Professor Charles Umlauf and Farrah Fawcett work in his Austin studio, circa 1970. Photo: Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum
The portrait of Farrah Fawcett you never saw: artist Austin exhibit reveals a true artist behind the golden girl By Molly Glentzer
May 12, 2017 Updated: May 14, 2017 5:27pm
Houston Chronicle Article LinkWe rarely know all we think we know about celebrities.
Not much about Farrah Fawcett, the '70s pinup queen, seemed private during the actress and model's nearly 40-year career: not the nipples she showed through a red bathing suit on the world's best-selling poster during her "Charlie's Angels" era. Not her volatile man troubles with Lee Majors, Ryan O'Neal and other less famous guys. Not the sad story of her drug-addicted son. Not her whole, gold-smeared body, at age 50, when she "painted" a self-portrait for Playboy. Not her unforgettably ditzy appearance on David Letterman's show.
And not even her death, which was documented in a film revealing the most excruciating, intimate details of the battle with cancer she lost when she was 62.
Eight years later, an exhibition at Austin's Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum is revealing a little-discussed, quieter facet of the vivacious beauty from Corpus Christi: her life as a classically trained sculptor.
"Mentoring A Muse: Charles Umlauf & Farrah Fawcett" includes 20 artworks created by Fawcett and 25 by her mentor Umlauf, who taught 40 years at the University of Texas at Austin.
Fawcett often mentioned the "art shack" behind her Bel-Air mansion. Hollywood insiders must have known she brought drawing materials to work - she developed her on-screen characters by drawing, not conventional note-taking.
The exhibition's works are drawn heavily from Fawcett's bequest to UT's Blanton Museum of Art, a gift that included 60 pieces of her own making plus works by others, including Umlauf.
Houstonian Greg Walls, Fawcett's nephew, remembers seeing her home full of art when he was too young to question much about it. And it spilled over to the whole family: Walls' parents and grandparents often "horse-traded" Fawcett's works among their homes in the Champions neighborhood.
With her celebrity, Fawcett could have shown her work in any number of publicity-hungry galleries. But she didn't.
Contemporary sculptor Keith Edmier, who spent two years in an intimate collaboration with Fawcett during the early 2000s, thinks art provided a retreat she craved. It took her to a happy place she didn't need to share, or want to spoil.
Katie Robinson Edwards, the Umlauf's curator, agreed: "Farrah seemed to be able to escape being 'Farrah Fawcett' when she made art." The ultimate muse
Until recently, Fawcett's decades-long friendship with Umlauf had been one of the least-discussed relationships of her life. But it was important, and it endured until he died in 1994.
They met in 1966, her sophomore year at UT, when she changed her major from microbiology to art. The "UT goddess," as art students and faculty sometimes called her, caused a stir almost from her first moment on campus. She was named one of the school's 10 most beautiful women as a freshman sorority girl, when she wore her hair in that era's big, bouffant-y flip. An epic number of boys lined up to date her, filling her schedule with breakfasts, lunches and dinners that first year. (She finally settled on the top pick of the litter, handsome quarterback Greg Lott.)
Hollywood agents came calling, too, enticing her with the promise of modeling and acting contracts. Like a football prospect who just couldn't wait another year to turn pro, she left college after her junior year, never graduating.
But Fawcett stayed close to Umlauf, writing, calling, visiting his studio to make art alongside him and shipping sculpture to him throughout the 1970s to be cast in bronze at the Italian foundries he used.
A notorious womanizer, the professor no doubt admired Fawcett's beauty. She modeled live for only one of the sculptures in the show - the 1973 bronze "Head of Farrah" - but she was second as a muse only to Umlauf's wife, Angeline, who had broader hips and a fuller belly.
Umlauf had a few other, shorter-term female models and sculpted a mysterious "Italian girl." (He spent summers without Angeline in Italy, and Edwards suspects he had another life there.) But those muses were not as equal, she said.
"Farrah was the ultimate muse: She was gorgeous and soon famous but also an artist who kept up her practice and relied on Umlauf for advice."
Letters hand-written in her neat but florid script suggest she kept the friendship proper, always addressing him respectfully as "Mr. Umlauf" or "Professor Umlauf."
Edwards thinks Umlauf appreciated having a "peer of sorts" with whom he could make art and talk shop - the unsexy business of hydrastone sources, bronze-casting processes and the colors of patinas.
Steeped in traditional, Renaissance-inspired lost wax carving, casting and figuration, Umlauf could bring pure, classical form to any subject, in virtually any medium - wood, stone, clay, bronze, even lard. His forte, oddly, became sensuous nudes and devotional figures as churches across the nation commissioned his religious sculptures.
But Umlauf's works are rarely realistic, with faces informed by some vaguely generic, classical ideal. And they were not trendy even in the 1960s.
Frankly, his depictions of Fawcett don't look much like her. Another "Head of Farrah," from 1976, tames the then-new, tousled blond mane that millions of American women were copying.
Other well-known Umlauf students built signature identities.
The late Luis Jiménez celebrated Hispanic and Southwest culture in monumental sculptures of polychromed fiberglass. The flamboyant Robert "Daddy-O" Wade once created the world's largest cowboy boots. Veteran Houston sculptor Ben Woitena embraced abstraction.
Many artists who stick with a practice as long as Fawcett did evolve stylistically, stimulated by new influences. But something about classicism kept her engaged for a lifetime.
Edmier said he didn't question her old-fashioned taste and reverence for Pierre August Rodin and Michelangelo. For their shared project, it was an asset. Today their collaboration would be labeled "performative" - 2017 code for edgy, intangible, time-based stuff - but they produced works that were "self-consciously connected to 19th-century sculpture," Edmier said.
