The Fort Worth Circle – a fabled and enduringly relevant colony of artists who transcended their provincial Texas bearings to help redefine art as a class during the 1940s and ’50s – comes full-circle in a massive exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The styles of painting and etching – often veering toward cartooning, like their European counterparts in the somewhat earlier dawning Age of Picasso – are too wildly diversified to allow any simple description: One might say the members shared an impulse to describe how it felt to be alive at a time of unbridled creative enthusiasm and reciprocal encouragement.
The display of nearly 100 striking examples is called Intimate Modernism: Fort Worth Circle Artists in the 1940s, the first such industrial-strength retrospective in more than 20 years. (More than 50 years is more like it, in the case of many of the featured works. Some privately held pieces have gone that long without a public-viewing showcase, as curator Jane Myers points out.)
If some of the works suggest music to those discovering the Circle for the first time, it might be helpful to mention that Stravinsky and Ravel, as modernists in their own right, were among the members’ preferred composers; at the time of the Circle’s launching, the larger movements toward modern jazz, progressive jazz, and free-form jazz had yet to take a decisive form.
The exhibit’s selections suggest a parallel with musical influences in yet another respect: Southern-bred, New York-style jazz of the 1920s affected the work of such European instrumentalists as the guitarist Django Reinhardt and the violinist Stephane Grappelli. Their Quintette of the Hot Club of France, in turn, rebounded upon America during the 1930s to shape, like the crease in a Stetson, a Texas-bred offshoot of jazz known as Western Swing – reflecting most vividly in a Fort Worth–Dallas band, the Light Crust Doughboys, and a Texas Plains ensemble, the Sons of the West. Texas’ rustic provinciality has long masked a subcurrent of hipster-ism, whether in music or in the painterly pursuits.
The styles of the Fort Worth Circle are as varied as the personalities involved. Taken together, the selections tell nothing less than “the tale of how progressive art came to Texas,” as Myers puts it.
To Texas, and through Texas, one might add. If the Fort Worth circle had begun to close ranks after the 1950s, its influence persisted in the deeper backwaters of the state, charting a course for such developments as the monumental sculpture-garden works of Stanley Marsh III – as in Amarillo, Texas’ perpetually changing Cadillac Ranch installation.
“The history of art in Fort Worth goes back more than 100 years,” as the historian-exhibitor Glenna Crocker wrote to herald a 2005 private-gallery show that placed the Fort Worth Circle in context with Texas’ earlier artistic movements. “The social and political posturing of those eras [since the 1940s] forever changed the creativity of the art world … [The influence of the Circle] continues today, although somewhat obscured by the influx of a multitude of modern contemporaries.” Adventurous artists, that is, without direct ties to the specific hometown background.
The advancement of the Circle’s influence into a new century had rested largely with the abstract painter Cynthia Brants (1924–2006) – a primary-source bearer of the European Cubists’ influence – who remained a working artist despite her retrospective regard of the Circle as a relic.
“It was natural and inevitable that our work was relegated to history and no longer considered relevant to Fort Worth’s ambitions for continuing cultural prominence in the visual arts,” Brants said in connection with that 2005 showing. “It was, however, sufficient for us to have opened some eyes to a wider range of possibilities in painting and sculpture than had been previously accepted.” The most lasting direct localized tangents have surfaced in the performing arts, largely via the deeply rooted Fort Worth troupe known as Hip Pocket Theatre – with which I have produced a recurring cycle of stage-plays based upon the comic-book stories of Robert Crumb.
The Fort Worth Circle radiated during the 1940s from a nucleus of four locals, then in their mid-20s, who had met as students: Lia Cuilty, Veronica Helfensteller, Marjorie Johnson and Bror Utter. Just prior to America’s involvement in World War II, Dickson Reeder, a school-days friend of Utter’s, assumed leadership. Reeder and his New York-born wife, Flora Blanc, provided the social-milieu bonds. Also in the sphere were Sara Shannon and William P. “Bill” Bomar Jr.
And Reeder, Bomar and Helfensteller shared in common a background in private art instruction. Kelly Fearing entered the circle as a newcomer to Fort Worth during the war. In 1945, Cynthia Brants became the youngest female member. George Grammer, youngest among the artists, joined in 1946.
Drawn together by a shared interest in art, dance, music, theater and myth-making, the artists of the Fort Worth Circle sought radical tangents of artistic expression as a departure from a prevailing popular preference for bucolic, nostalgic regionalism and other, more conservative, artistic styles. They also shared a fascination with fantastic, often enigmatic, imagery that often infiltrates otherwise lifelike portraiture and deceptively conventional regional landscapes, with skewed perspectives, anatomical exaggerations, and unexpected textures. Members of the Circle responded to Modernism in art by creating a unique aesthetic based upon contemporary surrealism and abstraction – drawing largely upon the power of imagination.
Their determined ascent to prominence proved lasting, as well. By the mid-1950s, the group’s aesthetic gave way to newer ideas, but the shared view of art as a vista without boundaries persisted. The members became, in turn, significant as teachers while remaining productive artists. Individual works can be found today in various museums and private collections; the Carter Museum’s exhibition presents a unique opportunity to view the works together.
Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the
Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.