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James Daugherty (1887-1974), "Cabaret (Café Chantant)," 1914. Transparent and opague water color and graphite on wove paper. 12 1/8" in diameter. ©Lisa Daugherty/Friends of James Daugherty Foundation, Inc.. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

The Arts Voyager, 10-14: The Art Mavericks
Amon Carter and his children
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

FORT WORTH, TX -- A year of trawling for art and art lovers in New York's Chelsea canyon yielded little that was interesting beyond some old favorites such as the Figurative leader CFM Gallery. Uptown, meanwhile, the Met seems mired in the 17th century, except for the Costume Institute, which should long ago have changed its name to the (latest) Fashion Institute. MOMA never writes, it never calls, so, art-wise, there was little to prevent this arts voyager from packing up his notebook and following his congested nose for art out to where the West begins and art is still made and fancied with the passion of a beginner, with the extra touch that after you finish visiting with the cowboys and the Indians of Remington and Russell at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, you can revel at real horses whinnying from the livestock show at the neighboring Will Rogers Memorial Center (don't forget to pay your respects before the statue of Will on his horse on your way out), and even take home some relics from the week-end flea market, be they a double-set of Bob Wills or a genuine Texas nutcracker that doubles as a crustacean crusher. Throw in a Saturday night arts ramble at the Arts Goggle in the not-yet and please-don't-get precious Southside Fairmount National Historic District and a rare chance to view 100 gems of watercolors and drawings -- from Ben Shahn's dramatic ink bust of Martin Luther King just after Selma off the cover of Time magazine to fundamental Stuart Davis to stunning charcoal and graphite drawings of the Golden Gate 82 years before the Bridge went up -- all at the Amon Carter before they go back into light-protected storage for another 10 years, and I'll take self-described Cowtown over the Apple any day.

The Fort Worth scene still has what the New York scene has lost: It is authentic. Authentically art-invested, authentically art-interested, and even -- though some might say barely -- still authentically cowboy. Spend a night gallery-hopping in Chelsea and you'll quickly observe that more people seem interested in goggling each other than the art on the walls, in facetious conversation fueled by jug red and tepid Pinot Grigio. Where the art is innovative, it's more by device then devoir. A lot of the art on the walls at the semi-annual Arts Goggle I moseyed over to in the Fairmount District last Saturday was made more from passion than from prodigy, but at least the 'gogglers' seemed genuinely interested in the art and curious about the artists. There were plenty of artfully presented nibbles to fuel the legwork and libations enough to go around -- I had a few rounds of the mulling-spicey white sangria offered outside Megan Thorne Jewelry myself -- but as opposed to Chelsea, the focus wasn't on drinking but drinking in the art.

The Sun-stoked flatlands of Fort Worth, with lawns over-running the sidewalks, are also a lot more bucolic than the desolate, shadowed canyons of Chelsea. I crossed over to the Fairmount District -- a neighborhood of Craftsman and other houses of the early 20th century epoch, resplendent with porches -- at the brush-bordered train tracks where Park Place dips before ascending towards 8th Avenue and, as if on cue, something that never happens did: The crossing lights actually started blinking red, holding me up for the train-whistling Grapevine Vintage Railroad, formerly the Tarantula Railroad, complete with an open-air carriage, on its run along the 21-mile Cotton Belt route between the city of Grapevine and the FW Stockyards, stopping point on the Chisholm Trail, where the cattle were once rounded up to be shipped off by train across the midwest, and where about 20 retired longhorn still delight the tourists with daily runs.

The art on Park Place consisted mostly of tchotchkes, so I high-tailed it out of there and up to W. Magnolia, the main drag of what is now the borderline trendy district in Fort Worth; this fall alone, four new bar-lounges opened up in Fairmount. I've been hovering on the edges, hesitating to install myself there, averting my eyes from another potential BoBo train wreck the likes of which has transformed all the other authentic neighborhoods in which I've lived the past few years from true to trendy: the Canal St. Martin (Paris); the Mission (San Francisco), where the ratio of "hipsters" to coffee houses and over-priced antique boutiques seems to be 1 to 1; and Greenpoint (Brooklyn), where the new East River ferry with its 10-minute commute to Manhattan may drive rental prices up even more and the long-time Polish-American residents who give it old school NY character to the door. And don't get me started on Greenwich Village and SoHo, on the Lower East Side and Chinatown. In all these places the pattern is the same: Funky low-cost living arrangements and ethnic color attract and inspire the artists, who make the areas desirable, which pulls in the yuppies who up the housing prices which pushes out both the artists and the indigenous ethnic element who made the area interesting in the first place. Will this happen in Fairmount, where Blacks have already been edged out to the dangerous corners of Lipscomb and Hispanics keep a low profile? I mean, it's great to have a vegan diner, and it will be great to have the city's first twin-screen art-house cinema, period, and first movie house to sell vegan refreshments, as the owner of the Spiral Diner and Citizens Theater is planning, but will it make the area too desirable?

