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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."

Take the lobby escalators up, and you hit the best part of the building. The second-floor landing is expansive and flooded with natural light. Devoted to the museum's permanent collection of antiquities and early to modern European art, the galleries provide an effective example of the museum's efforts to fine-tune its collection through appropriate reframing. The recently acquired Jan van Huysum 18th-century Still Life of Flowers and Fruit is rendered in intensely vivid colors on a black background. The painting arrived in a gilt-from-hell French frame but has benefited from a transfer to a period Dutch frame of black ebony, rendering the work striking rather than gaudy.

The second-floor galleries admit varying amounts of natural light via a system of rooftop lanterns and light wells. The wells in the smaller galleries don't seem all that effective. The idea behind the boxed lanterns was also to create a sort of Houston skyline on the roof of the Beck building. They're really nice at night when they glow, but if you compare the sunlight they admit to the light in the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection, it seems paltry. You don't get the unobtrusive but compelling atmosphere that you do with the Renzo Piano-designed buildings at the Menil. Piano's building makes you want to grab a suitcase and move into his gorgeously minimal light-filled space. Perhaps it isn't entirely fair to make comparisons; the Menil buildings, after all, were designed to house a private collection and don't have the extensive and extremely diverse space requirements of an encyclopedic museum.

Lighting issues aside, the second floor is also home to some of the best works from the European painting collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. This long-term loan to the museum marks the first time this much of the collection has been on display at one time. Large parts of the collection were previously on loan to different touring exhibitions.

The Audrey Jones Beck collection of impressionist and Postimpressionist painting has been transferred from the Law building. The Beck gallery walls are painted a sickly saccharine peachy-pink, a shade more appropriate to a women's plus-size polyester blouse in the 75-percent-off rack at Kmart. The distracting color is a carryover from the Law building, and it is a condition Beck mandated for donating the collection. Museum curators have tried to mediate the shade by applying multiple layers of glaze to the walls. It's an extremely expensive process that gives the surface more depth than a flat latex paint, and makes the offending color slightly more palatable.

Behind-the-scenes politics are always involved in acquiring works and raising funds. Bringing together the money for this new addition involved a host of giving incentives, a reality for museums raising cash today. As a result, seemingly every public room, except the toilets, is named after a large individual or corporate donor. You have, for example, the ExxonMobil Information Center Lobby, the Shell Oil Company Foundation Gallery and the William Stamps Farish Fund Dining Room. Had you coughed up a donation of $100,000 or more, your name would have been incised into the shrine o' funding, a 29- by 59-foot limestone wall that dominates the lobby. There are 170 names engraved seven inches high and about an inch deep. It is huge. At my viewing, it dominated the empty lobby. Hopefully its overwhelming scale will be mediated by the Greek and Roman sculpture slated to be installed in the lobby.

As part of the MFA's latest expansion phase, changes have also been made back at the Law building. The second floor is now dedicated to modern and contemporary art from the permanent collection. Previously the Mies van der Rohe-designed building felt like an office lobby; too many temporary walls were needed for most exhibitions. Opened up and showing large-scale art, the space works much better. Richard Long's stone circle arrangements are wonderful on the expansive terrazzo floor. Paintings by Anselm Kiefer, Susan Rothenberg and Philip Guston are dramatically scattered about. The pre-Columbian galleries of the building have also been expanded.

The Beck building is a tremendous milestone in the development of the Museum of Fine Arts. Having achieved it, the MFA will now expand its extensive education and outreach and will focus on acquiring new works to augment the collection, a process that becomes more and more challenging as prices soar and quality objects become increasingly scarce. Marzio feels that the new building enormously increases the museum's responsibility to the community, and it does. The Beck building is a great asset for the MFA and, if it does its job right, for the community in general.

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