Research in the archives: Texas Made Modern

Spruce in Big Bend, c. 1935Since it opened in 1961, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art has always had a commitment to exploring the breadth and complexity of American creativity through its collections and exhibitions. Evaluating Texas art’s importance in relation to the museum’s collection and the larger canon of American art has been one of my focuses since 2013. Though I started to work on a potential exhibition on Texas artist Everett Spruce (1908–2002) that year, the museum world’s ever-changing nature redirected my attention to other urgent and pressing projects. Although it may not seem the case, scheduling exhibitions is like solving a Rubik’s cube—there are millions of combinations and only one solution. Changes to the permanent collection, timing and availability of an exhibition according to a lending museum’s guidelines, and the complexity of each installation (are there videos or special cabinetry needed? etc.) are only some of the factors affecting an exhibition’s timing. In 2019, all the colors aligned on each side of a Rubik’s cube for a summer 2020 exhibition of Spruce’s work. I had a shorter period than usual to curate the exhibition and write the catalogue for Texas Made Modern: The Art of Everett Spruce (August 18–November 1, 2020). Because many of Spruce’s works were available to see regionally in private collections, I thought my task would be much easier than I imagined. After meeting with the artist’s daughter, Alice Spruce Meriwether, who graciously shared the inventory she compiled of her father’s artwork, I discovered that Spruce had painted over 800 artworks during his lifetime, many of which are either lost or in unknown locations.

What proved even more challenging about Spruce is that he rarely wanted to talk about his artwork or at least talk about it on the record. A few published interviews with the artist in journals later in his life offered some information on his approach to painting. But finding out what motivated Spruce early on and what he hoped to accomplish in his work proved very challenging. He preferred to paint as much as possible and describe his work as little as possible. It was largely through Spruce’s papers, correspondence, artwork, and personal photographs in the Jerry Bywaters Special Collections that I was able to piece together his ideas and aspirations for his art. Correspondence from the artist (the collection contains handwritten drafts of letters that he later typed and sent) to his different dealers provided insights into Spruce’s thoughts, even though he was reluctant to elaborate on his subjects or processes. “Have nothing of interest to say about any particular one of my pictures,” he wrote in response to one museum director. But by comparing his letters with his sketchbooks and personal photographs, like the one where he’s standing in Big Bend c. 1935, I was able to piece together his career. The Spruce holdings include rare exhibition pamphlets and catalogues that reveal much of his long and varied exhibition history. Artist Olin Travis provided Spruce with a scholarship to study at the Dallas Art Institute in 1926, and in the Olin Travis Collection, there is a unique inventory on the kinds of paints and materials Spruce used while a student under Travis. A farm boy from northern Arkansas, Spruce developed a deep communion with nature in his youth. Five years after studying at the Dallas Art Institute, he painted progressive landscapes while working days as a registrar and then a curator for the Dallas Museum of Art, where he absorbed modern art movements.

Though Spruce was not comfortable promoting himself or his painting, his artwork’s originality drew noticeable praise beginning in March 1932. The Art Digest reproduced Spruce’s painting, Night (ca. 1930s; location unknown) for its review of an art exhibit in Dallas that featured him and his colleagues Gerald “Jerry” Bywaters (1906–89), Otis Dozier (1904–87), and William Lester (1910–91), among others, who came to be known as the Dallas Nine. Because of their closeness as colleagues, I also found information about Spruce in the Jerry Bywaters Collection on Art of the Southwest.

Throughout his seven-decade career, Spruce used an array of sophisticated styles to convey his profound feelings for the land, and the rare exhibition catalogues and pamphlets in the Spruce collection reveal his long history of exhibiting in the state. Given the countless paintings Spruce produced, and the wealth of materials in the Bywaters Special Collections at Hamon Arts Library, there is much more to discover about the artist. I hope that the catalogue and exhibition, Texas Made Modern: The Art of Everett Spruce encourages other scholars to further investigate an artist who evocatively evolved his style and subjects over time, and whose art moved far beyond the regionalist label it received during and after his lifetime.

Contributor: Shirley Reece-Hughes, Curator of Paintings, Sculpture, and Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Image credit: Spruce in Big Bend, c. 1935. Everett Spruce Collection, Bywaters Special Collections, Southern Methodist University.


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