The artwork of Alexandre Hogue is on exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
Yes, that museum, not the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Hogue's work would fit nicely at the Carter, but that institution had to pass on the exhibition, which chronicles the 75-year career of this self-taught artist, whose work is held in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Centre Pompidou, as well as many museums in Texas and Oklahoma and numerous private collections.
There are more than 150 pieces, the largest retrospective of his work to ever be exhibited. The works were amassed by independent curator Susie Kalil, former managing editor of Art Lies -- and they are quite a lot to display.
The Museum of Science and History was eager to mount the exhibit, as it offered an opportunity to combine its geological and natural history collections with Hogue's artwork. On the museum's ground floor are two learning labs, one for studying rocks and animals that appear in Hogue's paintings; the other lab has long tables set up with paints, crayons, colored pencils and markers for re-creating Hogue-like landscapes.
The artist was an early advocate of environmental responsibility and painted the drought-ravaged landscapes of the early 1930s as equal parts man-made and nature-caused disaster. These meditations on devastation are prescient; he fully anticipated another cataclysmic disaster, saying, "Mark my words, in the next century water will be the core issue."
His paintings of the Dust Bowl are his most famous and the ones most often on exhibit, but in the decades after the Dust Bowl, Hogue created several series that bear little resemblance to the drought-stricken Southwest. These are a revelation, as so many of them look quite contemporary. Hogue's work has always looked ahead of its time. When area museums have mounted surveys of the Dallas Nine, painters from the '30s and '40s with whom he was associated, his work has always stood out. It looks more colorful and commanding, but it is always his work from the first half of the 20th century. Rarely seen are his later works.
His series of numbers and letters from the '60s, such as Lucky 13, are graphic, hard-edged poplike pieces with a sense of humor, and the swirling Arabic-like alphabet forms of the early '70s are similar to things contemporary artists are doing today. These all have a meticulous edge that came from Hogue's early training as a sign painter -- his only formal education in art. Nonetheless, he became the head of the art department at the University of Tulsa, a job he held from 1945 to 1963.
He was quite familiar with the various deserts of the American Southwest, but when he discovered the Big Bend, he found his muse.
"It is my favorite desert. The deserts in Arizona and New Mexico are pretty much the same, but the geological variety in the Big Bend is the greatest thing I've ever encountered," he said.
The land formations fascinated him, and the subsequent paintings -- many of them made when he was in his 90s -- are his best work. "I could paint these for 100 years and never repeat myself," he said. There is one on display, unfinished, that he was working on when he died, at age 96.
The Hogue exhibit will appeal to the connoisseur of early Texas art, as this painter was one of the very best. It should also prove to be an engaging outing for families, as the learning labs offer children a hands-on way to process the art exhibit they have just seen.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113