Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts
Beginnings: Personal Notes About Art at Rice University (1965-1970)
John O'Neil, Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History
the spring of 1965,
I received, in my office at the School of Art of the University of Oklahoma in
Norman, a telephone call from Elinor Evans, a recently arrived teacher in the Department
of Architecture at Rice University.
Elinor, of basic visual design, an artist with a master’s degree from
Yale where she had studied with Josef Albers, was calling to tell me that Rice
wanted to establish a Fine Arts Department as part of the Humanities area, and
she had been asked to recommend an artist or art historian to be chairman. Would I be interested?
Having just completed fourteen years as a
tenured professor and director of the School of Art at Norman, a school with a
faculty of fourteen, a graduate program dating from 1934, two hundred art
majors, and a respected art museum, my interest in change was mild. However, I did send a note to Philip
Wadsworth, then Dean of Humanities at Rice, asking for information. An exchange of letters followed, then a
telephone call from Wadsworth asking me to come to Houston in order to meet
several members of the architecture faculty and others from related disciplines. The meeting was low keyed, conducted for the
greater part over and after lunch in the Faculty Club at Cohen House. There had been difficulty in finding a room
for my Houston stay, since festivities attendant to the opening of the
Astrodome were then in progress. I was
given room in a Holcombe Street motel where the air conditioner immediately
failed, so my evaluation of Houston at this point was quite low.
During the visit, I found that there had
been some art instruction on the Rice campus in past years, all within the
Department of Architecture: James Chillman, Jr., retired director of The Museum
of Fine Arts, Houston, and Katherine Tsanoff Brown, a graduate of Rice and
Cornell, taught a few fundamental art history courses as did Jasper Rose, a
visitor from England holding a one-year appointment at Rice. Jasper departed in 1965 to accept an
appointment to the instructional staff of the University of California at Santa
Cruz, but not before he had surprised the Rice campus by wearing academic
regalia to his classes. Once striding
across the quadrangle in his vivid and flowing robes, he encountered the then
president, Kenneth Pitzer, who asked him what the festive occasion was. Jasper replied, “Oh, I’m pretending that this
is a university!”
had also taught a painting course at Rice, and at the end of the 1964 academic
year, staged the first-ever art students’ exhibition. In the studio area he also had a colleague,
David Parsons, who had been recommended by Jimmy Chillman, director emeritus of
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to teach beginning drawing as well as sculpture
to architecture students.
If Jasper Rose didn’t think highly of Rice
as a university, it may have been because it had changed to that designation
only in 1962, having previously been Rice Institute. The new concept took root slowly. Interest on campus in the establishment of a
Department of Fine Arts (later to be given the more accurate name: Art and Art
History) seemed unenthusiastic. Some
older faculty members were actually hostile.
However, an effort had been made to find a suitable space to house the
department, at least temporarily. Under
consideration was the basement of the food services building (an idea
eventually abandoned: cooking odors merging with that of oil paint!); the rent
or purchase of a house on the campus periphery was examined, as was the
erection of a temporary steel structure.
The latter option was taken for a location in the shadow of the track
stadium: this was to serve for studio courses.
In art history, a position had already been advertised and was accepted
by William Kane.
During my campus tour, I found lecture
rooms and studio rooms, all located in Anderson Hall, to be chaotic: a tumble
of old, sometimes broken furniture, trash, wadded paper, and abandoned student paintings. The entire Rice campus seemed
almost aggressively anti-visual. A
Jacques Lipshitz bronze of Gertrude Stein, poorly shown in Fondren Library,
bore the burden of the single work of art in this pocket of academia. I returned to Oklahoma realizing that even
though Rice enjoyed a fine reputation in science and engineering, any
distinction in art would be hard won.
Soon after my return to Norman, there was a
telephone call, followed by a letter from Dean Wadsworth: he offered me an
appointment as professor and chairman of the Department of Fine Arts. I delayed a decision until I could discuss
the offer with my dean, Dr. Donald Clark.
I thought Rice needed the help I felt qualified to give, and a plan was
formed for me to take a year’s leave from Oklahoma and go to Rice as a visitor
and acting chairman, stepping away from these posts when the department had
been prodded into existence. Rice agreed
to the plan.
In the fall semester of 1965, the
Department of Fine Arts appeared and a major curriculum was approved. The instructional staff was Katherine Brown,
David Parsons, William Kane, James Chillman, and myself. Those three rather gloomy departmental
offices, one with a window and two without, were assigned to us in the basement
of Fondren Library. Studio courses in
drawing and painting began in a temporary steel building situated in what
proved to be a quagmire. One brave
student, Paul Pfeiffer, Jr., decided to risk becoming an art major.
