September 1971
The DeLuxe Show
Jan Butterfield

The Texas Observer, September 24, 1971

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Cheap handbills have been distributed in virtually every section of Houston which read “COME AND SEE THE DELUXE SHOW – Art and Movies, 3303 Lyons Avenue, Admission Free.” In Houston’s “bloody” Fifth Ward the DeLuxe Theater is teeming with life. The de Menil Foundation, whose curious and intricately tangled web of involvement, both personal and financial, seems to weave itself about much of the more interesting art activity in the Houston area, has done it again.

This time they have invited visiting curator Peter Bradley, associate curator of the prestigious Perls gallery in New York, to organize a special art exhibition. They also invited Mickey Leland, TSU teacher and Fifth War Community organizer, to help keep things cool. Kenneth Noland flew in to aid in installation of the exhibition, and New York poet Steve Cannon came down to write a documentary kind of catalog.

The end result is a big gun show of more than little import which includes such art world luminaries as Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Sam Gilliam, Larry Poons, Richard Hunt, Craig Kauffman, Darby Bannard, Dan Christensen, Michael Steiner and others.

The old DeLuxe Theater is located in one of the seediest and most rundown areas of Houston if not in the Fifth Ward itself. Outside, the marquee is cracked and broken and faded plastic letters still hang tenaciously to its grid. Located between WILKE FURNITURE COMPANY – Credit Terms – and Jeff’s Tuxedo Rentals, it is a tattered remnant of another era.

“The Old DeLuxe Theater is a point of historical significance for people who were raised in the Fifth Ward Community. It is a museum of everything, social and economic and life styles that depicted the era during and after World War II…In April of 1941 the DeLuxe Theater became the ‘family show’ for Fifth Warders…white movie houses were still segregated and prior to the DeLuxe’s opening, community residents were faced with only two alternatives for entertainment – the Roxy or the Lyons Theaters…where rats the size of kittens shared the seats of the people watching the movie.”

– DeLuxe Show press release

The exterior of the building is cracked and broken and the sidewalk sprouts weeds. Inside the theater the foyer is dank and dark and peeling posters from old Frankenstein movies lie curled in the corners. (The “flicks” will be revived – “King Kong,” “Frankenstein,” “Step n’ Fetchet” and “Amos and Andy” run daily in the balcony – a “leader” which draws in 4,500 people daily.) The outside of the has deliberately not been restored in order to preserve its historical significance.

Inside the theater proper nothing short of a miracle has been achieved. The stained walls, torn and faded seats and rolls of dust are gone, and in their place is a pristine white exhibition gallery. New walls of sheetrock have been put up, painted white and the newly-constructed gallery hung with special exhibition track lights. The show is a knockout. It is clean, relatively cohesive and beautifully installed. The exhibition is open seven days a week for the neighborhood and for anyone else who can find the Fifth Ward. Relative serenity reigns.

It wasn’t always thus. Neighborhood Fifth Warders, conscious of territorial invasion, attempted small scale disruption during the installation and tempers flared dangerously. Oil was eventually poured on troubled waters but they stood glaring, fearful of the intrusion. By the Sunday afternoon opening crowds from the neighborhood had begun to quietly drift in and the exhibition had become a fact.

According to a press release the exhibition includes “New talent and more established artists”: What is implicit but not stated is that this is a very unique exhibition. Not only has it been organized “To enable those who would not attend a museum to see new and good works in familiar surroundings” but it has much more far-reaching and important purpose. The exhibition includes some of the most important artists around who use color as structure, and some solid sculptors, but even more importantly it happens that roughly half of the artists included in the exhibition are black. The point of all of this is that a point is not made of it – except through the Fifth Ward grapevine, where for many it is the only factor that gives the show credence.

This curious and complex exhibition may be like a quiet underwater explosion, the shock waves of which have not yet hit. Following hard on the heels of a series of exhibitions held at the Whitney Museum, in Boston and most recently in Geneva, this too is an exhibition which includes black artists – but with a monumentally important difference. This is neither a “Black Exhibition” (usually of social protest art or art with black subject matter) nor an exhibition of “Black Artist” (many of whom are exhibited because they are black not because of the quality of their art). This is instead a “mainstream” exhibition which happens to have some black artists in it. It is relatively easy to choose up sides and argue the relative merits of “Black Art,” “Black Artists” and the influence of African Ancestry – it is a convoluted dialectic. The critical literature of the past three years is full of pros and cons and heated disagreements. Suffice it to say my personal interest lies primarily in the quality of the art. The rest is politics and sociology. That point having been made, I choose not to discuss the blackness or whiteness of any given artist from here on out.

The exhibition was, I suspect, chosen particularly for the strength of its visual impact. Its inclusions read like a portion of the “Who’s Who” of color painting. Color painters – those who depend primarily or solely upon color as structure – have been either much enshrined or much berated depending upon which side of the critical fence one is on. It is a difficult area in which to work. Freed almost entirely of Cubist concerns for space and from pictorial elements, the color painter must say what he has to say pretty much with color alone and, of course, the shape in which he contains it. The bad ones slide off the edge into prettiness and decorativeness and sometimes the line is very thin. There are no bad painters in this show. It does however have some weaknesses.

For the ultimate refinement of the colorist statement, Kenneth Noland wins hands down. The thin, sheer delicacy of his whispered colors is belied by the force and tension of his rushing lines and the tautness of his canvases. Two of his works in the exhibition are not more than ten inches in height and run some six feet in length. These. “Trail Marks,” and “Natural Way,” are both from 1969. They utilize yellow, clay, green, ochre and pink for their primary strength. For all of their delicacy they are taut and finely-tuned as an instrument. A third work, “Rustle” from 1967 is a more standardized size and utilizes narrow bands of blued purple and baby blue to separate flat areas of ochre, beige, yellow and rust in an interwoven orchestration of bands.

