Editor's Note: From time to time, CultureMap contributor Joseph Campana takes a peek behind closed doors of some of Houston's great arts institutions.
Imagine you're in limbo. Art limbo.
If you happen to be in art limbo at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, you might be (as I was) in Storage Area Five. You would probably be thinking (as I was) about how much art you don't see when you visit a major museum already packed with more treasures than you can take in on any one visit.
And as I learned, there's even more than you would imagine. Happily, I had Emily Neff, curator of American Painting and Sculpture, as my guide in the cavernous reaches of the MFAH basement.
More than a Museum can hold
"We have a million storage places," Neff confided, and rapidly named more than I could keep track of. She even hinted at some whose locations weren't supposed to be known.
An 'Object Orphanage' keeps track of re-filing, reframing, preservation or any number of other procedures that keep the works ready to go on display, on loan, or to sink back into the dark slumber of storage
But there's no mystery about the disparity between exhibition space and the size of the MFAH's collection. The collection includes 63,718 works, of which only 6,465 are currently on view. Although 10 percent of the overall collection is on view at any one time, Neff's American Painting and Sculpture collection does a little better. Of some 500 pre-1945 American painting and sculpture artworks in the collection, roughly 28 percent are on view.
There were crates, open shelves and large metal grates that slid out of the wall to reveal countless treasures. A list on the wall titled "Object Orphanage" caught my eye.
"What is that?" I asked.
Neff explained it as an attempt to account for the traffic in objects moving around the vast basement, either for re-filing, reframing, preservation or any number of other procedures that keep the works in the collection ready to go on display, on loan, or to sink back into the dark slumber of storage. Limbo indeed.
Of course, works of art do need their beauty rest.
"When you're dealing with works on paper," Neff told me, "they have to be stored and not shown very much. For every month something is on view, it's on rest for a year. If it's up for four months, it has to rest for four years." This includes watercolors, prints, drawings and even photographs.
It's a complex schedule that determines any given exhibition, but without such storage many works would not survive. "This is about the preservation of the collection for the future," Neff insisted. "Some might think that a work can't be good if it's not on view, but there's nothing further from the truth. It's not about you or me, but about 100 years from now."
I know myself how hard it is not to be greedy in the face of great art. On my last trip to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, my favorite painting in that collection, Caravaggio's The Card Sharps, was nowhere to be found. In a panic, I asked a guard. Had it been sold or stolen?
Less dramatically, it was vacationing in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada for the opening of Caravaggio and His Followers, which is on view at the Kimbell through Jan. 8, 2012.
I told Neff about this experience, who smiled and said, "If Frederic Remington's Fight for the Waterhole is not on view, I will get phone calls about it. This is true for other paintings. In a way, you're thrilled to get those phone calls. It matters; people care about those works."
When you're dealing with works on paper, they have to be stored and not shown very much. For every month something is on view, it's on rest for a year.
So what's currently in limbo at the MFAH, waiting to cycle back in view? Plenty, but I asked Neff to select three works from her department.
As we made our way over to the correct area, we passed an arresting canvas: Francesco Solimena's The Royal Hunt of Dido and Aeneas, resting against a wall. The temptation to reach out and touch was intense, and I realized I had never been so close to a work without the presence of rope, glass or guards.
But Neff had other treasures in mind. First, a sweet and subtle watercolor by Henry Farrer called A Calm Afternoon, Long Island (1876). Neff described Farrer as the founder of the American watercolor movement, as watercolors became "one of the dominant forms in American art" and not merely for use in diaries or other private venues.
Often framed in exhibitions as paintings, these new watercolors were sharp and vivid and not unlike the Hudson River school. Farrer's luminous canvas invites you to look at the calm sea, people in their gardens, laundry on a line and the dense foliage that looks out on the Long Island sound. The detail is laser-like, the finish impeccable, and from afar you might not realize it's a watercolor.
A Calm Afternoon, Long Island is the only Henry Farrer in the collection, and it was last on view in 2000 for an American watercolor show to celebrate the opening of the Beck building. "Then everything we had had to rest for years," Neff said. But Farrer, now well-rested, will be back on view this summer.
Stored near Farrer was E. Martin Henning's 1924 Passing By. "This is considered the great masterpieces of his career," Neff told me. The American-born, German-trained painter was part of the Taos Society of Artists, the oldest such collective west of the Mississippi. Founded around the turn of the 20th century, the Taos Society sought to observe and record the indigenous cultures of the southwest.
"Part of their approach," Neff said, "was to paint the living American Indian. They had an appreciation for non-nomadic cultures that had dug into the earth for thousands of years. For better or worse, artists coming from a modern, urban context really idolized that. Some would say these artists fetishize Native American culture, but their intent was also preservation."
If Farrer's Calm Afternoon, offers a luminous but washed out light, Passing By positively blazes. A series of aspens have turned utterly golden. Three Native Americans ride horses through the painting, and there is incredible attention paid to saddles, blankets, and rope. A slight bluish tint to the horse looks perfectly natural beneath the vibrant deep blue sky peeking through the aspens.
Just down a few more feet was Neff's final pick, Leon Polk Smith's 1946 Open Composition, which is a relatively recent acquisition for the collection.
Neff put the work in context, saying, "When we think of modernism, we often think of skyscrapers and industrial images. This is right, of course. But there was also a rush to the southwest, an anti-modern modernism."
The MFAH collection includes 63,718 works, of which only 6,465 are currently on view.
Although Polk works in what Neff called "classic abstraction," he was born of Cherokee roots in Indian territory just the year before it became Oklahoma. Native patterns and rhythms were central to his work, as were the works of Piet Mondrian.
Open Composition offers a never-quite exact pattern of gray, black and ochre squares and rectangles. There's something deceptively simple about it. The more you stare at it, the more haunting its geometry becomes.
The basement of the MFAH may not be nearly as inviting as the treasure rooms of the MFAH, but I can't say I was ready to leave its dark recesses. Who knows what was lurking in the next rack?
Neff herself found this out. Peeking behind a paper cover, she suddenly exclaimed, "Look at this! It's a pictograph by Adolph Gottlieb. The need for more space is real."
It's nice to know a curator can still be surprised by her own collection.