Twenty years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, lucked out. After more than a decade of planning, the museum dedicated a sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) that doubles as an urban oasis. Behind a low-lying wall along Bissonnet Street, across from the MFAH’s Mies van der Rohe-designed glass and steel temporary exhibitions venue, is little more than an acre of green -- grassy mounds anchoring cedar elms and giant timber bamboo, plus masterpieces by Alberto Giacometti, Ellsworth Kelly, Henri Matisse, David Smith and more. The garden is named after Houston philanthropists Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen.
Once inside the garden, you’re enveloped in what Noguchi aptly called a "geometry of playfulness." Wandering among the nooks and crannies and outdoor rooms as well as along winding paths, slopes and crests which belie its relatively small size, visitors encounter sculptures, 23 in all, that are, in turn, playful, solemn, austere, quiet, lively. The artists represent a broad range of generations and nationalities working in different styles and durable materials.
Depending on the time of year and that day’s weather conditions, you’ll constantly be surprised. When viewed outdoors, sculpture is never a static affair. Lighting conditions, for one, are always changing. Consider Alexander Calder’s The Crab (1962). On a bright day, the shadows it casts on the ground are as animated as a mobile or stabile. As the sun moves, so do they. But catch this work after a downpour and its sharp, claw-like appendages can seem downright threatening.
Or take Ellsworth Kelly’s Houston Triptych, an MFAH commission realized in 1986. Kelly’s vertical bronze planes -- three black geometric shapes mounted on a tall concrete wall -- are in dialogue with Henri Matisse’s nearby Backs 1-IV as well as the curves and angles of Noguchi’s overall design. After the rain, the metal is dark and foreboding. In sunlight, shadows cast on the wall where the elements reach 12 inches into space practically mimic ivy vines.
David Smith’s Two Circle Sentinel of 1961 can also provide dramatically different experiences. Ever wonder what a sculpture looks like when it’s depressed? Check out Smith’s stainless steel figures when they are installed outdoors and the weather is gloomy or threatening. They look like they could use a good shrink. On a glorious summer day, the reflections of blue and yellow could not be more life-affirming.
The Cullen Sculpture Garden is especially notable for its avoidance of one of the big traps of comparable projects. It doesn’t exhibit work that’s chic and trendy. What’s on view has aged well. This isn’t the sort of stuff that would prompt Project Runway’s Heidi Klum to say, "One day, you’re in and one day, you’re out. Auf weidersehn." As do the dated sculpture gardens of several big-time institutions.
There’s something to be said for having an encyclopedic approach rather than trying to be cutting-edge. When was the last time you saw something by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, much less a bronze that isn’t his famous head of Beethoven? In Houston, you’ll be startled by the power of Bourdelle’s seated, nude Adam of 1888-89. The art world could use more images that express anguish and regret so powerfully. Anyway, with the return of figurative painting, this statue has more relevance than ever. And how about Lucio Fontana’s pair of Spatial Concepts from 1959-60? No pun intended, but they speak volumes.
The Cullen Sculpture Garden gets kudos, too, for calling attention to art made in Texas. What a perfect spot to showcase work by Joseph Havel and Joe Love, who are hardly household names.
The term "lost wax process" has always sounded so romantic, with its connotations of long ago mysteries. Lately, it seems as if the expression "lost sculpture process" is about to enter the art lexicon as well. At the moment, "sculpture" exits in two states: faux, ephemeral objects that are exhibited indoors in painting galleries, and well-made works that can be installed outdoors comparable to the way that statues have been placed in gardens, parks and public squares for thousands of years.
At the Noguchi-designed garden at the MFAH, the bronzes by Bryan Hunt, Joel Shapiro and Tony Cragg aren’t things you bump into when you back up to see a painting. They represent a noble tradition. Just look off in the distance at figures by Rodin, Maillol and Giacometti, in the Cullen Sculpture Garden -- they all belong to the same family tree.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Bloomberg News, Town & Country and other journals.