The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Opens Its Vaults for Two Small Shows of Rarely Seen Works

Women IV by Alexander Archipenko
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston © 2014 Estate of Alexander Archipenko /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

We've had a good run of blockbuster art exhibits this year: Berni and Braque, Sargent and Magritte, the battle of West and Copley, among others. But now it's time for something a little different — something a little smaller. True, maybe it's shows along the lines of "Picasso in Black and White," "The Age of Impressionism" and "The Great Pharaohs" that get the hype and the crowds, but sometimes it's the more intimate shows of less well-known works that are the most satisfying.

As a summer treat this year, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is bringing us a couple of smaller exhibits mounted by its own curators from holdings in the permanent collection (presumably easier and cheaper to put together than major loan exhibitions). These little gems seem to say, "I think I am, I think I am, I think I am important," and say it in such a way that we're convinced. Each lets us see and learn things that even international blockbusters don't supply — which proves that tasty art dishes can be cooked up without the need of curators and ingredients borrowed from the far side of the world.

And maybe best of all, we can pop in for a cool look at these two smaller exhibits with no guilt that we've dissed a blockbuster. Thank you, MFAH, for an eye candy/mind candy summer duo:

"Europe 1900–1975: Selections from the Museum's Collection"

We're all familiar with Picasso. And after the recent Braque retrospective, we're more familiar with Braque than we were before — and better than most everyone else in America, since Houston was the only U.S. venue for that show. But there were a lot of other artists working in Europe at the same time as P&B; some of them were doing amazing work, and some of that work has made it into the MFAH permanent collection over the years.

Unfortunately, since gallery space is always in short supply (even though MFAH claims to have an amazing 300,000 square feet of it) and since many of those artists don't have the kind of names that draw crowds, much of their work spends most of its time in storage. This provocatively curated show is a chance for that art to have an outing and for us to have a treat.

The exhibit starts at the beginning of the 20th century with familiar works from the collection by Picasso, Matisse and Juan Gris — things that are always up. It's great seeing them in different galleries — sort of like seeing them through new eyes. But even greater is seeing the little Matisse portrait Meditation (Portrait of ­Lorette) from 1916-1917 that's never up — or hardly ever. And beside it, a Robert Delaunay portrait of fellow artist Jean Metzinger. I spend lots of time in MFAH galleries and I don't recall the last time I saw either, or, for that matter, that I ever have seen either. That's true for piece after piece in this show.

It's an art-rich museum that can keep Roberto Matta's untitled Surrealist oil from 1942 in storage. At its best, his work glows with an inner light that's alive, magical like the gold of Byzantine icons was thought to be. This is one of the best of his paintings I've seen anywhere.

In the same gallery, seeing the juxtaposition of Picasso's 1919 Table at the Window, a Max Ernst 1944 bronze of a fantastic creature and a Miró 1927 oil helped me understand the relationships of shape, composition and theme among the works that had eluded me, even though I'd seen them each individually many times before.

A small painting of upright bottles in a row by Giorgio Morandi adjacent to two of Alberto Giacometti's haunting, thin human figures is equally satisfying — and disturbing in what they say about the condition of human-ness in a world striving to keep humans all in a row.

Seeing three of Lucio Fontana's slashed paintings together — different sizes, different colors, differently slashed — I had a sense of their power for the first time, even though I still don't have a clear idea of what they mean.

Sir Anthony Caro's light-as-lace-looking painted steel sculpture, Orangerie, anchors the gallery it dances in, as does a massive, rough-hewn sculpture in oak by Eduardo Chillida, improbably balanced on a corner and an edge. It brings you up short both physically (it's right in the walkway) and artistically (it grabs and doesn't let go).

There are also works by Antoni Tàpies, Pierre Alechinsky, Alberto Burri and several others, all art names once hot/now not, whose art is a delight to see nonetheless, especially knowing that it may be a very long time before the works are out of storage again.

I'm told that the plan is to rotate works in and out of this exhibition through the year, so visiting often can reveal new delights. More in the way of wall text would be a plus, to help those of us who aren't experts in the period understand why these artists and why these works were selected. True, it's more to do for the curators, who have already done good work in selecting and arranging, but it might save some of us from the perils of Wikipedia.

"Alexander Archipenko: The Berlin Drawings"

Works by Ukraine-born American artist Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) aren't very well known. Perhaps only some sleek, green patinated bronzes, which, until we've read the wall tag, we might have thought were by someone else — maybe that Brâncui guy we hear so much about. But after we've read "Archipenko" on the tag, how could we forget it — either the name or the torsos? And with the exhibition of his Berlin Drawings, newly added to the MFAH collection, we have the chance to dig much deeper into the work of an artist who played a significant role in bringing modernism to America.

These drawings, done in a short period in the early 1920s when Archipenko was working and teaching in Berlin, along with their supporting materials serve as an eye-opener for us. Because we're so besotted with all things French and Italian when it comes to art, and because our views have been colored by two world wars, we tend to forget that not all grand art has come from Western Europe. Especially in modern times, Central and Eastern Europe were in many ways more important.

Among the primary inventors of abstraction, Kandinsky and Malevich were Russian and Kupka was Czech (unless, of course, abstraction actually came out of Chicago in the under-recognized work of Manierre Dawson). Many of these artists were displaced by geopolitical events (think war and the Russian Revolution). Some went to Paris; some even came to America, as did Archipenko in 1923.

Even before he got to this country, however, he had an impact here when Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp mounted his first American solo show under the auspices of their avant-garde Société Anonyme in New York in 1921. Duchamp was so taken with the art and the name that they inspired him to create one of his own Dada mind-benders, the Archie Pen Co ad included in the exhibition. For Duchamp, the angel of Archipenko's art was dancing on the nib of a pen instead of the head of a pin.

It's of interest that knowledge of Archipenko's art made it to Houston almost as soon as it made it to New York, by way of Houston artist and teacher, Emma Richardson Cherry, the only Texas member of Société Anonyme (there were fewer than a hundred worldwide), who retained her tattered copy of the catalog to that first American exhibition until her death.

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