I was mostly re-assured by the apparent demographics of the Gogglers who turned out Saturday, who I'd unscientifically peg at 50 percent old-school hippies, 25 percent earnest new-school hippies, and only 25 percent BoBo profiteers or faux "hipsters." All of them seemed genuinely interested in the art, among which I found at least four worthy exemplars, not include the living one, a half black-face, half-white face mongrel loitering outside the Thorne jewelry boutique, tended by a Hispanic-American teenager, which dog looked directly descended from Our Gang's mascot Petey. (Unfortunately -- and here's one area where Arts Goggle could do a lot better -- the kid and his mom were the only Hispanics I saw. I know they're there; the Latinos who make up most of the clientele of my new favorite super-market of all time, the Fiesta on 8th, have got to come from somewhere.)

Lou Chapman, "Allied Fence, Jacksboro Highway, Fort Worth." Holga Camera. ©Lou Chapman..

The most unique photography I'd seen in New York, chiefly at the Robin Rice Gallery, combined new-to-me techniques -- in the camera or the printing process -- with artistic sensibility. Lou Chapman, one of a dozen or so artists nestled into a maze of office-studios at 1208 W. Magnolia, fell into this category. On first glance you might mistake the dozen or so works on the wall as pin-hole photography; each seems to be surrounded by a fuzzy black circle, the subject of the photo itself slightly warped. The look owes itself to the Holga camera, which, Chapman explains on his web site, is "an all-plastic, completely manual, single-shutter-speed 'toy' camera made in China that uses medium-format film and creates square negatives. The Holga has absolutely minimal construction, a plastic lens, a huge potential for light leaks and incredibly indeterminate focusing. It is the antithesis of the digital camera. (Emphasis added.) The Holga is a headstrong co-participant in the creative process: changing film is cumbersome and time-consuming; the plastic lens and body are prone to change their effect on the film over time; a light leak may develop unexpectedly. Using the Holga, I get a constant reminder that ultimately, I am not in control. I can only capture a reflection of what I think I see through the viewfinder." What I like here is the photographer's excitement at not being in control. In effect, it represents an engagement with the device, a surrender that, in an age where the computer makes it possible to micro-control everything, even in post-production, is courageous. What keeps it from being simply clever is Chapman's choice of subject, informed, he says, by "what I am feeling at that moment, a sense of my immediate perception of the energy, light and shapes that my intellect, heart and intuition are interpreting right then, right there." (It's the second and third qualities that seem to be missing among the younger generation in Chelsea so enthralled with and in thrall to trick-craft.) What personally appeals to me about Chapman's subjects is that they are almost entirely retro, be it the retro of obsolete city-scapes or Nature's landscapes: A Clown and Casino sign from Reno, a motel sign imposed upon a curvy heart in the same town, the Truckee River in California near the Nevada border by the train tracks, an old church in Las Tampas, New Mexico, and, one of my favorites, a sign for Allied Fence over a smiley face and the slogan "Have a nice day," found among the detritus of the Jacksboro Highway on the outskirts of Fort Worth. What first struck me about Fort Worth and Arlington in the summer of 2010, returning to this country from France after a decade, was the authentically retro signs -- think 1950s futurama -- along the major thoroughfares like Division, Lancaster, and now Jacksboro. If the gambling palaces of the past that drew the oil riggers to what was then the first outpost of civilization have mostly disappeared -- one of them even boasted a retractable roof over its ballroom for real dancing under the stars -- replaced for the most part by nondescript malls and banal housing developments, there are still enough souvenirs left to at least offer a window to that history, and enough chroniclers like Chapman left to memorialize these artifacts for us, old enough to remember the past but young enough to be curious and scout out new ways to perceive it. His exhibition, Squaring the Circle, continues at the Artist Gallery of the 1208 W. Magnolia Avenue Building through November; click here to see more work.