The Umlauf show reveals her surprisingly sensitive eye, her desire to speak poignantly through her hands and, as Edwards put it, "some serious Catholic-girl taste."
Fawcett owned six versions of Umlauf's pietas, depictions of the Virgin Mary holding a dead Christ, and a dramatic drawing of Christ's head hanging from the cross.
"Who would want that?" Edwards mused. Turning the tables
In the "Mentoring" show's Fawcett portraits and self-portraits, the famous megawatt, party-girl smile is absent. Her eyes are often lost in some faraway gaze, her lips closed and sometimes downturned.
She seems sad even in her small painting "Two Faces," which fuses the dark blue-black face of a male with that of a light-skinned, brunette female who sheds a subtle tear. Their heads are bound together by a gold-leafed floral crown.
"It's so anti-Umlauf, in a way, much more home-spun and Surrealistic," Edwards said.
That painting belongs to a large series Fawcett made of the same two faces. Edwards believes the subjects represent O'Neal and Fawcett.
Fawcett also cast plaster or bronze sculptures in as many as 25 multiples.
Late in life, she told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Patricia Sheridan she loved the process: "I think you are never completely satisfied. You are never finished, you know."
A couple of nude female torsos in "Mentoring a Muse" show her exploring and learning. She was copying Umlauf pieces whose chopped limbs recall the ruined remains of antiquities.
Edwards sees him trying to solve the problem of cutting figures off at the neck and attenuating the shoulders and arms, and finds his solutions disturbingly misogynistic.
"It drives me crazy when he takes the clay, then it almost looks like he takes a wire and shaves off the head, but he leaves hair back here. No head! But look what she does, in class with him: the same thing but not so harsh."
Fawcett omits the hair, softens the shoulders so they look movable and gives her figure something to lean on other than a lost arm.
"Some part of her thought, 'This is not natural,' " Edwards said. "Part of what I wanted to do with this show, although I need to do more work on it, is make an argument for her as a proto-feminist."
Perhaps, in exploring the female form, Fawcett also could reflect on her own body image, or turn the tables and be the looker instead of the constantly looked-at.
Edmier doubts she was aware of feminist contemporary art theory when her Playboy escapade with the gold paint was published in 1997, but he knows it could have been respected today as more than a desperate publicity stunt.
A true artist
Fawcett let the world peek a little deeper inside her art head with the Edmier collaboration in 2000.
Edmier, 20 years her junior, built his reputation with works inspired by people who have "marked time" in his life. He had fantasized about Fawcett since he was a kid with that iconic poster in his bedroom. He was surprised, and thrilled, when her condition for posing turned the whole muse thing on its ear: He, too, had to pose for her.
During two years together, they produced six sculptures, many photographs and drawings, and a book. The big attention-grabber was their contrasting nudes of each other: He depicted her horizontally, in a marble inspired by Rodin, demurely leaning against a sandy-looking base that hides her front side. She re-created him vertically, leaning against a boulder in a full-frontal bronze inspired by Michelangelo's Adam.
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Keith Edmier and Farrah Fawcett 2000" yielded an avalanche of mostly fluff publicity and one scathing critical review. Three years later, at Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum, earlier works by both artists were included.
Yet no one delved far into Fawcett's art history.
Edwards acknowledged she was "kind of a snob" about Fawcett's art the first time she saw it in the Blanton's storage vaults.
"I remember telling people, 'Well, she's adequate.' Which was really obnoxious of me. But you learn. I'm amazed at how good she was."
Edwards devotes a small wall of her show to Fawcett's "anti-Umlauf" side. She owned a few edgier works, including a 1947 drawing by the Dadaist Man Ray.
O'Neal introduced Fawcett to Warhol, who photographed her and eventually painted a matched pair of major portraits from his images. Fawcett's mouth is closed in those works, too, although Warhol renders her with pop-slicked red lips and bright teal eyes.
The Blanton now owns one of those Warhols, which hangs in its contemporary galleries. O'Neal sued UT to win the other.
Fawcett wasn't much of a collector. Sylvia Dorsey, a college chum who decorated Fawcett's homes, advised her to frame the napkin sketches by Warhol she'd thrown into a box.
Knowing that helps put Fawcett's attitude in context: She didn't care about the art market. Her work, and her interest, really were deeply personal.
"She would have preferred to be known as that kind of artist, rather than an actress," Dorsey said.
Fawcett's bequest to UT includes 168 of her own works - a legacy that warrants a "Farrah Part Two" exhibition that could include the Edmier project, Edwards said.
For now, "Mentoring a Muse" offers a rare chance to glimpse a more complex Farrah than all the tabloid stories could illuminate. And the most telling works are her own creations.
With intense, harmoniously chiseled features, "Head of Diane," a bronze of Fawcett's sister, easily holds its own next to Umlauf's sculptures. She captures a wild, primitive force in a sanguine drawing that depicts Majors.
Another standout is Fawcett's circa-1970 self-portrait, an oil on canvas. There, she renders herself as a solemn, long-haired beauty. The muse's muse seems to be materializing like a ghost through an oval opening in a softly clouded atmosphere of emptiness.
Maybe she just didn't want to bother with painting more than that, or couldn't. Artists can turn their technical issues into assets. Fawcett's self-portrait is more expressionistic than realistic, and slightly generic.
But once a painting enters a public realm, viewers will read into it whatever feeds their imagination. This woman is the antithesis of the gamine, giggly-looking girl in the red swimsuit, but in her way, no less alluring.
'Mentoring a Muse: Charles Umlauf and Farrah Fawcett'
When: Tuesdays-Fridays, noon-4 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through Aug. 20
Where: Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, 605 Robert E. Lee Road, Austin