Arts / Museums

Photographers Traveling Across America and a Tibetan Buddhist Painter Give the Houston Art Scene Serious Momentum

Check Them Out at MFAH and Asia Society Texas

BY // 01.06.24

Two photographers, unknown to each other, traveled across the United States searching for myth-challenging realities at the mid-century. Both lensmen received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. Each photographer’s objective was the same: to document the American landscape, people and culture. The year was 1955.

The joint survey “Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a groundbreaking show uniting both photographers for the first time. Curated by Lisa Volpe, the exhibit metaphorically transports viewers cross country into a time travel reality seven decades earlier.

The Swiss-born Frank became a quintessential chronicler of the American zeitgeist. Driving roads armed with his Leica camera, Frank also constructed his own version of gritty, unapologetic neorealism. Frank’s well-known book The Americans resulted from this project. Originally published by Robert Delpire in 1958, Paris as Les Americains is undoubtedly a classic.

Robert Frank's iconic <em>Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey,</em> 1955–1956, printed 1972–1977, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Target Collection of American Photography, museum purchase funded by Target Stores. © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation.)
Robert Frank’s iconic Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955–1956, printed 1972–1977, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Target Collection of American Photography, museum purchase funded by Target Stores. © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation.)

The second photographer — Detroit native Todd Webb — vanished into obscurity for decades along with his negatives and photographs.

Todd Webb, taught by legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams, captured 10,000 striking images while walking, biking and boating across America (versus Frank, who traveled by car). Prior to embarking on a career in photography, Webb worked as a stockbroker. He lost everything following the Stock Market Crash in 1929. His images of city scenes in Detroit, New York City, London and Paris are unforgettable. But as great as that part of Webb’s oeuvre is, nothing tops his celebrated series he took in eight African countries, which are featured in the book Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame (2021).

A pendant to Robert Frank image-making is Todd Webb's <em>Between Lovelock and Fernley, NV </em>1956, printed 2023, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The look back on America then, curated by the MFAH's Lisa Volpe, resonates today. (Courtesy Todd Webb Archive. © Todd Webb Archive)
A pendant to Robert Frank image-making is Todd Webb’s Between Lovelock and Fernley, NV 1956, printed 2023, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The look back on America then, curated by the MFAH’s Lisa Volpe, resonates today. (Courtesy Todd Webb Archive. © Todd Webb Archive)

In the well-curated MFAH exhibit, Webb’s vision connects him to a lonesome road in Nevada and the working class of small-town America. One highlight of the exhibit is Webb’s photo of a 14-year-old riverboat captain named Clifton Ray Durham.

The Social Ills of 1955

Lisa Volpe — curator of photography at the MFAH whose recent coups have included exhibitions on Gordon Parks and Georgia O’Keeffe, the latter as the first ever show on the painter as photographer — notes the differences between the two photographers but also the similarities.

Lisa Volpe, curator of photography for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, organized "Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955." The exhibit runs through Sunday, January 7 at MFAH. (Photo by Ericka Schiche)
Lisa Volpe, curator of photography for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, organized “Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955.” The exhibit runs through Sunday, January 7 at MFAH. (Photo by Ericka Schiche)

“It was interesting how much they kind of come together, really, into two threads,” Volpe says. “For both photographers, it’s rampant consumerism. It’s this idea that ‘As long as we’re buying things, we are practicing our freedoms and we’re keeping up with everybody else.’ Which is still the case today.

“And then, of course, racism and segregation (appear in both Frank and Webb’s images). They were both horrified at what they saw and saw, notably, in different parts of the country.”

Robert Frank’s The Americans still resonates today as an unflinching look into the real truth behind American society. Eventually Frank, who once referred to himself as Walker Evans’s chauffeur, turned his focus away from photography and towards cinema. Over the years, MFAH has screened numerous Frank films including Pull My Daisy (1959), Me and My Brother (1968), C’est Vrai (1990) and the Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues (1972).

Todd Webb's  <em>Joe, Abiquiú, NM</em>, 1955, printed 2023, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Courtesy Todd Webb Archive. © Todd Webb Archive.)
Todd Webb’s  Joe, Abiquiú, NM, 1955, printed 2023, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Courtesy Todd Webb Archive. © Todd Webb Archive.)

