Architecture

Better, Faster, Stronger, Kinder

The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo: Richard Barnes.

THIS PAST MAY, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was briefly in the public eye for being the first major American museum to reopen after the initial wave of coronavirus-related lockdowns. Come November, the debut of the final component of a $450 million expansion project—the Nancy and Rich Kinder building, which boasts 164,000 square feet of exhibition space dedicated to international modern and contemporary art—coincided with the onset of what promises to be the pandemic’s deadliest season yet. Despite the grim winter forecast, museum leadership, armed with the blessing of Governor Abbott’s “Strike Force” team (of which Nancy Kinder is a member) to reopen Texas, blithely pushed through the launch of this game changer for the Houston art world. Thus, a highly curated behind-the-scenes press stratagem competed with Instagram posts by @ChangeTheMuseum that challenged official accounts of virus-free opening weeks and high staff morale with reminders that the building’s security guards continue to work for nine dollars an hour, and that some staff have indeed become infected.

In public remarks, director Gary Tinterow has emphasized the long view, remaining laser-focused on celebrating how the Steven Holl–designed expansion—“almost unparalleled in modern times”—nearly doubles the MFAH’s available exhibition space while also unifying an undeniably impressive fourteen-acre campus that includes two preexisting exhibition buildings, a Noguchi-designed sculpture garden, conservation lab, public plaza, and studio school (also a recent build by Steven Holl Architects). Touted as well is the fact that this massive piece of cultural infrastructure, aimed at an audience that is 92 percent local, was supported entirely through private donations and incurred zero debt. As it stands now, the MFAH is outflanked in both endowment and square footage only by the Getty and the Met. Where it is still sprinting to catch up is in the quantity of its holdings, although a $450 million boost to the endowment from oil heiress Caroline Wiess Law in the mid-2000s has driven a buying spree, especially of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art. Hence the need for the Kinder, whose namesake patrons also drew their fortune from the oil industry, specifically through pipeline and storage developments.

For those not ready to venture indoors, there is much to appreciate from the outside. The facade is a carapace of milky-white half-cylinders in glass, which modulate the climate’s double-whammy of bright daylight and heat. Small reflecting pools notch the building’s footprint and add visual interest in ways similar to Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The graceful roof pattern is choreographed by a series of massive concave arcs, as if the building had been embossed by a canopy of low-hanging clouds. Inspired by Texas’s grand skies, the motif has become a new trademark for Holl, appearing in contemporaneous designs for Princeton University and Franklin & Marshall College. The edifice may be at its most alluring by night, when the glass tubes catch interior light and disperse it as an otherworldly glow, recalling the lantern-like structures that comprise the architect’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Stepping inside, a brilliantly white, three-story atrium that clearly riffs on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim primes visitors for experiences of aesthetic awe. While the building footprint is technically a trapezoid, the interior impression is of a wedge with rounded edges, an incandescent slice of birthday cake. Eyes are drawn upward by an Alexander Calder mobile and a multipaneled Gerhard Richter painting hanging on the top floor. Both secondhand commissions rejected from their intended homes, they are nevertheless stunning accents that elevate the gaze to Holl’s enchanting ceiling, which evokes overlapping sheaves of paper. The gaps between the curved planes let in just the right amount of soft radiance, a theme carried throughout the building’s lighting concept, which for the most part achieves a warm elegance. Yet the overzealous addition of glowing panels to the rotunda balconies’ walls illuminate the artworks opposite them about as appealingly as would an open refrigerator. Gracious touches include handsome wood-tiled flooring throughout most galleries and springy carpeting in the photography, prints, and drawings rooms, while the ground-floor terrazzo thoughtfully quotes Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Law building across the street (now accessible via an art-filled tunnel). Narrow stairwells create pinch points that hurry visitors between the building’s three floors. Statement sculptures and immersive installations occupy the ground level (Kusama, Turrell, and a retrofuturistic Gyula Kosice); the second is divided discretely between curatorial departments, with starkly different display strategies to boot; and the third floor presents a series of themed arrangements of intermixed collections, mostly post-1960.

