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The Oak Cliff 4 (or 5): When Funky Art Ruled Dallas – and Beyond

by Brendan McNally 31 May 2013 12:20 PM

A Grey Matters show plus a DMA retrospective makes us wonder: Why did this group of Dallas artists catch the national eye?


  • Gray Matters Gallery opened ‘Made in Oak Cliff’ with a reception Saturday night. Here”s our report.
  • The Dallas Museum of Art exhibition ‘DallasSITES,’ a survey of local contemporary art, features work from the Oak Cliff Five, including a larger version of the image below, ‘Oak Cliff Line-Up,’ by Bob Wade.

Guest blogger and longtime Dallasite Brendan McNally is the author of the novel, ‘Germania.’ He”s currently living and working as a writer in the Czech Republic

The August 7, 1972 issue of Newsweek has on its cover one Thomas Eagleton, the Missouri senator, then in the midst of an exceedingly brief tenure as George McGovern’s vice-presidential running mate. The issue went to press just as word was getting out that he’d once undergone psychiatric treatment. A day or two later, Eagleton was out. It didn’t matter that Eagleton’s senate career would go on another two decades. His fifteen minutes of Warholian fame were up, and to many people, he’d never again be anything more than a trivia question.

newsweekThat same issue of Newsweek also ran a story about a rambunctious group of young, talented, media-savvy Dallas artists called “The Oak Cliff Four” — and their fifteen minutes weren”t entirely spent yet. They’d taken Dallas by storm two years earlier with a series of individual and group shows and now, along with other local artists, they were causing so much excitement that some were saying Dallas’ art scene was about to become a full-blown ‘art center.’

The article — included in the DMA”s DallasSITES show — even speculated that, with all the brash, innovative artwork just then coming out of Texas, the East and West Coasts might soon need to make room for a ‘Third Coast’ of American Art.

Of course that didn’t happen. After another year or so, basic economic realities forced the four artists to move on, many to university gigs. And the whole thing — major Dallas support for local Dallas artists — sank back beneath the surface where it has more or less remained.

But it was a glorious time, not that that matters. It hardly matters either that forty years later, the Oak Cliff Four’s artwork still seems fresh or their story paints a juicy portrait of Dallas when it was way more free-wheeling and colorful than today. Just check out their works currently featured in DallasSITES, the DMA”s historical survey of Dallas-area arts activity from 1963 to the present, as well as in Made in Oak Cliff, a Grey Matters show opening Saturday. DallasSITES, in particular, tries to make up for what it lacks in,  you know, actual artworks by conveying a sense of the period”s general ferment — through its display of articles, leaflets, posters, invitations and even videos.

Why the story of the Oak Cliff Four matters is that Dallas’ brief elevation to near-art center status ultimately had as much to do with them as with the people who promoted their cause. The city’s gallery owners, museum directors, art collectors, critics and the local media all came together to form a perfect storm of support.

There seems to be basic agreement here that, since Dallas now has a beautiful new Arts District, having a lively arts scene to go with it would also be a good thing. Despite all the obvious differences between then and now, the Oak Cliff Four remains a case study for making it happen.

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The invitation to the show ‘Made in Oak Cliff, 1969-1974’ at the Gray Matters Gallery.

By 1970, Dallas’ arts community still had plenty of not-fully-healed scars from the bloody culture wars of the 1950s and early ‘60s, when the then-Dallas Museum of Fine Art came repeatedly under attack by armies of enraged right-wing matrons over its display of works by ‘leftist painters,’ meaning people like Pablo Picasso. This spurred the creation of a rival institution, the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Arts. Though it lasted only about five years before getting acrimoniously merged with the DMFA, it was extremely influential in fostering a tightly knit, very involved community of contemporary art lovers who weren’t opposed to putting their money where their mouths were. This proved crucial a few years later when Jack Mims convinced his two University of Dallas art-school buddies, Jim Roche and George Green, that instead of going to New York, they could all find much cheaper studio space for themselves in nearby Oak Cliff.

Back then, Oak Cliff was viewed as a Third-World, Bible-belt kind of place, with no liquor, no culture, no art, or even any worthwhile restaurants that would warrant actually risking travel across the Trinity.

