Featured Collection: The Estate of Carol Austin Straus

Carol Austin Straus (1912–2014) and her husband, businessman Robert D. Straus (1907–1982), were influential art collectors, as well as cultural and civic leaders in Houston. In 1937, the couple purchased land at 1814 Larchmont Road in River Oaks and commissioned architect and neighbor John Staub to build one of the first modern houses in Houston, his first venture into modernism. The unique design made it stand out amongst the more traditional homes in River Oaks. Alexander Calder even addressed a letter to the Strauses with only “Modern House, Houston, Texas” in the address line – it was delivered.

During World War II, Mr. Straus was briefly stationed in New York City, where he met influential collector Roy Neuberger. They visited art galleries together and, through this exposure, the Strauses began a lifetime of collecting.

Neuberger fondly recounts his time with the Strauses in his 2002 memoir, “The Passionate Collector: Eighty Years in the World of Art.” He writes:

After World War II, collecting spread all over the country. It was no longer an Eastern establishment thing. While I was president of the American Federation of Arts, I went twice to Texas, in 1957 to Houston and in 1963 to Dallas-Fort Worth, where I got to know two Texas collectors. Culturally, Houston was extremely backward in 1957. The AFA meeting marked the emergence of a new cultural interest, making the city a livelier place.

Neuberger continues:

The other oasis was Robert Straus, not the Democratic political leader but a man whose family went into the saddlery business right after the Civil War. It grew into a large company. Straus came to see me in New York in 1943 and we became friends. Straus originally collected porcelains and oriental art. After visiting me, he switched to contemporary art and became a large collector. Much of the collection was in his home, an estate right in the middle of Houston where he lived with his wife and five children. He and his family greatly enhanced my stay in Houston.

Carol and Robert frequented prominent galleries and became patrons of legendary dealers, including Edith Halpert at The Downtown Gallery, Curt Valentin and Pierre Matisse. Much of the Strauses’ important collection of Asian arts was later donated to the MFAH, including an important 13th century Indian bronze sculpture of Shiva Nataraja.

Their collection would eventually include works by Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti, Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Josef Albers, Alexander Calder, Max Beckmann, Jacob Lawrence, Helen Frankenthaler and Henry Moore. This auction includes works by Loren MacIver, Ben Shahn, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Henri Matisse, Darrel Austin, Raymond Parker and David Hare. Additionally, the Strauses collected works by Texas artists, many of whom became good friends, including Dorothy Hood, Derek Bosier, David Bates and Joseph Glasgo.

The Strauses’ collection grew to include works by contemporary Latin American artists, including Rufino Tamayo, Fernando Botero, Francisco Toledo and Alfredo Zalce, especially when they built a second home in Morelia, Mexico. When Kiko Gallery opened in Houston, specializing in work by Japanese artists, they purchased works by An Furuta, Mario Shinoda and Takiguchi, among numerous others.

In addition to paintings, prints and sculptures, the Strauses also collected modern furniture. Most notably, the couple commissioned T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings in the 1940s to modernize the interior of their River Oaks home with custom furnishings.

The Strauses’ lasting impact on the Houston arts scene cannot be overstated. Mr. and Mrs. Straus were part of a small founding group of seven Houstonians that established the Contemporary Arts Association (CAA) in 1948, which would later become the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAM). Many of the founding members were frustrated with what was perceived as a lack of interest in modern art by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). The group was eager to exhibit and promote works by contemporary artists and designers, though some disagreed as to whether the CAA should feature only local artists, or broaden its scope to include national and international artists. The Strauses were instrumental in getting Dominique and John de Menil, Houston’s most notable contemporary art collectors, to join the CAA.

Both the Strauses and de Menils ultimately became involved with the MFAH and helped to shape the institution into what it is today. With the support of the Strauses, the de Menils recruited James Johnson Sweeney, founding director of the Guggenheim Museum, in 1961 to serve as Museum Director. Mr. and Mrs. Straus both served on the CAM board, and Mr. Straus later served on the board of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the art advisory board at the University of Texas.

After Robert’s death in 1982, Carol Straus continued collecting art but her focus shifted more towards contemporary craft, buying baskets, glass, pottery and mixed media works. A large number of pieces from her collection were donated to the MFAH prior to her death.

Throughout her life, Carol Straus was active in civic and cultural affairs. She served as board president for Planned Parenthood of Houston and Texas, vice president of the Houston Council on World Affairs, and board member of Methodist Hospital Auxiliary, Blaffer Gallery at University of Houston, YWCA Houston, Garden Club of Houston, DiverseWorks, KUHF-TV, and Johnson Art Center in Vermont, along with other arts and civic groups. She was a delegate to the United Nations conference Pacem in Terris in 1965 and on the national boards of Planned Parenthood, United Way America and the President’s Council on World Affairs. At KUHF she created the first on-air fundraising auction on public television.

New Orleans Auction Galleries is honored to offer a diverse selection of paintings, sculputure, crafts and furniture from the Estate of Carol Austin Straus.