DMA Insight

Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts Exhibitions

Breaking the looking glass, stirring the waters, and challenging people's perceptions. That's what exhibitions at the short-lived Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts were about under Douglas MacAgy, its first and only professional director, whose tenure lasted from 1959 to 1963.

During a brief interlude prior to its merger with the former Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, which later became the Dallas Museum of Art, the DMCA exposed local audiences to cutting-edge artistic developments from around the world, putting a new spin on art history in the process.

Exhibitions ranged from Signposts of Twentieth Century Art by guest curator Katharine Kuh, offering Dallas a rare glimpse of famous works such as Pablo Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse (1906, Museum of Modern Art, NYC) and Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art), to /96/, one of the first major museum shows to present pop art. The latter boasted the first Claes Oldenburg Store and Happening outside of New York, along with a Roy Lichtenstein comic strip, a Jim Dine color chart, and a Robert Rauschenberg Combine.

The Oldenburg Happening, which drew a huge crowd and made lots of noise, brought out the cops. MacAgy later voiced his belief that the event sped the Contemporary Museum's demise by involving the broader public, a concept trustees supported in theory but felt a bit uncomfortable with privately.

There were other lively incidents. Prominent New York sculptor Louise Nevelson shocked local society by arriving at an exhibition opening wearing a sleeveless Chinese men's robe she had purchased at Neiman Marcus that afternoon.

But most of what transpired was more serious, albeit no less provocative. The DMCA organized the first René Magritte show in this country and exposed audiences to a broad spectrum of international art in a rapid-fire succession of exhibitions such as Contemporary Japanese Painting and Sculpture, Italian Sculptors of Today, and Drawings by Ulfert Wilke.

The institution treated contemporary artists from the region with high regard, fleshing out the Museum of Modern Art's great The Art of Assemblage show with works by David McManaway and Roy Fridge of Dallas.

All manner of media was embraced. There were exhibits of Norman Bel Geddes's theater designs, Alfred Eisenstaedt's photographs, Joseph Stella's drawings, and Stanley William Hayter's prints. Works by West Coast artists were brought in; in fact, Los Angeles Painting Since MacDonald-Wright was an eye-opener.

Much of the DMCA's impact is still felt. The landmark exhibition American Genius in Review: 1 uncovered unknown paintings by Gerald Murphy, a Gatsby-era expatriate who hobnobbed with F. Scott Fitzgerald and shared beach property on the Riviera with Picasso. Like many DMCA subjects, Murphy was ahead of his time. His meticulously rendered images of commonplace objects such as a matchbox and the inner workings of a watch predated pop art by two decades. His works are rare for other reasons; he completed only a dozen or so paintings before he was forced to abandon his art career to run the family business, Mark Cross. As part of the merger, the Dallas Museum of Art inherited two of his paintings, the gift of the artist to the DMCA in appreciation of his exhibition.

Periodically the DMCA delved deeper into art history. Impressionists and Their Forebears from Barbizon placed artists like Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro in the context of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Charles François Daubigny, and Théodore Rousseau, forward-thinking men as well, whose darker palette belied their interest in the effects of daylight and their practice of working from nature.

The most ambitious show by far was The Art That Broke the Looking-Glass, an investigation of illusionism from the 15th century to the present. Concentrated in theme but varied in content, it included everything from Canaletto views of Venice to Joseph Cornell boxes, and it featured items as disparate as Currier and Ives lithographs, Picasso still lifes, Kurt Schwitters collages, Berenice Abbott photographs, and a peep show by an anonymous 19th-century German artist.

It was a great idea but ill-conceived, with far more connections than people could make on their own and an obscure catalogue that was even harder to grasp. MacAgy described it as "a history of the evolution and devolution of the pictorial object." But it made a simpler point; by illustrating the many different approaches artists took prior to the 20th century, it served as a reminder that creative innovations, or marked departures from the conventional, were not peculiar to our times.

That message resonates even now.

Excerpt from

Janet Kutner, “Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts Exhibitions,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 14.

Web Resources

  • Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts
    Read Kendall Curlee's essay on the DMCA through the _Handbook of Texas Online (_June 12, 2010). Published by the Texas State Historical Association.