Texas’s Art Oasis: The Modern and the Kimbell in Fort Worth

The Anger of Achilles, 1819, by Jacques-Louis David. Oil on canvas. (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)
Two beautiful museum buildings show old and new seamlessly.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T here’s an oasis in the Texas plains, an unexpected patch of beauty that quenches a thirst for reflection, peace, and marvel. Together in Fort Worth, the Kimbell Art Museum and the city’s Modern Art Museum offer gorgeous architecture and art, the best of their kind, sitting more or less side by side.

In late June, I wrote about the Capodimonte show at the Kimbell, but I did visit The Modern the same day. Why did so much great art and such distinguished buildings land in Fort Worth, a medium-size ranching and oil town? Because the locals could pull it off, first of all.

This week, I’ll profile the Kimbell and The Modern. Next week, I’ll review The Modern’s superb Mark Bradford show. Fort Worth also has the Amon Carter Museum, which is devoted to American art. It’s next to the Kimbell but was still closed when I was there. It’s open now, and its Philip Johnson building is newly renovated. I haven’t seen what they’ve done, so I’ll wait until my next Texas trip to cover it.

The Kimbell is a Texas-size story of dreams, grit, exquisite taste, civic pride, and handy cash, but The Modern’s no slouch. It’s got one of the finest buildings of any museum, anywhere. They’re different places governance-wise, and their collections could not differ more — the Kimbell is mostly Old Masters but has antiquities and great things by Manet and Picasso while The Modern is all contemporary. They look and feel like a seamless, flowing unity. There’s no place like those blessed few acres on earth.

Modern Art Musem of Fort Worth, Texas (Courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth)

The Modern is the older of the two, approaching its 130th anniversary. Like the San Antonio Museum of Art, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, its roots are in local citizens and artists creating an association to collect and to foster good taste and avant-garde awareness. The Modern’s building, designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is only 20 years old. It’s as serene and pure as a Renaissance church.

The Kimbell is the child of Kay Kimbell, a Fort Worth businessman, and his wife, Velma, who bequeathed their Texas-size estate to a foundation they created “to build a museum of the first class.” It’s indeed a made-from-scratch place, and it’s still ruled by a small family-dominated board. In 1966, the board hired Louis Kahn to design its building, showing that they took the words “first class” seriously. The new building opened in 1972. It’s still stunning, after 50 years.

The Cardsharps, c. 1595, by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Texas)

Here’s what I thought when I was a young curator and first visited the Kimbell. I thought I’d time-traveled into a futuristic gallery where a handful of the very best examples of human creativity were assembled not with any coherence or plan but more like separate bits of fire and precious stone captured as they flew in space.

Kahn building at the Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas. (Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas. Photo: Robert LaPrelle)

The Kahn building certainly has a sleek, minimalist, Space Age feel. It’s made of six parallel concrete vaults faced with travertine with 20-foot-high ceilings admitting and beautifully distributing natural light. It’s not a big place at all but, rather, intimate and comfortable in a cool rather than cushy way. It’s a very modern building, but the vaults and travertine give it a touch of Rome and antiquity. It’s not a jarring juxtaposition. The building reaches for the past in expressing the present, not in a grand, haughty way but in a spirit of considered summation.

The collection is tiny, about 350 objects. There’s no theme except “first class.” There are the Old Masters, among them a superb, early full-length portrait by Velázquez, Caravaggio’s elegant Cardsharps, from 1595, simmering with deception and defiled innocence, and Caillebotte’s On the Pont de l’Europe, from around 1876 (the best flaneur painting that impressionism made). There’s singularly superb Aztec, African, and Oceanic art, not in depth but one or two of each. There’s a Duccio but also a big Miro and two Mondrians.

The individual works have no connection to one another. They’re in Fort Worth because the Kimbell could afford to bring them there. That’s not a bad thing. Aside from the time and style differences, which take some time to accept, each work has a strong, unique personality.