Sam Gilliam’s “Rather” from 1970 is probably the most spectacular work in the exhibition in terms of bravado and dramatic impact. It is a stained, suspended canvas onto which brilliant vermillion, purple, and red have been poured, rubbed, scrubbed, dripped and stained. It is hung draped, suspended from four nails in the wall, in a violent Baroque gesture. Looseness and accidental forces are part of both the painting vocabulary and the final hanging. The work is allowed to hang essentially where it will with some urging from the creator. Oddly, I preferred an early hanging rather than the final one which tacked up one end in banner fashion, grounding it and interfering with the fluidity.

There is a Jules Olitski in the show from Kenneth Noland’s personal collection entitled “Loosha One, 1970” which has a radiating and sumptuous beauty. The painting is pink-orange with the kind of halation of color at which Olitski is so good. It is exquisitely controlled and bounded by slashes of gradually fading color in pink, ochre or green along its borders. Larry Poons, whose reputation was made with his “dot” paintings of tightly-controlled shapes against contrasting color fields, was tough enough to realize the corner into which he could have (did?) paint himself and to begin anew. The painting in this exhibition is one of the new group, only one of which I had seen previously. It is proof that he is as strong as ever. The work in this exhibition “Untitled, 1971” has a cratered surface of yellow mustard-orange. It has only vestigial remains of ovaloid shapes in one corner in faintest purple and pink in a kind of echo or homage. Instead of the tight, clean surface of yesteryear, his surface now is thick, cracked, scabby, with rich, almost still wet color which bubbles open to form deep craters of green.

The one Darby Bannard in the show, “Perishing Lands” is fairly representative, but not one of my favorites. I admit unashamedly to strong color weaknesses and am sometimes easily seduced, and also conversely to a certain perversity and propensity for Funky color. But some of Bannard’s works are neither (this is flat, pale yellow-orange and greyed purple) and I just can’t make work. This is sometimes due to the density of the surface, but more often than not to the specific coloration.

Peter Bradley’s works, “Till Now” and “Hemming,” both from 1971, are soft, rich, velvety, lyrical paintings with deep pools of color in lavender and rust out of which rise glimmers of blue, green and salmon color. They are sensuous paintings which appeal immediately. Maybe too much so. I had the strong feeling that one needed to see a larger body of work. Bradley, who organized the show (should his own work have been included?) has not exhibited extensively (except for early prints) and I had not previously seen his work. At any rate, it is rich and luscious stuff.

Al Loving’s huge work from 1971, which was just recently included in the Whitney Annual, is a multi-faceted irregular geometric form which ranges in coloration from Day-glo to muted pastel and is broken by occasional marbleized units. It must span over eighteen feet of wall. It is competent, but its audacious attempts at scale and uniqueness fail to cover some innate weaknesses in conception.

Dan Christensen has two works in the show, “Scissor Tail” and “Montauk Malkles,” both from 1970. In these lyrical works, rich, dank greens, salmons, browns and purples pull his space in and out, achieving a finely-honed balance between interior space and edge relationships.

Richard Hunt, who has just had a massive retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is represented by only one work “Extending Horizontal Form” from 1958. A strong sculptor, Hunt’s work leaves Cubist concerns behind and his open welded steel sculptures make a strong if erratic personal statement in their attenuated linear forms. His recent work is heavier and more solid. I regret that a more recent example was not included in the show also.

The only West coast artist included in the show was Craig Kauffman whose exquisite, iridescent lozenge of silver soap bubble grey hangs on the wall like a rare opal. The most obvious West coast inclusion would have been, to my mind, Fred Eversly, who works in highly colored plastic forms. Regrettably, he was not included.

Michael Steiner’s small floor pieces are sculptures of rusted cor-ten steel with sliding and intersecting planes. They are very strong as individual pieces but got short shrift in this show because of space competition – the paintings are too demanding and the floor too vast. None of which is meant as hard core criticism…that the exhibition hung together as tightly as it did in improvised gallery conditions is nothing short of remarkable. William T. Williams, who does extremely handsome, small, watercolors, also got short shrift because his works are far too intimate both in feeling and scale to have been forced to compete with massive color paintings. They are very good small works, however, which would hold their own in a drawing exhibitions. The one aberration inclusion in the show is Bob Gorden whose “surreal” work “Drapes” is from William Copley’s collection and consists of drapes of plastic shower curtain material, sequin and silk tassel trimmed and hung on large golden rods. It looks like a fabricated “avant garde” work submitted to a juried annual.

Ed Clark’s oval paintings of heavy pastel stripes are competent, but too easy and the oval shape is too tricky. Virginia Jaramillo whose work I do not know, defines shallow space by laying down on solid ground of bright green a curved line of bright yellow which lies upon the ground like a tight wet thread. I liked the works which have a Lorser Feitelson edge to them. Anthony Caro’s one work is strong and representative but was lost in space and Jim Wolfe’s piece too derivative and unsure.

No matter how you cut it that’s a lot of important stuff to see in a rickety theater on the other side of town, and Papa critic Clement Greenberg wasn’t there just for kicks. What happens now remains to be seen. Information has it that the DeLuxe Theater is to be “Put to the Service of the Community” at the close of the show. Thereby may hang the crux of another article. Be that as it may, both as an opportunity for the Fifth Ward community and as a kind of “off Broadway” exhibition, the show was certainly a success. It may in point of fact really be possible to take art out of institutions and put it in the community where it might just make a real difference.