A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Allan Houser centennial brings art to new places in Oklahoma
Along with placing monumental sculptures in interesting spots like Will Rogers World Airport, the yearlong statewide celebration of the acclaimed artist’s birth also is giving new perspectives into the Chiricahua Apache painter and sculptor’s body of work.
A monumental sculpture of an American Indian couple protectively standing over the cradleboard holding their baby probably isn’t the most obvious sight travelers expect to see on their way to baggage claim.
Since January, though, “The Future” has become a popular attraction at the luggage carousels at Will Rogers World Airport, where the concourse also is the temporary home of a second larger-than-life-size bronze titled “Prayer.”
“People are really enjoying them. They’re two totally different pieces,” said Karen Carney, the airport’s public information and marketing manager. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from not only our travelers but from our employees. They’re very excited to be able to have the work in the airport as well. I see a lot of people that stop and they’ll take their picture next to the pieces.”
The airport is among a dozen or so diverse institutions across the state taking part this year in “Celebrating Allan Houser: An Oklahoma Perspective,” a yearlong celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the state’s most renowned artists.
Museums and attractions exhibiting the Chiricahua Apache painter and sculptor’s work during the centennial include the state Capitol, Oklahoma History Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in Stillwater, the Museum of the Red River in Idabel, the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko and the Gilcrease and Philbrook museums in Tulsa.
The first-ever statewide collaboration is offering many opportunities for people to see lesser-known aspects of the acclaimed Oklahoma native’s work – often in surprising places like the airport, which along with displaying the two large sculptures is spreading the word about the other Houser exhibitions in the state.
“That was something new for us, something we’ve never really tried before, working with the Allan Houser Foundation – or any foundation – and getting art pieces on loan at the airport … and because of the positive feedback, we want to try to do more in the future,” Carney said, adding that the airport currently is displaying a Dale Chihuly glass piece on loan from the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, too.
“The traveling public is certainly starting to have an expectation of seeing public art in airports … and we want people to know that not only are we a thriving business community, but a thriving cultural community as well.”
Drawing new perspectives
While Houser is best known for his monumental figurative sculptures like the pair at the airport and “As Long as the Waters Flow” at the state Capitol, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman is exhibiting through May 18 a show of nearly 100 of the Apache native’s drawings.
The majority of the works in “Allan Houser Drawings: The Centennial Exhibition,” are on loan from Houser’s estate in Santa Fe, N.M., and have never been exhibited or published, said W. Jackson Rushing III, the show’s curator.
“What people know best about him are the sculptures. That’s an aspect of his work that really evolved in the ‘60s … and it certainly was an important part of his critical and commercial reputation by about 1975. But the truth is that he had been an award-winning painter for decades before that,” said Rushing, the Adkins Presidential Professor of Art History and Mary Lou Milner Carver Chair in Native American Art at the University of Oklahoma School of Art and Art History.
Between his birth near Fort Sill on June 30, 1914, and his death on Aug. 22, 1994, at his home in Santa Fe, Houser produced more than 1,000 sculptures in stone, wood and bronze, 500 paintings and 2,000 matted drawings, along with filling 233 sketchbooks with more than 30,000 sketches.
The drawings in the Norman exhibit and accompanying catalog range from Southwestern landscapes to genre scenes of American Indian life. While some of were rendered pencil or charcoal, Rushing said, others were done in oil sticks or pastel chalks, revealing Houser’s remarkable and perhaps surprising skill as a colorist.
“He never made any effort to exhibit the drawings, and it was only after 1979 that he really began thinking of drawing in and of itself. Up until then, drawings were things that got him ready for other things, for paintings or for sculptures,” Rushing said. “Increasingly, he recognized the importance of making drawings and basically gave up painting to focus on drawing and began to think about a book and an exhibition like the one that we have now. He really wanted to see his drawings collected and presented in a unified way, but unfortunately … he died fairly quickly after he became ill.
“So, his dream of having an exhibition and a book of drawings was never realized in his lifetime. That’s part of what we think is important about our show is that it gives the audience a Houser that they didn’t know before and it realizes a dream that he had.”
Abstract up top
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art is showcasing a lesser-known aspect of Houser’s sculptural work with “Allan Houser: On the Roof,” an exhibit of six bronzes that opened Thursday on the downtown landmark’s Roof Terrace.
“The sculptures that we’ll have on view will highlight really the last 10, 15 years of his artistic career in sculpture, so our exhibition will be different because you’ll be able to see some of the fully abstract works he created,” said OKC Museum of Art Curator Alison Amick.
The exhibit highlights how Houser skillfully melded aspects of his Chiricahua Apache heritage with elements of European modernism. He was influenced by artists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, whose works are included in the museum’s permanent collection.
“Allan Houser: On the Roof” also is the museum’s first exhibition on its Roof Terrace, which has become a popular seasonal spot for live music, cocktails and mingling on Thursday nights, when the museum is open until 9 p.m.
“The Roof Terrace is a great place where people can come and enjoy the museum … and relax and enjoy the skyline. So, we thought it might be kind of a fun space to also enliven with this exhibition,” Amick said. “It’s the first time we’ve done it, so we’ll be interested to see how it goes.”
She said the museum is happy to help honor an Oklahoma artist who has achieved such national and international acclaim.
“He was work was very groundbreaking … just in terms of his portrayal of Native American content, the fusion of abstraction and representation but through his lens of his experience as a Native American,” she said. “Yet it transcends being that specific and speaks to the broader human experience as well.”
For more information on the many exhibitions included in “Celebrating Allan Houser: An Oklahoma Perspective,” a yearlong collaboration marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the state’s most renowned artists, go to www.okhouser.org.