“It was always sort of separate from Dallas,” recalls gallery owner Murray Smither. “Highland Park people always seemed to think that’s where the servants live.”

But the rents were dirt cheap. Jim Roche took over a house next to the one Jack Mims had on 10th Street, George Green took over some apartments in what is now the Bishop Arts District, and they all set to work making art.

These days, the refers to this loose collection of buddies in cheap apartments as an “artists” colony,” which makes it sound grander than it was. Artistically speaking, none of the three really had that much in common other than a certain goofiness and dislike of abstract expressionism and the minimalist stuff coming out of New York.

Jack Mims did very large ‘neo-realist’ paintings that were mythic, even shamanistic in theme — something he”s continued to this day, albeit in different styles. Jim Roche did “Mama Plants,” large, colorful, breast-laden, yet still phallic ceramic plants. Roche sometimes would talk like a preacher and throw daggers at cutouts of himself. Later this sort of thing would be called ‘performance art,’ but at the time it was just Jim Roche doing his thing. George Green liked green, faux-marble linoleum. He’d gotten his hands on several rolls of it at one point, and overcome with its earnest cheesiness, started building sculptures out of it; art deco-inspired fountains, urinals, particularly urinals designed for reptiles, and massive, 1950s Buicks, all exquisitely done in green linoleum tile. Mac Whitney was a sculptor and painter who also sometimes hung out with the group (which is why it”s either the Oak Cliff Four or the Oak Cliff Five, depending on who”s counting).

Then another artist showed up who fully shared their irreverent, goofy sensibility. His name was Bob Wade. “Daddy-O” Wade had grown up in El Paso in the late 1950s, immersed in its “hot rods and border funk” culture, which infused itself in the art he studied, first at UT-Austin and later at Berkeley. Wade was already making a name for himself with his giant paintings of “Weenies;” massive, flamingly phallic, airbrushed hotdogs floating against a background of clouds. A photo of Wade riding a giant, inflated, three-D “Weanie” (that”s how it”s spelled there) is on view in DallasSITES (above). Wade”s sensibility immediately clicked with Roche, Mims and Green and suddenly there was a synergy going on.

Wade”s Weenies had won the DMFA’s annual juried competition, and that had gotten him signed with Chapman Kelly, who owned the only gallery in Dallas specializing in contemporary art. But Wade was looking into new things. Having been inside countless general stores all over rural Texas, he’d seen the photographs — usually under glass at the counter next to the cash register — of serious-faced men posing with the deer, elk and bear they’d shot. Just as Warhol and Lichtenstein had taken soup cans and comic books and turned them into high art, Wade realized the same could be done with these if they just got placed into a different context. And the way to do that, he decided, was make them big.

Chapman Kelly had gotten Wade a teaching gig at the Northwood Institute, a commercial college in Cedar Hill, which had opened there in 1966 and which gave degrees in things like automotive marketing and fashion merchandising (and now known as Northwood University). But for some strange reason, it also had a cutting-edge art department which its chairman, sculptor Alberto Colli, fashioned after MIT’s groundbreaking Art and Technology program. Scientists from Texas Instruments frequently came there to lecture on materials and usually brought some strange substances to play with to see how it might be used in art. “Kids would ask them, ‘how can I get a material to do this?’ and the guy would say, ‘Well, I think there’s some of this super-experimental paint I think we can get our hands on.’ And they would follow it out until they solved the problem.”

Having come from what he called “The Berkeley School of Funk,” the new technologies and artistic applications had been an eye-opener for Wade. He was thinking about how he might apply some of it towards his hunting photos.

“I decided to turn my massive living room into a darkroom to develop huge canvases,” says Wade. “I used a photo-emulsion with the canvasses, then put them through the developer and stop bath. I developed a system to make huge backgrounds.”

For a year or so, the four artists spent their days making art and their evenings kicking back and having fun. It was a low-rent existence and most had teaching gigs on the side at local community colleges which defrayed their operating costs. Painting away in a loft on the wrong side of the Trinity River, one should expect not to be noticed for years. But it was not the case. They’d been noticed as soon as they’d arrived there. They started getting written about.

