13 NOVEMBER - 21 DECEMBER 1997
“To the absent friend” is Howard’s inscription on the first of the fifty-four drawings he sent daily to his friend and mentor Douglas MacAgy during a period when MacAgy was hospitalized for tuberculosis. MacAgy (1913-1973) was a curator and museum director renowned for his early support of artists such as Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. These letter-sized drawings, alternately humorous, ribald, and touching, provide an intimate glimpse into Howard and MacAgy’s friendship and the artist’s psyche. Howard sent one each day from New Year’s Eve, 1944 through February 22, 1945, when he inscribed the last, “To the friend returned.” The drawings, loaned by the Menil Collection and never before shown publicly, offer visitors the opportunity to contemplate the subtle nature and nuances of a friendship seen through art.
“During the 1950s and 1960s, the MacAgys made a wonderful contribution to contemporary art in this city, so these remarkable drawings should be of great interest to Houstonians,” says gallery director Kimberly Davenport. “They tell an inspiring story about a friendship that endures over time, through illness and separation, pain and joy. Rice Gallery is delighted to present this exhibition drawn from the Menil Collection’s extraordinary holdings.”
The MacAgys made great contributions to the arts in Texas. Jermayne MacAgy (1914-1964) focused her energies on Houston. From 1955 through 1959 she served as the first professional director of the Contemporary Arts Association, the forerunner of the present day Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. She went on to found the University of St. Thomas’ art history department with her friends John and Dominique de Menil. Charles Howard’s drawings came to the Menil Collection through Jermayne’s bequest. Douglas MacAgy served as director of the now-defunct Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts from 1959 through 1964. He also guest curated an exhibition of Pop Art for Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 1963.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Charles Howard was born in New Jersey in 1889. Raised in Berkeley, California he was a member of a family of celebrated architects, painters, and sculptors. Howard graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a BA in journalism in 1922 and did graduate work in English at Harvard and Columbia Universities. Howard was not formally trained as an artist but embarked on an artistic career after an epiphany that occurred during a trip to Italy in 1924.
In the town of Castelfranco, north of Venice, Howard was mesmerized by the beauty of a Giorgione altarpiece. After leaving the chapel, he became violently ill and immediately returned to Paris to begin painting. In 1926 he returned to the United States where he lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village and worked painting murals for a decorating firm. This experience comprised his only formal art education. Howard had his first solo exhibition of drawings in 1926 at the Whitney Studio Club, the precursor to the Whitney Museum, and later was represented by the influential New York dealer Julien Levy. He married the English painter Madge Knight and they moved to London in 1934, where his social circle included avant-garde artists like Henry Moore and where he was exposed to European Surrealism and abstraction.
The advent of World War II and the onslaught of the blitzkrieg forced the couple to return to the United States. From 1940 to 1946 Howard and Knight lived in San Francisco, a refuge for the international avant-garde. There they became close friends with Douglas and Jermayne MacAgy. Douglas MacAgy, a curator at the San Fransciso Museum of Art and then the influential director of the California School of Fine Arts, championed Howard’s work. His wife, Jermayne MacAgy, organized Howard’s 1946 retrospective at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, where she served as the acting director. Among Howard’s many colleagues were Bay Area modernists including his brother Richard Howard, Clyfford Still, and Clay Spohn. Howard made a significant artistic contribution to this community by introducing European approaches to art to students and artists alike. Howard and Knight returned to London after the war, where he continued to teach and paint until his death in 1978.