News | HIRAM BUTLER IS …HIRAM BUTLER

December 01, 2014

By Catherine D. Anspon | PaperCity Houston

CATHERINE D. ANSPON DIALOGUES WITH ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST DISCERNING ART DEALERS AS HE COMMEMORATES THREE DECADES OF EXHIBITIONS WITH THE LIKES OF JASPER JOHNS, AGNES MARTIN, FORREST BESS, TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS, VERNON FISHER AND, ABOVE ALL, THE ARTIST HE IS PERHAPS MOST IDENTIFIED WITH: JAMES TURRELL. 

“ARCHITECTURAL INSPIRATION FOR THE GALLERY? I USED TO THINK IT WAS MIES. THE MORE THAT TIME PASSES, THE MORE IT SEEMS AS THOUGH IT’S MY GRANDMOTHER’S COTTON BARN.” — Hiram Butler

IF ever a gallerist exemplifies the highest standards of a once noble profession, we would propose Hiram Butler. Modest in demeanor and understated in dress, yet unerring in aesthetics and possessing an incisive intellect, he is the standard bearer of a concept of connoisseurship that seems almost antiquated in today’s frenzied marketplace. (Butler once famously said in a public panel that he considers exhibiting in an art fair akin to sleeping with a hooker.) If the late Mrs. de Menil — who crossed the threshold of his Houston art space from its inception — were to descend from heaven to open a gallery, it would feel very much like Butler’s West End enclave. Situated amidst a manicured tropical garden oasis, it adjoins a prim turn-of-the-century Shaker-type cottage where a civilized and important contemplation of contemporary art continues undiminished after more than three decades. How did this temple to intelligent, meditative gazing come about? Here, in Butler’s own words, is the story as it unfolded.

 

THE PATH FROM EAGLE PASS, TEXAS, TO MoMA.

I went to the University of Texas, where I took art history classes from Rusty Powell (now director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). He had gone to Williams College and urged me to go there. Upon graduation from Williams, I was offered two jobs: one at Sotheby’s and one in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at the Museum of Modern Art. I took the Modern.

EARLY BRUSH WITH THE ART WORLD.

I won a library poster contest when I was in the third grade and got the Rainbow Book of Art as a prize. I pored over it. I’ll never forget the illustration of Raphael’s Assumption of the Virgin in that book. It took me a long time to get to Venice to see it.

FROM MANHATTAN TO DALLAS.

I decided to go back to UT to get an MBA after working in New York. While in school there, I was selling prints. Bill Goldston [director of fine art publisher, Universal Limited Art Editions] introduced me to Laura Carpenter [owner of Delahunty Gallery, Dallas]. She offered me a job. I took it. Two degrees was enough.

ON OPENING HIRAM BUTLER GALLERY.

It was just time for me to be on my own. I have great respect and affection for Laura. She taught me a lot. A majority of the artists I work with are artists she introduced me to. Rather than open up a gallery across the street from Laura and compete with her, I decided to move to Houston. I have loved Houston since my first visit. There is no other similar concentration of museums and alternative spaces for contemporary art in Texas like that in Houston — MFAH, Menil, CAMH, Blaffer, Rice, DiverseWorks and Lawndale. I will never forget visiting Houston the first time and seeing the MFAH. Walking into the Brown Pavilion was transcendent. Gary Tinterow has taken it back to being that way again. Bravo!

ON YOUR HALCYON YEAR: 1984.

It was very different. Small. Menil was not open. There were three curators at the MFAH — George Shackelford, Alison Greene, and Anne Tucker. The Menil Collection [pre-museum] was essentially Walter Hopps and Paul Winkler. Walter was always available and was a frequent, often daily visitor to the gallery. Meredith Long and Janie C. Lee were welcoming and supportive. Rick Lowe, Dean Ruck and Nestor Topchy were all living together in a compound in Rice Military that was a great lab for art. What they have done is remarkable. They are working on projects here that could not be realized anywhere else. Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses, Dean Ruck and Dan Havel’s interventions such as Inversion, Nestor Topchy’s TemplO and Jim Pirtle‘s Notsuoh. Sometimes you might see something of equal ambition at Documenta, but I haven’t seen work like this anywhere in this country. Project Row Houses is the primary site for the study and implementation of art and social practice, period.

FIRST SPACE.

The old gallery was on Portsmouth between Kirby and Greenbriar. It was a renovated Laundromat. It is now part of a car dealership.

EARLY CLIENTS.

The University of Texas was my first client — for Rauschenberg’s Traces. Then The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu [now part of the Honolulu Museum of Art]. Anne Tucker bought photographs very early on. Before I moved to Houston, an MFAH curator at the time, Judith McCandless, bought a Johns etching from me. I will never forget February 1985. I hadn’t sold anything and thought it was over. A collector [who is still a client] came in, bought a Vernon Fisher painting, left me a check, and it made the month.

