Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994 Page: 26
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SWIMMING IN SWEENEY'S HOLE
by Kelley Loftus
In the spring of 1962, then director of Houston's Museum of
Fine Arts, James Johnson Sweeney, presented the work of Joan
Miro. Eduardo Chillida and Pablo Picasso in an exhibition enti-
tled "Three Spaniards". A small show with very large pieces, it
proved Mr. Sweeney to be master of Cullinan Hall and its he-
roic. if at times and to most curators, overwhelming dimensions.
The bottomless blue of Miro's triptych loomed from thin Her-
culean wire suspended from the hall's thirty foot ceiling. So too
was Picasso's "Nude Under a Pinetree" whose voluptuous
enormity transforms her into the realm of landscape. And as if
felled by Paul Bunyon, the hewn oak sculpture of Chillida
sprawled across its massive platform in a wooden puzzle. The
Picasso and the Chillida had yet to be seen in the United States.
Best of all, it was big stuff and Houstonians like big stuff. The
Houston Chronicle could barely suppress its glee that one of the
transports broke an axle en route to Texas with its hefty load.
Ah. but then there were the "Bathers".
They stood as a welcoming committee where the current lobby
of the MFA is now. That was outside in 1962. on a pan flat
field that Mr. Sweeney felt compelled again and again to orna-
ment. Photographed from the spanish-style apartment that once
stood on the current location of the Museum's rather arid sculp-
ture garden, they appear frozen in action: wading, sunming, all
standing upright. Fashioned from the detritus of Picasso's stu-
dio in Cannes and then cast in bronze, these were the culprits
of the axle mishap from New York weighing in at over five
thousand pounds. Though happy to disport in previous gallery
installations around an arrangement of gravel Mr. Sweeney felt
that. being bathers, they should have a pool. So he had one
built for them, fifteen feet wide, four feet deep, and equipped
with a diving board. From the beginning they invited rapt par-
ticipation. The guards stationed just inside the doors of the Mu-
seum found themselves hauling out inspired divers and skinny
dippers who cruised the installation late at night and these in-
trepid swimmers became the source of daily traffic jams.
From the national and international art press came bemused
reviews. One, the Luce International in Paris, attempting to
sound first hand, mistakenly placed the pool inside the Mu-
seum They were accurate, however in their assement of the
violent reactions from the American public. They called it
"d'une nouvelle batialle d'Herani". For while the bathers en-
couraged playfulness, they also brought upon themselves an on-
slaught of criticism so vituperative that one wonders what un-
speakable code they had violated. One letter writer, under the
misguided notion that all installations were purchases railed at
the idiocity of wasting $150,000.00 on "trash like that sculp-
ture". (In retrospect, there have been a number of disheartening
missed opportunities for the collection, the six Picasso bronzes
at a quarter of their current value among them.)
What provoked the most outrage was the fact that these sculp-
tures were meant to represent the human figure and worse, that
these "horrors" were on public display in the full view of chil-
dren. Many interpreted the sculpture as an insult to the body as
freakish posturing and as mutants. Their playfulness was lost
on a shuddering group of observers willing enough to tolerate
the abstract but who recoil in disgust when confronted with the
imitation of life. And it wasn't only Houstonians who were
outraged. Time Magazine. who quoted liberally from The Hous-
ton Chronicle's urbane and insightful Ann Holmes, even felt
compelled to deride the installation truncating Ms. Holmes
nickname "Sweeney"s Swimming Hole" to the derogatory
There is an underlying sense of anxiety when Americans look at
their bodies. The mid-century apex of American painting all but
skipped the nude. Confounded by life drawing, America's pro-
tean talent, Jackson Pollock, vented his frustration in a splatter
of non-objective vehemence and the whole world followed.
Europe studied the human body for centuries. Our contribution
to its study was a mouse that walked on two feet and navigated
a steam boat. Mickey Mouse was soon joined by a horde of
humanoid animals, ducks, dogs, pigs, rabbits; the horse and
the bovine were to be much less popular as Mr. Disney could
not get them to walk on two feet. Americans cannot look at
their own bodies with out comparing them to the ones that sell
them beer, soap and violence. Beauty, of course then, is all and
anything less is sent to the comic books. Having relegated our
mutants to cartooning, we politely do not look when we see
them at Safeway. In the mid-seventies, the Harvard Lampoon
did a spread of famous cartoon characters but doctored the
graphics so they looked convincingly like photographs of de-
formed humans. Among the cast were Popeye, Nancy and yes,
our pal Mickey. The overall effect was that these horrific crea-
tures walked and breathed and worked among the living. This
is the revulsion that induced the contempt for Picasso's "Bath-
What beset the "Bathers" was not really the price tag of the
artwork (there seem to be no existing complaints of the cost of
installing a swimming pool) nor the loss of a picnic site for the
duration of the show, but an adamant insistence that the artist
was insulting the viewer. Much of the public continues to be-
lieve that the art world is in a profitable conspiracy with itself.
Although the thought that the Museum would buy the "Bathers"
sent shivers up some backs, the recurring abuse is aimed at the
"abomination of the human form"; the hideous suggestion that
these were people, distinguishable by gender (one has a huge
erection) and age. This was too much to ask of some . Disfig-
urement is an affront; something received from driving a car too
fast or walking down the wrong alley late at night. Sweeney,
always a deliberate curator understood that provoking the pub-
lic created a dialogue with them As vehement as the criticism
might have been, the defense of the "Bathers" proved as equally
compelling. It was just the sort of response a adventurous and
provocative museum would hope to create. Mr. Sweeney is
remembered in Houston for the sophistication and confidence
that he brought to the MFA during his tenure there. The mem-
ory pf the "Bathers" pays tribute to his playfulness.
Here’s what’s next.
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Huerta, Benito; Ballou, Chris & Loftus, Kelley. Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994, periodical, October 1994; Houston, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228036/m1/26/?rotate=270: accessed October 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; .