Left: Portrait of George Clemenceau, 1879-1880, by Edouard Manet. Oil on canvas.
Right: Portrait of Don Pedro de Barberana, c. 1631-1633, by Diego Velazquez. Oil on canvas. (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Texas)

Together, they don’t tell a story of how a school of art developed or the history of a place. Each object speaks volumes the way a well-lived man or woman, a person of deep intelligence and experience, exudes a compelling, freestanding narrative. The Manet portrait of the French politician Georges Clemenceau, the bizarre Murillo Four Figures on a Step, and Annibale Carracci’s Butcher Shop are unusually good but also have an idiosyncratic presence and voice. Getting to know each one takes a lifetime because, like any dynamic person, they always have something new, smart, and arresting to say.

This is not a boutique or treasures museum. The art’s strong and sometimes tough. A picture like Paul Gauguin’s 1885 self-portrait or David’s Anger of Achilles, from 1819, is sumptuous but bracing and moody, too. I’m always stopped by the art’s seriousness and demanding, even bewitching beauty. And this is true painting after painting, sculpture after sculpture.

Interior of Kahn building at the Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas. (Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas. Photo: © Nic Lehoux)

Each object is first class or the best of its kind, but there’s no feeling of competition or dissonance, in part because the galleries act as cocoons. They create an ambiance for contemplation, and I keep returning to words like “elegant,” “intimate,” and “comfortable.” It’s beautiful architecture but not bratty or assertive. It’s there as a stage, and it discharges its role with confidence.

For years, the Kimbell, small as it was, usually moved part of its permanent collection to accommodate traveling shows. Its top brass and Kahn always thought it would want more space at one point, though. In the 1990s, a plan to add to the Kahn building rightly imploded — don’t mess with Texas, but don’t mess with perfection — and after a few years the museum settled on a second building designed by Renzo Piano, where I saw the Capodimonte show. When I was there, I focused on the exhibition. The Renzo building seemed to do the trick.

Renzo is certainly the go-to guy for pricey, prestigious museum projects, which makes me sour on his work from the starting gate. I simply don’t like it when a not-for-profit spends 50 percent more than it needs to spend to get a glamorous name. The Kimbell already has the fabulous Kahn building, and there’s a legion of great, young American architects available to do a new building for exhibitions. The new Kimbell building looks fine, but I never, ever scream “Renzo, Renzo, Renzo” like I did “Ringo, Ringo, Ringo” in 1964.

I want to say something about the Kimbell family. The Kimbell is unique in its great building, sublime collection, the soundness of its founding vision, and the family’s consistent, generous philanthropy, all operating in a distinctly American tandem. Kimbell himself always had a fine museum in mind from his and his wife’s early exposure to art in the 1930s, a museum offering the best to Fort Worth. That kind of start-up spirit in the arts, great philanthropy, and a foregrounded, determined wish to advance the public’s edification are American, not European.

The board today is small and still family-led. Their devotion to the founder’s “first class” vision is faithful but not slavish or stagnant. It’s a hands-on board that has responded as times have changed, intelligently adding space and buying art. They show admirable wisdom and have taken no bad detours.

What I’m saying is that I like good thinking that lasts, and I like leaders who respect and cultivate a founder’s vision rather than subvert and then discard it. It’s a rare spirit.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art of Fort Worth, Texas)

I first visited The Modern right after its Tadao Ando building opened in 2002 when I was an older curator. The Clark, where I worked then, had just hired Ando to do its own new building. All of us, including the Clark board, wanted to see his first American triumph. The word animating my visit and experience was “concrete.”

I think my conception of concrete was soured by Model Cities construction in New Haven in the 1960s when I was young and beginning to perceive and discern aesthetics. Concrete was the signature material in the age of reckless destruction and social adventurism called Urban Renewal, a kind of state-sponsored terrorism.

To me, new buildings that were ugly and dispiriting and sometimes shoddy were often concrete. My experience as a student at Yale softened and qualified this view given my daily exposure there to Paul Rudolph’s brutalist, concrete Art and Architecture building, which I grew to like, though I’d never call it conventionally beautiful or refined or soothing or lovable.