A search began for a full-time studio
instructor, as well as a replacement for Bill Kane, who had resigned from being
appalled by the primitive working conditions, poverty of resources, damp, hot
climate, and the deluges that year that prompted one student to dub the campus
William Rice’s marsh. Boots, umbrellas,
and raincoats became necessary student paraphernalia.
arrived for both the art history and studio positions. We invited portfolios of their work from
fourteen artists, and narrowed the art history search to Martha Caldwell, who
was eventually appointed. During the
search, a new wing for Fondren Library was under construction. During the spring semester of 1966, a violent
storm sent fourteen inches of water into our basement offices, inundating and
ruining work in the artists’ portfolios—we had little furniture and storage
space at the time; the floor served as a convenient table. Slides and books belonging to Kane, Brown,
and Chillman were also water soaked.
When the waters subsided, we also discovered that a group of Henry
Miller watercolors, given to us just a week before by the architecture department,
had been washed bone clean.
Insurance covered the losses, but paying
claims spread over an entire year. All
the studio applicants had to be informed, and asked to state the value of their
destroyed work—some, it seemed, hadn’t sold much and thought the event to be a
When something resembling normalcy appeared,
Neil Havens, the director of Rice Players, came in to inform us that the
English Department was releasing him so that he could join the Fine Arts
President Pitzer, taking on our recent
soggy state, said we would be moved to the second floor of Allen Center, the
business office, as soon as that building was complete. I asked for the space there to include a departmental
art gallery, together with a small budget to purchase works of art to form a
teaching collection; both requests were approved.
The second annual art students’ exhibition
was staged at the Rice Memorial Center (RMC); it seemed to signal a change in
the visual atmosphere of the campus.
However, at the end of the spring 1966 semester, the department was
still struggling to develop; I therefore petitioned Oklahoma for a one-year
extension of my leave, since I couldn’t face leaving so many loose ends at
Rice. This, too, was approved.
In the fall of 1967, we moved to new
quarters in Allen Center; a set of small offices, but the gallery was a clean,
luminous space. The initial exhibition
was attended by Houston notables, including Oveta Culp Hobby. Six exhibitions were staged for the first
season, including those of the California painter John Tomas, ink drawings by
Dorothy Hood (one of which, later stolen, had been given to the department by
Meredith Long); photography by Geoff Winningham selected form his masters’
exhibition at the School of Design in Chicago, and concluding with the third
annual student show, which caused some campus ripples. Jim Simmons, head of Buildings and Grounds,
objected fiercely to an overflow of student work being shown in the halls of
Allen Center, which forced us to stay within the gallery limits.
The contract for Martha Caldwell was not
renewed; we searched for a replacement.
Earl Staley, a recent MFA graduate of the University of Arkansas, was
appointed to teach printmaking and drawing, the printmaking equipment having
already been purchased. The slide
collection was begun with Juwil Topazio as curator. In the past, only large class lantern slides
in black-and-white were used for lectures.
Winningham, then teaching at the University of St. Thomas, was employed
to photograph the glass slides and reduce them to a 35mm format.
A decision had to be made about my pending
return to Oklahoma. Dr. Pitzer was very
persuasive in encouraging me to remain permanently at Rice, and after a
difficult time of indecision, I agreed to do so. He had assured me that future building plans
included a new structure to house Art and Architecture. Such a plan was actually drawn, but rejected
because of the then excessive cost of seven million dollars. An alternative, but temporary, space for Art
was then included in the planning of Sewall Hall, a gift of Blanche
Sewall. At this stage, Dr. Pitzer was
offered the presidency of Stanford University, which he accepted. Fine Arts was thus abandoned to its fate by a
Although I found Rice University a sterile,
even bleak environment, Houston itself showed stirrings of a vigorous cultural
life: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, under James Johnson Sweeney staged
superb exhibitions in the grand space of Cullinan Hall; the University of St.
Thomas history of art program and its extraordinary fine exhibitions directed
by Dominique de Menil with the support of her husband John gave a unique and
blazing life to the intellectual and cultural milieu. Rice could only dream of achieving a parallel
art order. There was also the courageous
Contemporary Arts Museum, housed in a small building on the Prudential
Insurance grounds. Sebastian “Lefty”
Adler arrived in 1966 to direct it in a series of spirited exhibitions. The Houston Symphony, the Houston Grand
Opera, and the Alley Theater were well established and supported. Commercial galleries such as Kiko and
Louisiana & Bute were appearing.
