The Hidden Treasures of the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden

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Tucked away next to a parking lot, a remarkable collection of majestic sculptures by internationally famed artists is on display behind attractive stone walls in an open-air park. It's the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed and created by Isamu Noguchi, himself a world-famous sculptor, landscape architect and pioneer of modern interior design.

The Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden first opened to the public in 1986 -- Noguchi had submitted his initial design in 1979, and refined it over the next five years. MFAH reports that, working with Houston landscape architect Johnny Steele, Noguchi himself selected the plants and trees for the garden, favoring native species when possible.

The garden covers slightly more than one acre and is carved into a series of outdoor pavilions, separated sometimes by walls, that permit semi--enclosures around some of the sculptures. The exhibition at present includes more than 25 works from the MFAH collection, as well as selected loans. The sculptures are deliberately eclectic, demonstrating a range of artistic approaches, so there is no theme, unless the theme is diversity itself.

With such a rich array to choose from, you will find your own favorites as you traverse the park, open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. I will suggest some favorites of mine; one is Alexander Calder's giant red metal The Crab, so filled with dynamic energy that, viewed from the right position, it seems the work might be moving threateningly. At the moment, it's just outside MFAH's main building, guarding the entrance.

Other sculptures are subtle, such as Linda Ridgeway's The Dance, in which bronze tendrils on a wall masquerade as a grapevine.

Joseph Havel's Exhaling Pearls is made of patinated bronze, cast from a rope and two paper lanterns, one of them at the bottom and the other balanced at the top, and, as with much else in the garden, its exotic nature astonishes. It comes across as sturdy and powerful -- the alchemy of art has transformed the delicate into the strong.

Jim Love's Can Johnny Come Out and Play? is a huge bronze ball, roughly finished, 107 inches in diameter. While it's not inherently dramatic, its strength comes from the viewer imagining the size of Johnny if he is in scale with the ball.

Triangular Solid with Circular Inserts, Variation F, by Dan Graham, is a complex work with a two-way mirror glass, mirror, stainless steel and aluminum. It seems like a cube, but is instead a triangular edifice approximately 6.5 feet in diameter. It has round glass panels on two sides, so that the viewer can see through to the wall beyond, and the third side has a round mirror. It is modernistic, perhaps hinting at a time machine, unexpected in itself and even more so ensconced in a garden. I am still puzzling it out, but remain intrigued.

There are two bronze male nudes shown in the same area, one by Auguste Rodin, Walking Man, and Adam by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle. The Rodin work shows a headless man with a powerful physique, capturing the energy of movement. The Bourdelle statue shows Adam seated on a rock, larger than life-size, in a contemplative moment, pondering. It has an extraordinary elegance, each arm graceful in position, and the overall effect is so compelling that it may be my favorite among a rich set of choices.

There are two other bronze sculptures by Rodin: Cybele, a seated woman, and Spirit of Eternal Repose, a sprite. The latter is curious, since the ankles are crossed as they might be when a person is relaxing, but the tilted angle of the torso is precarious and the muscular arms are very active indeed. It is enigmatic and wonderful.

Imagine! Three Rodins! When alive, Rodin was the world's most famous artist -- along with a roster of famed international artists that would stagger an emperor. The cluster of such remarkable talent in a walled-in arena open to the skies is breathtaking in its audacity, and, curiously, I again began to have hope for civilization, if it can achieve this triumphant display.

Tony Cragg's New Forms was commissioned by MFAH, very wisely indeed, as Cragg delivers shapes never seen by mankind, strikingly unique and mystifying. They reference nothing, except the gift of pure creativity. Savor them, for they seem to spring from the deep unconscious, massive, powerful...and patient, perhaps aware that the future belongs to them and their kind.

Ellsworth Kelly's Houston Triptych delivers three two-dimensional shapes along one garden wall, separated by considerable space, which are raised a bit from the wall to provide some added texture. It is highly unusual, and the effect is to surprise and amuse.

Raymond Duchamp-Villon has a sculpture, The Large Horse, that is semi-abstract with some cubistic elements but that, more important, roars with its own energy. It reeks of perfection, of a difficult artistic goal not only met but exceeded, and is fascinating and witty. It's clear that we are seeing the talent of genius.

Speaking of genius, Frank Stella's Decanter is extremely complex, powerful yet playful, a combination of circles and planes, some jutting out to catch and demand attention. It seems sui generis, as if nothing like it has ever existed before. Stella here marks himself as a generous artist, not afraid to dazzle and delight, secure in the authority of his vision.

Joel Shapiro has a delightful bronze, Untitled, an abstract of flat planes assembled to create a striding man, simple yet exciting, filled with energy. And I was captivated by Dewitt Godfrey's welded steel sculpture, also Untitled, that looks like a giant serrated mushroom supported by a walnut-shaped stem; it is charming and very attractive, nestling on a small grassy rise.

I was mystified by the title Bird (Oiseau) for Joan Miró's massive bronze, as it is definitely earthbound. It's highly entertaining, but I saw it as an adolescent rhinoceros about to go on a date, hormones aflame. Regardless of interpretation, it is witty and great fun.

You may not like all the works -- I didn't. I was unable to fathom a few that seemed graceless and unleavened with wit, style or power, but for all I know, even these may be ahead of their time.

The garden is perfect for an outing. There are chairs and tables for outdoor dining, food trucks next door in the parking lot every day until 3 p.m. (some stay later). If you haven't visited the garden yet, a major treat is in store for you.

The Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1001 Bissonnet, ongoing exhibition, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.

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