Soto: The Houston Penetrable
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
May 8 through September 1, 2014
Visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this spring and summer will become part of one of the great marvels of contemporary art: one of Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto’s signature Penetrables. Mercantil Commercebank sponsors the debut presentation of the Houston Penetrable, a vast, floating sea of plastic strands suspended from the ceiling that is completed only by the viewer’s participation. Twenty-four thousand PVC (polyvinyl chloride) tubes, individually hand-painted and tied, will hang 28 feet from the ceiling to the floor—the height of two stories—and encompass 2,600 square feet. Intended to be touched, handled and waded through, the strands, when at rest, compose a floating yellow orb on a transparent background.
This immersive environment—at once optical, tactile and kinetic—was designed by Soto on commission from the Museum in 2004 and has taken almost a decade to produce. In tandem with the Museum and Atelier Soto, Paris, architect Paolo Carrozzino and producer Walter Pellevoisin oversaw a team of artisans and ironworkers in Vielle-Tursan (France) and Houston to bring this monumental work to life.
Soto (1923–2005) was a landmark figure in Latin American art, and a key driver of the Kinetic art movement that emerged in Paris in the 1950s. The Houston Penetrable is the only one in Soto’s signature series that the artist designed as permanent, and one of the few that he created as an indoor piece. The Penetrables have been sited around the world over the past 50 years, from the Museo Soto in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela (1973), to the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum (1974) to MALBA – Fundación Costantini in Buenos Aires (2003), and more recently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (2011). They have come to define the fully immersive art experience for generations of participants.
“We are pleased to bring this unparalleled Penetrable to a Houston audience,” said director Gary Tinterow. “Equal parts geometric abstraction, architecture, sculpture, environment and playscape, this monumental indoor piece exemplifies the Museum’s commitment to Latin American art.”
“Jesús Rafael Soto stands out as a pioneer of the 20th-century avant-garde in Europe and Latin America, and it is an honor to have an exclusively commissioned piece by this revolutionary artist in the Museum’s permanent collection,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA). “The Houston Penetrable brings the playground indoors with a fully sensorial experience of light and color, but it truly needs the visitor to bring the artwork to life. It is the culmination of Soto’s attempts to take painting out of the frame and into the viewer’s space.”
The Penetrables Series
Soto’s Penetrables (1967–2005) embody the synthesis of the artist’s investigations into light, movement and space. He initially spoke of them as “enveloping works”—art that would give people a sense of the shape and density of space. For Soto, space was a perceptual field that had to be experienced, not just with the eyes but with the entire body and the senses. He displayed the first of these architectural environments at the Galerie Denise René in 1967. French art critic Jean Clay was the first to call them Penetrables (meaning, in French and Spanish, “to get into” or “to walk through”), a term that Soto then adopted.
The first Penetrable was small, but Soto’s idea was all-encompassing. “The Penetrable isn’t even a work,” he later told art historian Ariel Jiménez, “it is more an idea of space that can materialize in any situation and at any scale … if it were possible, you could even make it cover the whole planet.” The Penetrable served Soto’s goal of using art to make people see and understand the world differently, to make viewers cognizant of space and their experiences of moving through it. Spectators entering a Penetrable must not only redefine their relationship to the space that immediately envelops them, but they must also reconfigure their sense of the horizontal and the vertical. The enduring message of this series is that space can be an autonomous artistic element, and movement is nothing but “a spark of life that makes art human and truly realistic,” as curator and museum director Karl Pontus Hultén once described.
The Houston Penetrable
Soto created some 25 to 30 different Penetrables over the course of his career. Among his most successful experiments with space and movement, the majority of these environmental works were designed for outdoor spaces, although a few were installed in interior galleries. None of these interior Penetrables survived, however, as they were conceived from the beginning as ephemeral pieces. The Houston Penetrable—created exclusively for the Museum’s Cullinan Hall, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1958—is one of very few site-specific Penetrables Soto designed and the only one intended for permanent or semipermanent interior display.