There was a very heady feeling in Houston that almost anything of worth
in the arts could be accomplished, and with enthusiasm.
A few gifts to the department appeared, the
first from the estate of the portrait painter Tamera de Kuffner, mostly
decorative objects—furniture, silverware, and crystal—that went to enhance
Cohen House interior.
In 1967-68, the departmental gallery began
its second season. Sometime that year,
there were rumors that the de Menils were dissatisfied with certain aspects of
their role at the University of St. Thomas.
Shortly thereafter, Dean Tapazio came to me with the startling news that
John and Dominique de Menil had proposed that the entire spectrum of art activity
at St. Thomas be shifted to Rice University, a wedding without precedent. The shift would include the group of four art
historians, as well as the art library, the slide collection and curator, the
exhibition program with its technical staff, the photography and film program
(designated not very happily “media”) with two instructors, plus generous funds
to fuel the various activities. We were
enthusiastic, but some Rice administrators observed that the de Menils “had a
poor track record” in educational support and that the proposed merger was
“unprecedented,” as indeed it was.
Thus began months of negotiation, sometimes
on campus, but frequently at the de Menil residence on San Felipe, at dinner parties,
at the faculty club, and at the then Criterion Club. There were many sticking points: there was no
room at Rice for such a large group of people with attendant equipment, Sewall
Hall, with one portion planned to house a small art department and a departmental
gallery, would be inadequate. Many of
the de Menil proposals were extraordinary: at one point John de Menil asked me
to go to the president and ask him to stop the Sewall Hall construction, a
structure which at that time was rising above ground! The request was, of course, refused by me,
but John nonetheless offered to erect another building, a true art center, to
be designed by a distinguished architect.
For the immediate solution, however, he wanted to build a temporary
structure, brick faced, to be situated near Fondren Library. The Board rejected this because the
architectural style was in conflict with the Rice tradition. The longer-term plan was then followed, and a
de Menil invitation to Louis Kahn, brought back a second time by Rice, produced
a few preliminary sketches by him. A
short time later, Kahn, dead of a heart attack in New York, brought a great
dream to an end.
To help solve the space problem, we decided
to close the gallery temporarily in order to create office space for the St.
Thomas group, and the de Menils finally decided to build two temporary
structures, of neutral design, at a point distant from the main campus. One in time was referred to as The Barn,
which housed exhibitions, work space, and some studio space; next door, but not
quite a clone, was the Media Center.
Dominique de Menil, who had been art chair at St. Thomas, became at Rice
the director of the Institute for the Arts, created especially for her.
A frenzy of activity ensued. Moved to the Rice campus were art historians
William Camfield, Mino Badner, Philip Oliver-Smith, and Walter Widrig. Juwil Topazio graciously resigned her slide
curator post which was then given to Pat Toomey. John de Menil wanted Gerald O’Grady and Geoff
Winningham to teach in the Media program, but strong objections by the Rice
English faculty blocked the appointment of O’Grady, a Chaucerian scholar who
had been given three teaching awards at Rice, but had been denied tenure for
reasons unclear. O’Grady did not go down
to defeat quietly. After one of several
conferences with Dean Topazio, he was described as being “a windmill of words.” I had enrolled in a film course at St. Thomas
with O’Grady and thought him an unusually fine instructor, the flow of language
put to good use.
1969 was a year of upheaval on campus, as
on other campuses. A new president to replace
Pitzer, Dr. William H. Masterson—a former Rice faculty member—faced a protest
to the appointment by a united student and faculty group. Masterson sensibly decided to forfeit the
appointment. National protests also
against the war in Vietnam resulted here in a brief occupation by students of
Earl Staley’s appointment at the
termination of his three-year contract was not renewed. Earl had been hired as a printmaker, but decided
he wanted to teach painting instead, and since he was a young artist without
many credentials, the department decided to look for a replacement. Before his departure, I had asked Earl to
have a solo show on campus—this was before the gallery opened. The exhibition was staged in the Hamman Hall
lobby; the work was vigorous and somewhat erotic, and accompanied the Rice
Players presentation of Edward Albee’s Tiny
Alice. A poster commemorated both
The Institute for the Arts held its first
exhibition, a marvelous one titled, “The Machine,” co-sponsored by the Museum
of Modern Art. Shortly thereafter, the
Media Center (actually part of the Fine Arts Department) began giving courses
in film with James Blue as instructor.
