Sound, Light and Sights at the Kimbell

People / Places / December 3, 2013

“Thunk, thunk, kerthunk.”

The sound of hard leather heels on “breathable floors” in the galleries at Renzo Piano’s new pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum amplifies the quiet of the spaces, a little like the sound of deep, tumbling water on a fast trout stream.

The whole floor is a vent, with air pressure pushing up from two feet of hollow space between an open grid of quarter-sawn white oak boards and the concrete below them. The aural effect is akin to the ephemeral nature of the light falling through ceiling skylights, louvers and fabric screens onto concrete walls, each laden with art.

“The light quality slows you down,” says Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell. “And the floors contribute to putting you in the proper frame of mind to experience this art.”

He’s referring to the museum’s permanent collection of Western, African, Pre-Columbian and Asian art, now at home in three spacious and well-lit galleries. The museum owns about 350 extraordinary works – about the same number it did when it opened in 1972, but refined considerably in the 1980s and ‘90s. In recent years, the Kimbell has been challenged by space constraints, so that much of the permanent collection had to be placed in storage when loan exhibitions were presented.

That’s no longer a problem. The new south gallery houses classical works by Bernini, Michelangelo, Rubens, Velazquez and Rembrandt. The north gallery showcases Pre-Columbian and African art, and the west gallery highlights the museum’s collections of Asian art. Each piece is generously placed for maximum effect from natural light above, much of it hung onto concrete walls that recall the look of alabaster.

“By virtue of giving each one its own space, each has its own zone, aura and power,” says Jennifer Price, curator for Asian and Non-Western Art. “Here, they’re floating in space, more powerful than ever before.”

Ten-foot-tall works actually look better than in the Kahn building, she believes. “It’s sublime and meditative,” she says. “It’s found a home in that space.”

And like the Kahn building, it’s a home filled with reverence for light, sound and beauty.

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Mike Welton

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