ON MRS. DE MENIL’S VISITS.

Mrs. de Menil came to the gallery on Portsmouth and later on Blossom. I remember she came to see Michael Tracy on Portsmouth and Terrell James on Blossom. Walter [Hopps] brought her to see Terrell’s exhibition because there was a piece he wanted The Menil Collection to buy. I’ll never forget that she asked for a glass of water — “Half a glass,” she said, then added, “Not too much.” Alison Greene has seen every exhibition I have done. I couldn’t ask for more. Walter Hopps saw every exhibition when he was alive. I had to keep ashtrays and coffee for him.

EARLY STANDOUTS.

The two most important exhibitions on Portsmouth were Vernon Fisher’s installation and the Forrest Bess exhibition. We sold all the Bess paintings to Hirschl & Adler Modern [New York]. I was thrilled. Was I naive. They sold them for 10 times what I did.

ON SHOWING FORREST BESS EARLY ON.

The Forrest Bess exhibition [1987] happened because of Terrell James. She worked for me in the gallery at the time and had worked on his archive for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. She introduced me to his work and was instrumental in helping me organize and track it down. Walter Hopps also figured into the mix, urging us to do it. I was friends with Howard Barnstone; he was a Bess collector and must have had something to do with it.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF MR. BESS.

I was taken by the quality of the tiny paintings and how someone from such an isolated place as a bait camp in Chinquapin, Texas could carry on a correspondence with Carl Jung and Meyer Schapiro and make work that was exhibited at Betty Parsons.

MILESTONES.

I did an exhibition [in Spring 1985] of Twombly drawings from the 1960s. No one was interested. Helen Winkler came and brought her children. I also did an exhibition of all of Diane Arbus’ work [1988]. Anne Tucker put me in touch with a collector who generously lent it all.

ON THE BEGINNING OF THE BLOSSOM STREET GALLERY.

I found the tear-down that is now my house and tried to buy it in 1987. I loved the simplicity of the shape of it. The owner wouldn’t sell it to me. I kept pestering him and asked him why he wouldn’t sell an abandoned house. He said because he owned the rest of the property on the block and that it would kill his investment to break off a piece of it. He offered me the whole parcel, which of course I couldn’t buy because I couldn’t get financing and said so. He said he’d finance it if I brought him a plan. I brought him a plan for the house, garden and gallery. He liked it, and it was financed as a built to suit with a lease option to purchase after five years. We did it.

VINTAGE OF YOUR COTTAGE.

The house was probably moved here in 1880 from a spot closer to the bayou after a flood. It was probably built 10 or 15 years earlier. The roof had fallen in, and the piers had sunken to the ground. Squirrels had filled the walls with pecans up to about four feet. There was no plumbing. It still had an outhouse.

BLOSSOM’S UNVEILING.

The gallery opened in September 1988, a year after The Menil Collection opened. Harvey Phillips of Dallas was the architect. I was introduced to him by Laura Carpenter.

GARDEN DESIGNER.

Johnny Steele, with a big overlay of late collector Sue Pittman.

FOUR DEFINING SHOWS FROM THE EARLY YEARS.

1. James Turrell print exhibition [1990] that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It came to me, and then I sent it on to Williams College. It was later exhibited at the Kunstmuseum Basel, when Josef Helfenstein [the current Menil director] was the curator there. It is a small world we operate in.

2. Walter Hopps asked us to show Rauschenberg’s Shirtboards while his retrospective was up at MFAH, CAMH and Menil [1998]. He wanted to show them but was short of space. I happily adjusted my schedule.

3. Dean Ruck’s installations. The one of hay, which was a play on Walter de Maria’s Earth Room, was spectacular [1995]. 4. A group show of Virgil Grotfeldt, Joseph Havel and James Surls [1993].

LONGEST-STANDING ARTISTS IN THE STABLE.

Timothy Greenfi eld-Sanders, Vernon Fisher and James Turrell. I actually worked with them before coming to Houston. I met Timothy in New York in 1979. He had an apartment for rent in the East Village. I was his tenant. I showed Turrell’s work for years before meeting him. Helen Winkler introduced me to James after a lecture of his at Rice.

ON MoMA COMING TO DINNER.

Glenn Lowry brought a group of MoMA trustees to Houston. After they visited the Turrell Quaker Meeting House, I had them for supper. Several weeks after they had visited, I got a call from Glenn, MoMA’s museum director. I had to take a deep breath, knowing I was going to sell something to the Modern. He asked if I shared recipes and would I give him my recipe for mustard mousse.

AROUND THE DINNER TABLE.

