Kelly Fearing and other artists of the Fort Worth Circle gave mid-century Texas art a sophisticated — and often homoerotic — identity


TEXAS SWING | Gay artist Kelly Fearing pioneered a modern style of painting more than half a century ago.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

When you think about “early Texas art,” chances are the idea of “gay art” doesn’t jump to mind.
But you might be surprised.

One school of painting, the Fort Worth Circle, arose in Cowtown starting around the 1930s, and unlike a lot of other Texas-based painting, it exuded worldly sophistication.

“[Members of] the Fort Worth Circle were socially connected and they traveled and spent a lot of time in New York and Europe,” says Atlee Phillips, director of Texas art for Heritage Auctions and a scholar familiar with the Circle. “They were experimenting with new ideas — they were intellectuals and bohemians, and Fort Worth was a pretty sophisticated town in its time, as far as art goes.”

The Circle contrasted to the more regional-based art, such as the school known as the Dallas Nine, which was more rooted to landscape painting and naturalism.

“Some of their contemporaries were more solidly in the WPA style,” Phillips says. “They became modernists and did more abstract work later, but they were more regional — more tied to the land.”

But because members of the Circle tended to be affluent, they were exposed to more diverse artistic styles, which they put into practice.

“They were driven by modernism and a really strong vein of surrealism, probably influenced by the Mexican art of the time,” Phillips notes.

It started because one local artist of the day, Veronica Helfensteller, had a print shop where the others would gather to make prints — and to drink, according to Lin Wang, who with his partner, Eric Miller, runs Vintage Promotions. The company is running an art show in Fort Worth this weekend, displaying works from the Circle and other pioneers of early Texas art.

“It was a social club [at first],” says Wang. “No one cared about sexual orientation back then — it was never an issue. They were intermingled; some were gay but they all got along together.”

That put them a step ahead of the Dallas Nine, who were more closely associated with the America regionalism movement of a decade earlier. The Dallas Nine didn’t even allow women in their group, Wang says.

Members of the Fort Worth Circle weren’t on the fringe of local art, either. Many of them were respected and highly successful in their lifetimes, with some gaining in fame and influence.

Screen shot 2013-08-08 at 11.51.18 AMAmong the most prominent of the group was Kelly Fearing, who died in 2011 at age 92. Even in the 1940s, Fearing lived as an out gay man. Like the later work of gay artist David Hockney, Fearing’s subjects were often pretextual reasons to show men in a state of undress — Male Bather (1950) exemplifies this style, an emerging, transitional work influenced by Paul Klee — a theme that runs through many artists of the time.

“They were looking ahead,” Wang says, noting the forward-thinking uses of “pictograph, saturated colors and dreamlike quality.”

“They were a notoriously wild group,” Phillips notes of the Fort Worth Circle. “There’s one famous story where they had a costume party at Bill Bomar’s house and people painted [what happened at] the party.”

Along with Bror Utter, Fearing, Helfensteller and Bomar were among the leaders of the Fort Worth Circle — “the top tier” in Phillips’ words — whose work is still collected today. Wang says to expect works from them to be available at the show this weekend.

“The last 20 years there’s been lots of renewed interest in early Texas art,” Phillips says. And the show is an excellent way to wet your feet and see how progressive North Texas used to be.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 9, 2013.