Real Estate / High-Rises

The Most Serene High-Rise Ever?

A Legendary Houston Art Dealer Lets Us Inside Her Stunning High Perch

BY // 04.12.16
photography Casey Dunn

Gallerist Barbara Davis is one part irrepressible Auntie Mame and another dose unfiltered Bette Midler, complete with raucous laugh. But where she’s made her mark is with her unflinching standards: Her eye is as unerring as that of Leo Castelli, the late gallerist to Rauschenberg, Johns and Warhol.

Davis grew up in L.A., attending the mythic Hollywood High; Ricky Nelson was a classmate. Her late mom, Ruth Rummans, was an influence, and a catalog on the occasion of Davis’ 30th anniversary as a gallerist is dedicated to her: “Mother, Grandmother, Spitfire.” Her stepdad was a television promoter. Half-brother Michael Rummans, with whom she’s close, plays in The Sloths, an L.A-based garage rock band famously reunited after 50 years to headline last year’s SxSW. A cousin, Sharon Simon, used to work for Steven Spielberg and was enlisted for his Shoah Project.

Davis, while not exposed to the art world, was surrounded by a creative milieu from an early age. She married young and lived in the New York area but started in the art biz after moving to Houston. The year was 1981. Her first gallery was a modest shoebox of a space, but within four years she was among the founding dealers of the city’s first gallery enclave: the Arquitectonica-designed Colquitt Gallery Row, a poster building for Postmodernism if there ever was one, and the seat of power of the Houston art world for at least 20 years.

Davis is among the second wave of Houston gallerists who followed a generation after the pioneering powerhouse Meredith Long (established 1957) and a dozen years after mainstays Geri and Charles Hooks. She arrived on the scene in the decade after Betty Moody and Texas Gallery’s Fredericka Hunter and Ian Glennie opened spaces in, respectively, the mid- to early 1970s. Davis’ entrée was a few years before Hiram Butler (1984) and Kerry Inman (1990) and nearly 15 years ahead of María Inés Sicardi, who just marked her gallery’s 20th in 2014. Along with these dealers, she forged the avant-garde bedrock of our city’s current gallery system, which is still the envy of every other metropolis in Texas, notwithstanding the fresh energy blowing down from Dallas.

Michele De Lucchi’s Memphis table and chairs from the Memphis Milano Collection, 1983. On the wall, Andrea Bianconi’s “Aladdin’s Lamp,” 2015, a site-specific drawing inspired by the fable of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” Right: Bianconi’s “Where?,” 2013, a child’s bicycle encased in glue and white-enamel paint. Foreground: a sculpture by Allan Hacklin, circa 1980s. Hacklin played a pivotal role in Houston art history: He founded the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Glassell School of Art.

Davis is a doyenne of contemporary action with a carefully calibrated program. Her gallery presents Texas artists such as the futuristic Paul Fleming of the cool resin-and-Hydrocal wall works; Joe Mancuso, the legendary king of minimalism mined from The Home Depot materials, who’s often cited as the best artist working in Houston today; and light master Jay Shinn, currently completing a commission for Bush Intercontinental Airport that will be unveiled this summer. These talents are exhibited in a stable alongside national and internationals such as Andrea Bianconi, an Italian who’s on a curatorial watch list for his conceptual art and performance pieces pollinated with drawings, and Danish-born Mie Olise, whose lush canvases reference the language of abstraction while evoking modern fairy tales.

Now enjoying her fourth decade as a dealer, Davis has exhibited in the platinum standard of American art fairs, Art Basel Miami Beach; served up solos for Donald Lipski and Joseph Beuys; brought new talent to light; and, along the way, elevated the energy and dialogue of the Texas art scene. But her greatest attribute is having “the eye.” Davis is perhaps best known as the talent scout who launched the careers of megawatt art stars, including former Core Fellows Julie Mehretu (winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant) and Shahzia Sikander.


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Thirty-some years after she first flourished as one of the anchor dealers of Colquitt Gallery Row, Davis’ energy is undiminished. Since 2005, she’s mounted shows and presided over 4411 Montrose, the Museum District fortress for gallery action. As the first tenant of 4411, she is a particularly vocal and avid supporter of recent arrivals David Shelton Gallery and Cindy Lisica Gallery, which both opened spaces in the building this January.

Davis’ home court is serene, uncluttered, almost monastic in its simplicity. Surprisingly, the 1,600-square-feet Galleria-area high-rise she shares with her schnauzer, Jackson, is free of imagery and brash, bold or big statement artworks. Asked why her home is so restrained, the dealer succinctly says, “My home is my cathedral.”

