A Sunday Afternoon of Culture in Austin

A Sunday afternoon trip to two University of Texas institutions demonstrates the good and the bad of presenting culture to three rubes from Wimberley. Two exhibits on opposite sides of the University of Texas campus in Austin illustrate the ying and yang of presenting fine arts and culture to the public. The Miguel Covarrubias: A Certain Clairvoyance retrospective at the Harry Ransom Center showcases the artwork of the Mexican artist who went to New York and became renowned for drawing exaggerated caricatures of famous people for Vanity Fair back in the 1920s and 1930s, presaging the contemporary obsession of celebrity that defines modern media in the United States and, by proxy, the world. One hundred works of Covarrubias, a contemporary and friend of Diego Rivera and Frida Kalho, are displayed, including his lesser-known book illustrations, along with photographs and other memorabilia and works of others who were influenced by his freewheeling style. I was already a fan, having seen his drawings of African-American street life of Harlem shortly after he arrived in the big city in 1923, in addition to much of his Vanity Fair work. But photographs of the Covarrubias and the Riveras and fast friends such as Nickolas Muray and the Knopfs, his Impossible Interview series for Vanity Fair, matching unlikely persona such as Louisiana governor Huey Long with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and his subsequent obsession with anthropology were all new to me. While no fan of Café Society then or now, it’s hard not to envy the artist and the place and time he operated in, on his own terms, and be impressed with his subsequent scholarship into Mexico and ancient Mesoamerican cultures, especially with his book on Tehuantepec while his contemporaries admired themselves in their mirrors pursuing bloat and excess.
Curator Peter Mears does a first-rate job of putting Covarrubias in the perspective he richly deserves. Through April 24. www.hrc.utexas.edu

I was prepared to be similarly dazzled by the Signs of the Times: Life in the Swing’ Sixties exhibit at the LBJ Library as I walked into a room covered with black & white photos of British rock bands from the era, immediately spying Austinite Ian McLagan in his younger days with the Small Faces as the Dave Clark 5’s footstomping classic “Glad All Over” blasted over the sound system. Turning the corner, a holographic video image of a Go-Go girl dancing in a dance in time to the music almost sealed the deal. Too cool, I thought, and it was.

I began to get lost in the subsequent display of Sixties fashion as defined by London’s Carnaby Street, accompanied by detailed explanations that kinda sorta explained the origin of the Nehru jacket and similar accoutrements. By the time I’d reached the Sixties living room, with Sixties moderne furniture arranged around a black and white television set, I started to get the uneasy feeling this version of the Sixties was a generic, slapdash show that might play well in a library in Lubbock, but really wasn’t suited for a Presidential Library honoring the President of the Sixties. Yeah, the interactive exhibit where you can call up snippets of your favorite old television shows including the Beverly Hillbillies and Mr. Ed was cute. Some of the Motown memorabilia was noteworthy including the Supremes’ stage outfits (no photographs please, for some strange reason) and the picture of Hitsville USA, the house where Motown began. But the comedy corner with the video clip of Woody Allen delivering his shtick provided little context that related to the era and by the time I reached the psychedelic era and the Op Art movement, I was wholly underwhelmed. The gist was that things got weird in San Francisco and nowhere else. Four Gilbert Shelton posters from the Vulcan Gas Company and a brief mention that even a place like Austin came under the influence of psychedelia, underscored by an exclamation point as if that was a remarkable thing, attempted to apply a local peg to the exhibit, but failed miserably by revealing the curator’s obvious lack of knowledge what kind of changes actually were being wrought locally and regionally (many of them on this very same campus) while LBJ was running the show in DC.

The 14 year old who tagged along with us and who has allowed that Sixties music is his favorite oldies sound because “everything sounded so fresh and innocent”, came away not much more enlightened than when he came in, he informed us. Maybe it was the macro nature of the subject. Trying to make sense of the Sixties’ cultural impact in a single exhibit is too much to bite off. Breaking down into fashion, music, television, film, art or posters would have offered more specifics to chew on and digest. Maybe it was because the kid only came along so he could stop at Best Buy on the way home. Whatever it was, I took note that he was all of sudden punching the 50s station on the satellite radio a whole lot more than the 60s. www.lbjlib.utexas.edu. Through August 28.

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