Painter and sculptor HJ Bott is a veteran of the Houston art scene with a distinguished career dating back at least to 1952, when he made tape-and-graphite drawings that, at least in reproduction — the Sicardi Gallery show revisiting them predated my stint as Houston Chronicle art critic — look as fresh and alive as if he'd just knocked them out a hot minute ago.
HJ Bott, Justify Balance, 1952. Tape and graphite on paper. Image stolen off the Internet but used, hopefully, courtesy of the artist.
Bott also came to be my most regular correspondent while I was at the paper. The backlog of emails I owe him would take longer than I'll be on the road — journey length still to be determined, but I've paid my rent through the end of February — to clear. He read my weekly Eye on Art feature with the eye of, not just an artist, but an inexhaustible art enthusiast, then had the modesty and kindness, when we finally met in person at a group show opening at Anya Tish Gallery, to act as if he was the one who should be honored to make my acquaintence. This from a man whose resume reflects inclusion in more than 60 public collections and more than 75 solo exhibitions, including — you can feel the pride, and rightly so — a 1952 show in a restroom in the Wendover, Utah bus station. (I really hate that I missed that one.)
Unsurprisingly, Bott was among the early roster of art- and journalism- and sex-worker-world luminaries to grant me permission to tag them in my Facebook image of the "I Know That Ho" sticker, which soon may also grace t-shirts. This morning I woke to a new comment in that thread from him, which read, simply: "Really miss your critical writings."
To which I have two things to say:
1.) Although this blog has been heavily in autobiographical mode the last few days and will continue to be that way — lots of old memories are being stirred up and new ones being lived — more critical writings are coming up, including a piece on the extraordinary convergence in having Walter De Maria: Trilogies at the Menil Collection on view at the same time as Andrei Molodkin: Crude at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art; a roundup of road-trip-worthy exhibitions at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Kimbell Museum of Art and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; reflections on museums I've visited on this excursion; and a new occasional series called "Pillow Talk," in which I post the sweet nothings I'd whisper into the ears of key art-world and media figures — male or female; gay, bi, bi-curious or straight — if they hired me. First up will be Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Gary Tinterow, the next director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
2) If you miss having my critical voice at the paper, the best thing to do about it is to get to work on pressuring the Chronicle to replace it. The brass acted swiftly to replace me on the society beat, even though the paper has been paying Lindsey Love a full-time salary with benefits to treat the job as a hobby. (Since Shelby Hodge left, the paper has gone from paying one person a full-time salary to do society to paying one-and-a-half people, with lifestyle editor Molly Glentzer often having to chip in, all while giving less space in the paper to the coverage than ever.) Meanwhile, the most recent visual-arts post on 29-95.com, the Chronicle's entertainment site, is still — you got it — the unbylined "report" on the vandalism of the Menil Collection/Art Guys tree. The Chronicle knows it can get away with this because 90 percent of the Houston art scene — probably a low-ball estimate — still has no idea I'm gone. I've said it before and I'll say it again: It took two years from people to stop asking me if I was filling in for my predecessor, Patricia C. Johnson.
Ironically, rumor — and it is just a rumor — has it that the paper was considering restoring the art-writer position to full time. Why would it do this, given what I just wrote above? Because Museums of Texas, the special section I put together as close to single-handedly as it gets when the American Association of Museums had its annual meeting in Houston last year, did what all the bullshit fluff the Chronicle prefers to churn out — Gloss, Sam (a joke of a "men's magazine"), The Good Life, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. — didn't do: It sold ads like crazy, more than $110,000 worth, I heard.
And now features has to replace that ad revenue in 2012 or it's screwed. I tried telling anyone who would listen that the way to do it was to beef up arts coverage, get rid of that hideous Zest tabloid and replace it with a broadsheet that looked as good as Museums of Texas, but as usual Hearst and the Chronicle learned the wrong lesson and went for the easy solution. Rather than woo readers and advertisers back with quality day in and day out, the paper decided to put out more special sections, which, while doing well individually, have the effect of gutting the already emaciated day-to-day coverage of a big-city daily's beats. Believe me, I tried changing that culture from the inside, but in the end, the only way to make a meaningful impact was to force the paper to fire me and send them scrambling to figure out how to replace me.
But with whom? Lord knows I've tried wooing Regina Hackett, the former art critic of the former Seattle Post-Intelligencer, out of her Greta Garbolike seclusion, but to no avail. That woman is one tough nut to crack. But last night's must-read post on Real Clear Arts, a blog by veteran journalist Judith H. Dobrzynski — who who came frighteningly close to scooping me on the MFAH finalists-story last month — makes it real clear to me that Houston needs Dobrzynski. Badly.
Don't ask me how, but while another blogger with a national audience — who for now shall remain nameless, but not for long — whines about being only one person and therefore needing to remain oblivious to art in Houston, all while viciously attacking any media outlet that fails to align its priorities with his (oops, I've outed his gender), Dobrzynski has a knack for noticing what's important just about everywhere. She's been keeping such a sharp eye on Houston for so long that I've always viewed her remote coverage with a mixture of fear and admiration. (Last night's post about intrigue at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston came on the heels of her critical review of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. The woman iseverywhere.)
If the Chronicle hires Dobrzynski, who aptly wrote that "Tinterow's move will be good for both museums," she won't be subjected to the humiliation and brain-cell hemmorhaging that accompanies the 11 a.m. Monday-morning society meeting with Glentzer and Love, which occurs promptly at 12:43 p.m. Tuesdays, when Love finally bothers to show up. (Actually, to her credit, lately Love had started showing up more or less on time, which totally threw my coping mechanisms out of whack, but don't get me started.)
More importantly, Dobrzynski will bring a bigger-picture perspective and deeper relationships with a wider array of important sources than I ever had time to develop. Houston needs all three, desperately. (So does the Chronicle, which could use the Pulitzer Dobrzynski might land it.)
What if Chron won't hire her or she's happy as a one-woman band and doesn't want the job, which I haven't exactly depicted as a bed of roses? Then all I can ask is that she keep a closer watch on Houston than ever. The scoops are there for the taking. And I can make an offer similar to the one I made the anonymous-but-not-for-long offer: If you and I are in the same town at the same time, lunch or drinks — preferably drinks — are on me, and I'll fill you in on what I know. Which, in Dobrzynski's case, will probably turn out to be less than she does.
And for Dobrzynski, I'll throw in a free lap dance if she wants one and promises to grade it on a white-boy curve.