Change of Art

Just over forty years ago, Texas was the kind of place dismissed as hopelessly provincial and culturally mediocre. But then came the Kimbell Art Museum.

February 2013By Comments

Michael Bodycomb@Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Fort Worth’s once pastoral cultural district, overlooking the Trinity River west of downtown, is today the city’s emblematic construction site. The sprawling complex of museums and performance halls is framed by new condominiums and esplanades, and the lawns and pools have been usurped by construction cranes, earthmovers, and cement trucks. The state’s fastest-growing big city during the first decade of this century, Fort Worth has boomed on the twin engines of Texas’s modern economic surge: fracking and immigration. But it’s this venerable district, with its adjacent new “urban village” that’s now filling up with stylish shops, restaurants, and residences, as well as tourists, that looks most like the future—not only for Fort Worth but also for all of Texas’s major cities.

At the center of this transformation is the Kimbell Art Museum, the district’s marquee attraction and Texas’s most revered architectural monument. Regarded as a classic even before it opened its doors, in 1972, this concrete-and-travertine masterpiece, designed by Louis Kahn, remains a daring yet sublime alchemy of industrial engineering and natural light, its utilitarian barrel vaults—inspired by those of ancient Roman warehouses—slit along their entire length to provide the galleries an almost mystical illumination. The Kimbell is growing no less than the city around it, and late this year the museum is scheduled to open its long-anticipated annex, a concrete-and-glass pavilion designed by the one man with both the temerity and authority to even tinker around the edges of Kahn’s creation: Renzo Piano, the world’s most influential living architect.

The legacy Piano must respect, however, goes well beyond Kahn’s daunting accomplishment. As much as Piano’s pavilion symbolizes Fort Worth’s twenty-first-century ambitions, it is far eclipsed by the role the Kimbell Museum has played in transforming our state during the past forty years. For all its subtle elegance, Kahn’s Kimbell exploded onto the Texas cultural scene like a supernova, revolutionizing our self-image and sending out shock waves that continue to shape the cities in which most of us now live. It is because of the Kimbell that Texas cities increasingly market themselves as “arts destinations” as much as business centers—and the activity we see in the cultural district today is simply Fort Worth racing to keep up with the changes set in motion there a generation ago. The man who financed this revolution represented a bygone Texas tradition, an up-from-the-dirt wheeler-dealer who found in the arts a perfect marriage of acquisitiveness and altruism. Kay Kimbell dropped out of school at age thirteen to work for his father’s grain-milling business in the bustling North Texas town of Whitewright, eventually making his fortune in oil, grain, and food products. His cultural epiphany came in 1935, when he attended an art exhibition at Fort Worth’s Carnegie Library and met the organizer, New York dealer Bertram Newhouse, who would guide Kimbell’s collecting for the rest of his life. By the time Kimbell died, in 1964, he owned about seventy companies and corporations and more than three hundred works of art, many of them eighteenth-century portraits of English aristocrats. His widow, Velma, who also grew up in Whitewright, remarkably pledged their entire estate to the Kimbell Art Foundation, which the couple had created in 1936 to promote the arts and to perhaps someday fund a museum. A year after Kay’s death, the foundation’s board hired art historian Ric Brown—who had helped food tycoon and philanthropist Norton Simon found the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—as the first director of the yet-to-be-built Kimbell Art Museum.

With tens of millions of dollars at his disposal, Brown looked past Kay’s portraits and turned his keen scholarly eye to the art market. Knowing that even the Kimbell Foundation’s hefty endowment couldn’t begin to build the kind of encyclopedic collection that had until then distinguished the world’s great museums, Brown eschewed quantity for works of “definitive excellence”—paintings and sculptures of such rare quality that they represented the summa of an artist’s career or even an entire period. Brown began ferreting out masterpieces years before the museum opened: Giovanni Bellini’s Christ Blessing, Goya’s Portrait of the Matador Pedro Romero, and Picasso’s cubist Man With a Pipe only marked the beginning of a trove that has led many to call the Kimbell the world’s best small museum.

