A major retrospective traveling through Texas, “Alexandre Hogue—An American Visionary—Paintings and Works on Paper,” belongs on 2011’s must-see list. The paintings, drawings and prints in this exhibition come from sixty-five private collectors and institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum inWashington, D.C. and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Viewers will wonder why Hogue (1898–1994), who painted for seventy-five years, is not more widely represented in the history of twentieth-century American art. This exhibition and the accompanying monograph, by art critic and curator Susie Kalil (Texas A&M University Press, 2010), help establish Hogue’s position as a thoughtful and provocative American artist. After studying in Minneapolis and working in New York in the early 1920s, Hogue made his career in the Dallas area through 1945, spending much time around Taos and the Southwest. In 1945, he became head of the art department at theUniversityofTulsa. Hogue retired in 1968 but continued to travel and paint through his final years. The fact that Hogue is best known for his Depression-era Dust Bowl paintings might be misleading, for it has locked him into the category of Regionalist or American Scene painter. Kalil reproduces a lengthy retort from Hogue in which he remarks: “Pigeonholing is a stupid act of the writers. I am an American artist who happens to prefer to live and work away from New York.”
In Hogue’s 1926 painting Sangre de Cristo (oil on canvas, private collection), the blood-red mountains of northern New Mexico rise above the Indian pueblos below. The inhabitants seem to interact comfortably with nature, with a reverence for all that looms around them. Many of Hogue’s paintings reinterpret a similar compositional theme: vast, sublime landscapes with an indication of human settlement below, as in Oil in the Sandhills (1944, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Pompidou Centre, Paris) and Hondo Canyon Cliffs (1941, Tulsa Performing Arts Center). Yet very early on, Hogue recognized the exploitative elements of human progress. For example, the jewel-like painting, Irrigation—Taos (1931, oil on canvas, Permanent Collection of theArt Museum ofSouth Texas) is layered like striations, from the azure-hued mountains in the distance through the stream in the foreground. At the extreme lower right, an organized stack of bricks is a stand-in for the men who irrigate the land. The diagonally arranged bricks function like a baroque curtain, at once concealing and revealing the idyllic scene beyond. The partial wall threatens, however subtly, to obscure the entire landscape.
Among Hogue’s most frequently reproduced images are Erosion No. 2—Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936, oil on canvas, Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa) and The Crucified Land (1939, oil on canvas, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa). They are rightfully considered among his greatest works. Hogue’s concern for the earth is profoundly rendered in meticulous brushwork with flawless tones (pastels in Erosion No. 2 and high-keyed colors in The Crucified Land) in this series that has earned him the title of “ecological” painter. According to Ms. Kalil, Hogue used the term “psychorealism” for his technique of arranging symbols logically, so the viewer feels as if the scene had actually occurred. Distinct from surrealism, psychorealism plays on the conscious mind. The primally distressing Erosion No. 2, with its voyeuristic point of view and raping plow in the foreground, almost makes the viewer complicit. The exhibition includes masterful drawings for the final painting that show Hogue’s alterations to the composition and concept.
Does Hogue’s visual commentary on our penchant for destruction make his work cynical? The scrupulous brushwork, bright palette and detailed geological formations suggest an underlying hopefulness. This artist’s decades-long trajectory pertains to the creative miracle of mark-making. If it parallels American industry’s carving into the landscape, then there is hope in both cases for a reevaluation. Hogue’s paintings undergo a radical shift in the 1960s with a series of calligraphically based numbers and letters. There is even a striking series of Moonshot paintings in the 1970s. In these two series, he turns, respectively, inward, toward the very basis of image-making, and outward to the universe, exploring the possibilities of the future. In his later years, Hogue repeatedly returned to a series of grand landscapes of Big Bend, Texas. From the earliest portraits through the final unfinished sketch for Big Bend, the artist’s voice never wavers. Hogue was decades ahead of his time. These paintings and drawings position him as an astute witness to a changing America. “Alexandre Hogue—An American Visionary—Paintings and Works on Paper” was on view at the Art Museumof South Texas through April 3, 2011. The exhibition travels to the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas(May 5–August 20, 2011) and to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (September 16–November 30, 2011).
—Katie Robinson Edwards