The Houston Penetrable, unprecedented in its size and the complexity of its design, was Soto’s most ambitious work. While all others in this iconic series are monochromatic, typically yellow or blue, The Houston Penetrable presents clear tubes with a huge yellow ellipse at its center. Its design and immense scale have made the piece extremely difficult to realize. For more than five years, the Museum worked closely with the Atelier Soto in Paris to construct what was Soto’s final project.
A related work from this series, Penetrable amarillo (Yellow Penetrable) (1973/95), from the Colección Cisneros, was on display outside the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from 2004 to 2006 as part of the exhibition Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America.
An accompanying exhibition of Soto’s work will be on view in the north foyer of the Museum’s Caroline Wiess Law Building. Eight exemplary pieces from the various phases and series of Soto’s career—including his Plexiglas boxes and selections from his Agujas (Needles), Ambivalencias (Ambivalences) and Vibraciones (Vibrations) series—will emphasize the artist’s specific contributions to Kinetic art, allowing Museum visitors to understand the totality and complexity of ideas expressed by the Houston Penetrable.
The following companies were involved in the realization of the Houston Penetrable: Balfour Beatty Construction (general contractor for ceiling work in Cullinan Hall); Berger Iron Works (construction and installation of aluminum supports and grids); Bury CHPA (consulting engineers); Cardno Haynes Whaley (consulting structural engineers); David R. David of Warehouse Associates Development (warehouse space for installation testing); and Kendall/Heaton Architects (consulting architects).
About Jesús Rafael Soto
Born in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela, in 1923, Jesús Rafael Soto trained as a painter at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Caracas in the 1940s. He received a grant in 1950 to travel to France and settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 2005. In Paris, he quickly integrated himself within a community of international artists interested in geometric abstraction and associated with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and the Galerie Denise René. This group included such influential artists as Yakkov Agam, Pol Bury, Alexander Calder, Yves Klein, Nicholas Schöffer and Jean Tinguely, and fellow Venezuelan artists Alejandro Otero and Carlos Cruz-Diez, among others. In 1955 all of these artists, including Soto, participated in the seminal exhibition Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise René, which launched the Kinetic art movement. Soto declared in an interview published in 2004, “What we were in search of was the fourth dimension.”
During this period, Soto began experimenting with the visualization of movement, which took the form of the reiterative arrangements and gyrating mobility found in his early series of Plexiglas boxes. Through dots, lines, planes and chromatic vibrations, he transformed the visual object into a fully mechanical body that appeared to move before the viewers’ eyes. Beginning in the late 1950s, inspired by sources as varied as the vibration of light in Impressionist painting, serial music and mathematical structures, Soto brought his exploration of kinetic vibrations into three-dimensional space. Hanging elements began to appear in series such as Vibraciones (Vibrations) (1957–61), Agujas (Needles) (1961–62) and Escrituras (Writings) (1963), all of which present virtually immaterial forms that surge and disappear with flawless plasticity. In a parallel, anti-geometric development—what is known as his “Baroque” period—Soto explored the idea of the haptic, producing works such as Barroco negro (Baroque in Black) (1961). Eventually, Soto’s objects became architectural in scale and took on urban dimensions, specifically with the development of the Penetrable series beginning in 1967.
The Museo Soto opened in Ciudad Bolívar in 1973, with a building designed by Venezuelan architect Raúl Villanueva. In 1993, Soto earned the prestigious title of Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which is the highest grade bestowed by the French government, and in 1995, he was awarded the Grand Prix National de la Sculpture in France. His work is widely represented in numerous collections around the world, including those of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, the Netherlands; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Tate Gallery, London, among many others.
Organization and Funding
This installation of Soto: The Houston Penetrable is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in collaboration with the Atelier Soto, Paris.
About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States. Located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the MFAH comprises two gallery buildings, a sculpture garden, theater, two art schools and two libraries, with two house museums, for American and European decorative arts, nearby. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers some 65,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present. The MFAH also houses the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a major research institute, founded in 2001, and dedicated to research and publishing in the field of Latin American and Latino art. www.mfah.org