Albany is one of those small towns of Texas- by the time you read its name from a road sign, it’s almost behind you. Its museum has an unassuming name – the Old Jail Art Center. You would expect to be surrounded by bluebonnets or longhorns paintings, and be ready to associate with it the quirkiness and idiosyncrasy of all things Texas until you walk in. The wonderful art treasure trove should not be a secret kept by the two thousand local residents, but to be known and enjoyed in Texas and beyond.
The museum was founded in 1980 by Reilly Nail and his cousin Texas artist Bill Bomar, who combined their collections with their mothers ( on Asian Art) to form the core collection. Through the years, it has been expanded through key donations such as William O. Gross, Jr. Collection of pre-Columbia art, furnishings from Watt Matthew’s Lambshead Ranch, Marshall Young Jr’s fund for the outdoor sculpture garden and European art, and most recently a gift from DMA/MFA Houston‘s Barrett Collection.
Often, smaller museums that grow out of individual collections more or less reflect the eccentric and peculiar tastes of their founders. In the case of the Old Jail Art Center, Bill Bomer, who was the leading artist of the Fort Worth Circle, left the collection with a penchant for abstract and simplified forms, bridging archaic and Oriental objects with European and American modernism. Bomar, born into a wealthy family, was an avid collector throughout his life. In 2011, the museum mounted an exhibition featuring the extensive cross collection of the artist.
I was told by many collector friends that the museum’s holdings in Fort Worth Circle are strong. Yet even with the greatly expanded gallery space (added in 2009) besides the original two-story stone-walled jail building, the breadth of the collection makes it hard to showcase its deep root in Texas’ homegrown abstract and surrealist art. A few can be found in the works-on-paper gallery. “The Entertainers” by Bror Utter abstracted figurative movement into distinct angular shapes of playful colors. A landscape watercolor by Bill Bomar flattens the distance with weighty repetitive patterns of emerald green.
Unlike Bror Utter who carried a distinctive artistic style through his life, Bomar had worked in many modes, often taking the risk of venturing into directions unexplored.
Thus it is an extremely rare opportunity to learn about the artist through his gifts displayed in the permanent collection. It is not only interesting to see what the artist had collected during his lifetime, but also tempting to ponder how those personal collections are related to various styles of his own.
The elongated feature can be found both at Modigliani’s Young Girl with Braids and some small Asian and African statuettes. They echo some of Bomar’s early abstract works. For example, The Virgin Future, sold at Heritage Auctions last year, has attenuated anthropomorphic forms with distinct sculptural mass. Paul Klee’s Der Weg ins Blaue, another masterpiece from his collection, gives a special dull sheen through the use of hot wax mixed with dry pigments. Its naïve simplistic forms recall many of his 50’s paintings, such as Squares Gathered by the Sea, which inject two-dimensional elements like squares and lines, through dry brush strokes, into pictorial space.
At the first floor of the Jail building, I was surprised to see an Asian art display, mostly from the collection of Jewel Nail Bomar, the artist’s mother. (Like any other works of art on display, their labels lack the details about when the Bomar family acquired them.) It would be interesting to know what motivated her to collect tomb figurines from Wei, Sui and Tang Dynasties. The figurines created in this period have unprecedented liveliness. The sinuous forms with swaying arms or tilted toes capture dynamic moments in a happy afterlife. Yet Chinese art is mostly strung by its restrained emotions — Despite some degree of exaggeration in favor of sensual expressiveness, all these figurines keep a sense of balance and fluidity. Considering the varieties of the collection and many heritages from which Bomar could draw inspiration, it occurred to me that the collection manifests Bomar’s openness to the unlimited boundaries of art and his astute readiness in pushing new ideas. What is unchanged is his unyielding belief in the transformative power of art.
At the Sculpture Courtyard, Texas sculptor Jesús Moroles’ Granite Sun greets visitors with its grand gesture. Bill Bomar recognized his talent early on and commissioned him to make this monumental sculpture for the museum. Alternating between the unhewed raw surface and the polished one with a warm sheen, it stuns viewers with its glorious sun disk, up in the air. The consummate craftsmanship is magnified by the fact that despite its proportion, it was cut, hewed and sanded on one piece of pink granite. Given the tendency that Bomar often dramatized subjects with basic elements, it could be that he saw in Morole’s sculpture, a medium he could not command, luminosity, texture and abstraction folded in larger-than-life ambition, like his own.