The first question I ask myself when walking into (and I mean into) Jesús Rafael Soto’s "Houston Penetrable" is, “What would Mies think?” Granted, I ask myself that a lot, having spent a good deal trying to think as Mies van der Rohe did; however, in this case, with the work installed inside Cullinan Hall, the van der Rohe-designed addition to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Caroline Wiess Law Building, the question truly makes sense.
It is necessary to walk through the work, experiencing the piece from all angles. The PVC tubes gather around your body, tangling up and hanging onto you as you walk from one side to the other. Looking toward the ceiling allows one to notice the simple yet intensive rigging system — a feat of engineering. Standing perfectly still and looking straight into the suspended pipes, tiny alleys appear, beckoning you to walk through them. The upper floor of the pavilion allows a view from afar, with the glowing yellow orb floating amongst movement from other visitors.
Soto, whose work is well known in South America (he was born in Venezuela), Europe, and Asia, where he realized many projects, conceived of the site-specific architectural work shortly before his death in 2005. This remarkable installation, which took 10 years to produce and install, is, by any standards, the ultimate piece in Soto’s oeuvre of penetrables. He was a pioneer in the exploration of movement as it relates to both the object and the participation of the viewer, and his work in Houston is completed only when the viewer enters into the work. Hand-painted PVC tubes dangle 28 feet from ceiling to floor — with the bright yellow orb swaying slightly in the middle of the space. Weighing
over 15,000 pounds and needing a team of architects, producers, and engineers working together to produce it, "Houston Penetrable" is, honestly, somewhat magical.
Soto began his series of penetrables in the late 1960s, and they were mostly temporary, on a smaller scale, and installed both indoors and outdoors. His work with penetrables grew from early sculptures and wall works. They are not kinetic in the sense that they move on their own; the movement happens when the viewer walks by the sculpture, creating illusions that animate the sculpture to the naked eye. The movement helped create another type of space — a space occupied not only by the object, but now also by the person activating that object. With these works, Soto is also classified as an optical artists, and he participated in "The Responsive Eye," a historic and controversial exhibition at MoMA in 1965. The "Houston Penetrable" is Soto's only indoor, site-specific permanent installation; a small collection of sculptures and wall works are on view in the lobby, creating a context for the larger work installed beyond.
Returning to my original question of what van der Rohe would think, I know he would be pleased — dare I say excited — to see what Soto envisioned for the building. Sometimes, it is as simple as glass, steel, and concrete, and other times, it includes painted PVC pipe and a plethora of visitors.
Rachel Adams is an Austin-based curator and writer.
This article is online content for the July/August 2014 issue of Texas Architect.