The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue


Valton Tyler. “Untitled,” 2000. 20 x 72”. Oil on linen. Collection of Susan and Claude C. Albritton, III.
Valton Tyler. “Untitled,” 2000. 20 x 72”. Oil on linen. Collection of Susan and Claude C. Albritton, III.

“Those are some good drinking songs,” the painter Valton Tyler observes, referring to some of country music’s classic, she-broke-my-heart, my-baby-left-me weepers that come streaming through his radio as he barrels down a six-lane highway amidst the urban sprawl of Garland, Texas. Today, Tyler lives in a small house, with a modest studio, on a tree-lined street in this nondescript, suburban patch of low-rise factories, fast-food joints, and plain tract housing about half an hour’s drive to the northeast of downtown Dallas.

Quiet and tucked away, it feels like David Lynch-Eric Fischl territory, ripe for the picking of stories about the Mexican-immigrant families who have come here to chase what’s left of the American Dream; or the very private scholar-curator nearby who has amassed a precious collection of Russian loom shuttles; or the chubby girls at the local Waffle House who get together to knock back piles of greasy hash browns topped with sausage gravy, while SUVs and pick-ups buzz around outside in an endless odyssey between strip malls, convenience stores, and all-you-can-eat buffets. The town’s government, in search of the identity it seems to be sure is lurking somewhere in the brume of the area’s ineffable charms, has launched a “Brand Garland” campaign. Its proposed new motto: “Texas Made Here.”

Tyler’s unusual paintings are made here, too, but they are not what a visitor might expect to find emerging from a region whose visual-art legacy, looking back over a couple of centuries, has featured religious and folkloric creations influenced by the styles and themes of Spanish-colonial Mexico, sentimental-to-celebratory depictions of the rugged Texas landscape and, more recently, variations on the postmodernist-pastiche and “post-studio” conceptualist confections that have prevailed in contemporary art centers like New York or Los Angeles.

In fact, Tyler’s finely crafted oil-on-canvas paintings, some as large as the most ambitious abstract-expressionist canvases, defy easy classification. His images of mechanical-architectural-vegetal structures, which suggest Star Trek spaceships on steroids or aberrant growths from a futuristic Amazon, are surreal, cartoonish, sci-fi fantastic, and apocalyptic-baroque. Existing in a world that appears timeless, they exude a wistful, yearning, metaphysical air. If anything, they are the work of a completely original, genuinely visionary outsider artist. (In Tyler’s case, the overused “visionary” tag really fits.)

Tyler has always made art primarily for himself, apparently out of some irrepressible compulsion to do so. “I must draw and paint,” he says. “If I don’t, I become depressed.” His peculiar pictures seem to find him as he plucks them from the depths of a fertile imagination. “In my mind, I see a complete composition and I try to reproduce what I see,” the artist told me when I first met him several years ago.

As an art-maker, Tyler, who is 67 and struggles with diabetes, pains associated with a partial hip replacement and other ailments, has almost never worked consciously in dialogue with canonical art history or in response to the trends of the fickle art market. As a young man in Dallas, he used to leave his drawings along the sides of the city’s main roads so that anyone who passed by and wanted to take them could stop and pick them up.

What really distinguishes Tyler’s work, even—or perhaps especially—in the outsider-art camp, is that it is made using some rather sophisticated techniques, including glazing (the building up of numerous layers of transparent washes to create luminous, vividly modeled forms) and the mixing of straight-out-of-the-tube oils right on the canvas while he is painting. Historically, a method like glazing is normally associated with Renaissance painters, especially those of the Netherlandish school of the 15th century. It does not typically characterize the work of Tyler’s self-taught peers in and from the American South, whose materials are often cheap house paint or mud applied to any available scrap of board.

