When the first modern art gallery in Texas opened in 1950, Betty Blake, the owner of Betty Maclean Gallery, struggled. “I worked like a dog but I still didn’t sell much,” she told the Dallas Morning News (March 28, 2012) “People in Dallas then would rather buy Cadillacs!” Yet she considered the art scenes in Fort Worth different, “Fort Worth had a lot more artists, and supported its artists. Fort Worth had a wonderful social life for artists. I used to go to parties there twice a week!”
Two Fort Worth artists’ mid-century works are now being shown at Williams Reaves Fine Art Gallery in Houston. Prints by Cynthia Brants and paintings by McKie Trotter show what Betty Blake may have enjoyed in an excursion to Fort Worth. The works easily defeat any attempt to consider Texas modernism provincial. True, there are galloping horses and a Texas horizon; but they are anything but Texana.
Most of Cynthia Brants’ works in the show are prints. Brants, the youngest female among the Fort Worth Circle, is the foremost printmaker of the group. By including her works ranging from 1943 (The Maenad) to 1998 (Summer Shower), the show projects an fierce American spirit whose innovative and experimental nature overcome her gender, her times and her geography.
A few of her prints come with the original matrices. They help demonstrate the complexity in Brant’s printmaking. Etching, engraving, aquatint, layering of colors, and photogravure, almost every possible means of intaglio printmaking had been explored (often at the same time), to strike an image as dynamic and mystic as in other mediums.
The most memorable images are those of horse trotting. Brants was an accomplished equestrian and attended the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. She expressed her passion for horses by injecting the movement into rather static prints. Trotting Horse, a color acquaint from 1937, extended the mechanical motion picture sequences from Edward Muybridge with a seemingly effortless artistic rendering. The translucency through the usage of aquatint enables a lively juxtaposition of galloping horses. In particular, she purposefully applied a near-abandonment treatment to where the speed would be at the maximum (the feet and flying mane). If Muybrdige made people see the speed of galloping horses, Brants convinced us to feel.
Cubism was a big influence toward Brants’ artworks. She met George Braque during her first European tour in 1946. Many of her prints from 60’s and 70’s took the advantage of her unconventional techniques by using tracing paper folded in the shape of a horse. The paper horse made it possible motion effects when placed in various locations in a photogravure process. It also attested her affinity to the principles of Cubism and her lifelong interests in combining the geometric composition with the natural composition. In her own words from 1980, “this effort to bring an unplanned, natural organization into an order which relates to the geometric/arithmetic ingredients of the flat rectangle is, of course, the old Cubist idea – Which I still believe is more interesting, more real, and more pertinent than all the surrealism.”
That idea is best illustrated in a print made in 1974. In Cutting Horse, from Horse and Rider Series, two horses are decomposed into flattened shapes, yet the variant shades on such planes render the image a specific time and lighting. The contrast between the sizes of the two pictured horses also gives a spatial illusion. Behind the rider and the horses, there are stripes of gray, infinitely remote, like the horizon of West Texas. According to the book Off The Edge: The Experimental Prints of Cynthia Brants published by Flatbed Galleries, there are about seventeen steps in producing a gravure plate and each one requires exacting conditions of water temperature, environmental humidity, strength of acid bath, and handling of the materials involved. It is such a difficult and frustrating process that very few people are able to utilize it. Brants was one of those few.
Also on display at Reeves’ Gallery are works by McKie Trotter. Visitors to the gallery may notice Brants’ analytical propensity is soothed by Trotter’s intuitiveness. Unlike Brants, who was born and raised in Fort Worth, Trotter was born in Georgia. He did not arrive in Texas until 1947, two years after he spent nine months as a POW in WWII. Not associated with the Fort Worth Circle, he nevertheless took his own course in exploring modernism in Texas. By the mid-fifties, he had come to develop his hallmark horizontal landscape paintings. Often painted on masonite board, these landscapes are ethereal abstraction of Texas lands. The pictorial acuteness is through his choice of sensual colors, often as intense as the Texas summer sun, and his adherence to reduced forms that are akin to the extensiveness and minimalism of nature in the Texas terrain. Some images are almost as contemplative as Rothko, such as Earthscape #14, except they retain the firm root in the land which they depict.
In Trotter, the universality and specificity binds together like a perfect marriage.
Regional Connotations: Two Modernists In Cowtown is on view at William Reaves Fine Art Gallery from Jan 17 to Feb 8.