Eric Miller and Lin Wang moved to North Texas from Brooklyn in 2010, with no particular interest in Texas art. But once they got here, they immediately found themselves with questions. They noticed gaps in knowledge of local art history, particularly from the late ’60s until the early ’80s, and started conducting interviews with older regional artists.
Now two years into this project, they have 30 hours of video covering 25 artists. They guess they have about five interviews left to do, although they keep finding new ones along the way. They're also planning to write a book.
Neither Miller nor Wang has a background in art. “We’ve both been around art, but we’re not professional artists,” Miller says. “I do communications and marketing and Lin works for American Airlines.”
The pair began noticing the gap in local art history after working as docents at the Amon Carter Museum and meeting people at a convention for the Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art. “There was a knowledge of Dallas regional artists up until the ’40s,” Miller says. “Like Jerry Bywaters and Everett Spruce,” Wang adds. “I guess the most famous one is Alexandre Hogue,” Miller continues. “And Jerry Bywaters,” Wang says.
Bywaters was an artist, curator and director of the Dallas Museum of Art — then known as the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (DMFA) — for two decades, and part of the art factory at SMU for four. “He not only changed the art scene in Dallas but also helped build institutions,” Wang says, adding that Hogue is probably better known because he has work in several museums.
“We found a lot of people were knowledgeable on that group of artists,” Miller continues. “But what happened after that? Who came after that?”
The work, which they approach obsessively, has posed no shortage of challenges. Some of the artists they were interested in died before the project, and some died as they tried to set up interviews. Others said no, had ridiculous demands or were still worried about ancient scandals.
At 99, Betty Blake is the oldest person they have interviewed. She opened one of the first contemporary art galleries in the state of Texas in 1951. “She brought paintings by Picasso to her gallery,” Wang says. “She really brought modern art to the state of Texas.” That gallery is now Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden.
“In the 1950s, there was all that talk of communism and McCarthyism,” Wang says. “The DMFA was very conservative.”
“They wouldn’t even show Picasso because he was a communist,” Miller says. “I heard they had the red flowers removed from outside the Dallas Museum of Art because that was communism.”
“The DMA was showing landscape paintings and there was a group of people who didn’t find this interesting,” Miller says. “They were interested in contemporary art and formed this other museum.” A fed-up collective of regional artists started Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts (DMCA) for their own artwork, as well as what the DMA wouldn’t show, in 1957. This was one of the first things they learned through interviews and they quickly set about interviewing those involved.
“We’re interviewing the artists,” Miller says. “But we’re also looking at what the art scene was like after the 1950s.” In 1963, Kennedy was assassinated, the DMCA merged with the DMFA, and X is the marker on the grassy knoll. Miller and Wang decided to start the story here and chose Art After X as the book’s title.
The scene changed drastically after the merger. “The DMFA canceled all the regional shows,” Wang says. “The artists began to leave for New York. But if you look at the 1970s, that’s when all the regional and small museums began to form. A group of artists, The Oak Cliff Four, became nationally known for making gigantic art projects that fused pop art and Texas art.”
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Bob Wade, one of the Oak Cliff Four, created a 40-foot sculpture of an iguana that is now at the Fort Worth Zoo after spending 13 years on top of the Lone Star Cafe in New York City. Wade also created the three “Tango Frogs” dancing on the roof of the Taco Cabana on Lower Greenville.
“There are elements of the Dallas art scene that no one has put together,” Miller says. Artists who became active in the early ’80s are the newest ones they talk to for bookending info. But they are mainly looking for artists with work that is not archived online and may be forgotten. They mention visiting Jack Mims, another member of the Oak Cliff Four, who wowed them with countless chimerical paintings from the ’70s that had been rolled up for years.
“It’s important for Dallas to understand itself,” Miller says. “One of the common themes is Dallas never supported these people. They go to New York for their art.”
Miller tries to remember the word artist Celia Eberle used to describe Dallas. “Detached,” Wang says. “’Dallas is detached from itself,’” Miller says. “That’s what she said. It’s not aware of itself as a place.”