Ben Culwell was born in 1918 in San Antonio, Texas. He spent most of his early life in Houston and resolved to pursue an artistic career. His family relocated to New York in 1936, allowing him to enroll in Columbia University. Though officially pursuing a degree in business administration, he took a number of art courses and studied under Walter Pach, one of the champions of European Modernist art and the chief architect of the landmark 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, otherwise known as the Armory Show. While at Columbia, Culwell took full advantage of his New York environment, attending seminal Dada, Surrealist, and Cubist exhibitions and forming relationships with representatives of America’s avant-garde. Though Culwell was charmed by New York, he was unwilling to wholly immerse himself in the city and its art scene. He was troubled by the affected bohemianism he encountered and, on the urging of his father, returned to Texas to pursue a career in business.
Culwell continued to paint, though his distance and detachment from the New York art world prevented him from attaining the recognition he deserved. His work continued to be characterized by a confident, painterly handling of surface textures. He frequently buried images deep within layers of paint, forcing viewers to unearth meaning from within numberless strata of paint. Culwell’s experimentalism enabled him to anticipate stylistic devices often attributed to more recognizable artists; Culwell dripped paint before Pollock, employed sand before Tapies, and assimilated mirrors and glass into his work well in advance of Rauschenberg.
Culwell lived out his life largely in seclusion – after departing from New York in the 1940s he settled in Temple, Texas – but he was not wholly forgotten by the doyens of the art world and the critical community. He exhibited throughout Texas and saw his work included in a number of nationally-prominent institutions.
Selected Biographical and Career Highlights
• 1918, Born in San Antonio, Texas
• 1934-41, Dallas Art Institute, Southern Methodist University
• 1936, Studies with Walter Pach and begins employing abstraction and surrealism; Columbia University, New York, New York
• 1941, Drafted into U.S. Army, WWII, stationed at Pearl Harbor
• 1992, Dies in Temple, Texas
• 1945, solo exhibition curated by Jerry Bywaters, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, Texas
• 1946, Fourteen Americans, Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
• 1959, solo exhibition, San Antonio Men of Art Guild, San Antonio, Texas
• 1971, group exhibition, Owen Art Center, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
• 1977, Retrospective, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas
• 1983, group exhibition, Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas
• 1987, solo exhibition, Menil Collection, Houston, Texas