“George Green satirizes wretched taste,” wrote art critic Janet Kutner in the Dallas Morning News. “How he turns this into art is as strong a comment on his own peculiar conceptual twists and standards.”

Of Jack Mims she wrote: “I felt literally surrounded by an ethereal world of figurative imagery, distorted only enough by the airgun technique… Mims’ work involves the basic approach of figurative painting. But what sets it apart from the ordinary is the mood quality which carries it beyond the representational…”


Henry Hopkins

Forty years later, Janet Kutner remembers it this way: “It was a whole different thing from today. The climate was different, very free-wheeling. There was an esprit de corps that existed then, that didn’t exist before or since. It was a time when we all really worked together, the museums, the artists, the dealers, people like Murray Smither, Janie C. Lee, people like Henry Hopkins.”

Another was Betty Blake, a rich, many-times-married art collector and patron of the arts, who made a point of buying art from them and other local artists. “She was the angel of the group,” remembers Kutner “She’d have parties with all those artists there.”

But the real catalyst was Henry Hopkins. He’d taken over as director of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 1968, but before that he’d played a major role in the rise of the minimalist “Light and Space” art movement that had come out of Los Angeles earlier in the 1960s. Hopkins’ brief wasn’t just to improve the Fort Worth museum’s art collection, it was also to reach out and find up-and-coming local artists and make them part of what the museum was doing.

“Henry Hopkins really stirred up collectors,” remembers Murray Smither. “He bought up all of these artists for the museum. I remember him sending a collector over to buy one of Jim Roche’s Mama Plants and another to buy George Green’s linoleum urinals.”

Local artist Mark Bartos hung out a lot with Wade and the others who were all a few years older than him. “Henry would come to parties at my house,” he says. “He just showed up. I wasn’t anything at that point. I was just an ‘enfante terrible.’ But he was not insulated and isolated like museum directors are now.”

When Hopkins came to Fort Worth, he brought along his girlfriend, Jan Butterfield. She was a critic too. Kutner, Jan and Bill Marvel at the Dallas Times Herald wrote repeatedly about the Oak Cliff Four and other local artists.

“These guys were serious,” says Kutner. “They were serious about doing what they were doing when nobody was interested in what they were doing.”

The members of the Oak Cliff Four as well as their colleagues were continually the subject of exhibitions here and in Houston, as well as in Chicago. But their real moment of glory happened six months after the Newsweek story ran. In January 1973, the Tyler Museum of Art acknowledged their “group” status with a large show titled simply; “George Green, Jack Mims, Jim Roche, Robert Wade.” All four produced major pieces for the installation.


The Tyler Museum of Art catalog in the DMA”s DallasSITES show.

But probably the most impressive thing was a multi-media catalogue that included recorded “audio sculptures” of the four artists — meaning individual, 45 rpm singles (above). The four rented a Cadillac limousine, and with a friend dressed up as a chauffeur, and their wives trailing far behind in another car, they floored it all the way to Tyler. Shortly afterwards, Jim Roche learned one of his proposals had been accepted for installation at the prestigious Whitney Museum in New York. By anyone’s standards, it was a major victory for what Wade liked to call the “Texas Weird Aesthetic.”

The reality was that being able to live and make art in Oak Cliff was not the same thing as actually earning a living here, perhaps the major problem, still, for area artists. Jim Roche snagged a teaching position back in his hometown of Tallahassee at Florida State University. He managed to snag teaching gigs for Mims and Wade as well. Tallahassee ended up not agreeing with Wade. He returned home and got a teaching job in Denton at what was then North Texas State University. Jack Mims stayed in Tallahassee nearly ten years before returning home. By then, Green and Wade had both gone.

Without the four around, the Dallas art scene quickly fell apart. Or fundamentally changed its nature. “The group that came after them — David Bates, Vernon Fisher, James Searl, and John Alexander — were not joiners,” says Kutner. ”There just wasn’t that camaraderie. They didn’t want the synergy.”

Murray Smither compares the Oak Cliff Four with the others this way: “They made a splash. Everyone else was just successful.”