Soto’s ‘The Houston Penetrable’ at MFAH
By Elena Ivanova
“Movement is a spark of life that makes art human and truly realistic. An artwork endowed with never-repetitive kinetic rhythm is one of the most free; a creation, which escaping from all systems, lives on beauty alone.”
— Pontus Hulten, co-founder and first director of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Oh, the free spirit of the 1960s! The decade of thinkers and activists who questioned traditional modes of authority and embraced creativity and experimentation. It was the time of short skirts, long hair and free love…. It also was the decade of the first open engagement in “difficult” social issues, such as race relations, human sexuality, women’s rights and environmentalism.
Art, like people, was driven by the desire to break norms, cross boundaries, challenge the seemingly “immutable” truths and reach for new horizons.
All these thoughts were running through my mind as I sailed through the shimmering sea of plastic strands suspended from the ceiling at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “The Houston Penetrable,” designed by famous Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto, occupies 2,600 square feet of the Mies van der Rohe’s Cullinan Hall in the Caroline Wiess Law Building.
One can easily get lost among the wavering mass of 24,000 PVC tubes which are hanging 28 feet from ceiling to floor — the height of two stories. It feels akin to walking in a dense fog. Figures appear vague, one can no longer trust the sense of distance, sounds become muffled while one’s tactile sense becomes more acute as one constantly anticipatea, yet get startled by, the light touch of the moving tubes.
I wondered how people reacted to Soto’s Penetrables when he started creating these immersive environments. The first one was exhibited at the Galerie Denise René in Paris in May of 1967. Critic Jean Clay hailed the artist’s work as revolutionary, however, his praise was worded in doomsday metaphors. He referred to the installation as “arachnidan traps where the eye panics and gets lost… Soto’s infernal machine threatens the whole space we move around in — the space where we once felt so confident in. Fiction encroaches on the real; they become indiscernible. We topple into the dizzy void.”1
Have we changed so much since 1967 that, instead of panicking, we enjoy walking into the environment that upsets our daily perceptions? I observed people of all ages getting happily lost among the wavering transparent tubes. Personally, I found the experience of walking through the Penetrable relaxing, pleasantly suspenseful, and even therapeutic.
Then I tried to put myself in the shoes of a regular museum-goer of the 1960s. Wouldn’t I have been apprehensive when, instead of a conventional display of paintings and sculptures, I was confronted with an unusual space with which I was expected to interact?
Jean Clay, in the above-quoted Soto exhibition catalog, underscored this cardinal change in the relationship between art and the viewer: “The work is now no longer beyond the real, it is no longer a window on the world of imagination, a porthole through which the eye, comfortably ensconced in familiar surroundings, can savor for a moment the thrills once experienced by the artist. Quite the contrary: it hits into the real, it encroaches on our feeling of space, it questions our idiosyncrasy.”
It is not easy to abandon the comfort of the old and embrace the new. Fifty years later, some people are still self-conscious about participatory art and immersive environments. However, once the first step is made, even the most straight-laced among us cannot resist the feeling of exhilaration and start freely interacting with the artist’s work. Just watch MFAH visitors as they wander through the Houston Penetrable.
Since 1967, Soto’s Penetrables have been sited around the world. The most notable from this signature series have been displayed in the Museo Soto in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela (1973), in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum (1974), in MALBA-Fundación Constantini in Buenos Aires (2003) and in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2011.)
However, the Houston Penetrable is unique. It is the only one that the artist designed as permanent and one of the few intended for indoor display. Unprecedented in its size and complexity, it took almost ten years to produce. The project was brought to fruition by collaborative efforts of MFAH, Atelier Soto, Paris, arhitect Paolo Carrozzino and producer Walter Pellevoisin, who oversaw a team of artisans and ironworkers in Vielle-Tursan, France, and in Houston.
The Houston Penetrable also has a special visual feature. While other Penetrables are monochromatic, this one has a huge yellow ellipse which seems to be floating at its center. This effect is created by the yellow-painted tubes surrounded by clear tubes. Each of the 24,000 tubes was assigned a specific color code in order to achieve a gradual transition from clear to yellow and convey the illusion of an object suspended in the middle of the installation.
A few words must be said about the artist. A landmark figure in Latin American art, Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2005) is well known in Europe, but not in the United States. Native of Venezuela, he studied art at the Escuela de Belles Artes in Caracas before traveling to France in 1950. He settled in Paris where he lived till his death in 2005.
Soto is recognized as one of the founders of Kinetic art, the trend which explored ways to visualize movement. Together with a group of international artists, which included Yakkov Agam, Alexander Calder, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Victor Vasarely and fellow Venezuelans Alejandro Otero and Carlos Cruz-Diez, Soto participated in the seminal exhibition Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise René in 1955. “What we were in search of was the fourth dimension,” said Soto in an interview published in 2004.
A small display of Soto’s early works in the Caroline Wiess Law Building provides insight into the artist’s evolution. In the 1950s, the artist used Plexiglass to superimpose motifs which produced a dynamic effect and created optical illusions. Later, Soto brought his exploration of kinetic vibrations into the three-dimensional space. In the series called Vibraciones (Vibrations), 1957-61, Agujas (Needles), 1961-62, and Escrituras (Writings), 1963, hanging elements, such as squares, rods and thin metal wires, appeared and disappeared, thus conveying “an accelerated image of the fleetingness of the world,” as Jean Clay put it.
Eventually, with the development of the Penetrable series, Soto’s works became architectural in scale.
It seems fit to conclude the article with the artist’s own description of the Penetrable: “The Penetrable makes concrete an idea that has nourished my thoughts, on a state of total plenitude of a universe filled with relationships. It is the revelation of sensible space, eternally filled by the purest structural values, such as energy, time and movement. The experience of the viewer who takes part by entering a Penetrable, thus entering a different space-time continuum, will be clearer for him when he is able to move freely in an environment where gravity does not exist.”2
“The Houston Penetrable” will be on view at MFAH through September 1.
1 Jean Clay. “Soto, de l’art optique à l’art cinétique.” In: Soto, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Denise René, Paris, 1967. http://www.jr-soto.com
2 Soto, mentioned by Marcel Joray. In: Soto, Éditions du Griffon, Neuchâtel, 1984, p. 174. http://www.jr-soto.com