Rethinking Art and a New Museum Building in Houston

Were things different this past weekend, we would have been in New York perusing Alice Neel: People Come First at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With bad weather, airline cancellations and other factors in the way, with a drive to Houston we could check something off our list and rescue the weekend.

There’s a healthy rivalry between Dallas and Houston, but with each trip, I can’t help but think those who purposely avoid this Gulf Coast city get the shorter stick. The new Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts here greatly expands the exhibition space in what was already the state’s biggest, and arguably best, art museum.

Heading in from the parking garage, we didn’t yet know a sculpture hanging from the ceiling in the entryway to an underground tunnel was by contemporary artist and activist Ai Wei Wei, although before entering the tunnel we did realize the fragments formed a dragon.

A memorable attraction here has long since been a separate tunnel featuring artwork by James Turrell. Designers of the new building did not disappoint with light installations by Olafur Eliasson and Carlos Cruz-Diez. Here we have been nudged into alternative thinking before we even officially entered the museum.

Beyond the tunnel, El Anatsui’s large installation, made specifically for the new wing, greets guests at the lower-level entrance. The artwork with perhaps thousands of bottle caps, bulges and billows like a huge cloud under an expansive Texas sky. Here and there, intense colors strike through like the thunderbolts rumbling above the Houston sky above.

We rode the elevator to the fourth floor and began to work our way down. Here it’s all contemporary. I would imagine curators will rotate art on a regular basis. It is refreshing to see familiar names in contemporary Texas such as Vincent Valdez and Margarita Cabrera art displayed side by side with Kara Walker and Henry Taylor. By organizing artwork in themes, we can enjoy the dialog as the artists explore pertinent social issues.

Bicicleta by Margarita Cabrera
Sculpture by Carmelo Arden Quin

If Miami is the gateway to Latin America, Houston has claimed its place as the gateway to the Latin American Art World. The curators are certainly well aware of their geographic location. The expansive Latin American art spans over three floors, including a room dedicated to Carmelo Arden Quin and the MADI movement in its earliest stage.

We also took time to see Three Centuries of American Art, a special exhibition of American and European works. The special exhibition area here seems less than ideal. I’m not sure what the original purpose of this windowed room was, but it doesn’t work so well as an exhibition space for paintings. Perhaps at some point, the windows could be open and used to illuminate architectural works or sculptures. Maybe the less than ideal lighting is more perception after coming from the new Kinder building. We can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the light-filled contemporary art building and the stuffy-curtained Wiess Law Building.

Before we headed out, we also stopped at the Beck Building to see the permanent collection in American Art. With its extensive decorative art holdings, MFAH does not disappoint. We came to this building to find the line this museum draws between American art and modern/contemporary art. Back in the Kinder building, we saw works by Arshile Gorky, David Smith, William de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and even Alice Neel (which in some way made up for our lost trip). It has always been a struggle for an encyclopedic museum that collects American art from colonial portraiture to Andy Warhol. At the Met, the American Art Gallery stops at the Ashcan School and art around the Armory Show. MFA Houston has a similar approach as much of what would have been collected by Whitney Museum standards is now in the contemporary wing. In today’s art world, scholars and collectors who mainly pay tribute to artwork in Houston’s permanent American art galleries may not often overlap those in modern and contemporary art.

Yet we can’t help but think this curatorial decision can emphasize the trend that disjoints historical references from modern and contemporary art. I still remember an exciting trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art where historical paintings were paired with contemporary art both questioning and validating notions of beauty, feminism, class, and even environment.

The buildings here beg the question of just where modernism begins.

Of course, not every museum should go to an extreme length to re-interpret artwork from the 18th and 19th centuries. While we expect originality, despite gallant intentions, contemporary art is far from being disconnected from the past. The early genesis of modernism, as seen in the last gallery of Three Centuries, ended quietly with Childe Hassam’s Rainy Night. That eerie purple light was the last we saw before leaving the museum. Its near monochromatism looks as shocking and contemporary as Turrell’s tunnel.

Heading back into the underground, toward the Kinder building and parking garage, we felt the connection split by the surreal light. I hope the divide we crossed in the timeline isn’t much of a barrier to other intuitive experiences.

But the museum ties more of our notions about art than it divides. And we really didn’t spend a moment lamenting our time spent here or wishing had made it to New York.

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