I’d heard that Ando had designed a new museum where concrete looked and felt liquid and subtle, and people compared it to a Chopin nocturne or something by Massenet or Debussy. I didn’t believe it until I saw it.

The Modern is basically a series of glass boxes or pavilions encasing an exquisite gray concrete skeleton. The building is bigger than the Kimbell but doesn’t feel that way since the Kimbell, with those concrete vaults, feels solid and The Modern has lots of glass. The Modern is mostly surrounded by a big man-made pond, with water lightening and softening the big form. When Ando designed it, he thought of a swan, and for all its mass and hard materials, the place does seem to float and feels ethereal and graceful.

(Courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth)

Ando’s concrete looks like a Helen Frankenthaler painting or even one of Rothko’s more monochromatic works. Concrete becomes tonalist, rich in shades of gray that change subtly within a single panel based on the craftsman’s mastery in pouring. I’d never seen concrete as decorative or ornamental, but Ando coaxes from it a chromatic range that’s not as various as marble but surprisingly versatile.

It’s not an aggressive, in-your-face feel. Subtly modulated colored concrete floors, walls, and frameworks give mystery and depth as the glass gives transparency and light. The water feature, shallow but expansive, can be still and opaque, but it can come alive when there’s a breeze.

Ando knew he wanted to design a great building next to another, older, great building. The two had to live harmoniously together. Lots of people don’t realize that the Kimbell’s collection chronologically ends with Miro’s mystical Constellation, from 1941. The Kimbell has a smashing Picasso cubist painting, too, which is a prelude to lots of modernist painting.  The Modern’s collection starts in the 1940s and early ’50s. A visitor won’t die of culture shock going from one to the other, and, in any event, artists, however radical, always look at old art. For all of these reasons, Ando needed to play well with Kahn.

In Kahn’s building, concrete evokes hardness and strength. He uses it like steel. The solid vaults unfold in orderly procession. Solid and geometric, it looks like a well-ordered place. The Ando building is more conversational but not in a rambling way. The four glass pavilions jut out into the water, creating not only an indoor/outdoor feel but also lots of new sensations for the eye as light shifts and we look at the water, the grass, and the trees lining the periphery of the grounds. The Kimbell feels like wide-open spaces, too, while The Modern has galleries of different scale and height as well as pockets for contemplation at the end of each pavilion, which seem like tips of a quiet peninsula. And The Modern, for all its soothing features, does have grand spaces, such as a big courtyard as the visitor enters and a wide, soaring staircase.

Twenty-Five Colored Marilyns, 1962, by Andy Warhold. Acrylic on canvas. (Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum purchase, The Benjamin J. Tillar Memorial Trust, acquired from the collection of Vernon Nikkel, Clovis, New Mexico 1983 Courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth)

The Modern’s collection isn’t big, about 2,500 objects. It’s got a nice prints and photographs collection and goes less for individual masterpieces and more for depth and an art-history narrative, though the museum has showstoppers. Mark Bradford’s Kingdom Day, from 2010, is vast and intricate. There’s a great Rothko, a Diebenkorn Ocean Park picture, Warhol’s Twenty-Five Colored Marilyns, from 1962, and prime works by Anselm Kiefer, Frank Stella, Philip Guston, Agnes Martin, Ed Ruscha, and Clifford Still. I could teach an entire contemporary-art survey class using fantastic things.

Both museums have distinguished exhibition programs. The Kimbell does lots of treasures shows from other institutions, but these always have a good, tailored academic point. The Capodimonte show is an example. I understand why the Kimbell has done these shows — selections from other great collections — starting in the 1970s. I wouldn’t call Fort Worth isolated today since, with nearby Dallas, it’s hefty in population and economic might, but it’s not a world hub. Bringing the best to Fort Worth motivates the museum’s collecting and its shows. “If you can’t get there, we’ll bring it to you” is fine.