Another great guest was Octavio Paz. He had been staying at the medical center for days, waiting for a heart procedure. He called and said that we shared a good friend, Bob Littman. He said he was sick of hospital food. I invited him for dinner, and over he came. I have to admit I didn’t cook that night. I rushed home and started cleaning house. I realized I was in trouble, so I called my friend George Shackelford and asked him if he could make a home-cooked meal and bring it over. He did, and no one was the wiser.

PERSONAL TREASURES.

I collect Greek antiquities, specifically pots. The earliest I own is 9th-century BC. The most important and perhaps beautiful is on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: It is 4th-century BC and by the Achilles Painter. All the rest of my pots are at the Williams College Museum of Art. I love them, but since I essentially live in a shack, it would be irresponsible for me to keep them at home. What might become of them in a hurricane?

WHY GREEK POTS AND NOT CONTEMPORARY ART.

Besides the fact that they are exquisite, they are the beginning of Western art, and I love them … I have collected contemporary prints and drawings, and even though the prints are multiples, I realized that ultimately I was in competition with my clients. If I wanted to do the best for them, I had to sell what was in my personal collection. The number of times I’ve had the perfect Terrell James field study in my house then had to sell it is a joke between Terrell and me. And so it has been with my Jasper Johns’ Flags.

TOP SHOWS AT HIRAM BUTLER

GALLERY ACROSS THE DECADES.

“Cy Twombly, Drawings from the 1960s,” 1985.

“James Turrell, First Light,” 1990.

“Brice Marden, Etchings to Rexroth,” 1987.

“Herzog & de Meuron 1994,” before they had built anything in the U.S., 1994.

“Forrest Bess, Paintings,” 1986.

“Dean Ruck, Hay Room,” 1995.

A STEALTH ENTRANCE INTO RIENZI.

Once when Richard Serra was here, he wanted to visit Rienzi. It was a Monday, and it was closed. I couldn’t get Alison Greene or Peter Marzio on the phone to get permission to get in, so I pulled into the drive at Rienzi, rang the buzzer, and said I was Jackson Hicks with an assistant and I need to get in to plan an upcoming event — open sesame.

ON HOW YOU AND ANDREW MET.

Andrew [Spindler-Roesle] and I met at Houstonian Bettie Cartwright’s summer home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She invited me for dinner, and Andrew was there.

TYING THE KNOT.

We were married twice under the care of the Live Oak Friends (Quaker) Meeting. The first time was at the Meeting House in Houston. The second time was a month later at the Rocky Hill Meeting House in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

THE HOUSTON-BOSTON COMMUTE.

I spend at least a week a month there, and Andrew spends at least a week a month here. We usually meet someplace else at least once a month because of family, friends, work or vacation. We actually spend more time together than most couples we know who live in the same house. When we are together, we are together. We work together. We socialize together.

AESTHETICS YOU SHARE.

We are both obsessed with connoisseurship. Is it real? Is it good? Could it be better? We both love art in its many manifestations and are too frequently indifferent to practical matters. The gallery has radically changed since I met Andrew. If he even gets a whiff that I don’t think something is good enough or done well enough, he is unrelenting in making me get it to be better.

WHERE YOU FIND NEW TALENT.

Artists have always introduced me to other artists. That is how it happens.

ARTISTS YOU SHOW WHO HAVE CHANGED ART HISTORY.

James Turrell. Robert Wilson.

NEXT TRIP.

Gloucester, where Andrew and I are hosting a group from Germany attending the opening of the new Fogg at Harvard, then New York for a meeting on finishing Roden Crater, and then on to Basel to the antiquities fair to see Greek pots. The travel schedule is really ridiculous. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

FAVORITE MUSEUM ANYWHERE.

I love the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — its mission, its collections, its architecture, its library and all the wonderful people that work there and are my friends. I’ve grown with it. Andrew and I have the same relationship with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I also love the purity of The Menil Collection.

COLLABORATIONS AND THE FUTURE.

Devin Borden and I worked together longer than anyone, and we did significant projects together. The Isabel Wilson Tunnel by James Turrell at the MFAH is just one. Devin’s contribution to the gallery was so great that we added his name. Like all good things, it had to come to an end. Devin opened a gallery on Main Street a few years ago. I love what he does. We remain friends and see one another’s exhibitions. Josh Pazda and I have been working together six or eight years now. He’s terrific. As happy as my relationships have been with his predecessors, this seems to be the final fit. I don’t think he will leave; I will, and the gallery will essentially become his. I don’t plan to ever completely stop being involved with the gallery. I am, however, committed to raising money for the completion of Roden Crater, and that’s going to take a lot of time and focus.

PARTING THOUGHT.

I would like to add something about Isabel Wilson. She was my great patron and supporter.