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The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston opens "Jesús Rafael Soto: The Houston Penetrable"
Jesús Rafael Soto, Houston Penetrable, 2004-14, lacquered aluminum structure, PVC tubes and water-based silkscreen ink, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © Estate of Jesús Rafael Soto. Used by permission. Photograph © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Thomas R. DuBrock, photographer.

HOUSTON, TX.- Visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this spring and summer will become part of one of the great marvels of contemporary art: one of Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto’s signature Penetrables. Mercantil Commercebank sponsors the debut presentation of the Houston Penetrable, a vast, floating sea of plastic strands suspended from the ceiling that is completed only by the viewer’s participation. Twenty-four thousand PVC (polyvinyl chloride) tubes, individually hand-painted and tied, hang 28 feet from the ceiling to the floor—the height of two stories—and encompass 2,600 square feet. Intended to be touched, handled and waded through, the strands, when at rest, compose a floating yellow orb on a transparent background.

This immersive environment—at once optical, tactile and kinetic—was designed by Soto on commission from the Museum in 2004 and has taken almost a decade to produce. In tandem with the Museum and Atelier Soto, Paris, architect Paolo Carrozzino and producer Walter Pellevoisin oversaw a team of artisans and ironworkers in Vielle-Tursan (France) and Houston to bring this monumental work to life.

Soto (1923–2005) was a landmark figure in Latin American art, and a key driver of the Kinetic art movement that emerged in Paris in the 1950s. The Houston Penetrable is the only one in Soto’s signature series that the artist designed as permanent, and one of the few that he created as an indoor piece. The Penetrables have been sited around the world over the past 50 years, from the Museo Soto in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela (1973), to the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum (1974) to MALBA - Fundación Costantini in Buenos Aires (2003), and more recently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (2011). They have come to define the fully immersive art experience for generations of participants.

“We are pleased to bring this unparalleled Penetrable to a Houston audience,” said director Gary Tinterow. “Equal parts geometric abstraction, architecture, sculpture, environment and playscape, this monumental indoor piece exemplifies the Museum’s commitment to Latin American art.”

“Jesús Rafael Soto stands out as a pioneer of the 20th-century avant-garde in Europe and Latin America, and it is an honor to have an exclusively commissioned piece by this revolutionary artist in the Museum’s permanent collection,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA). “The Houston Penetrable brings the playground indoors with a fully sensorial experience of light and color, but it truly needs the visitor to bring the artwork to life. It is the culmination of Soto’s attempts to take painting out of the frame and into the viewer’s space.”

The Penetrables Series Soto’s Penetrables (1967–2005) embody the synthesis of the artist’s investigations into light, movement and space. He initially spoke of them as “enveloping works”—art that would give people a sense of the shape and density of space. For Soto, space was a perceptual field that had to be experienced, not just with the eyes but with the entire body and the senses. He displayed the first of these architectural environments at the Galerie Denise René in 1967. French art critic Jean Clay was the first to call them Penetrables (meaning, in French and Spanish, “to get into” or “to walk through”), a term that Soto then adopted.

The first Penetrable was small, but Soto’s idea was all-encompassing. “The Penetrable isn’t even a work,” he later told art historian Ariel Jiménez, “it is more an idea of space that can materialize in any situation and at any scale … if it were possible, you could even make it cover the whole planet.” The Penetrable served Soto’s goal of using art to make people see and understand the world differently, to make viewers cognizant of space and their experiences of moving through it. Spectators entering a Penetrable must not only redefine their relationship to the space that immediately envelops them, but they must also reconfigure their sense of the horizontal and the vertical. The enduring message of this series is that space can be an autonomous artistic element, and movement is nothing but “a spark of life that makes art human and truly realistic,” as curator and museum director Karl Pontus Hultén once described.

The Houston Penetrable Soto created some 25 to 30 different Penetrables over the course of his career. Among his most successful experiments with space and movement, the majority of these environmental works were designed for outdoor spaces, although a few were installed in interior galleries. None of these interior Penetrables survived, however, as they were conceived from the beginning as ephemeral pieces. The Houston Penetrable—created exclusively for the Museum’s Cullinan Hall, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1958—is one of very few site-specific Penetrables Soto designed and the only one intended for permanent or semipermanent interior display.

The Houston Penetrable, unprecedented in its size and the complexity of its design, was Soto’s most ambitious work. While all others in this iconic series are monochromatic, typically yellow or blue, The Houston Penetrable presents clear tubes with a huge yellow ellipse at its center. Its design and immense scale have made the piece extremely difficult to realize. For more than five years, the Museum worked closely with the Atelier Soto in Paris to construct what was Soto’s final project.

A related work from this series, Penetrable amarillo (Yellow Penetrable) (1973/95), from the Colección Cisneros, was on display outside the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from 2004 to 2006 as part of the exhibition Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America.

An accompanying exhibition of Soto’s work is on view in the north foyer of the Museum’s Caroline Wiess Law Building. Eight exemplary pieces from the various phases and series of Soto’s career— including his Plexiglas boxes and selections from his Agujas (Needles), Ambivalencias (Ambivalences) and Vibraciones (Vibrations) series—emphasize the artist’s specific contributions to Kinetic art, allowing Museum visitors to understand the totality and complexity of ideas expressed by the Houston Penetrable.

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