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Monday, June 12, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 150


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MFA's Sculpture Garden peaceful despite chaos of the city 

By Faye Chmaitelli
Daily Cougar Staff

In the frenzy of daily life, Houstonians unwittingly pass it everyday without stopping. Nestled on the corner of Montrose and Bissonet, it stands quiet and unassuming as one of the finest permanent collections in Houston, yet no one seems to notice that it exists.

Directly across the street from both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum, the giant, cold concrete walls of the garden are not so obviously the enclosure of a treasure horde. No one would assume that just beyond the grand iron gates lies an entirely different world and, with the recently opened Beck addition to the MFA as an art-house distraction, city visitors may continue to ignore this serene spot.

The Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden of the MFA has been open to Houston's public since April of 1986, and it stands as just such a retreat from the city's craze. Yet, as a place of peace and integrity, it is growing.

"When Isamu Noguchi was first commissioned to create the garden, the museum owned a limited number of important outdoor sculptures, four of which are now installed in the Cullen Sculpture Garden: Rodin's 'The Walking Man,' Consagra's 'Conversation with the Wind' and Fontana's 'Spatial Concept/Nature No.1 and 2,'" said Director Peter C. Marzio of the MFA in 1996 on the 10th anniversary of the collection.

The garden's financial supporters, however, intended much grander acquisitions to be made for the city's enjoyment in time for its opening. Under William C. Agee's initial direction, and with the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Law, Mr. and Mrs. Gus Wortham and the Cullen and Brown Foundations, the garden opened with 11 masterpieces in its permanent exhibit.

"The purchase of the magnificent Matisse Backs in 1980 signaled the start of this ambitious program," Marzio said. Today, the collection includes more than 20 pieces; including works by Giacometti, Kelly, Stello, Shapiro and Havel -- and it is still expanding.

The garden was initially conceived by the museum as an extension of plans for the Glassell School of Arts, which houses the educational programs of the MFA. Yet, as visitors cross the massive granite walkways to observe the incredible sculptures from a thousand different viewpoints, they can't help but esteem the garden as more than a huge, enclosed complement to studio training.

"This small tract of earth is a symbol of excellence, of man's continuing effort to reach beyond the everyday into timelessness," Marzio said. Even if visitors to the garden were to ignore every amazing mass of metal on display, the solitude of the site alone would still transport them away from their clamoring, metropolitan lives into a realm of absolute silence.

Somehow, by Noguchi's design, beyond the noise of the nearby traffic and the shouts of visiting children, the garden is completely serene.

There really is a favorite sculpture waiting in the garden for everyone, and a spot on the grass from which to enjoy it.

In this exhibit, Noguchi created a dynamic maze of rolling hills to encompass the art. With natural beauty of this kind in such a small enclosure, and in the midst of such traffic, the Cullen Sculpture Garden is modern art's take on the classic English garden. If nothing more, it offers a tranquil splendor that remains virtually unexplored by most Houstonians and it unequivocally provides the ideal getaway for Sunday afternoons.
 

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