Today, the art museum has something interesting to
show us. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The Houston Museum of Fine
Arts recently mounted a large Frederick Remington
exhibit upstairs, along with a showing of several
modern sculptors downstairs. I'd never seen the
full sweep of Remington's paintings and bronzes in
one place, and it was a surprise. Here, all stirred
together, were documentary art, expressionism, and,
above all, the most remarkable storytelling.
A Remington print hung over the fireplace in my
childhood home. An Indian horseman bore down on a
young man trying to ford his wagon across a stream.
The Indian was armed with a spear; the young man
defended himself with a whip. From childhood to
this very day, I've worried about that young man.
Children at the exhibit were teased the same way. I
heard them asking, "Will the cowboy that's falling
off his horse get hurt?" "Will the Indians get
those men defending the water hole?" Remington
touches us with his powerful sense of
survival-drama in the American West.
Remington went out West in the late 19th century,
and he soon found his vocation there. It was to
record the twilight of a way of life. As an old
man, he sadly told us that 20th-century technology
and commerce had destroyed that world forever.
What the modern sculptors downstairs were saying
was similar. They made sport of modern technology.
Here were surrealistic telephones, light bulbs,
cartridges, engine parts -- anti-machines that had
sprouted in the humus of their minds. But it was
all wrought in a highly technical use of plastics,
metal, and other materials. No more documentaries
-- no more stories: these artists agreed on a
cynical, symbolic description of a technical world
-- one that they sneer at and revel in at the same
But that was also true of Remington. After all, he
was a genius in the use of advanced lost-wax
casting technologies. And his work gives us a
stunningly accurate record of the technologies of
the old West. Of course I like Remington because he
seems driven by admiration more than by
Yet Remington and these modern sculptors alike
remind us that technology changes our lives. And
anything with that sort of power needs critics. At
the same time, their works also remind us that
technology is an inescapable part of our human
nature. How else is it that many of technology's
harshest critics come to include some of its most
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds