Hiding In Plain Sight

UH's Incredible Public Art Collection Celebrates 50 Years

The collection includes more than 700 works over five campuses.

By Gwendolyn Knapp August 26, 2019 Published in the September 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Dangling from ceilings. Chilling in courtyards. Inside. Outside. Everywhere. That’s where you’ll find the numerous works belonging to Public Art of the University of Houston System. But although it’s one of the oldest initiatives of its kind among American universities, dating back to 1969, and includes nearly 700 works over five campuses, many Houstonians have no idea that this world-class collection—funded through 1 percent of the system’s building budget, plus lots of fundraising and gifts—is out there.

This month the program commemorates its 50th anniversary with an al fresco celebration, a book launch (On Site: 50 years of Public Art of the University of Houston System, Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers), and tons of tours through the main campus, as well as those in Downtown, Clear Lake, Sugar Land, and Victoria. There’s no better time to plan a visit than now, says director and chief curator María Gaztambide. “We’re at a point where we have a truly critical mass of works.” Adds her fellow curator Michael Guidry, “The collection really is an interesting timeline of the development of public art in America.”

We recently spent an afternoon exploring the main campus, where we were delighted to discover works by numerous artworld luminaries. Here’s five highlights:

1. Sandy in Defined Space, Richard McDermott Miller, 1972

“We really only have a handful of figurative works in our collection,” says Guidry, and this bronze sculpture by the New York artist, who died in 2004, is one of them. “It’s controversial. Not the nudity, but more about a woman confined.”  While its meaning is open to interpretation, the work, perched outside the campus’s Science and Research 1 building, is a reflection of the post–Summer of Love era when it was created. “If it makes you pause, think, reflect, and have a conversation,” says Gaztambide, “then we’re doing our job.”

2. Euphonia, Frank Stella, 1997

The program’s largest commission—costing a whopping $1.5 million—went to the famed New York artist for this massive three-piece collage inside the university’s opera house. With swirls of black and white inspired by the artist’s cigar smoke, splashes of neon, and other abstract imagery, the collage is anything but minimal.  “It’s exuberant,” says Guidry, who notes that more than 30 Houston artists aided in its creation. “Get up close, and you can see how things fit together—glue and cut marks.”

3. A Moment in Time, Alyson Shotz, 2006

When you step into the box office for the Wortham Theatre at the campus’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, immediately look skyward, and you’ll see this work by the renowned Brooklyn sculptor, made entirely of delicate glass beads strung onto translucent filament to look like falling rain. “There’s something a little interesting with the lights,” says Gaztambide, “that changes depending upon the time of day.” 

4. Double Physichromie, Carlos Cruz-Diez, 2009

Houstonians are already familiar with the work of the late Venezuelan-born, Paris-based artist, whose kinetic projected artwork illuminated Buffalo Bayou’s cistern in 2018. “I went to see it three times,” says Guidry. Cruz-Diez’s obsession with color and perception—how to trick the eye—is evident in his large aluminum-and-steel sculpture, a snaking, 54-foot wall near the College of Social Work. Depending on where you’re standing, you’ll see different colors, only some of which are actually part of the piece. “He called the phenomenon of color that appears—though it’s not there—‘additive color,’” says Gaztambide.

5. Mobius Houston, Marta Chilindrón, 2019

The Argentina-born, New York–based artist’s completely interactive sculpture—you can even go inside it—has been described as a “giant suncatcher made of transparent, translucent acrylic sheets and trapezoids,” says Gaztambide. The university’s first-ever temporary installation, it will soon reside in Wilhemina’s Grove near the opera house, serving as “an entry point to campus and anchor to the program.”

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