While we're on process: Continuing to meander around 1208 W. Magnolia, I made my way to an upstairs hallway lined with paintings, the most vivid of which was one by Robert L. Berry Jr. which, like most of his works displayed this night, riffed on jazz. Two animated musicians -- one playing an instrument resembling a stand-up bass, the other a saxophone -- jammed above a dancing line of notes arrayed like a piano keyboard. From their conical faces and dot-eyes, they looked like Mad Magazine's Spy versus Spy, which gave the duo a conspiratorial aspect. What were the secrets here? Well, one, it turned out, was that, as Berry explained to me, this was not a painting at all but a Giclee print, employing a process in which images are generated from high resolution digital scans and printed with archival quality inks onto various substrates including canvas, fine art, and photo-based paper. The net effect, to my eye anyway, was that this particular print looked as textured as an original. (Click here to see more of Berry's jazz-inflected work.)

Robert L. Berry, "Jazz Blue Improv." 20" x 24." Acrylic on Canvas (Original). © 2006 Robert L. Berry.

Berry's choice of subject for canvasses to include in Arts Goggle was appropriate; part of the lure of the evening was the music by local artists furnished by many of the venues and shops turned into venues and galleries. I chose to rest my tired dogs for a spell at Hutson Creative's sleek, freshly minted HQ down a flight of stairs in 1227 W. Magnolia, where several other Arts Gogglers lounged on comfy couches at the bottom of the stairs listening to the sublime Daniel Katsuk alternate between a a long, baritone wind instrument and the guitar. The PR and photography boutique had only just relocated to the expansive offices.

After this, already sated -- the artisanal goat cheese helped, as since my arrival in self-dubbed Cowtown I have been en gross manque de chevre -- I meandered past what looked like a bicycle shop, outside of which a couple was earnestly singing "If you Needed me," the woman a dead vocal ringer for Emmy Lou Harris, then across the street to the Fairmount Neighborhood Association stand, where I was offered a glass of Rahr Brewery red. (I don't get the allure of this local nectar, which seems to be all bitter and no bite; but then the chocolate brune beers of Belgium have spoiled me. Here in Texas I'll stick to Shiner Boch, Barry Corbin's beer of choice. Augmented in his case, I read somewhere, by cranberry juice. Couldn't verify that on Corbin's web site, but did find this delectable quote from an interview Fort Worth's reigning t.v. cowboy legend gave to Cowboys & Indians, in which he describes what it takes to make it as an actor: "You've got to be humble enough to learn from observing everybody, but you've got to be so mammothly egotistical to think you're the only person who can say what you've got to say the way you say it.... Ben Johnson described it one time. He said 'I ain't the best actor in the world, but I am the best Ben Johnson.' And he was. Nobody's better at being what he was than him. And that's what any actor's got to believe or he'll go crazy.")

Next hitching post for this California Yankee Frenchy cowboy was Megan Thorne Jewelry, which, in addition to the sangria, had trucked in Austin-based the Shady Rest, a new generation long-haired and bearded American roots band jamming on bass, guitar, mandolin (manned by Nate Guthrie), and even washboard, stopping between lively blue grass tunes performed on the elevated lawn only long enough to regard their cell-phones and the weather forecast, as the wind whipped up and the twilight sky turned a mystical shade of grey-magenta. Petey's descendent made new friends, a girl in gingham gazed whimsically towards Magnolia from her seat on the Hurley Street side stair-case railing of the 100-year-old home which housed the jewelry boutique in its basement; her young mother rocked contentedly with a wide smile on her face in a chair on the grass at the base of the stairs, and I headed down Hurley against the wind, fueled by a last glass of sangria whose surface rolled under the wind. On Park Place, a less gutsy, more generic rock band had just decided to pack up under the threat of the increasing raindrops. I crossed the train tracks and gazed down them into the misty rain, enjoying the combination of rural and hip, of timeless pastoral and adventurous modern, of old school soul and new school technology.

"Lou Chapman, "Brush, Home and Sky, Santa Fe." Holga Camera. ©Lou Chapman..

