Ben L. Culwell: Mid-Century Drawings
September 10 through November 1, 2011
Ben L. Culwell (1918-1992) was born in San Antonio, Texas. In New York during the late-1930s he came into contact with the American Abstract Artists Group before joining the U.S. Navy prior to the outbreak of war in the Pacific.
Culwell’s development from an artist working in a regional style typical to America in the late-1930s to an Abstract Expressionist by 1950, was highlighted by a series of critical exposures in Texas and New York. The personal and artistic influence of Jerry Bywaters and Everett Spruce fostered an interest in print making and experimental technique while Culwell was still a teenager. They also made possible access to a trove of German Expressionist works moved to Dallas for safekeeping following the rise of Nazi power in Germany.
It was under the tutelage of Walter Pach at Columbia University in New York and friendships with artists including Ad Reinhardt that Culwell first came to know the work of the European avant-garde, including the Surrealists, in private collections and at the Museum of Modern Art, then itself in its first decade. However, whatever ambitions Culwell might have had to pursue a professional career as a painter were brushed aside as it became increasingly apparent that the U.S. would be drawn into the Second World War.
It was aboard the U.S.S. Pensacola that Culwell produced many of the drawings in the current exhibition. Culwell had a personal revulsion to violence and was not eager to join the Army. And so, before he was drafted, he volunteered for naval service. Ultimately his choice led him to become a Captain’s Yeoman where he had limited access to certain materials available as office supplies. It should be noted that there were numerous officially appointed artists at work in both Europe and the Pacific during the war, but Culwell was not one of them. He created “his little paintings,” as he called them, as a personal endeavor. They uniquely record the experience of a combatant – who happened to be an artist – and are very unlike official works sanctioned for journalism or propaganda.
The harsh conditions of war instilled in Culwell a pronounced empathy that speaks in the drawings. Combining this hard-earned wisdom with a vigor of immediacy that drew upon the influence of his peers within the nascent Abstract Expressionist movement, Culwell’s small works achieve a potent, challenging vocabulary. And for that he was recognized by a small circle. Curator Dorothy Miller introduced Culwell alongside Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, Mark Tobey and others for the first time during Fourteen Americans, a seminal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. In 1957, Walter Hopps happened upon an image of Culwell’s work from that catalog. Years later he sought out Culwell who was living in Temple, Texas, to see if the actual works would be as arresting as the image he so vividly recalled. He was not disappointed.
Ultimately Hopps considered Culwell to be among only three Texas artists to be engaged in the historical development of Abstract Expressionism, the others being Forrest Bess and Joseph Glasco. He was finally able to realize Ben L. Culwell: Adrenaline Hour in 1987, as the curator of the inaugural exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston. These pictures — small, fraught with emotional tension, were executed with an equally tense line and a palette at once vibrant and brutal, all while Culwell’s ship was egaged in some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. Though crafted more than half a century ago, these works maintain their timeliness thanks to Culwell’s own keen perceptions of himself and the world around him. Culwell’s work is included in permanent collections, including MoMA, the Menil Collection, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.