Ben Culwell

San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts Catalog

Accession no: 2006.2.1 Type of work: Painting
Current location: Painting Storage S31
Artist/creator: Ben Culwell
Born: September 8, 1918 Died: 1992
Artist biography: Ben L. Culwell was a Texan painter and early participant in the abstract expressionist movement. He is most widely known for his participation in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1946 Fourteen Americans exhibition. His work is included in the permanent collection of Houston’s Menil Collection, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 1977, Culwell's work was featured in a retrospective at the McNay Art Museum. Ten years later in 1987, Culwell's early paintings were featured in Adrenalin Hour, an exhibition given at the opening of the Menil Collection, to critical acclaim. In 2007, his work was included in an exhibition at Baylor University, Texas Modern: The Rediscovery of Early Texas Abstraction 1935–1965. Culwell’s first creative burst occurred during his years on the Pacific front in World War II. Restricted to the only materials obtainable, Culwell painted at every moment he could, usually daily. Small watercolor, ink, and mixed media works on paper, each of Culwell’s war paintings deals with an aspect of his life as a sailor. There are scenes of battle, scenes depicting the routine and frustration of a sailor’s day-to-day life, and scenes of death (a constant wartime preoccupation). As Walter Hopps described the war painting in his catalogue essay for Culwell’s Adrenalin Hour show at the Menil: “From the point of view of human content, these works, often including poetic diaristic inscriptions and made under the extremities of human endurance during the Pacific, are among our most powerful images of the horror of modern war.” Culwell managed to get off the ship around 1944 and traveled to Dallas on a thirty-day leave, before leaving for mid-shipman’s school in upstate New York. He showed his suite of watercolors to Jerry Bywaters, the noted regional artist and then-director of the Dallas Museum of Art. Bywaters was interested in presenting the war paintings in a one-man show, and had Culwell mat between thirty and forty works and leave them in Dallas. These works, curated by Bywaters, appeared in a one-man show at the Dallas Museum around 1946, where the Museum of Modern Art’s Dorothy Canning Miller saw them.

Title of work: Untitled (BLC-72)
Date of item: 1960-62
Signed: “BLC” at the center of the left edge
Dimensions: 36” x 48” (91.44 x 121.92 cm) 2 

Description: Large abstract expressionist painting with many colors utilized. Black is used repeatedly to outline and define shapes. The painting is highly textured. There are places where the paint is applied very thick, and others where the texture of the board shows through. The large circle in the upper left contains broken glass and bits of metal which are “glued” down by the paint. The composition is very lively.
Material: Paint on board
Medium: Painting
Country of origin: United States

Artist’s statement about work: “It is for the important average that I want to speak, the rank and file. The general nature of the use I try to make of the art of painting is, I hope, apparent: that is, to express the sum of relationships which is a total human being. With art, as with atomic physics, the big problem in the world today is to bring the human being abreast of the techniques and the inventions of his material culture—to achieve an adequate modern spiritual integrity.” Ben Culwell, in “Fourteen Americans” catalogue, 1946/Museum of Modern Art
Condition: Good condition at time of accession
Conservation future: None

Provenance: Purchase
Source: Texas Modern Art
Price: $25,000
Fund(s) used: Funds for this purchase provided by Jill Wilkinson
Value: $25,000
History of object: Museum purchase from Texas Modern Art with funds provided by Jill Wilkinson. Accessioned March 22, 2006
Exhibitions: Ben Culwell’s paintings have been featured in important institutional exhibitions, including: Dallas Museum of Art (Solo-1945); Museum of Modern Art (Group-1946); San Antonio Men of Art Guild (Solo-1959); Dallas-Fort Worth Men of Art Guild (Solo-1959); Owen Art Center at Southern Methodist University & other Texas museum venues (Group-1971); McNay Art Museum (Retrospective Solo-1977); Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery at the University of Texas Austin & other Texas museum venues (Group-1983); The Menil Collection (Solo-1987); Cultural Activities Center Temple (Retrospective Solo-1978&1989); and Museum of Fine Arts Houston (Group-3 1995&1996). His works are in the collections of the mentioned museums and in notable corporate and private collections.
Restrictions: None

Cataloger name: April Wallace
Date: April 24, 2012
Sources used: Artist’s File