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Doing It Up Big: Dallas Artist In Two Museums At Once

bates and thistles

David Bates at the Fort Worth Modern, pointing to Sunflowers & Thistles IIIPhoto credit: Jerome Weeks

It may well be unprecedented for a living American artist. This weekend, two museums are simultaneously opening shows on Dallas artist David Bates. One will feature his paintings, the other his sculptures. KERA’s Jerome Weeks looks into how Fort Worth’s Museum of Modern Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center decided to do such a project together.

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It helped that when Marla Price, the director of the Modern, and Jeremy Strick, the director of the Nasher, came to Texas, they were already fans of David Bates’ artwork. Price moved to Fort Worth in 1987 to be chief curator at the Modern. She’d seen Bates’ work in Washington and New York, “and I was just completely taken by it. When I saw it, I thought, Here is a real painter. This guy loves to paint.”

Within two years of Price’s arrival in North Texas, she’d given Bates his first museum show. Bates grew up in Dallas, graduated from SMU. In 1976, he went to New York to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program. But the Manhattan art scene at the time was all about video and performance art and conceptual art. Painting, he was told, was pretty much dead. So Bates came back to Texas — because he wanted to paint. “I decided I wanted to be a realist painter more than anything else,” he says.

It was not the smartest career path to follow. Bates basically woodshedded it. He went back to SMU to study art history, got his MFA and kept plugging away at his art. He found his first, great, breakthrough subject with the people, the animals and the swampscape of Grassy Lake in Arkansas. Others would follow, notably the Gulf Coast and post-Katrina New Orleans.

Along the way, he developed his own blocky, thick, heavily-outlined style, combining folk art with German Expressionist painters like Max Beckmann, the earthy solidity of Cezanne and Monet’s obsessional encounter with nature, painting his water garden dozens of times. As a result, Bates’ paintings are popular and accessible — these are recognizable portraits, magnolias and beer cans. But they’re also big, blunt, funky and viscerally painted, as if he used a caulk gun and his fingers. It’s why he likes his canvases big, he says. He couldn’t be the kind of realist painter who uses a tiny, three-hair brush and squinted through a jeweler’s loupe. Bates has an easy-going, self-deprecating view of his own craft and technique: He’ll point out that almost everyone he paints tends to look like one of his own self-portraits. Nevertheless, today, Bates has artworks in the Smithsonian, New York’s Metropolitan, the Hirshhorn in D.C., the Carnegie in Pittsburgh – and the Whitney, among many others.

But in the past 15 years or so, Bates has also moved into sculpture. He explains that his oil paintings were getting so thick — van Gogh-thick — they were already coming off the walls, becoming reliefs. Adding that third dimension, and just getting them off the walls completely, didn’t take much.

And sculpture is where the Nasher comes in. Jeremy Strick explains that Bates has a long history with the Nasher. Raymond Nasher bought Bates’ artworks and Bates studied the collection intensely. The influences of Matisse and Picasso, for instance, are plain.

photo (10)photo (11)From two dimensions to three: At the Modern, viewers can see Bates re-work the same Laocoon-like subject — from his early Grassy Lake work, The Dock Builder (1987), through various drawings, until he makes it into the painted wood relief, Man with Snake (1995).

So when Price and Strick were at lunch more than two years ago, and she suggested their museums collaborate in presenting simultaneous shows on Bates, it made sense. It also helped that Strick and Price have known each other for years. Two decades ago, they were both starting out as curators at the National Gallery in Washington.

Strick says the museums’ parallel shows are meant to convey the full scope of Bates’ achievements. Combined, more than 100 artworks will be on display. But there’s another motivating factor: Strick and Price has been looking for collaborations.

“One of the things that people said to me when I first came to Dallas was Fort Worth and Dallas don’t necessarily do that much together,” Strick says. “And you know, my perception was that there were all kinds of connections, particularly among artists. And so I thought this would be a nice way to challenge that idea a bit and this could be, there could be real conversation.”

As for Bates, he says he was stunned by the proposal. Recently, just watching the preparations has made him appreciate even more how rare this alignment is for an artist.

“All these paintings’re coming in from the Met and the Whitney,” he says, “and all the couriers are there and they’re all unpacking things and going over them with a fine-toothed comb — I’ve never felt more dead in my life.  I mean, it’s like usually what happens after you’re gone. It’s like I died and I went to heaven.”

Seems like that move back to North Texas paid off, after all.