Tyler was born in 1944 in Texas City, on the gulf coast of Texas, a town dominated by a large oil refinery. His father ran an auto-body repair shop and was a skilled mixer of colors for car exteriors. Shortly after Valton’s third birthday, a freighter in the port, loaded with more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate (fertilizer), ignited and exploded, setting off massive fires as other ships, a nearby chemical plant and the refinery went up in flames. The blast shattered windows as far away as Houston and was felt 100 miles to the northeast, in Louisiana. “I was an infant but I remember it very well,” Tyler says of what became known as the Texas City Disaster, the worst industrial incident of its kind in U.S. history. He says: “My parents thought it was the end of the world; the flames were bright red at the bottom of the fire, which covered the flat landscape, and black at the top, stretching high into the sky. I still have nightmares.”

Valton Tyler. “Untitled,” 2000. 78 x 96”. Oil on linen. Collection of Susan and Claude C. Albritton, III.
Valton Tyler. “Untitled,” 2000. 78 x 96”. Oil on linen. Collection of Susan and Claude C. Albritton, III.

A few years after the disaster, Tyler’s father, who had received electric-shock treatments for depression before Valton was born, became an alcoholic and slipped deeper into mental-emotional gloom. Valton, who claims he had an out-of-body experience at the time of the Texas City fires and, later, as a teenager, was visited by an angel who pinned him to his bed (but pressed no special message upon him), would eventually drop out of high school. Later, he earned a high school diploma after moving with his mother and sister to Dallas; his older brother, Robert, an architectural draftsman, had already settled there.

In Dallas, Valton enrolled in a commercial art school but almost never attended classes and soon left. (“I wasn’t interested in their social gathering,” he sniffs.) Later, he worked at a local engraving company. On his own, outside of school, he went to a library and read about modern art. He eagerly made his own drawings, still motivated by an epiphany he had had when he was 16 years old. At that time, during a visit to his grandmother’s home in northern Texas, he had made drawings with a heightened sense of consciousness about what he was doing. “As I drew lines in a plain school notebook,” Tyler recalls, “I watched as, magically, they became something with a shape and a spirit of their own. I became aware that what I was doing was something special, something I would never want to stop doing.”

In 1968, a classmate from the commercial art school introduced Tyler to Lucille Teasel, a former drugstore owner from Canada who had become an antiques dealer. A local cultural doyenne, Teasel died in 2006 just before her 101st birthday. An obituary in the Dallas Morning News identified her as an “art patron, decorator, antiques dealer, and silver appraiser,” and, even before listing her survivors, noted that she would “be missed by artist Valton Tyler.” When Teasel met Tyler, she immediately recognized his talent, installed him in her home, which also served as her antiques “gallery,” as she called it, and supplied him with art materials in exchange for help around the shop. “She was the first guardian angel who saved me and made it possible for me to really focus on making art,” the artist recalls. (When I met Teasel in 2000, she told me, as I noted in a New York Times article: “After all these years, I still don’t understand Valton’s art. Sometimes I don’t even like it. But I know he’s good at it and that he has to do it. He is someone who has to paint.”)

What Teasel saved Tyler from was, in part, himself. At the time, he often went on some record-breaking benders. Waking up the morning after a boozy misadventure, he says, he always felt more depressed than when he had started—and more eager than ever to get back to drawing and painting. In 1970, Robert Tyler showed some of his brother’s drawings to the late Donald Vogel, the founder of Valley House Gallery in Dallas and an accomplished painter who often worked in an impressionist style. Founded in 1957, Vogel’s gallery had become a leading showcase for modern art in a still small art market. Vogel responded enthusiastically to Valton Tyler’s unusual ink-on-paper drawings, which portrayed, the artist recalls, “primitive versions of what later became my more complex shapes.”

Vogel arranged for Tyler to use the print-making facilities at Southern Methodist University (S.M.U.) in Dallas, where, in just about a year’s time, the young artist effectively taught himself etching, aquatint, and other techniques and, remarkably, produced editions of 54 separate print images. They depicted deftly modeled, vaguely anthropomorphic or architectural forms with wiry outlines, often placed in proscenium-like settings. Rebecca Reynolds, then Valley House’s in-house curator-historian, wrote in a 1972 book of reproductions of Tyler’s prints that these works represented designs the artist dreamed of being able to realize as sculptures. “I want to come as close as I can to sculpture without sacrificing the beauty and emotion of the etched lines,” Tyler said of his prints at that time. He still believes his “shapes,” as he calls his drawn or painted creations, could be realized three-dimensionally on a monumental scale.

