Shortly after the late Jesús Rafael Soto’s posthumously realized Houston Penetrable went on view in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Cullinan Hall, I wrote that I was glad the MFAH was “encouraging visitors to take pictures of the Penetrable. It’s not just a smart thing to do, like letting guests snapshoot a jpeg of a Rembrandt for their Facebook pages (free marketing!); it’s a way of enabling an important mode of experiencing Soto’s environment.” Judging from my Facebook news feed and the ongoing shutterbuggery I observe inside and around the Penetrable, plenty of people are enjoying an important part of the Penetrable‘s lively relationship with photography.
Why just “part” and not the whole enchilada? Because I’m seeing an awful lot more photos that look like this (click to enlarge)* — the vantage point from which the Penetrable feels, as Bill Davenport wrote, “like a thousand-armed babysitter”:
or like this:
… than I am that look like this:
That makes me wonder if enough people are getting upstairs to experience the Penetrable’s relationship to Mies van der Rohe’s architecture, and its architecture-like relationship with photography. Not to mention some of the art on the second floor, particularly Robert Rauschenberg’s bronze sculpture The Ancient Incident (Kabul American Zephyr), 1981/2006-08, which is in the foreground of those last two pictures.
From the people who are going upstairs, I’m seeing more of this:
Than I am of this:
That’s a view from one of the benches in the middle of Upper Brown Pavilion. Whether you take and post a photo from this vantage point or not, make sure you spend as much time as you can there. It’s a radically different, and in my view deeper, experience of the Penetrable. While I was taking some of the above photos during a recent visit, a woman sat on the bench, lost in thought, or perhaps letting thought go. I soon joined her, sitting a few feet away, and we watched the Penetrable quiver, pulsate and shimmer with every playful, giggling movement below. This is where you feel the piece’s poignancy, which is of a piece with that of songs like Both Sides Now or As Tears Go By. Or that of Rothko’s “tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” And then in turn, that poignant feeling turns out to be as ephemeral as every glimmer of reflected light and movement from down below, and the din from the crowd below fades further still.
By all means, enjoy the social side of Soto. But if you miss out on its more contemplative side–the side you experience upstairs–you’re shortchanging both Soto and yourself.
* Inside Jesús Rafael Soto’s Houston Penetrable, 2004-14, lacquered aluminum structure, PVC tubes and water-based silkscreen ink, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © Estate of Jesús Rafael Soto. Used by permission. Photo: Carrithers Studio. All other photos by Devon Britt-Darby