In order to inaugurate the center, John de Menil had proposed that a new
film by Andy Warhol be previewed by the faculty, students, administrators, and
staff in the Grand Hall of the Rice Memorial Center. This was done. The film was “Lonesome Cowboys,” which in
the atmosphere of 1969 might have been considered titillating. Warhol and attendant “family” members,
Ultraviolent and others, paraded in front of the audience before the film
began. The following day, several
members of the administration called on me in my office. The usual reaction to the film event ranged
from dislike to distaste. These opinions
also applied to the notion of any art activity at all on campus, expressed in
such questions as “Mr. O’Neil, just what do you have in mind for the future of
the Fine Arts Department?” My answer to
that was: “A vital and vigorous creative
and scholarly discipline, open to the examination of all ideas in the visual
arts, and the study and interpretation of the history of art.” The then dean of the graduate area, however,
rather stubbornly insisted that “art doesn’t belong at Rice because student
accomplishment cannot be accurately graded.”
Dominique de Menil, Dan Tapazio, and myself
were appointed as a trio to make decisions about how that future of the arts
could be realized. At my request,
Dominique and I met in order to prepare a budget proposal for the coming year,
and then submit it to Tapazio. Dominique
seemed genuinely surprised when I asked her to put together a budget for the
Institute for the Arts major exhibition program. She replied, “we always just pay for whatever
expenses there are.” I realized then that
the future, at least for several years, was going to be a wild ride.
Plans for Sewall Hall had to be revised in
order to make room for the increased number of faculty and staff. Space needed to be found for the arriving Art
Library and the de Menil teaching collection.
Even though a small, but pleasant, departmental gallery was provided,
together with an adjacent loading dock, storage areas, and both a freight elevator
and a passenger elevator, none of the dozens of people who pored over the
blue-prints ever realized that there was no connection above ground between the
two wings of the building, nor was this critical fact mentioned by the
architects. Thus the Fine Arts area,
with the exception of sculpture and gallery, emerged elevatorless.
Rice Media Center
University Media Center, an integral part of the arts at Rice
University, was founded in 1969 by
international art patrons Jean and Dominique de Menil, with
scholar Gerald O'Grady as a consultant. The founders' intent
that the Rice Media Center building provide a channel
through which different
peoples of the world could communicate. The legendary vision
of the de Menil family was fulfilled by the creation of the Rice Media
Center building, the Department of Art and Art History and Institute for
the Arts which today exists as the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts , Department of Art History and the Rice Cinema Program.
Media Center and the Institute of the Arts buildings were designed by
Houston architect Eugene Aubrey who, at the time, was partnered with
architect Howard Barnstone (Barnstone and Aubrey). During the early
design stages, Rice scholar Gerald O'Grady met and consulted with
Aubrey on the design of the Rice Media Center building. The de Menil's
vision for the center was to use the media of film and photography and
art as an educational tool in both research and teaching, and to unite
different branches of education. The official opening of the Media
Center was held in February 1970. Andy Warhol, during a visit that same
year, planted a tree with Dominique de Menil's assistance in front of
the Institute for the Arts. The Institute building is now the Glasscock
School of Continuting Studies and the Rice Media Center building is now
occupied by the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts. Both buildings
and the Warhol tree remain on the Rice Campus to this day, another
tremendous gift to the City of Houston and University, from the de
Film at the Rice Media Center-Early Years
ideas surrounding the creation of a space like the Rice Media Center
attracted filmmakers who were interested in observational cinema, or
cinéma vérité, (the Direct Cinema movement) which is an important
impetus to the development of Visual Anthropology today. Among those who
engaged the Rice community were Colin Young, then Dean of Arts at
UCLA, and renowned filmmaker and director of the Italian School, Roberto
Rossellini, along with Frantizek Daniel, renowned director of the
Prauge Film School, who each visited the Media Center to conduct
meetings and workshops periodically in order to engage and introduce
students, faculty and community to this new wave of filmmaking.
1970-1971 David MacDougall, who had studied under Colin Young, came to
Rice as an ethnographic filmmaker from UCLA. Additionally, the de Menils
also brought a young documentary filmmaker to Houston to co-direct the
center, Academy Award nominee James Blue. Blue and MacDougal encouraged
students of all disciplines to see themselves as filmmakers, and they
brought a regular flow of visiting directors to campus. Under the
co-directorship of Blue and MacDougall, along with Menil support, the
Rice Media Center received federal grants to purchase 8mm film and
editing equipment with the intent for it to be made available to use by
During this period, MacDougall and Blue received a
Guggenheim fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the
Humanities to make one of the most well-known ethnographic documentary
films entitled Kenya Boran at the Rice Media Center . Both
MacDougall and Blue were Co-Directors of the Media Center until 1975
when MacDougal left to become Director of the Film Unit at the
Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies .
