Visual Arts

“Cosmic Dialogues” at MFAH Shows Off Artists Who Were Ahead of Their Times, and Ours

Fly me to the moon / And let me play among the stars / Let me see what spring is like / On Jupiter and Mars

Say the word “cosmic” and most Houstonians go all starry-eyed and outer-spacey. I guess that’s understandable for those of us living here in Space City. For all you newcomers, that’s what Houston was called back in the heyday of space flight. Can it really be more than 50 years since Alan Shepard became the first American in space? Back then a flight made the front page instead of barely making the front section. Those were the days: excitement, awe and hope about space — days that have pretty much faded.

But this spring the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has brought back some of that excitement with the exhibition “Cosmic Dialogues: Selections from the Latin American Collection.“ We’ve seen many of these pieces before, but most all of them are worth seeing again and again (and again). It’s always interesting and often informative to see how an imaginative curator, in this case Mari Carmen Ramírez, MFAH Wortham Curator of Latin American Art, can reshuffle familiar works to tell new stories.

With 65,000-plus works of art in its vaults, most of which we never see at all, MFAH could tell lots of interesting new stories — more interesting, probably, than many of the shows that bring mountains of stuff at vast expense from around the world (not to disparage any exhibitions of the recent past or near future).

The work that makes this show “cosmic” is Gyula Kosice’s The Hydrospatial City (1946-1972). Remember? It’s the one with the Plexiglas flying saucers suspended from the ceiling. Here they are again in all their slightly goofy, how-could-anyone-take-this-seriously glory — 19 of them floating in a darkened, deep-blue room, spotlighted from above so that they cast eerie shadows on the terrazzo floor, and with seven Kosice-made light boxes around the walls reflecting off the Plexiglas space ships as they slowly turn.

It seems that Kosice did take it seriously. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1924, he moved to Buenos Aires at age four. Central Europe and Argentina: an art-world axis guaranteed to lob Molotov cocktails disturbing the more ordered Paris-New York art hegemony, thank goodness.

Kosice was in the forefront of avant-garde art movements in Buenos Aires from the mid-1940s on — geometric abstraction, kinetic art and the use of light and non-traditional materials. In 1944 he wrote, “Man will not end his days on earth.” The Hydrospatial City is his proposal for what a future human habitat in space might look like. For him this was not science fiction. He took his project so seriously that he contacted NASA (“Houston, do you hear me calling?”) with his ideas, a blending of art and science reminiscent of the Mel Chin projects, like Revival Field, that we learned more about from the Mel Chin: Rematch retrospective this winter.

On one of my first visits to The Hydrospatial City, I was alone in the gallery except for the guard near the entrance. The only sound was the other-worldly whoosh of the sound track to the video next door. I walked among the saucers as though suspended in space with them — suspended between the blue ether above and all our shadows below. Even though I could see the wires — there’s no Wizard-of-Oz, behind-the-curtain secret as to how this show is done — it was still an ethereal experience.

A giant, I could look closely at the tiny figures that populate the saucers, figures shockingly similar to those in Pablo Bronstein’s time-traveling fantasy drawings now on view in the exhibition “Pablo Bronstein: We Live in Mannerist Times” in the MFAH Law Building — or maybe not so shocking, since Bronstein, born in Buenos Aires, started out Argentinian, too. In both cases, I was a traveler in space and time, moving through worlds I could know only because the imaginations of the artists took me to them.

After I floated joyously with the saucers for a while, the guard told me it was only permitted to look at the piece from the edges. That brought me down to earth at rocket speed. I didn’t argue, of course, but actually he was wrong. I’ve double-checked. The official word from higher up is this: “It is meant to be an immersive piece, and visitors are invited to walk among the suspended Plexiglas models and around the edges.” That’s a relief. If it were otherwise, it would be too bad. Kosice wouldn’t want the world he created looked at only from the edge. The art might be safer, but most of the magic would vanish.

That’s an issue with another cosmic art experience in the city now, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Infinity Machine, commissioned by The Menil Collection for the repurposed Byzantine Fresco Chapel.

That installation, of 150 antique mirrors suspended from the ceiling of the darkened chapel, rotates slowly to a sound track from NASA, recorded in outer space by Voyager I and Voyager II, launched in 1977 — literally the music of the spheres. The piece has references to ancient science and Surrealist imagery. This one you really can experience only from the edges; otherwise you’d get knocked in the head by flying mirrors. Walking around it, according to the brochure, “you might imagine yourself adrift in deep space. However, the artists also see connection to consciousness, memory, and art: to inner space.” Very high-minded, but a little flat, I think.

All those spinning mirrors made lowbrow me long for the mirrored-disco-ball days of my 1970s youth. The music was different: “Last Dance,” “I will Survive,” “Love to Love You Baby.” Though those songs seemed pretty cosmic then, and took us into other worlds (sometimes with a little help from chemical friends). And there certainly was a lot of looking in mirrors.

Those were times not of high-minded allusion but of fun and possibility. Well, maybe not all fun. I do vaguely remember some angst, perhaps even some self-doubt and rejection, maybe a little crying-in-beer or other drink of choice. But there was plenty of possibility: Something cosmic might happen involving me and one of those people of my dreams across the room. Maybe it seldom did happen, and maybe it wasn’t art, but it was consuming in a way that The Infinity Machine, as I work my way around the edges, isn’t.

That fun and possibility are also present in The Hydrospatial City (when you’re among the saucers, not so much from the edge). It’s an out-of-mind experience rather than an out-of-body one. Leave your thought processes at the door and let your very-much-body senses take you places your intellect can’t.

There are other works in “Cosmic Dialogues”; Kosice isn’t alone. A whole gallery is devoted to our old friend Gego (originally Gertrude Goldschmidt) from Venezuela (born in Germany). We’ve seen her spider webs of wire before — no, make that diaphanous Gego webs, suspended in pools of light that make even more diaphanous shadow patterns on the off-white walls and floors. They always have something more to show us. This time I got a few goose bumps when I noticed the tiny Plexiglas chip on which she’s signed Esfera no. 7. I’m not sure why it happened, but it did. And I don’t recall seeing her prints before, though I probably have — always something more to see when you’re open to it.

The Luminous Room is an illumination. (Sorry, I can’t resist even a bad play on words.) It’s amazing that such simple things — a few bits of shiny this-and-that, a little water, some bubbles and light — artfully arranged against a backdrop can be so exciting. I guess that’s art for you. Or more accurately, that’s stuff passed through the hands and imaginations of artists. Even the guard’s always too loud walkie-talkie wasn’t quite so annoying coming out of the darkness like a radio communication from space. (But why do they have to squawk so at MFAH? I don’t hear that in other museums.)

Here Espaces chromatiques carrées en spirale [Chromatic Square Spaces Turning in a Spiral] by Gregorio Vardanega, yet another Argentinian, is particularly fascinating. Take a long look with a diffuse gaze at the spiraling squares-within-squares of ever-changing colors. It’s a mesmerizing art experiences — especially striking since it’s so close to the once exciting, now not so much so, James Turrell: The Light Inside tunnel. Too much mind and not enough body sense in that one, perhaps? Though I suppose it takes a lot to stay exciting for 15 years, which is how long the Turrell piece has been open. Maybe even Vardanega couldn’t manage it, but of the two, I think I’ll put my money on him.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston may be neither Jupiter nor Mars, but with “Cosmic Dialogues” this spring and summer, you may feel as though you’ve flown to the moon. You can play among these cosmic art stars until August. Take a spacewalk over there and do so.

“Cosmic Dialogues: Selections from the Latin American Collection”
Through August 23. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300,
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Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.