A Room of Its Own

With the added gallery space, the MFA can dust off and display much of its extensive permanent collection

The opening of the Audrey Jones Beck Building works into Museum of Fine Arts director Peter Marzio's grand plan to make the institution a Mini-Met, a smaller-scale version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and to enhance what is already an encyclopedic collection that spans 5,000 years of art history. It is an admirable and ambitious plan, and Houston certainly warrants such an institution.

The best thing about the new museum is the opportunity it provides to showcase the extensive permanent collection; approximately 60 percent more of it is now on view, including things very rarely or never before seen. The curators are understandably ecstatic about having the space to work with the vast collection; objects are being retrieved from long-term storage, and paintings are being cleaned and restored.

Billed as the "Museum Masterpieces: Do-It-Yourself Audio Guide," a new digital audio tour allows visitors to randomly access information about selected pieces from the permanent collection and traveling exhibitions via a portable CD player. This means that instead of shuffling along like a herd of sheep from one object to the next in a dictated sequence, visitors can choose any piece with an audio-guide icon next to it, enter a code number and listen to the information. The narratives themselves are livened up by the comments of curators, artists and a diverse group of experts, a vast improvement on the typical droning of a voice actor.

Armed to the teeth: The Beck opens with the crowd-pleasing traveling exhibit "Irving Penn, A Career in Photography."
Irving Penn
Armed to the teeth: The Beck opens with the crowd-pleasing traveling exhibit "Irving Penn, A Career in Photography."

A museum is basically a collection of objects taken out of context -- from homes, temples, churches, tombs, civilizations -- whose original purpose did not include being displayed in a museum. The audio guide seeks to bring these works to life and put them back in context. You have the opportunity to hear artist John Biggers discuss his paintings. Or to listen to Bishop James Tamayo explain the Crozier Head, a curved top from a medieval bishop's staff. Or to hear a brewer describe how chicha beer was made from corn while you view a Peruvian ceremonial beaker that held the ancient Incan home brew.

Art has been incorporated into the building's architecture. Bronze curtains flank the doors of the Main Street entrance. Cast from what looks like canvas dropcloths, Curtain (1999) by Glassell School of Art director Joe Havel, is disappointingly fabricated: Check out the seams and bottom edges. The piece doesn't really work, conceptually or materially. If you want to allude to "the ceremonial nature of entering a grand space" or "the intimacy of domestic drapery," don't use crummy-looking canvas as a departure point. For more effective sculptural drapery, look at the Magritte bronze curtain at the Menil Collection or the Robert Wilson lead-draped chair forms from the MFA's own collection.

Significantly more successful is James Turrell's The Light Inside (1999) a wonderful light installation in the connecting tunnel between the Caroline Wiess Law and Beck buildings. Two panels with a subtle glow are placed at either end of the tunnel; you walk around them and down what appears to be a floating bridge, illuminated with fluorescent hues that alternate from blue to violet to red. The pedestrian space is made contemplative and slightly disorienting, transformed through the dim, almost otherworldly light. Creating this environment in a functioning public passageway, however, may be problematic for some visitors. Bear in mind that you are entering a work of art, and you have to deal with it accordingly. Walk more slowly and absorb the space.

The lower tunnel level of the Beck building is disappointing; it feels a little mall-ish. Take the escalator up one floor, and the scene vastly improves, with a soaring lobby filled with natural light. The first floor is home to the museum's collection of American painting, sculpture and decorative arts, marking the first time the MFA has had galleries dedicated to American art. A luminous Tiffany window is installed as the centerpiece of the decorative arts section. An enclosed limestone courtyard houses American sculpture. The Frederic Remington paintings are on display, a collection that, as far as I'm concerned, should be trotted out only at rodeo time.

The success of the first-floor gallery spaces is mixed; many are low-ceilinged with obtrusive ceiling tiles and light tracks that feel like office space. The galleries with higher ceilings and less distracting light sources work better. Prints, drawing and photography finally have their own gallery, a nice change from their confinement to the lower-level stair landings in the Law building. The inaugural exhibition combines drawings and photographs from the '40s and '50s and focuses on nine drawings from a seminal Jackson Pollock sketchbook.

The Beck building opens with a couple of guaranteed crowd-pleasing traveling exhibitions, "Faces of Impressionism: Portraits from American Collections" and "Irving Penn, A Career in Photography," a pair of shows that the MFA has billed as "cutting-edge art from two centuries." Such a description may work for the impressionists, who, despite being exhaustively mass-marketed on coffee mugs, note cards and calendars, were indeed innovative during their time. Penn, a celebrity portraitist and fashion photographer, has a conservative and commercial body of magazine slick shots that's pretty far from the "cutting edge."

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