Louis Kahn’s Luminous Kimbell Brings to Town a Once-in-a-Lifetime Exhibit

The painter Henri Matisse is known, in part, for the way his vibrant colors play with the light of a room. Particularly in his later work, he used huge swaths of rich reds and blues to collapse the picture frame and push his compositions toward abstraction. In a piece Matisse considered one of his most important, Bathers by a River, green shark-tooth squiggles and monochromatic color fields frame four figures, dashed out with the artist’s signature minimalistic and motion-filled brushstrokes. The painting’s simplicity belies the complexity of its creation. Bathers is the product of years of work, of multiple layerings and continual edits.

The changes to the painting came at a time when Matisse himself was evolving as an artist. It was painted before and after World War I, as the mood and culture of Europe underwent dramatic upheaval. The result is a painting that is evocative, meditative, and restrained—bucolic and melancholic. In this work, one can see a transition in the style of one of the 20th century’s great artists, an evolution in the direction of modern art, a shift that helped define the modern era.

To see this work—and to really see it, one needs to stand in front of the 13-foot-wide canvas and be immersed in it—one would normally have to make a journey of nearly 1,000 miles. The piece is a cornerstone in the renowned collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, and like many of the Art Institute’s most important holdings, loans of the work are rare. And yet, in an unprecedented exhibition this fall, to see Matisse’s painting—as well as most of the treasured pieces from the Art Institute’s collection of 20th-century art—you will merely have to make a short drive down I-30. That’s because the Chicago museum is renovating its 20th-century galleries. During the Art Institute’s construction, the Kimbell Art Museum gets to serve as the lucky safe-keeper of its collection.

It is the kind of exhibition that any museum in the world would covet. How did the Kimbell score it? Simple: light.

Light, particularly the quality of light in the galleries of Louis Kahn’s famous Kimbell buildings, is the major reason the museum received the loan, says Eric M. Lee, the museum’s director.

“Many regard the Kimbell as one of the great museum buildings in the world, and it is one of the most influential museum buildings in the world, in terms of its impact on other buildings,” he says. “The art looks different hanging here than it looks in other galleries.”

Seeing some of the most important (and recognizable) works of art from the 20th century will be a rare opportunity and a convenience for local art lovers, but the Kimbell’s selection for the Chicago collection comes at an interesting time in the evolution of the museum. While the Chicago work is installed in the Kahn building, the Kimbell will open its new extension, a pavilion designed by one of Kahn’s devotees, Renzo Piano. Like Kahn’s original museum, the new Piano extension features similar materials, scale, and structure, mixing contrasting qualities of concrete and natural light to achieve a minimalistic, weightless, elegant design. Piano’s new building will house the Kimbell’s own renowned art collection, creating a dialogue between architects and architecture, as well as between two of the world’s great art collections, in a confl uence of loans and opening that is unprecedented in the history of the Fort Worth museum—or of any museum.

“It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lee says. “Just to see these paintings in the Louis Kahn building, that’s going to be an extraordinary thing. And then to see our collection in the new building. It is also going to be one of the most extraordinary places within the world of art anywhere.”

There is a subtext, though, that the opening of a new Piano building can’t avoid but engage. For the past two years, Piano’s other major building in the area, the Nasher Sculpture Center, has been embroiled in a dispute with a next-door neighbor, the Museum Tower condominium development, which is reflecting the sun’s light into the Nasher’s galleries and destroying the effect of Piano’s specially designed roof, itself an homage to Kahn’s Kimbell design. Precisely because of the role light played in securing the Chicago loan, as well as the importance of light in the design of Piano’s new building, the arrival of the Art Institute’s work and the opening of the new Renzo Piano

Pavilion sets up an interesting dynamic. Just seeing Matisse’s Bathers in the new context of Kahn’s building—the viewing affected by the way the building orchestrates the light around it—will highlight the relationship between art and the architecture that houses it, showing how light engages and activates the art it bathes. It will also serve as a reminder to visitors that light can make or break a museum.