Fort Worth Circle Goes to West Texas — Part 1: George Grammer at the Old Jail Art Center

George Grammer Old Jail Art Center

It has been six years since the Amon Carter Museum of American Art mounted the exhibition Intimate Modernism. The show, for the first time, put the Fort Worth Circle under a national spotlight. The group was together just for a few years, near the end of 1940s. But their influence is long and their reach is far.

The word “circle,” instead of “school,” is carefully crafted. These artists were of individual styles. They came together through a print press, wine and food, and a kindred spirit to explore art beyond their time and region.

Two artists from the Fort Worth Circle are taking the center stage at two museums in West Texas. A George Grammer exhibition is shown at the Old Jail Art Center. Some 40 miles away, his teacher Kelly Fearing, is part of the Altered State exhibition at the Grace Museum.

George Grammer show at the Old Jail Art Center, co-curated by Scott Barker and Patrick Kelly
George Grammer show at the Old Jail Art Center, co-curated by Scott Barker and Patrick Kelly

Grammer, being about 10 years junior to the rest of the group, is the youngest of the Fort Worth Circle. After the death of Kelly Fearing in 2011, he became the sole survivor. The artist, who moved to New York City in 1957, has maintained his Texas connection ever since. A few years ago, he flew into the annual Fort Worth collector show (which is the predecessor of the current Texas Art Expo show).

To a larger context, Texas modernism is getting more attention from regional and national institutions. Those singular figures, often lonesome at their time in their pursuit of modernism against regional preference, are now riding along Texas pride as cultural symbols, defiant of what the east coast elite think of Texas art.  Grammer is the first artist highlighted in the Texas Modern series at the Old Jail Art Center. Art historian Scott Barker and curator of exhibition Patrick Kelly have chosen works largely from the period of 1950s and 1960s, with scenes from both New York City and rural Texas.

It would be interesting to ask Grammer how he reconciles the hustle-bustle city living with a slow-motioned ride in endless Texas prairies. Yet, the artist demonstrates his uncanny ability to absorb the influences from places world-apart and synthesize locale-specific visual elements with his own vocabulary. The exhibition, on the whole, radiates scintillating raw energy that harmonizes urban and rural scenes into one mesmerizing experience. Be it a skyscraper in Manhattan or an oil derrick in west Texas, the humanized landscape, after all, is teeming with activity.

Offshore, 1953 by George Grammer. Collection of Morris Matson
Offshore, 1953 by George Grammer. Collection of Morris Matson

That is especially apparent at night. The dark canopy provides a common ground, above which artificial lights slice flattened space into geometric forms. They look reminiscent of Paul Klee’s grid design from the 1920s. Klee was one of the artists whose art had a long-lasting impact on the circle. On the hand other, such shapes are stacked or leaned against each other to accentuate the exaggerated proportion of pictures. No other artists within the Fort Worth Circle have such a strong propensity for high aspect ratio, either in the visual elements within or in canvases themselves.

The picturesqueness of the Texas oil field looks distinctly calmer. Offshore, a painting from 1953, exemplifies a controlled eccentricity in a traditional Texas art genre. The oil derricks are observed from afar. The light follows rigorous rhythms. The grid is patterned. Grammer’s fragmented space, a cubism tendency commonly shared within the Fort Worth Circle, retains a machine-age precision.

West from the Plaza was painted a few years later, upon his move to the big apple. The structural elongated form in oil derricks may have found its architectural echoes in New York City, yet the light is quintessential in New York. The glitz, the glamor, and the constant traffic conglomerate into a spontaneous flow of light and shade. Compared to that of Texas scenes, the picture may be less representational, but more pictorial, as one can almost trace the dashed lines as impressions of movement and activity along the streets.

Grammer gives a brief but poetic account from his perspective for many paintings in the exhibition. For Moon Through a Winter Tree, acquired by San Antonio Art League in 1957, he wrote:

A big of seasonal drama – full moon caught in a web of tree branches near Fosdick Lake.

Moon Through a Winter Tree, 1957, by George Grammer. Collection of the San Antonio Art League Museum
Moon Through a Winter Tree, 1957, by George Grammer. Collection of the San Antonio Art League Museum

The leafless branches, sprawling upward, are bathed in suffused moonlight. Despite the overall wintry tone, the main tree radiates an iridescent glow with hints of warmth.

It occurred to me that there are probably more than one thousand mid-century imageries depicting New York City with blazing energy; yet very few pictures about West Texas exude the same level of excitement. The volume may not be as symphonic as in the big apple, but the aesthetic was new – more Stravinsky than Hank Williams.

To that extent, Grammer’s Texas landscapes are some of the most memorable images of that period.

George Grammer Old Jail Art Center

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