Teaching and fiscal
operations of the Media Center became part of the Art and Art History
Department soon after this period. Brian Huberman, Associate Professor,
was recruited by James Blue from the National Film and Television
School, U.K. in 1975. Together Huberman and Blue taught courses in
production and collaboratively and independently produced several
documentary films until Blue's departure in the late 1970's. Brian
Huberman's film work includes To Put Away the Gods (1983), The Making of John Wayne's THE ALAMO (1992) and most recent film The De la Peña Diary (2003) . Huberman's filmmaking and teaching continues to this day for the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts.
Photography at Rice Media Center-Early Years
As a part
of the strong interest in an observational style, a documentary image
-language, Geoff Winningham was recruited by Gerald O'Grady from the
University of St. Thomas in 1969, to come to Rice University to teach
photography. During the early years of the Rice Media Center opening
(1969-70) brought some very important photographers such
as Robert Frank, John Szarkowski, Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, and
others to the Rice Media Center for a lecture series . The series
included an exhibition of over 60 photographs, on loan just for this
show from the Museum of Modern Art, New York (where Jean de Menil was a
trustee at the time). Over the years, Professor Geoff Winningham has
produced several films and authored many books including Friday Night in the Coliseum (1971), Going Texan (1972) and Rites of the Fall (1978) and his most recent book, Along the Forgotten River (2003). He continues his photography work and teaching for the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts to this day.
than 35 years , the Rice Cinema has continued to screen films from
around the world—foreign features, shorts, documentaries, and
animation. Rice Cinema reaches beyond the university's hedges to the
diverse communities of Houston. We offer a living alternative to the
monolithic commercial cinema of Hollywood and have screened films from
every continent. Among the internationally known filmmakers who have
appeared on our campus over the years include Werner Herzog, Rakhshan
Banietemad, Atom Egoyan, Shirin Neshat, Martin Scorsese, Andy Warhol,
George Lucas, Fernando E. Solanas, Albert Maysles and Dennis Hopper.
Cinema works in concert with our academic programs to enrich our
students' undergraduate experience. Our film students are provided
state-of-the-art screening facilities to examine and study the
historical and methodological aspects of movies from around the world in
16, 35, or 70 millimeter with Dolby Digital Sound. Film production
students can showcase their work during theacademic year on our new
silver screen in recently renovated projection facilities.
experience art at 24 frames per second at the Rice Cinema. Rice Cinema
operates during the academic year screening films almost every weekend.
To find out what is playing, call the informational telephone line at
Rice Cinema: Celebrating Over 40 Years of Notable Guests
(Excerpts from these passages below have been taken from an article by Lia Unrau of Rice News on 9/14/95)
- In the early '70s,' Andy Warhol premiered his violent Lonesome Cowboys to the largest Media Center audience in history. Italian neo-realist director Michelangelo Antonioni, known for Blow Up
screened his work, as did Martin Scorcese and Milos Forman. A promising
young director named George Lucas showed his original version of THX
- Also in the '70s, The Big Parade director King Vidor, a Galveston native, told students and audiences about the silver screen, and George Stevens (Giant) and Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) passed on insight from their experiences during some 30 years in the business.
leaned back and looked to the ceiling as two avant-garde experimenters,
Ed Emschwiller and Stan Vanderbeek, projected psychedelic images over
head; it was, after all, the '70s.
- The early
'80s brought a strange Dennis Hopper. Following his"performance," in
which he refused to come out on stage and the audience watched on video
monitors as he spoke from behind stage, (witnesses aren't sure what he
spoke about), he invited the sell-out crowd to watch as he blew himself
up in the Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act.
- Sam Peckinpah, well-known for his westerns, like The Wild Bunch,
made the last public appearance of his career at Rice. At the time, his
films were controversial in terms of violence, but they might seem mild
by today's standards.
- British director Richard Lester visited campus to reflect about the Beatles during filming of A Hard Day's Night and Help, and ended up running the camera for George Rupp's presidential inauguration in 1985.
- In 1987
Isabella Rossellini participated in a retrospective of her father's
work. While Roberto Rossellini was at Rice he set to work on a film for
television called Science, based on the work of Rice scientists,
scheduled to be 10 hours long. Although frames exist, the project was
- In 1991, Spike Lee and his whole family rolled up in a limousine to sneak preview Do the Right Thing. Lee led an emotionally charged discussion with the sell-out crowd following the film.