That said, it’s done very important, focused shows with incisive scholarship. In the past few years, it has organized shows of both the early and late work of Monet, a beautiful late Renoir show, and exhibitions of Bernini’s terra-cotta sculptures, early Mondrian, and Neapolitan rococo Nativity scenes. With lots of money, good curators, and good exhibition space, the Kimbell is an international force.

So is The Modern, too. It’s done a balance of retrospectives — I saw Frank Stella’s and Martin Puryear’s there — and focused shows treating all the greats. The museum isn’t loaded with dough. It does what I call blockbuster collaborations with big American and European museums every few years but makes good use of its permanent collection as a stimulant for other, smaller shows.

The Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter), c. 1636-1640, by Nicolas Poussin. Oil on canvas. (Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas. Photo: © Nic Lehoux)

I tend to follow what the Kimbell buys since their judgment is impeccable, and they have lots of money to spend. Since the collection’s so small and I like the place so much, each newcomer makes an impact. Surely one of the most distinguished American museum purchases in the past few years is Poussin’s Ordination from his Seven Sacrament series from the late 1630s. It’s the height of stately French baroque painting and, at $24 million, a good buy. It was owned by the antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo, part of the circle of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, and, later, by the Duke of Rutland. I love that it’s now in Texas. That’s an American success story.

Every time I see its big, dynamic Bernini terra-cotta sculpture of The Moor, I get a gnawing feeling in my stomach and a spike in blood pressure since the Clark tried to buy it when I was a curator there. It’s a story for another time and a sad case of the Clark’s own building ambitions derailing its acquisitions program. Just as you can’t have both guns and butter, a new building takes the air out of every other expenditure.

At left: Dwell: Me, We, 2017, by Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Acrylic, transfers, colored pencil, charcoal, and collage on paper. (Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Gift of the Director’s Council and Museum purchase, The Benjamin J. Tillar Memorial Trust)

The Modern also buys art and is focusing on women and African-American artists, which is a good idea since it already owns great things by the men of abstract expressionism, pop art, and the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Two acquisitions struck me as brilliant. One is Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s big, bold Dwell: Me, We, from 2017. She’s American but splits her time between here and Nigeria.

It looks like a billboard-sized Vuillard. It’s a domestic interior with lots of pattern, and it’s also a self-portrait. There’s fabric, photo transfers, acrylic, and colored pencil in the work, so there’s lots going on and a visual Tower of Babel. That’s Nigerian. The artist is sitting there, quiet and settled, but is she longing for something? Has she found a way to keep a foot in each world, a way that works for her? It’s a buoyant work and eschews victimology for dynamism, mystery, and chromatic richness.

Soon after the Ando building opened, the museum also bought Martin Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington, from 1996. Puryear is one of America’s best artists, and this is one of the finest things he’s done — inspirational, aspirational, beautiful, and biblical. It has a gallery of its own that looks built for it but wasn’t. The museum got it when this small space, endowed with a soaring ceiling, was finished. A great work just found its perfect home.

The Modern has to raise money to buy art and, overall, to operate. It has a collectors’ circle, which bought the Akunyili Crosby, and needs to raise the bulk of its very efficient $10 million annual budget from local donors. I was amazed at all the museum does. That’s money used well.

Fort Worth, I found when I was a museum director, is a generous town. There’s lots of money there, too. Still, it’s not a metropolis. The donor base is a sliver the size of Manhattan’s, and the cadre of local philanthropists who support museums also support Fort Worth’s hospitals, churches, the symphony, and schools.

The Modern’s director is Marla Price. She has led the museum since 1993 and had the Ando building constructed. She has the best judgment, commitment, credibility, and vision. I tend to think directors who stay that long go stale, but there are some, and she’s one of them, who have made the museum a mission and calling. I’ve known each of the Kimbell’s directors, and they’ve all been very good. The current director, Eric Lee, and I went to school together. He’s a steady, courtly presence with an eye for substance and quality.

Fort Worth and Dallas, together, rival most European cities for art, museum architecture, and art scholarship. These days, I’d rather go there for art and skip beleaguered, neurotic New York, where the museums are still closed and woke staff spend more time preening about their anti-racism than thinking about art.

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