The Austin Chronicle

James Housefield

So long and thanks for all the good art talk

By Rachel Koper, September 5, 2008, Arts

James Housefield has moved to the West Coast, and, as art connoisseur and cultural philanthropist Joe Long puts it, "California's gain is our great loss."

When he surprised me with the news of his departure, I actually made a gasp noise. I'm not really a gasper, but it affected my stomach in the classic cliché of "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Over the last five years, as he's served as adjunct curator at the Austin Museum of Art and professor of art history at Texas State University, Housefield has strengthened the institutions he's worked for.

I'm certainly biased, as I've been serving a three-year term as an AMOA advisory board member, but many people have appreciation for Housefield's work. AMOA Executive Director Dana Friis-Hansen wrote: "Whether it was in the classroom or the museum, for visitors, docents, or board members, Jim was always actively getting people to understand that visual art is not made in a vacuum, and connected to other cultural expressions. For example, for our 'Radical New York' exhibition, he had the group chanting the Ramones' song 'Gabba Gabba Hey!' On another occasion, he had a participatory exercise: To help people understand abstract expressionism, he lined everyone up to make gestural paintings in the air. We looked stupid doing it, we felt stupid, too, but he got everyone to understand, with physical memory and a little imagination, how de Kooning made a painting."

To inform without condescension and to lecture without seeming one-sided are two very complicated tasks at which Housefield excels. I've heard students from San Marcos say that, even with the lights out and an archaic slide show up, you'd never get sleepy or distracted during his class. He's able to address various constituencies and provide a contemporary dialogue. Know-it-alls are often boring for just that reason. It's about timing, and Housefield has pep and patience. I have a vivid memory of Housefield from the "Give a Gift of Goldsworthy" collaborative community art project that AMOA hosted in Wooldridge Square Park back in December, 2004: He was tossing dried grass up into the branches of a tree and hopping around, getting covered in haylike dust and smiling profusely, making earthwork art.

But above all, Housefield's a good educator; his knowledge of things from pop art to Postimpressionist French painting is vast, one of the things that Joe Long most appreciates about him. "James Housefield is one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic art historians that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know," he says. "The breadth of James' knowledge is astounding, and we are lucky to have had him at the Austin Museum of Art as a part-time curator."

And the man gives good art talk. Whether he's giving a behind-the-scenes tour to arts professionals, senior citizens, or kids, his open-minded style is engaging. His willingness to open himself with perky pop-culture references is one of the things that surprised me about him. His Warhol lectures and "Radical New York" tours were chock-full of lowbrow sources. This open-mindedness was not forced; he seems to want to see everything, not just art history and the past. In the future, Housefield can be counted on to maintain his fond relationships with so many in the Central Texas art community. On Sept. 5, AMOA opens an exhibit curated by Housefield, "19th and 20th Century Artists at the Turn of the Century." He'll be in town for the opening weekend, so I'm going down there to give him a squeeze and see some great art.

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