Short Features

Contemporary Art, Drawing

On Houston Time—Hanne Darboven and the Barbara Cusack Gallery, 1974–76

Detail of a letter from Hanne Darboven to Barbara Cusack, February 3, 1975. Collection of Barbara Hill

The Menil Drawing Institute’s exhibition Hanne Darboven—Writing Time (October 27, 2023–February 11, 2024) focuses on three of the artist’s career-defining motifs. The display is a rare look in the United States at the breadth of Darboven’s practice; however, it is not her first solo exhibition in Houston. In tandem with the Menil’s presentation, we revisit Hanne Darboven’s lesser known 1974 show in the city, and the daring Barbara Cusack who staged it at her gallery.

In March 1974, the Conceptual artist Les Levine published an article for the national publication Arts Magazine titled “Lone Star Four.”(1) “Dallas has the airport,” began the article, “but Houston’s got the art.” It profiled four women in the vanguard of the city’s art scene, one of whom was the up-and-coming gallerist Barbara Cusack.

Already, Cusack (who today goes by Barbara Hill) had a sense of what her gallery could contribute to the local arts community. She had been working at the Rice Museum under Dominque de Menil beginning in 1970 or ’71 and was a budding art collector herself.(2) In the article, Cusack explained that through these prior experiences she “had enough encouragement to really want to continue to show new art.” At her gallery, she continued, “the young people, the students come here and see these things for the first time. Groups of kids would come over here and sit around and talk about the drawings. I’ve tried to keep an atmosphere in the gallery of make-yourself-at-home-here and come and talk about art and read and look.” The gallery was in fact located in Cusack’s house on Bayard Lane, just around the corner from the Contemporary Arts Museum, where she was raising her young family.

Cusack had only opened her eponymous gallery the year before, in the fall of 1973, with a show of six Sol LeWitt wall drawings. The inaugural exhibition was closely followed by a drawing-centric show with more than 45 leading American artists, including Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, and Pat Steir, among others. Also featured in the exhibition were a number of Conceptual artists, few of whom were being exhibited with any regularity in Texas. Cusack’s gallery would quickly become Conceptual art’s foothold in Houston, as she mounted shows by Daniel Buren, Ian Wilson, Stephen Antonakos, and On Kawara in rapid succession.

On November 26, 1974, Cusack opened an exhibition of Darboven’s work. It was one of the artist’s earliest solo presentations in the United States, and even more exceptional that it was hosted outside of the artist’s New York gallery.

Cusack first encountered Darboven’s art just a few years prior. Her interest was piqued by displays of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and furthered by visits with their mutual friend Sol LeWitt. In a recent conversation, Cusack recalled that she found Darboven’s work to be “unique, cerebral, beautiful…the indiscernible words made into patterns; it was amazing. I still don’t know of anything like it.” Cusack worked with the New York gallerist Leo Castelli to bring two of Darboven’s works to Houston: Untitled (Portfolio 2 – Part A), 1971, and Untitled (Portfolio 2, Part B), 1971.

Though further research is needed to identify each work in these installation images, as well as its current whereabouts, they do bear many hallmarks of Darboven’s practice from the early to mid-1970s. The large format frames and drawn boxes with text are comparable to works like 24 Songs, A Form and B Form, Index, 1974,(3) in which Darboven translated songs into her subjective mathematical formulas and wavy lines; or Month III (March), 1974,(4) in which the 31 days of March are drawn as a series of numbered squares and lines. Cusack recalled how the work appeared as if “it came from some unknown place. It looks like music. It is music, with different sounds, different rhythms.”

As Darboven was unable to attend the installation of her work, she sent Cusack postcards and letters detailing her wishes for the marketing and display. “Dear Barbara,” one letter begins, “here [is] the installation of 3 pieces—I hope it will be fine.” Darboven drew the floorplan of the gallery and marked on which walls she envisioned the works installed. She closed with a warm farewell, “I will see you next time—all best,” along with her trademark wavy lines.

In another piece of correspondence, Darboven ponders what to do for an announcement card but ultimately comes up short: “No—no time no more for any ideas. See you later.” Alongside such sentiments, Darboven’s letters burst with notations, underscores, dates, and elongated dashes that fill the empty space and interrupt sentences. Her texts hint at the intertwining of writing and drawing that were at the core of her artistic impulse for more than 40 years. Much like Darboven’s own practice did, these letters cross the boundaries between drawing and correspondence, art and life.

Darboven’s show opened in late November, and a considered review was published in the Houston Chronicle by the paper’s art critic, Charlotte Moser, a few weeks later. In Moser’s assessment, Darboven’s art appeared as “intriguing chemical elements charts…contain[ing] a numerical sequence that the viewer is left to decipher.”(5) Her conclusion was that Darboven had “in essence, created her own visual symbol for information, this a basis for abstract art at any level.” Early the following year, Cusack sent a letter to Darboven detailing the successes of her work and exhibition in Houston, and “although none sold,” she remarked, it was “an outstanding show—beautiful, vibrant—with much vitality.”

Correspondence between the two remained active over the next few years, as Darboven sent dynamic, thoughtful, and personalized artworks to Cusack through the mail. Many feature her characteristic mathematical prose, in which the artist represented every day of the year as a single number by adding up all the figures in a given date—what Darboven termed the “K-value.”

In 1974, Darboven penned a New Year’s card for Cusack in celebration of the occasion. In Darboven’s highly subjective mathematical prose, the last day of the year 1974 is translated into 54K (12+31+7+4), and the first day of 1975 becomes 14K (1+1+7+5). A short time after, Darboven wrote another letter to Cusack thanking her for installation images of her show at the gallery and attached it to a printed timetable for a train schedule in Germany. The letter is dated February 3, 1975, which for Darboven equaled 17K (2+3+7+5). Accordingly, Darboven then penned 17 rows of her characteristic wavy lines, which she routinely termed as a kind of “writing without describing.”

In the ensuing years, Darboven’s work only increased in demand across Europe and the United States. In March 1976, Cusack staged one more display of Darboven’s work Introduction I-II [Einfuhrung] before ultimately closing the gallery in 1977.

It appears that at one point Cusack was involved with a display of Darboven’s work at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, though it is unclear on when the installation occurred. Cusack and Darboven continued to stay in touch over the years, with the gallerist even attending the artist’s barn-raising celebration at her childhood home in Hamburg-Harburg, Germany.

Darboven’s art is indeed heady, minimal, and austere, but it was also deeply connected to her subjective sense of time and, as this small chapter in the history of Barbara Cusack Gallery shows, the personal relationships she cherished. For an all-too-brief moment in Houston’s art world, the Cusack Gallery also took up these deep connections between art and life, and in so doing, made a home for art, family, and community.

For more on Cusack Gallery, both the Smithsonian Archives of American Art and the Menil Archives hold oral histories with Barbara Hill in their collections.

Related exhibitions

Oct 27, 2023 – Feb 11, 2024
Menil Drawing Institute
Hanne Darboven—Writing Time