How a Group of 20-Something Art Students Brought Progressive Art to the Lone Star State

Emily Nathan
Aug 20, 2014 6:37PM

Though they represent a little-known moment in Texan art history, the small group of 20-something art students who met in the 1940s at the Fort Worth School of Fine Arts can reasonably be credited with bringing progressive art to the Lone Star State. There, drawn together by their shared appreciation for art, dance, music, theater, and myth—and their unflagging belief in the transcendent power of culture as an antidote to the destruction of war—Lia Cuilty, Veronica Helfensteller, Marjorie Johnson and Bror Utter formed the so-called Fort Worth Circle.

Other members were assimilated soon thereafter: Dickson Reeder, a high school classmate of Utter’s, assumed leadership with his New Yorker wife, Flora Blanc, along with Arkansas-born Kelly Fearing. Throughout the entirety of the ’40s, the Circle pioneered new avenues for artistic expression, eschewing the era’s prevailing aesthetic preference for conservative regionalism and Texas’s typical “bluebonnet school” of late Impressionism: Thomas Kinkade-esque landscapes featuring hillsides pulsing with the state’s signature cobalt flowers.

Instead, these forward-thinking individualists turned to Europe for inspiration, drawing whimsical, almost Surrealist compositions from the likes of Paul Klee and Giorgio de Chirico, or elongated figural forms from Amedeo Modigliani. Helfensteller—one of the group’s founders and a Fort Worth native—favored dark, exotic-beast-populated dreamscapes, and often worked in watercolor with loose, gestural strokes that evoked the touch and feel of Marc Chagall. Fearing, meanwhile, embraced abstraction, incorporating haunting allegories into his spare, graphic compositions, and Utter took cues from both the Italian Renaissance and modern design movements, rendering classical figures in vibrant gouaches that recalled cubist deconstructions of space, and even Bauhaus furniture. Although the 1950s ushered in a new period of development for American art, many of the Circle’s members became influential teachers, and their ever-revolutionary ideas have continued to shape and inform the region’s growing art community.

Emily Nathan