chainsaw-wielding Surls established the Lawndale Annex as a largely unsupervised outpost of the University of Houston’s art department. Inside this dirty, cavernous warehouse, a new generation of Houston artists found itself and flourished. Both enterprises set the scene for the emergence of an array of small, downtown alternative art spaces including Studio One, the Center for Art and Performance, Midtown Arts Center, and DiverseWorks. Through it all, the members of formally and informally organized groups such as the Women’s Caucus for Art, the Urban Animals, and the Core Residency Program supported and challenged each other’s creative pursuits.
Finally, in 1985, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presented Fresh Paint: the Houston School, a nationally publicized survey of work by Houston painters. The exhibition, curated by the superstar art historian Barbara Rose, capped an era of intensive artistic development and suggested the city was about to be recognized, along with New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as a major center for art-making activity. The mid-‘80s oil bust temporarily sapped the scene of energy and resources, but the seeds had been sown for the vibrant visual arts community that enriches the lives of Houstonians today.
For this project, author Pete Gershon draws upon primary archival materials, contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts, and more than 75 interviews with significant figures to present a creative non-fiction narrative that preserves and interweaves the stories and insights of the artists, collectors, critics, patrons, and administrators who transformed the city’s art scene. What were the highlights, the detours, the noble failures? How did the city influence these artists, and how did they in turn influence life in the city? How did contemporary art activity in Houston reflect, oppose, or presage trends in the regional and national arts communities? Was there really any such thing as a “Houston school,” and if so, what was it?
The final product is a richly illustrated art book with more than 400 images, including color reproductions of both key works and lesser-known pieces, as well as ephemera and rarely seen archival photography.
ABOUT PETE GERSHON
Pete Gershon is the program coordinator for the Core Residency Program at the Glassell School of Art of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the author of Painting the Town Orange: Houston’s Visionary Art Environments. He resides in Houston.
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