Beginnings: Personal Notes about Art at Rice University (1965-70)

John O'Neil, Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History

John O'Neil's Invitation to Rice: Spring 1965 >

In 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.

First Trip to Rice >

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!”

Jasper 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.

Campus Tour >

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.

Appointment Offer as Professor and Chairman of Fine Arts >

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.

Arrival as the First Chairman of the Department of Fine Arts

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.

The Search for Faculty Begins >

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.

Applications 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 personal bonanza!

Professor Havens Joins the Department of Fine Arts >

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 faculty.

The Department's First Move >

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 Student Art Exhibition >

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.

Arrival to Allen Center >

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.

Department Faculty >

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 powerful friend.

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.

Art in the Department of Fine Arts >

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.

Jean and Dominique de Menil Arrive on Campus >

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 Allen Center.

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 events.

The Institute for the Arts >

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, Ultra Violent 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 a Move to New Facilities in Sewall Hall >

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 >

The Rice 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 was, essentially, 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.

The Rice 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 Continuing 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 Menils.

Film at the Rice Media Center--the Early Years >

The 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.

In 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 the public.

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.

Rice Cinema >

For more 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.

Rice 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 the academic year on our new silver screen in recently renovated projection facilities.

Come 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 713-348-4853

Rice Cinema: Celebrating Almost 50 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 1138.

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.

Audiences 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 never completed.

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.