In 1966 Brown also handpicked (and subsequently rode herd on) the notoriously difficult Kahn, a Philadelphian then known for the modernist Yale University art museum and his minimalist, cast-concrete Salk Institute campus in La Jolla, California. At the time, Fort Worth’s cultural district was hardly an architectural wasteland, but it held little promise of artistic immortality. The thirties moderne Will Rogers Memorial Center, a massive livestock showcase, was designed by Wyatt C. Hedrick, a Fort Worth fixture who became better known for Houston’s Shamrock Hotel. Next to that was the boxy Fort Worth Art Center, designed in the fifties by Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer and today almost entirely overlooked (it’s now a community arts center). And across the street, atop a little acropolis overlooking the Kimbell site, was the 1961 Amon Carter Museum, designed by America’s foremost modernist architect, Philip Johnson. Though the building, with its peculiarly stylized derivation of a classical arcade, was prophetic of Johnson’s controversial and wildly successful postmodern conversion—there is an interesting albeit rarely remarked on echo of his arcade in Kahn’s facing rows of barrel vaults—it was ridiculed as “ballet classicism” for the way the severely tapered arches seemed to stand on point.

The international praise lavished almost immediately upon the Kimbell and its contents didn’t just elevate the architectural profile of the cultural district, it transformed the psyche of the entire state. For generations the culturally aspiring among us had labored under accusations of “provincialism,” the widely held notion that Texans, far removed from the centers of real culture, would have to be eternally content with mediocre samplings or pale imitations of the art produced in places like New York and Paris. Fearful of being labeled provincial, Texas patrons had traditionally shopped so frantically for designer-label art and architecture that they’d settled for second-rate work by big-name talents; by the time the Kimbell opened, some of the worst examples of Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism could be found in some of Texas’s best homes. Similarly, the taint of provincialism had led Texas artists to believe they could achieve nothing important unless they were recognized by, and eventually escaped to, the cultural capitals. Yet here was Cowtown’s own little museum, and its architecture and collection weren’t just “world-class,” a term that had already become a much-ridiculed cliché of Texas’s passive-aggressive cultural ambitions. The Kimbell was in a class of its own, a world-beater.

The implications soon rippled outward. As much as the Kimbell raised the bar for Texas collectors and arts institutions, the excitement and sense of self-empowerment it ignited also encouraged Texas artists to reconsider what they could achieve by staying at home. By the late seventies, Houston in particular had become a hotbed for many of Texas’s most talented artists, who were organizing exhibitions in their own alternative galleries and pushing the city’s established institutions to show more Texas art. The opening of the Kimbell also threw down the gauntlet of cultural competition to the oligarchs of Fort Worth’s more populous civic competitors, most notably Dallas. Despite the two cities’ federally enforced collaboration on the DFW Airport, which opened in 1974, Dallas–Fort Worth was far less a modern civic marriage than a historic Hatfield-McCoy feud. Long accustomed to regarding its neighbor with everything from smug indifference to overt contempt, Dallas, with its Depression-era art museum tucked away on the state fairgrounds, suddenly developed a clinical case of museum envy—a condition the city would not begin to remedy for another quarter century.

At the same time, the Kimbell’s unqualified triumph also sent an equally important message to the world’s cultural capitals. Kahn had gone to Texas as a gifted enigma and had emerged as one of the twentieth century’s anointed geniuses; when he died, in 1974, the Kimbell became his artistic testament, the work that both culminated and transcended his career. This dynamic did not go unobserved by other talented, if as yet unfulfilled, architects; Johnson in particular, who was from New York, realized that Texas was a place where an architect could innovate in ways he couldn’t in fussier locales. It was in Houston, in fact, where by the mid-seventies he had designed and proselytized for more than twenty years in the orthodox modernist vein, that Johnson dared to separate the twin towers of his 1976 Pennzoil Place with a slit of space only ten feet wide—a feature strikingly similar to the light-admitting slits that bisected Kahn’s barrel vaults—and for good measure tilted the tops at a rakish angle. This breaking out of the modernist box sparked the entire postmodern movement in architecture, and over the next several years Johnson gave Houston the world’s first postmodern skyline—as well as the look of a city that could set fashions rather than simply struggle to ape them.

