Over the years, I've written considerably about art, principally painting. As a painter, that's not surprising. I've also written quite a lot about architects as well, even though I'm certainly not one. There was a time when I might have become one, but me and slide rules never got along very well together and electronic calculators came ten years too late. However, I do have a deep and abiding interest in architecture. Although architects often are, or at least should be, artists, the one place where these two arts come together in their purest form is in the art museum. And it is in their designing of an art museum, that architects are often faced with their greatest challenge. There are two directions in which to go. Today, the most tempting is to orchestrate a freestanding work of art in its own right whose function happens to be to house the "lesser" arts. Wright did this in New York with the Guggenheim. The other direction is less glorious but more true to the form-follows-function dictates of modern architecture, that being a not unattractive building, but not one, which in any way competes with the art inside. Louis Kahn did this in Fort Worth with the Kimbell Art Museum.
Art museums have always been somewhat vainglorious structures, harkening back to the days when they were usually housed in antiquated palaces made over to serve the purpose. Such Renaissance or Baroque style architecture fixed itself in the public mind as how art museums should look for over 150 years. The Metropolitan in New York and the National Gallery in Washington, though quite different in appearance, are typical, modern-day holdovers of such "art temples." Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built the first major post-war art museum. And regardless of what we might think of the Guggenheim either as a work of art, a work of architecture, or as a working art museum, it certainly broke that mould - not an art temple but art itself. Unfortunately, art museums would never be the same again.
In contrast to this dominant trend stands Kahn's Kimbell. Perhaps because it flies in the face of the massive, encyclopedic, architectural, art statements so prevalent since the Guggenheim, many consider the Kimbell America's best art museum. With its simple, sweeping, barrel vaults, glistening reflecting pools, infinitely flexible interior spaces, and comfortably human proportions, the Kimball makes a virtue of its own modesty. Built in 1966, it wouldn't think of competing in any way with the artwork it so discreetly houses.
In all fairness, the Kimbell museum does have a couple inherently distinct advantages over some of its peers. Most notable is the fact that while most other museums count their collections in the tens of thousands, the Kimbell houses just 315 works. Not only that, it will never expand. It will never have to contend with ungainly, dog-wagging annexes or their incompatible architectural styles. At the Kimbell, as new works are acquired, old ones are sold off. The collection is refined rather than enlarged. Also the Kimbell does not have to contend with the specialised needs of decorative arts, prints, drawings, or photographs (other nearby museums are left to handle these). The Kimbell consists of nothing but the finest in pre-Columbian, Renaissance, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Assyrian art along with seminal Western art from the first half of the twentieth century. In an era when art museums seem to pride themselves on being unlimited, the Kimbell Art Museum is refreshing for its modest limitations. Perhaps the highest accolade one can bestow on this warm, simple, reticent structure is that it's not particularly noticeable.