New York City may be the home of American Abstract Expressionism, but for some of the movement’s most notable women artists, Amarillo, Texas was also an important hub. A recent book, Three Women Artists: Expanding Abstract Expressionism in the American West (Texas A&M University Press, 2022) by Amy Von Lintel and Bonnie Roos, uncovers the little-known stories of Elaine de Kooning, Jeanne Reynal, and Louise Nevelson’s professional and creative gains in the region, and especially in the Texas Panhandle. Von Lintel and Roos offer a thoroughly researched, engaging, and alternative view of the often male-centered, East Coast-based history of Abstract Expressionism in the United States. Their account of Amarillo’s avid appreciation for avant-garde art from the 1950s to 1980s disputes the claim that innovative art can’t reach peripheral places.
De Kooning, Reynal, and Nevelson were introduced to the High Plains region by Dord Fitz, a charismatic and colorful art dealer and educator in Texas. After studying with Grant Wood and Philip Guston in Iowa, Fitz moved to New York, where he mixed with Ab Ex circles. He founded Dord Fitz Gallery in Amarillo in 1953, and over the next three decades the gallery became an unlikely center of major modern art activity. Fitz didn’t just ask prominent New York artists to show their work in the Texas Panhandle, he invited them to come to see the sights and mix with his clients and students. Thanks to Fitz’s sponsored trips, East Coast artists experienced the Texas landscape and entertainment — De Kooning attended chili cook outs on ranches and cow chip throwing contests — and locals participated in artist presentations and classes — Nevelson taught area students to create their own wooden assemblages.
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The long-running personal and professional exchange between North Texas patrons and New York artists that Fitz fostered was especially crucial for women, whose work was often undervalued and pushed to the margins. De Kooning traveled to Amarillo for exhibitions and events at least 16 times between 1957 and her death in 1989. She featured in 23 of Fitz’s shows and earned more than $60,000 in profits from his local sales. Nevelson went to Amarillo at least seven times, continuing her visits even after reaching international fame. The trips out West also brought new themes to the women’s work: De Kooning found inspiration in the bullfights of Ciudad Juárez, and the authors suggest that Nevelson’s turn to gold paint may have been inspired by the gaudy gold fixtures she saw in Texas oil tycoons’ homes.
Fitz didn’t have the audience, location, or methods of a typical New York dealer. His network included wealthy bankers and ranchers, but also regular folks who purchased his artists’ works together as a group or through installment payments. As a result, artists like Reynal appear in institutional collections and commissions in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, and other parts of the American West. Many of his sales also remain in area private collections, which Von Lintel and Roos help bring to light in their book. The authors are both professors at West Texas A & M University in Canyon, Texas. Their project is scholarly, but also deeply felt. “Fitz’s legacy declares,” they write, “that even in conservative, patriarchal, and insular places like ours, progressive thought and art still thrive.”