A decade after Pennzoil Place, another architect came to Houston with Kahn’s museum very much on his mind. Genoa native Renzo Piano, who had launched his career by co-designing Paris’s machinelike Centre Pompidou in the early seventies and had since struggled to establish his own identity, was faced with a daunting assignment: to build an intimate, naturally lit modernist repository for the treasure trove of Houston art collector Dominique de Menil, an edifice that would also somehow mesh with the surrounding neighborhood of clapboard houses. (Menil had originally wanted Kahn and was also a Johnson client.) Not only did Piano’s Menil museum almost single-handedly prove that modernism could respect, rather than bulldoze, existing neighborhoods, but its louver-like roof of light-modulating cement “leaves”—which were similar to the Kimbell’s ceiling-mounted aluminum light diffusers—also advanced Kahn’s revolution in museum lighting and led Piano to inaugurate an era of openness and transparency for civic buildings of all sorts.

Post-Menil, Piano became the designer most coveted by museums and cities worldwide—including, not surprisingly, Dallas. Among his highly admired works would be the nearly see-through Nasher Sculpture Center, in the city’s arts district, which had for decades remained little more than an enormous parking lot. When the Nasher opened, in 2003, it received sufficient accolades to finally cure Dallas’s museum envy. Of course, just a year earlier, Fort Worth had already upped its ante with Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum, kitty-corner to the Kimbell, a more rectilinear but equally sublime essay in meticulously crafted cast concrete—and so far, one of this century’s best buildings, anywhere. But with the Nasher as a catalyst, Dallas fired again, filling in its arts district in 2009 with a classy yet user-friendly performing arts center designed by Pritzker Prize winners Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas. And Dallas hasn’t stopped there: just months ago it debuted an innovative urban park decked over a freeway, along with the edgiest major museum ever built in Texas, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, designed by another Pritzker Prize winner, Thom Mayne. The cube-shaped building features a distressed-looking, crinkly concrete “skin” and a glass-walled escalator that is seemingly slapped onto one side, reminiscent of the Centre Pompidou’s external escalators.

Fort Worth’s answer will be Piano’s Kimbell addition, its opening certain to be an international event—if only to hold the architect to account for daring to amend, even at a respectful distance, a building regarded as nearly perfect. As if taking pains not to compete, Piano’s freestanding, glassed-in, concrete-piered pavilion will hug the ground, its low, flat roof a characteristically high-tech affair of aluminum louvers and solar cells. With classrooms, studios, a much larger auditorium, and room for touring exhibitions, the transparent building will invite the public in while extending the Kimbell Museum’s community outreach.

Nevertheless, this civic competition is rapidly giving way to a challenge far more complicated than building ever-more-spectacular museums and opera halls and filling them with tourists and day-trippers. The future that the Kimbell Art Museum propelled us toward isn’t one in which a handful of cultural monuments will stand as aspirational glimpses of a higher civilization. Instead it’s the sort of urban village growing up around the Kimbell—or around Dallas’s arts district and Houston’s museum district—with the arts and their institutions as the nodes of diverse, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods where visitors can shop, dine, and live. Forty years ago, when the revolution sparked by the Kimbell began, the cosmopolitanism of today’s Texas cities was scarcely imaginable; almost certainly it was unforeseen by the civic-minded miller’s son from Whitewright, whose food companies and English portraits set the wheels in motion. It took the Kimbell to open our eyes, but now we can see entire cities as works of art, their futures limited only by our imaginations.

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