But even with his later cinematic focus, it is Frank’s photos, in conversation with Webb’s in this powerful and illuminating exhibition which destroy the myth of a monoculture by embracing realism and avoiding tourist stops.

By photographing America’s roads, diners, bars, gas stations, cowboys and other interesting working-class characters, Robert Frank and Todd Webb peeled back layers of mythology to arrive at the truth. This incredible exhibit encourages us to view America from these photographers’ unerring, unique, yet often shared perspectives.

Tsherin Sherpa: Spirits at Asia Society

Tsherin Sherpa's <em>All Things Considered</em>, 2014, at Asia Society Texas Center (Elaine W. Ng and Fabio Rossi Collection)
Tsherin Sherpa’s All Things Considered, 2014, at Asia Society Texas Center (Elaine W. Ng and Fabio Rossi Collection)

Tsherin Sherpa, a contemporary artist from Nepal, explores the East-West cultural dichotomy while incorporating narratives not typically explored in traditional thangka paintings. Originally working as a Tibetan Buddhist thangka painter with his father Master Urgen Dorje, Sherpa has moved beyond deities to champion secular spirits.

Much like Japanese artist Taskashi Murakami, he also embraces various iterations of Pop art. Recently, Sherpa collaborated with Commes des Garçon designer Junya Watanabe for a dress based on a orange-blue-green grid pattern. Versatility and being open minded have become major aspects of his artistic practice.

At Houston’s Asia Society Texas Center, “Tsherin Sherpa: Spirits” explores the artist’s interest in narrative-driven storytelling, reimagining iconography and establishing new realities.

Dr. Owen Duffy, Asia Society Texas Center’s recent hire as the museum’s Nancy C. Allen curator and director of exhibitions, oversees the Houston presentation of this traveling exhibition organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, where it debuted in 2022.

Tsherin Sherpa developed a deep interest in comic books while growing up, which is reflected in his colorful work. Although he recalls reading comics from India like Amar Chitra Katha, he spent more time engrossed in Western comic books like The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé, Asterix, Archie, Thor and Spider Man.

“There was a comic book called Tintin in Tibet,” Sherpa says. “So, actually, Tintin travels to Kathmandu, Nepal, and then from there, travels to Tibet, and comes across a Yeti creature.”

Pop Art and Pop Culture References

The irreverent aspect of Tsherin Sherpa’s work is undoubtedly part of its charm. For example, the showstopper fiberglass sculpture Skippers (Kneedeep) (2019 to 2020) features a pink bubble gum-blowing spirit figure.

And although inspired by the concept of Tibetan protest against the Chinese government, the painting 8 Spirits (2012) also references Andy Warhol’s Eight Elvises (1963) in its seriality.

The painting Oh My God-Ness (2009) features a figure wearing a Tibetan protection amulet and polka-dotted underwear inspired by Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. Similarly, Staying Alive (To Sexy to Die) (2011) references John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever (1977).

Although hailing from Nepal, Sherpa has also spent time in California. He envisions Westerners getting past the idea of associating the term Sherpa with climbing Mount Everest or trekking along the Annapurna Circuit.

Born Jangchub Tshering, Sherpa recalls that the time he was “interrogated by a U.S. immigration officer at the airport and the official asked, ‘How many mountains have you climbed?’ ” Sherpa laughs.

Tsherin Sherpa's <em>Himalayan Spirits</em>, 2021, at Asia Society Texas Center (Collection Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
Tsherin Sherpa’s Himalayan Spirits, 2021, at Asia Society Texas Center (Collection Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

Sherpa describes his stunning Himalayan Spirits (2021) painting by discussing the neighborhood his studio is situated in. “Around my studio, there are people looking after their goats and cows, children playing on the street. People just taking normal walks,” he tells PaperCity. “In the background, their faces are not drawn, but they are blank faces with all of these people in the background.

“And the idea was as if all these people’s aspirations are bringing forth these Himalayan spirits.”

“Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955” is on view through this Sunday, January 7 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. You can get the exhibition catalogue through the MFAH Shop here. Find more exhibition details here. The exhibition organized by the MFAH appropriately will hit the road, traveling to the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts and the Brandywine Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. 

“Tsherin Sherpa: Spirits” is on view through this Sunday, January 7 at Asia Society Texas Center. Find more exhibition details here.

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