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A Houston Art Pilgrimage

By Steven Rosen · September 20th, 2011 · The Big Picture

As a devotee of the kind of enigmatically mysterious, ambitious conceptual art installations — sometimes minimalist, sometimes abstracted or color-field — that can be called “spiritual,” I’ve made pilgrimages to some pretty unusual places. The rationale behind such art often is that remoteness adds to the intensity of the experience. 

But I was never more surprised than to find, during a trip earlier this month, that one of the best of such pilgrimage spots in the nation is Houston, Texas. 

Remote? Hardly. It’s a bustling, sprawling metropolis, filled with oil wealth and urban cowboys. But it’s certainly worth a weekend trip from here. Actually, it’s maybe essential if you savor this type of art (and you should).

Maybe it has something to do with thinking big, but Houston has an impressive number of profoundly transcendent art spaces. One is at the Museum of Fine Arts, where an underground tunnel links an addition with the main building across the street. That is the site for “The Light Inside,” a “light tunnel” by James Turrell, who uses colored light — artificial as well as the sky — to create the illusion of three-dimensional walls and barriers. When you get close enough to realize they are ephemeral, the effect is like breaking through barriers, defying gravity. 

Turrell, a Quaker, also designed a “sky space” for the Live Oaks Friends Meeting building in a relaxed neighborhood not far from downtown.

It has a 12-foot-square window (with retractable cover) in the ceiling, and white neon lines underscore the space where ceiling meets wall. The space is open to the public an hour before sunset on Fridays. It would take a physicist (or Turrell) to explain how this works, but the aperture slowly turned a rich, deep, spectacular blue — like a floating painting — even as the sky outside, visible from side windows, turned darker. It’s an example of how art is nature. (There are several more Turrell pieces either in Houston collections or being planned.) 

Houston is home to one of the finest selective art museums anywhere — a “campus” in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood known as The Menil Collection. Run by a private nonprofit foundation, it displays the collection of the late John and Dominique de Menil, whose Catholic humanism propelled them to build and share superlative holdings in numerous areas, especially 20th-century art. 

In addition to the low-level, demurely Modernist main building, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 1987, the campus features smaller satellites that treat some otherwise-difficult contemporary artists as if they were worthy of religious contemplation. 

One is devoted solely to the abstract painter Cy Twombly and gives his massive canvases the space they need to make their dramatic impact. The other, in a rehabbed building that once housed a grocery and dance hall, displays a veritable choir of vertical colored fluorescent lights by Dan Flavin. The artist died in 1996 before completing the installation (his studio finished it) and it stands as an enduring testament of his belief in the physical presence of light. 

But first and foremost is the non-denominational Rothko Chapel, which opened in 1971. Inside the chapel, arranged in an octagonal formation, the great color-field painter Mark Rothko created 14 solemnly dark canvases, some with ever-so-subtle gradations in color and line. On the very hot day that we visited, others trickled in to sit quietly, meditate, pray or just seek shelter in the introspective gravitas of this space. They realized how much art can mean when it frees itself from the clutter and clichés of overt imagery. 

Houston, then, became a respite from the busy world even though it could be so busy itself. It’s a special city for art. 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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