As we glide up the elevator, stroll down the hall of the classic Cesar Pelli-designed building and step inside, we see what art and furnishings made the cut and also take this occasion for a tête-à-tête with a tenacious art-world insider.

First encounter with the art world.
I was exposed to contemporary art later in life and became very passionate about it. I remember the impact Andy Warhol had on society during the 1970s. That is when I initially became very interested.

In the beginning.
The gallery opened in 1981. There were very few galleries in Houston during the 1980s. And at that time, there was little exposure to contemporary art.

Trajectory and timeline.
My very first gallery was only 400 square feet. Eventually, I moved to a larger space, on Kirby Drive. Soon after, I relocated to the Houston Ballet Building on Colquitt Street. The building was renovated [by Miami-based purveyors of Postmodernism, Arquitectonica] into gallery spaces. I was in this space from 1985 to 2001.

During that time, one of my collectors wanted to build a building that housed galleries in the Museum District. I committed to being his first tenant. During construction, I moved to a temporary space, which was then the Warwick Hotel — an amazing space on the 11th floor, at one time the offices of the Mecom family. The view from the gallery overlooked the Mecom Fountain and Hermann Park. I was at the Warwick from 2003 to 2005. In 2005, the 4411 Montrose building was completed, and I moved in.

Big break.
In 2003, I was the first gallery in Texas to be invited to exhibit at Art Basel Miami Beach. It was very prestigious to be invited. You are voted in by a selection committee who is comprised of the powers of the art world. They review all of your past exhibitions, from the time the gallery opened. They also review what you will be exhibiting at the fair. It was an honor to be chosen, as it put the gallery in an international arena.

On a pedestal, Larry Bell’s glass maquette, circa late 1980s, a design for a much larger sculpture. The fullsized series was exhibited in fall 2014 when Bell, known for his ’60s-era vapor boxes, headlined at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. (The late Donald Judd and Bell were good pals.)

I gave Julie Mehretu her first gallery exhibition. She has become one of the most important artists of the 20th century. In 1988, I did an extensive one-person show for Joseph Beuys. Through the early years, I introduced significant artists to Houston, including Tony Cragg, Allan McCollum, Haim Steinbach, Günther Förg, Shahzia Sikander, The Starn Twins, Yehudit Sasportas, Joseph Cornell, Kiki Smith, Jonathan Borofsky, Sally Mann, Zhang Huan and a selection of artists from Leipzig.

Whom you’re tracking.
I am always watching for artists who are investigating new ideas and will have a strong impact on the viewer. A few years ago, Rice Gallery had an exhibition of Japanese artist Yasuaki Onishi. I am hoping to do a show for him in the future.

On Houston’s art scene: What you love, what you’d change.
Houston has become the third largest art center in the United States — New York, L.A., Houston, then Chicago. The large number of museums, working artists, collectors, galleries and nonprofit organizations in the city create a serious art community. However, there is a need for serious art criticism in Houston. I think Houston is comparable to Los Angeles. There is an openness and support within the art community in Houston and Los Angeles. Both cities have a great momentum — new galleries that are opening and showing artists who are pushing the envelope in the visual arts.

Three artists that define art history.
Agnes Martin, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse.

Three museums worthy of a pilgrimage.
Menil Collection, Tate Modern, Museum of Fine Arts Ghent.

Film that resonates.
The Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, directed by Kim Ki-duk.

Places you’d like to return to.
Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in the south of France. It’s reminiscent of the Gatsby era. The landscape is magnificent. I also visited the famous La Colombe d’Or where Miró, Braque, Chagall, Calder, Picasso and other artists gathered for food and great conversation. The Matisse Chapel on the French Riviera was a humbling experience. And Marfa, Texas — When you arrive in Marfa there is no doubt in your mind why Donald Judd chose this place for his studio and home. There is magic in the air.

Personal life.
My son, Mark Davis, is in the commercial real estate business. Daughter-in-law Tina Davis owns Cheeky Vintage. I have two granddaughters, Mia and Zoe.

Houston habitual haunts.
To feast: One of my favorite new restaurants is La Table — the food and service are excellent.

Best adventure beyond the art world: The Catastrophic Theatre or Horse Head Theatre.

What makes a work of art great.
The work engages the viewer, provokes a question, has a sense of mystery, encourages visual discovery and, most importantly, must be transcendent.

On seeking magic and why you’re in the art world.
Magic is an indescribable feeling. When you become visual, you start seeing the world differently — and in a profound way. You begin to notice nuances. For me, it makes life worth living. The art world has given me so much. It changes your experience. It’s a lifestyle. It’s my world.

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