AN ACCLAIMED PAINTING FROM THE ARTIST JOINS WORKS BY HIS CONTEMPORARIES IN A THOUGHTFUL TEXAS ART AUCTION
By Christina Rees
The Dallas-based David Bates announced his retirement in 2021, and just two years on, it’s already easy to feel a sharp pang of nostalgia for one of Texas’ most beloved contemporary artists. These kinds of feelings can kick in quickly about a number of Lone Star State artists, as they (and we) move from one era into another and we understand the work we have from them is limited and will grow more so with each passing year. The veterans of our lifetime who have shown us an incredible range of talent and sensibilities – from those we’ve lost in recent years, such as Vernon Fisher, Bob Wade and Luis Jimenez, to those who are still defining the stage, like Dario Robleto, Billy Hassell, Terry Allen and Melissa Miller – now find their rich and varied output is prime-timed for auction. A host of newer and younger collectors scramble to buy and honor the work, to complete collections, to surround themselves with the best that Texas has ever offered.
In an event teeming with earlier historical greats such as Julian Onderdonk, Alexandre Hogue and Jerry Bywaters, it’s a painting by Bates that leads the pack in Heritage’s December 2 Texas Art Signature® Auction. The Bates contemporaries listed above are represented here, too, along with other Texas-born luminaries who are alive and well and making great work today, which gives this auction a feel of renewal and vibrancy: the circle of life, so to speak, as traced across the canvases and studios of mentors and mentees, influencers and those who came up behind them to inspire new generations. It’s hard to look at the list – David Aylsworth, Julie Speed, James Surls, Mary Vernon, Linda Ridgway, Aaron Parazette, Otis Jones, Dan Rizzie, Robyn O’Neil and more – and not feel sentimental, if not a surge of pride. The auction is, all at once, both the history and the vital present of Texas Art.
December 2, 2023
Bates’ 2007 oil painting Tennessee Street II is from his acclaimed body of work The Katrina Paintings, which he created in response to the devastating storm that hit New Orleans and its surrounding regions in 2005. Bates already had a long history of painting the Gulf Coast – swamps, bayous, communities, fishermen, wildlife – and this series hit hard and made an impression on even the most critical audience. Of the paintings, which she took in at D.C. Moore Gallery, the New York Times’ lead art critic Roberta Smith wrote: “…these images bring the self-contained glower that hovers behind his work out into the open and give it the immediate force of human emotions and events. These works suggest that even in times of crisis, paintings can be as powerful as photographs.” Her assessment of Bates became something like Texas lore. She wrote of his paintings, “They bristle like carpentered objects, press forward with every molecule and demand attention.” Bates’ work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and, of course, every major museum in Texas.
Tennessee Street II is one of the less harrowing but more anthemic from the series, depicting a wood-clad house that has buckled in the storm and been pierced by a car and finds its perfect reflection in the floodwater that surrounds it. Dense, graphic and eerily quiet, the painting captures in one scene an entire grief-stricken city, if not a whole nation. You can smell the salty sky and seawater. The house, like everyone who took in these images in person and through the media, is in shock; it encapsulates all of the humanity that built it, loved it, lived in it and lost it.
Alongside Bates in this well-rounded event are works from his best-known contemporaries. This includes a 2003 print on canvas by Bob Schrope “Daddy-O” Wade (who died in 2019) titled Hood Ropin’, depicting the very kind of thing we had come to expect from a Cosmic Cowboy and larger-than-life jokester: a woman roping a cow from the saddled hood of a vintage car. A giant 2005 drawing by the visionary Robyn O’Neil, whose auction record was previously set by Heritage, is also here. Titled This Man Might Lose Everything, the work shows us, at a distance, one of her tiny men dangling precariously over a cold and expansive mountainscape, and it epitomizes O’Neil in her prime. A jewel-like canvas by Billy Hassell titled Night Fishing on the Wind River is from 2003 and proves his remarkable manner of abstracting flora and fauna through unapologetic shape and color.
One of Otis Jones’ enigmatic (and instantly recognizable) compositions is here as well, this one a mixed-media on paper titled, aptly, Two Lines Four Circles – Jones’ trademark milky, waxy backdrop envelops the darker punctuations that give the work its name. The late Luis Jimenez – not only one of Texas’ greatest but arguably one of the greatest of all American artists – is represented in this event by four prints, and his fans well know that Jimenez’s love of printmaking means that even his most casual impulses take on the authority of masterpieces.
The auction is tight and thoughtful, yet the list of contemporary artists is encompassing. There are signature sculptures by Dario Robleto, watercolors by Melissa Miller, a 1976 lithograph from Terry Allen’s wry and knowing Juarez Suite, several lithographs from the much-missed Vernon Fisher and many more. Fittingly, works from the 1970s through the ’90s make up much of this trove of contemporary works finding their way to auction. Art by this generation of artists out of Houston, Dallas, Denton, the Hill Country, the Panhandle and all corners of Texas has resonated far beyond the borders of this state.
CHRISTINA REES is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.