Bright light, big city

René Barilleaux, the McNay’s curator of art after 1945, was still addressing the Joan Mitchell paintings, but I was being pulled around the corner by a memory from the day before: An enormous, raw-looking canvas filled with narrow yellow leaves falling in loose regiments from top to bottom, glowing in the new Stieren wing’s natural light.

An acrylic painting by Larry Poons, it was brightly lit last Thursday during a press tour for the exhibition space, which was designed by French architect Jean-Paul Viguier, and paid for with a $50-million capital campaign underwritten by the city’s major civic and corporate leaders, including Jane Stieren, for whom it is named along with her late husband, Arthur. The new building includes a comfortable and chic new auditorium, 14,000 square feet of much-needed exhibition space, WiFi, and multi-media classrooms. But its most highly touted feature is its ceiling, which uses a system of fixed louvers, horizontal shades, and silkscreened glass panels to create an adjustable filter, allowing staff to let in more or less natural light depending on the season, the weather, and the show.

In this light, which Barilleaux calls “clearer” and “cleaner,” Poons’s canvas became an active part of the painting rather than just the background, a phenomenon repeated in the McNay’s well-known Robert Indiana, “The Metamorphosis of Norma Jean Mortenson.” A few steps away, in the 3-D painting “Woodstork” by Texan Madeline O’Connor, the powdered stainless steel on the center pieces glimmered with warmth.

But when I returned the following day, the ceiling shades were drawn, and as I rounded the corner to revisit the Poons, I found a different painting — no longer primarily yellow and off-white, it was littered with pale green and pink discs, too, and barely visible graphite marks.

“One thing I’m really interested in is artistic process,” said Barilleaux, who’d caught up to me. “And this painting, for example, where you see the drawn line, and you see the grid underneath where he sort of sectioned the canvas off to figure out where to lay those lozenge shapes — it sort of reveals the process.” The paintings in this room, “cool abstraction” compared to the feverish, dramatic works in the adjoining gallery, may not seem to capture as much of the artist’s hand, says Barilleaux, “but when you get up close, you see that they have that kind of sense of the touch.”

The human touch, and the texture and depth of the canvas, are more evident bathed in diffused sunlight, but too much can wash out some of the pigment. Is one view better than the other?

“They’re different,” says Barilleaux. “Like in the evening: Last night around six we had a small reception ... and the light in here was much warmer. As they day progressed it got much warmer … so your reading of the work changes.”

The balance tips decidedly in favor of natural light — when it won’t damage delicate work — at the state’s leading museums, from the Renzo Piano-envisioned Menil Collection to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell to Tadao Ando’s exalting Fort Worth Modern. But at those temples to art, the ambient light is modulated through skylights and clerestories, allowing nature to have its way with the work as the days and seasons pass. The McNay’s fancy new ceiling gives the staff a dimmer switch.

But for that much-touted difference, what’s striking is how similar the Stieren Center is to Texas’s other jewel-box museums, which it resembles in its clean modern lines, its willingness to take a back seat to the art, and its use of materials that echo and complement its habitat.

During the media lunch, I asked Viguier about a recent trip he took to Enchanted Rock. He talked about how the landscape, the granite, could withstand the region’s mythically hard environment. That’s why you have this building, he said, referring in part to its low profile, set into the hillside behind the main house (but not literally to the most eye-catching materials, which are not native to Texas: Chinese Luoyuan Green Stone and Merbau hardwood).

Like the Hill Country, the Valley, and, well, the entire state, the Stieren Center’s drama is low-key, its narrative line about persistence, endurance, and pure occupation, rather than triumph or excess. Viguier spoke to the press about creating a building that is “in a kind of relationship to the art … not upstaging the art.”

Barilleaux contentedly agrees: “It’s very harmonious to me how the art and architecture seem to complement each other, rather than to fight.”

There are days I'd prefer the drama of the Fort Worth Modern, which, I’ve said before, feels to me like a temple from an Ursula K.
Le Guin world, a future monument from some more spiritually evolved species. But only when you’re outside looking at sculpture or dining at the restaurant. Inside, you think only about the art.

Viguier’s building does offer a few thrills, too, particularly when you stand at one end of the long sculpture gallery, which runs the length of the building uninterrupted, allowing you to look past the tangerine, yellow, and teal cyclone of a George Sugarman, past the always-potent John Chambrelain, over Richard Deacon’s silver button, up to a bright Alexander Calder mobile floating against the dark stone background. The outside is unexpectedly engaging, too, with grassy hills rolling into and away from the building like a green sea — sculptures floating here and there — dipping dramatically down to a pair of Ken Little figures, a deer and a Victorian-style chair formed with his signature cast found shoes and belts, evoking the burned-out antebellum South and nouveau Texas wealth at once.