In a way, all these artists and art gogglers are the children of Amon Carter, the Fort Worth newspaper scion who founded the Amon Carter Museum of American Art 50 years ago and, by decreeing it would be free 24/7 -- because he wanted future children to have the advantage of exposure to art that he didn't -- seeded the terrain for future artists as well.

Stuart Davis (1892-1964). "Gas," ca. 1930. Opaque watercolor, ink, and graphite on wove paper. ©Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. 2000.7.

On Sunday, I braved the continuing downpour for a rarely open window that was closing at the end of the day, the once a decade exposition of a hundred drawings and watercolors stretching back three centuries from the museum's collection, works intermittently displayed because of their sensitivity to light. (In Paris's Orsay museum, they solve this problem by dimming the lights around Toulouse-Lautrec's pastels or by light timers, so the work is seen more regularly but revealed less brilliantly.) I'd known about the Georgia O'Keeffe watercolors, "Light Coming on the Plains, No. 1," as well as No. 2 and No. 3, capturing the sunrise over the Texas plains (O'Keeffe stayed up all night to catch it at the right moment), as well as Stuart Davis's "Gas," which, typically for Davis, employs concrete symbols and signs in his abstract art to anchor it for a wider public. But the stunner in the exhibition "The Allure of Paper: Watercolors and Drawings from the Collection," which closed Sunday, was Thomas Ayres's 1855 charcoal and graphite "'The Golden Gate': Sunrise from Off Point Lobos." Because of the technique Ayres used for texturing his surface -- marble-dusting the paper to give it an uncanny brilliance -- the canvas looks almost photographic. The turbulence and vivid luminosity of the waves are particularly striking. It's a view of the Golden Gate before it was tamed by its Bridge; no wonder this arc came to be referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. (You can see it here.)

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). "Light Coming on the Plains No. I, 1917." Watercolor on
newsprint paper. ©Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Amon Carter Museum of American
Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

The other astounding find of this exhibition was the work of James Daugherty, as displayed in "Cabaret (Cafe Chantant)," a transparent and opaque watercolor and graphite design on wove paper, and in a copy of his "Broadway Nights," a full front page illustration for the supplement of the New York Herald published January 31, 1915, a series of tableaux illustrating the New York night-life of the epoch which anticipates both the fashions of the imminent Jazz Age and the work of Jazz Age chronicler John Held Jr.. More immediately, or so said the wall text, in its vivid use of colors as well as somewhat abstracted forms, Daugherty's 'Cabaret,' made in 1914, was both a reaction to and comment on the landmark 1913 Armory show, which introduced the work of Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and other Europeans to American audiences.

Given that these works are so rarely displayed, the marvel of the Amon Carter Museum exhibition was that it in a way re-introduced them, discoveries ready to be made 100, 150, or even more than 200 years after the fact, with a healthy representation of early landscape work by artist-adventurers who roved and captured for the first time North America and particularly the West in the late 18th and early 19th century. I hadn't had enough of this true West, the West of my heritage, after finishing the exhibition, so before taking my leave I revisited some of the museum's -- and Amon Carter's -- generous collection of the works of Frederic Remington and Charles M Russell, who vividly brought the West to the rest of the world in their commissioned newspaper and magazine illustrations in the late 19th and early 20th century. (About 100 watercolors of Russell will be on view in the Amon Carter's upcoming show "From Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell," running February 11 through May 13, 2012. Click here for more information.)

At the flea market up the street from the Amon Carter, in Cow Barn No. 1 of the Will Rogers Convention Center, a man playing old-timey Bob Wills-style fiddle and song Western music on a tinny cassette machine was selling an illuminated covered wagon tchotchkie with the slogan, "Where the West begins." As I left and walked away from the museum and flea market towards the botanical gardens, real horses whinnied from a stock show in the Rogers's other barns, a confluence of living and preserved history that you'd never find at the Met Museum or the Louvre. Sitting down to rest my joints and replenish my energy with thermos coffee in the middle of the gardens on a stone bench decorated with the silhouette of a cowboy bowing down before a grave, his horse waiting patiently behind him, I thought of how content I was to be in the land where the West still lives.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926). "Bronc to Breakfast," 1908. Watercolor on paper. Montana Historical Society, Mackay Collection X1952.01.06.

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