Delightful: Soto’s “Penetrable”

“I like that art we jumped through. It tickled me!” proclaimed one of my three year old sons when asked about the art we saw recently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His twin promptly chimed in “it tickled me!

We went to the MFAH to view Jesús Rafael Soto’s Houston Penetrable. This is a massive work; it fills a space probably as big as my whole house, and twice as high. There are 24,000 translucent plastic tubes hanging from a specially constructed metal grid two stories above. These strands are evenly spaced about 6 inches apart, and drape to almost the floor. The midsection of them is painted yellow, so that from afar you can see a sunny yellow oval on its side suspended in the middle of the installation.

Jesús Rafael Soto's "Houston Penetrable"

Oh, and you can walk through it (hence the appeal for the under four set). M. and E. were enthralled. As you walk into the art, the PVC tubes brush past your face and collect on your shoulders, some falling off and others gathering on your shoulders until you exit on the other side and gradually walk past the reach of the strands and they fall behind you and rejoin the plastic “forest.”

detail of Jesús Rafael Soto's "Houston Penetrable"

The strands are translucent, but the denseness of their configuration and the sheer size of  the installation make it so that you can lose someone in it. M. was wearing a bright red shirt, so he was pretty easy to spot—the red blur about four feet tall speeding away. E. on the other hand was wearing a navy T, and blended into the denim pants of other visitors as he navigated his way through the Penetrable.

child inside Jesús Rafael Soto's "Houston Penetrable"

It is a delight to watch little ones so excited by an art exhibit. Smiling, laughing, spinning (getting asked not to spin—it tangles the cords) and generally enjoying themselves. I like taking my kids to a museum and knowing that there were parts they thoroughly enjoyed. I want them to have positive art experiences. But I also want a few for myself.

Lest you think our visits to the museum are smooth and filled with easy appreciation of artworks, please let me give you a broader sense of our trip. First, we woke E. up from his impromptu nap in the car. Then, we beelined to the cafe to get some food in their empty tummies. Alas, M. didn’t want to eat. So my husband C. said that I could go on, and they would meet up with me later. By that point,I needed a pit stop, and when I finished, so did E., and then there we were, all four of us fed and “ready” to tackle the museum almost an hour after arriving.

The problem is, when you are a three year old boy, escalators are far more intriguing than art. And underground art tunnels with ultraviolet light are pretty cool too, especially if you know there are escalators at the other end. So we bribed them to go to the other building where Soto’s massive kinetic sculpture was installed. Finally, we hit up the Penetrable. Super! art you can touch! but you can’t spin, or pull, or yell. Or stand still long enough to let mommy read the plaque.

Then, much too soon, back through the tunnel to the escalators and to more escalators. Only, C. & I want to stop through these antiquities rooms first. Fuss fuss fuss. Escalators! Escalators! Okay, next the escalators. Up up up! Yay, art, I think…no, now they want to go down the escalators. Argh! No, first: art. We will go down, but not now. M. lies down on the granite floor. Again.

child looking under Jesús Rafael Soto's "Houston Penetrable"

Quick! Look at some art. Take pictures of two works. Down the escalators, up, down again, now lets go potty one last time, up the escalators. Out to mommy’s car. Whew!

At one point while we were standing in the Penetrable, I realized that I had been so busy trying to capture their experience in photos, and keeping up with them, that I hadn’t taken any time to really soak it in for myself. I think we (busy people, not just parents) do this a lot—get preoccupied and forget to stop and savor what is happening. The plastic was cool on my face. The metal framework and lights that shone through it, filtering down past the yellow oval were…and then I realized I couldn’t keep musing on my reaction. I needed to find that small child in the red shirt, pronto, before he collided with another museum patron or ran afoul of the guards.

child exploring Jesús Rafael Soto's "Houston Penetrable"

My kids, however, were totally present—touching, running, feeling, laughing, simply being in the art. I was not. I was on hypervigillance mode. Even though we were in a work that permitted somewhat louder voices and minimal risk of injury to the art, I was constantly trying to assess what they were doing or where they were headed and how to redirect them in case it was towards (unlikely) disaster. Also, I was trying to capture photographic evidence of the event.

We don’t always have the resources or tools to have a really “grand” reaction to art. Oh, how I have such grand hopes and ambitions when I visit a museum. I hope to be meandering leisurely through the galleries, when something grabs me, draws me in closer, and sweeps me off my feet. I hope for enlightenment. I hope for inspiration. I hope for some kind of artistic epiphany.

Sometimes, we have small children pulling us away from the modern masters exhibit toward the escalators, and many of us skipped whichever art history class would have made it all “make sense.” But even then, we can still have a valid personal reaction to art. I liked this art because I saw joy on my kids’ faces.

My three year old twin sons had all the resources they needed to enjoy Soto’s art: curiosity, living in the moment, experimentation, and joyful abandon. As I have said since the beginning of this blog, you don’t have to be a critic to enjoy art. You don’t need to recall pages of notes from an art history survey course. You just need to allow yourself to see and think and experience.

child looking at Jesús Rafael Soto's "Houston Penetrable"

And, occasionally, it is nice to leave the kids at home.

When was the last time you were tickled by art?

I highly recommend watching this well-produced video about the process involved in creating and displaying Soto’s massive work, as well as some almost meditative images of people maneuvering through the artwork.

I’ve really enjoyed perusing Soto’s official website, in particular the work chronologically, the environmental integrations, and the 3D visualizations of his op art works. There are some interesting quotes about how he perceived the relationship between art and music interspersed on the biography page as well.

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3 thoughts on “Delightful: Soto’s “Penetrable”

  1. I really loved this E. the photos you took are spectacular. Makes me want to go to Houston again. We went in May for J S Sargent. Love him. Anyway. Loved this post on every level. Someday you will wander the halls alone with all the time in the world, as I gratefully did in May – and you will long for your precious, inquisitive children to be at your side. Thanks and love you.

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    • Houston is certainly worth a visit, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed your previous trips there. Soto’s exhibit was scheduled to be removed this week; they’ll be cleaning it and monitoring damage due to all the playful interactions. MFAH does hope to make his “Penetrable” an annual summer ritual, however, so maybe it will be back up next June. Thanks, Gerry. Yes, I know I will miss my little ones. I do love their questions and enthusiasm, and their delighted reactions were my favorite part. It just gets tiring, particularly when I go to the museum with unrealistic expectations.

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  2. Your writing is delightful and your description of modern life and the hurried pace at which we experience it is spot on. Thanks for sharing this insightful and delightful blog about art, life and the pace of our world!

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