Unfortunately, with its bland #GetModern-at-the-MFAH marketing campaign, the museum misses an opportunity to trumpet a truly unique success: It now clearly stands as a preeminent institution internationally in its ability to articulate broad-reaching historical and geographic narratives about modern and contemporary art of the Americas that are authentic and deep. How this plays out curatorially in the galleries is invigorating, and honors South-facing local, national, and transnational histories as well as urgent demands to bring more women artists and artists of color into the room. An arresting moment in the twentieth-century European and American art galleries, for example, juxtaposes sorrowful tableaux by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Kathe Köllwitz, and Texas artist John Biggers. Meanwhile, the emergence of geometric abstraction is most commandingly illustrated in galleries devoted to artists working in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela, where that aesthetic flame has arguably held out longest. This provocative recalibration makes the Mondrian hanging back in the European galleries look, well, old. Throughout floors two and three, thoughtfully placed reappearances—of works by Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Antonio Berni, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Ettore Sottsass, Dorothy Hood, Fred Eversley, Sam Gilliam, Carrie Mae Weems, Viola Frey—forge conversations between disparate galleries and mediums.

The Kinder’s top floor is currently dominated by anodyne formalist arrangements—“Color into Light,” “Light into Space,” “Line into Space” (the latter architected around extensive holdings of works by Gego)—whose generic appeal thankfully does not diminish the impact of individual works. The scope and quality of the collection is excellent, and to see so much of it laid out in one place is one of the building’s true unadulterated pleasures. One hopes the inaugural crowd-pleasing installations (including an “LOL!” gallery) will soon be refreshed with more conceptually probing displays like that found in “Border, Mapping, Witness,” which includes a room centered on work thematizing the US–Mexico border. Engrossing photographs of migrant laborers by Alejandro Cartagena and detention and border infrastructure by David Taylor are joined with Camilo Ontiveros’s gut-wrenching Temporary Storage, 2009/2017, a precariously balanced bundle of all the abandoned possessions of Juan Manuel Montes, Trump’s first DACA deportee.

View of Cristina Iglesias’s Inner Landscape (the lithosphere, the roots, the water), 2020, bronze bas relief pool, dimensions variable. Photo: Thomas Dubrock.

The building is also decorated with a number of spectacular site-specific commissions—by Cruz-Diez, Olafur Eliasson, Ai Weiwei, Byung Hoon Choi, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Cristina Iglesias, and El Anatsui (whose metallic curtain is, as of this writing, still en route from Lagos). Over time, these will securely index the building to its origins in the early twenty-first century. Happily, much of this self-consciously photogenic art occupies exterior and below-ground passageways, which may mitigate against aspirant influencers clogging the galleries. Iglesias is the only woman of the lot, but her kinetic pool, Inner Landscape (the lithosphere, the roots, the water), 2020, is most highly visible in its location at the Main Street entrance. This sculpture-slash-water-feature, which empties and refills roughly by the hour, represents in muddy bronze a rocky pool crisscrossed with roots and decaying vegetation. In essence, it simulates the very geologic processes that over millennia have produced the high-carbon fossil fuels that, since the Industrial Revolution, have enabled anything like modern and contemporary art and its museums to exist. Admittedly I, like most Houstonians who have visited the Kinder, immediately and instinctively loved it, and am thrilled to imagine the kinds of cultural experiences it will enable the city’s public to have. I do not, however, love the petromodernity that it glorifies. Here lies the inadvertent brilliance of Iglesias’s Inner Landscape, an appropriately ambivalent monument that will literally and figuratively ground every visit to the MFAH’s new building with an acknowledgment of the extractive industries—oil, finance—that have funded this seemingly debt-free gift to humanity.

Natilee Harren is an art historian and critic and the author of Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and the Eternal Network (University of Chicago Press, 2020) and Karl Haendel: Knight’s Heritage (LAXART, 2017). She teaches at the University of Houston School of Art.

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