The most interesting contrast between Texas art-chitecture in Fort Worth and San Antonio is in the cantilevered roof lines, the flat, extending shade that characterizes the Modern and the Stieren. The Modern’s height creates a feeling of transcendence and ascension, where here, as you stand in the sculpture gallery, the roof extension evokes a cave — the place where human art began (or was at least preserved). This effect is especially appropriate for a museum rich in early and mid 20th-century art, whose many big names were members of or influenced by the Fauvists, who sought to recapture raw emotion and subjective human experience — its primitive magic quality — from the academy.

It’s also a good frame for the Stieren’s inaugural exhibition, American Art Since 1945: In a New Light, which opens with a series of dramatic Abstract Expressionist-era paintings, from Mitchell’s 1955 “Hudson River Day Line” to Kikuo Saito’s 1978 “Crocodile Song,” which lets the paint bleed into an unfinished crevass of canvas.

Those pieces, as gorgeous as they are (and as much as you should drag any Abstract Expressionism naysayers to see them), are only the beginning of the McNay’s art story; Barilleaux points out frequently that 29 of the 65 works on view were acquired in the last five years. While auction prices for Bacons and Koonses soar ever Gates-ward, the McNay is building a post World War II collection on pragmatism and a distaste for keeping up with the Saatchis. The McNay looks to its strengths and adds to them, says Barilleaux. “We try to anticipate where we can move ahead,” he says. “Like buying the Larry Poons before the recent renaissance of optical painting.” And he looks to fill in the collection’s obvious holes, such as figuration.

“I want people, when they come here, they see this slice of recent art — well, it’s our slice, it’s not everybody else’s slice. It’s not going and saying, well, I’ve seen that Donald Judd at another museum, and they just have theirs.”

If the collection will not be built on blockbuster acquisitions, then, it will be marked by a sharp curatorial mind with something to prove.

“When we mention we’re opening with the collection, we’ve gotten a very mixed reaction, just because people say, I know the collection, I’ve seen the collection,” he says. “And so, you haven’t seen this collection.”

In the farthest main-show gallery, where recent additions contributed by the McNay Contemporary Collectors Forum — a 5-year-old museum-affiliated crew that purchases one to two works for the collection each year in consultatation with Barilleaux — are hung alongside works from the permanent collection, Sandy Skoglund’s pink-toned Cibachrome photograph starring a host of squirrels occupying post-retirement suburbia strangely complements a campy, proto-Goth still-life by Eugene Berman. The Berman in turn is flattered even more by a morbidly over-the-top mixed-media wall sculpture by Ed Kienholtz and Nancy Reddin Kienholtz.

Not far from this surprising triptych, a gorgeous indigo pastel on paper, Robert Moskowitz’s “Flatiron,” marks the gateway into an exhibit of Jean-Paul Viguier’s commissions. Because of its blunt beauty and subtle evocation of a Donald Judd box a few paces away, it takes a moment to think, right, “Flatiron” = building! Architecture as art … smart, understated art made to fit the niche that’s available.

And the engaging pairings don’t end there. In the sculpture gallery, an orderly, monk-like
Louise Nevelson wall sculpture hangs next to an actively protruding and oxidizing Leonardo Drew. Displayed like this, they look like rightful heirs to Marcel Duchamp’s valise: Nevelson’s encyclopedia of machine-perfect geometry; Drew’s compilation of the entropy that haunts progress mocking art’s decay into crass commercialization.

The sculpture gallery’s profuse natural light flatters the artist’s hand and the natural patina of works by Barbara Hepworth — whose “Winged Figure II” glows starkly beautiful, like a distillation of Angels in America or Wings of Desire — and Giacometti, whose brilliant replication of modern anxiety through a brutally gaunt style comes to life in these harder-edged shadows.

So, yes, In a New Light is a fair title for the new wing and the inaugural exhibtion — not just for the ceiling, or the open wall and floor space that accomodates expansionist post-World-War-II art in a way that Ms. McNay’s Moorish mansion never could. But because it gives one of the city’s inquisitive new curators a place to show us what he’s made of.

Elaine Wolff’s father-in-law, Joe Westheimer, is a member of the McNay’s Board of Trustees.


Stieren Center
facts and figures

• Total cost of building and endowing the Stieren Center for Exhibitions (including restoration and renovation of the McNay home: $50.8 million. Cost of the Stieren wing:
$33 million

• Total square footage of the Stieren Center for Exhibitions: 45,000 sq ft

• Amount of gallery space in the Stieren Center: 14,000 sq ft

• Amount of public space in the Stieren Center, including a 226-seat auditorium and educational facilities: 10,000 sq ft

• Number of works in the McNay’s collection: 18,000

Source: The McNay



McNay Art Museum Stieren Center Grand Opening Celebration
10am-10pm Jun 7,
noon-5pm Jun 8
Small World concert: 7pm Sat
6000 N. New Braunfels
(210) 824-5368

No parking on-site. Free shuttle rides from the back of the Terrell Hill Plaza Shopping Center and Alamo Heights High School. For a complete schedule of events, visit


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