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Coolest indoor playground ever? New MFAH exhibit lets H-Town dive into art

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2 MFAH Soto The Houston Penetrable exhibit May 2014
Interior view of central section of Jesús Rafael Soto's Houston Penetrable, 2004-14. Photo courtesy of © Estate of Jesús Rafael Soto
MFAH Soto The Houston Penetrable exhibit May 2014  Soto - Penetrable 1975
Jesús Rafael Soto stands in one of his signature Penetrables in 1975.   Photo courtesy of © Estate of Jesús Rafael Soto
1 MFAH Soto The Houston Penetrable exhibit May 2014
The installation of the first section of Jesús Rafael Soto’s Houston Penetrable in MFAH Cullinan Hall   Photo courtesy of © Estate of Jesús Rafael Soto
1 Soto Houston Penetrable by Tarra May 2014
Soto, Houston Penetrable, 2004-14, lacquered aluminum structure, PVC tubes and water-based silkscreen ink. Photo by Tarra Gaines
2 Soto Houston Penetrable by Tarra May 2014
Soto, Houston Penetrable, 2004-14, lacquered aluminum structure, PVC tubes and water-based silkscreen ink. Photo by Tarra Gaines
2 MFAH Soto The Houston Penetrable exhibit May 2014
MFAH Soto The Houston Penetrable exhibit May 2014  Soto - Penetrable 1975
1 MFAH Soto The Houston Penetrable exhibit May 2014
1 Soto Houston Penetrable by Tarra May 2014
2 Soto Houston Penetrable by Tarra May 2014
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The long, hot Houston summer has almost begun, and the Museum of Fine Arts is taking pity on us all by giving the city what is possibly the coolest all-ages, indoor playground ever, Soto: The Houston Penetrable.

Oh yeah, it’s art too.

The Houston Penetrable is both a space and object of art as 24,000 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) tubes, all hand painted, hang from a two stories height to the floor. The work was conceived by Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto specifically for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed Cullinan Hall. Viewers are meant to become participants in the art, wading into the space.

Viewers become swimmers or dancers as soon as they enter, and their movements have to slow down because these airy-light tubes taken together do feel like they will tangle us into them, never letting go.  

One of the most important artist to have emerged from Latin American in the second half of the 20th century, Jesús Rafael Soto was concerned with what most visual artists have been obsessed with since we first took to drawing on cave walls, representing the movement in and of life.

Pondering this artistic obsession, Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art at the MFAH explained, “The whole question of movement is one that has baffled artist from the beginning of time. It is an essential part of human life. But how do you reproduce that in what is essentially a static medium?” For Soto the solution was to make the viewer a part of the art.

“Rather than try to portray movement on the canvas, or come up with any kind of mechanical contraption, Soto discovers that the movement is really carried by the viewer,” Ramírez described. “It is the viewer who produces the movement, and the viewer is necessary and becomes an integral part for the artistic proposition. That is a key principle that turns him into one of the leaders in the Kinetic Art Movement and it’s the principle that he’s going to explore in all of the series that make up his work, in different variations.”

It took 10 years for The Houston Penetrable to come to fruition. The work was commissioned after Soto came to Houston for the opening of the MFAH’s landmark 2004 exhibition, Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. After a few false starts when it was decided to change the piece from an outdoor to an indoor installation, Soto finished the design but died only a few weeks later.

Besides being Soto’s last work, the Houston Penetrable is one of only a few of his series of Penetrables designed for an indoor environment, and it is the only one that is not monochromatic. A portion of each of the transparent PVC tubes has been hand painted yellow, so that taken together the strands create the image of a yellow ellipse hovering in space.

Upon entering the Caroline Wiess Law Building, patrons can wander through a small sampling of some of Soto’s earlier work to gain a better understanding of the evolution of his work before heading up the short flight of stairs into Cullinan Hall and diving into the Houston Penetrable.

After getting a sneak peek at the exhibition a few days before the opening, I find it hard not to use water descriptions. That peek felt more like a sneak swim, and moving into the space felt a little like diving into a sea of dense light. Viewers become swimmers or dancers as soon as they enter, and their movements have to slow down because these airy-light tubes taken together do feel like they will tangle us into them, never letting go.

It’s also a bit wondrous to stand back and watch other people enter. As they disappear into the yellow horizon its easy to imagine they are fading into the sunset or ascending into the sunrise, depending on your mood. Then, it is time to take the step yourself and merge into the Houston Penetrable.

Let playtime begin. 

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