Vogel also encouraged Tyler to make oil paintings and offered routinely to purchase such works. That arrangement, which lasted almost two decades, provided the young artist with some income and Valley House with a growing inventory of his paintings. Today, the gallery still has a large supply of Tyler’s canvases from that era.

Claude C. Albritton, III, the founder and president of the board of the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (“The MAC”), an independent contemporary-arts center in Dallas, owns what is considered to be the best private collection anywhere of works by Texan artists, especially those depicting Texas. Over the years, he has commissioned numerous paintings from Tyler. “His work is extraordinary,” Albritton told me late last year at his home, where pictures by the modernist Marsden Hartley, the contemporary painter David Bates, and “the father of Texas painting,” Julian Onderdonk (1882 – 1922), who studied with the American impressionist William Merritt Chase, were on display. Albritton added: “Valton’s a Texan, who lives and works here, but he doesn’t paint Texas, although one could argue that all of his pictures are somehow a reaction to the Texas City Fire. The beautifully monstrous shapes he paints, almost silhouetted against the landscape—they’re the oil refineries on the coast!”

Tyler calls the strange structures he conjures up “my shapes.” “I believe they’re alive and have feelings,” he says. In 2000, on the occasion of a retrospective of his work at the MAC, he told the veteran dealer Phyllis Kind (who would go on to show his paintings at her New York gallery): “My forms communicate with one another. They are having fun together, and I feel free and happy when I am making them but I have to leave them and let them go their way.” About developing a picture, Tyler stated: “[I] blur my vision and look at everything at once… [A]ll of a sudden, I see something that’s in a whole other world; the shape tells me what it wants to be….”

Tyler has long been known for his marathon work sessions. In 1971, when he was making prints at SMU, students would arrive for classes in the morning, only to find the artist slumped over a table, where he had fallen asleep the night before. Last year, he fell and injured his hip—an accident that led to surgery—while trying to move a large painting in his studio by himself at two o’clock in the morning. Lately he has been working on a new painting, a triptych. For a change, it is based on an external source, the Bible’s 22nd Psalm. “It’s a text that foreshadows the crucifixion,” Tyler says.

Despite considerable pain on his injured hip side, making it hard for him to stand for lengthy periods of time—Tyler likes to work at an easel or on a stretched canvas hung flat against a wall—he still puts in long hours and works late into the night. When he is not painting, he fills sketchbooks with plain-pencil or colored-pencil drawings of his otherworldly “shapes.”

“Let’s go get something to eat,” he suggests one morning, after having worked past midnight. (Before going to bed, I heard him remind his dog about the so-called Mayan Prophecy, which claims that the world will end in December 2012). It’s to his favorite diner that Tyler heads out in his boxy Honda sedan, an ever-present Diet Coke, a bottle of sugar-free syrup and myself in tow. Once seated in the fluorescent-lit pancake parlor, he pulls out a pen and starts drawing on a paper napkin. “I’m seeing some new shapes,” he says, “and I want to get them down.” I mention Garland’s proposed new motto. Tyler offers a crumpled smile, tosses his head back, laughs and replies in a vowel-stretching drawl, “I don’t know about Texas, but art is definitely being made right here, in this Waffle House.”

This text is excerpted from the critic and journalist Edward M. Gómez’s forthcoming book of art-themed essays, Big Soul: Meditations on Art and Artists in Post-postmodernist Times. This essay will first be published in its entirety as a limited-edition chapbook, available through his website (


Edward M. Gómez

is the senior editor of Raw Vision magazine and a member of the advisory council of the Collection de l‘Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues