Christian Eckart in the Houston Chronicle

Christian Eckart has found a good groove in Houston

Photo: J. Patric Schneider, Freelance

Photo: J. Patric Schneider, Freelance

Artist Christian Eckart's 'Cloud Room Field' brings light to Hobby Airport terminal

By Molly Glentzer

Christian Eckart was pouring potent margaritas into highball glasses.

"It's a little strong, but you're not obliged to finish it. I don't know what it is with alcohol and art," he said, chuckling. "In New York, I was a martini connoisseur. This is a new tequila I fell in love with. Casamigos. It has George Clooney's signature on the label. For the price, the best tequila I'm willing to buy."

He was being hospitable in his Museum District home, but Eckart also felt like he needed a stiff drink that day in mid-October. His first Houston public art commission, the $600,000 "Cloud Room Field" for Hobby Airport, was behind schedule.

One of the largest local public commissions of the year (and one of seven major new works for the airport's recent expansion), the piece took about eight months to design and fabricate. Every piece of it but the screws was custom-made by craftsmen Eckart hired in Austin and Toronto.

"For me, this is the thrill. I basically create an impossible object in my mind, then I have to figure out how to engineer and build it," he said. The project fills 445 files in 23 folders on his computer.

Measuring 10 feet by 60 feet, the luminous "Cloud Room Field" contains 600 panes of custom-made dichroic glass in nine pastel colors that cast reflections in opposing colors, sparkling constantly. They're suspended at 45-degree angles, in six directions, inside a three-dimensional armature of anodized aluminum and stainless steel. This grid has about 15,000 parts.

But engineering isn't really the point: For years, Eckart, 56, has aimed to evoke the sublime - a notion popularized by 18th-century Romantics who thought art should be an awesomely soulful counterpoint to science and reason. Eckart also draws from the concepts of Renaissance architects who designed vast, ornate cathedrals to give visitors an ecstatic experience.

He utilizes an entirely different mode of transport, however: contemporary abstraction, often rendered in cold, hard materials.

"Cloud Room Field" art installation above the security checkpoint at Hobby Airport by Christian Eckart Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle )

"Cloud Room Field" art installation above the security checkpoint at Hobby Airport by Christian Eckart Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle )

From 'Horn of Plenty' to Houston

Eckart came to Houston in 2003 looking for a more stable life. A native of Calgary, Canada, who became a U.S. citizen in 1995, he'd lived through years of extremes in Brooklyn and Europe.

"In New York, I had a lot of rich and famous friends who talked about their investments all the time. We never talked about art at all. I didn't want to be like that," Eckart said.

Growing up, he was always "the kid who could draw" but also an athlete and a hard worker. His father, a home builder, expected him to pay for his own bikes, cars and schooling and gave him his first summer job at the age of 9.

He ended up majoring in art because he couldn't get into film school. He moved to New York in 1984 and earned his master's degree at Hunter College in 1986.

That was a seminal moment for his generation.

Almost overnight, Eckart was hailed as an international star in a movement some coined "M.F.A. Abstraction." They were the first group trained academically "in a very specific way," approaching art and the making of it highly conceptually, said gallery owner Robert McClain, Eckart's Houston dealer. Prices for their work skyrocketed, even as global stock markets tanked in 1987.

Eckart broke into the really big time alongside Jeff Koons, Robert Gober and other then up-and-comers in "Horn of Plenty," a landmark 1989 exhibition at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. European collectors loved his work, and he began to think in even grander terms.

He shifted from concocting his own gold-leaf paintings on plywood - labor-intensive studio work - to what he calls his "capital-intensive" practice.

"It was a moment where you could make these pretty big decisions," he said.

He came up with a concept for a series of 144 layered screen prints on aluminum exploring moments of ecstasy in contemporary life. He finished nine pieces - including a pair of triptychs now in his studio - before the swollen art market collapsed in 1990.

Eckart's career spiraled, along with his first marriage.

"I was in a really dark place for a few years," he said.

Eventually, he found what seemed like a perfect life, dividing his time between Brooklyn and Europe, where galleries continued to show his work. He spent part of a year in Berlin and kept a studio in Amsterdam for about four years.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001, he returned to Brooklyn for good, he thought. He fell in love with Gillian Davies, a fellow Canadian and the stockbroker sister of a client. She moved from Vancouver to New York to be with him, but the city still was in shock, and the winter of 2001 was miserably cold.

They made wish lists of better places to live. They wanted to be near water, and she wanted a horse and dogs.

San Diego topped Davies' list, but Eckart had a solo show at McClain Gallery that January, and they stayed in Houston for six months. She liked the people - and wearing shorts in winter. They left New York on the last day of 2002 and married in 2003.

"It all just fell into place," Davies said. "Sometimes, it feels like you're swimming upstream and things are difficult. This was like, it just flowed."

She quickly found a good job in Houston as an energy company executive, and he taught classes at the Glassell School of Art and Rice University while they converted a dilapidated property into a sleek, contemporary home.

The loftlike space reads instantly as the sophisticated habitat of well-traveled people with a soft spot for rescued animals. Their blue heeler, Cody; Catahoula leopard dog, Annie, and a cat named Squirrel greet visitors at the door.

In the living room, a massive mirrored Buddha glows like a Zen disco ball. It's one of their favorite things, although they also own serious art by Mark Flood, Michael Bevilacqua, Kelli Vance, Adam Fuss, Axel Hütte and Koons. Eckart also collects monochromatic Chinese ceramics that fill a glass case inset into one wall.

Life in Houston has been good. He and Davies often entertain friends, who include former Mayor Bill White and his wife, Andrea White. Eckart also plays tennis often at Houston City Club and dotes on the extreme machines on his side of the garage - a new Ducati bike ("the Ferrari of Italian motorcyles"); a hard-tail chopper, a bike with no rear suspension; and an electric BMW car.

"The physics of riding a motorcycle are so beautiful. It can be a transcendent experience," Eckart said.

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