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Texas Museum Collections: The Menil Collection, Houston

As an art history student, I spent many hours in a darkened room looking at yellowed and poorly shot slides of artworks that were universally canonized as masterpieces.


As an art history student, I spent many hours in a darkened room looking at yellowed and poorly shot slides of artworks that were universally canonized as masterpieces. The excitement caused by what I saw then is, as all artists and art history students will tell you, only a flicker in comparison to the feelings evoked by standing in front of the actual work itself. Walking into the Menil Collection for the first time, like many museum visits, brought forth the thrill of looking at images that I had only previously viewed in reproduction. What is different about the Menil, however, is that not only can I interact with these masterworks and discover new pieces that stir my interest but I get to do so in a serene atmosphere that is conscientiously designed to allow for quiet contemplation. Rather then the visual overload I encounter when I visit MoMA in New York, or many other large institutions, the Menil leaves me feeling enriched and exhilarated, so much so, that I return to the museum every time I’m in Houston, even if I have already seen the exhibitions.

The collection and the museum itself are John and Dominique de Menil’s love letter to art. John began collecting art seriously in the 1940s with a purchase of a watercolor by Paul Cezanne while on a business trip to New York. This early purchase led John and Dominique on journey of collecting that was comprised of pure passion and chance opportunities rather then a concrete agenda. Guiding them in developing a collection that is focused in four primary areas—antiquities (from Paleolithic to pre-Christian); Byzantine; the art of tribal cultures; and their first interest, 20th century art—were three influential figures: Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a French Dominican priest who championed modern art and aimed to integrate it within the Catholic Church, Alexandre Iolas, a prominent gallerist who specialized in Surrealist art, and Dr. Jermayne MacAgy, an art historian, professor and museum curator whose discerning eye found fascinating connections between diverse cultures, periods and genres.

With the aid of these three personalities, the de Menils amassed a collection of high quality works. While the museum is not encyclopedic in tone, the collection is an example of the passion and love of collecting from one point of view. Encompassing a modernist notion and the belief in the multitude of links—both formal and spiritual—that connect contemporary works of art to the arts of ancient and tribal civilizations the de Menils brought together pieces that spoke to them. Believing in the power of art, and patrons in the fullest and purist sense, they forged relationships with many artists including Max Ernst whose art occupies an essential part of the collection. Friendships such as this led them to amass, in depth, Surrealist, Cubist, neo-plastic abstraction and post mid-Century art. Their efforts culminated in a collection comprised of approximately 15,000 objects, half of which are prints, drawings, photographs and rare books.

Both John and Dominique wished to further art education and share their treasures; early on, they were associated with the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As philanthropists armed with the aim to further art education they also founded the art history department at the University of St. Thomas and the Institute for the Arts at Rice University. To this end, after John’s death, Dominique decided to move forward with the founding of an institution to house and open the collection to both scholars and the general public. Dominique wished for a structure that would fit unobtrusively within the peaceful residential neighborhood where it is situated. She has stated that she wanted the building to “stand in harmony with the park and landscape” as well as “appear large on the inside but small on the outside.” Other considerations included wanting the building to be on a human scale and the galleries to be illuminated by natural light. The hiring of the Italian architect Renzo Piano allowed for unique solutions to all her desires including finding a way to bring in natural light by modulating it with ceiling lovers, skylights and sizeable windows. Completed, the museum opened to the public on June 7, 1987 and fulfills Dominique’s stated objectives: “As the idea of a museum slowly took shape, I dreamed of preserving some of the intimacy I had enjoyed with the works of art: we would rotate portions of the collection in generous and attractive space…The public would never know museum fatigue and would have the rare joy of sitting in front of a painting and contemplating it.”

WITNESSES to a Surrealist Vision (an ongoing exhibition)... Installation view ... Photo by: Hickey-Robertson 10/2002


The architecture lends itself to a feeling of comfort, inspired in part by the de Menil’s own home, and thus, walking through the museum is not intimidating. The dark wood floors and warm color palette contribute to a feeling of intimacy. Walking into the large, spacious entry hall there are two choices — right or left — as the Museum opens up along two branches — the galleries closest to the entrance are smaller with lower ceilings and are bracketed on either end by large galleries with wide open rooms and high ceilings.
Going down the right hallway leads directly into the Surrealist rooms, here the strength of the collection shines through as many of the artists are collected in depth. A small, jewel-like room features Giorgio di Chirico’s nightmarish cityscapes and metaphysical explorations such as Persepectives with Toys, ca. 1915 and flows into other intimate spaces filled with works by Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and the exquisitely obsessive and intricate boxes of Joseph Cornell. This mind-bending whirlwind of dreamlike iconography is contextualized by the permanent exhibit, Witness. Tucked into the corner, this intimate room surrounds the viewer with artwork and artifacts from various areas, mostly African, belonging to or similar to objects that the Surrealists collected and were influenced by. The room is primarily comprised of masks and totems and evidences the link between tribal cultures and the Surrealist movement and elucidates the inspirations occupying this group of artists.

Once back in the hallway, the next mid-size gallery offers another sort of link. Bridging the Surrealist Collection with the Modern, post-1945 collection is a space dedicated to changing contemporary exhibitions. On my last two visits Romuald Hazoumé’s multi-media installation, La Bouche du Roi, fully engulfed all of my senses. Incorporating the visual, the aural and the olfactory Hazoumé combines contemporary objects such as video, masks made from jerry cans that usually carry fuel, and the scent of spices and tobacco along with traditional tribal materials to illuminate the correlations between the history of slavery and its modern incarnations.

The last series of galleries on the right side are large airy spaces with high ceilings, white walls, and larger spaces appropriate to the large-scale works on view. Celebrating art since 1945, here again several artists are featured within rooms dedicated solely to them: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns. The works have been wisely placed in the cavernous spaces, providing much space around each work to allow for singular contemplation. Highlights here include John’s transformation of everyday symbols in Grey Alphabets, 1956 and Wahol’s stark depiction of the electric chair rendered harmless in soft purple repetition in Lavender Disaster, 1963.

Andy Warhol ... Lavender Disaster ... 1963 ... Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas


Traveling toward the other end of the building, past the entrance hall, other culture’s artifacts are on view. Moving again within intimate rooms with low ceilings, discovering the ancient arts of Asia, Egypt, Rome, and Greece among others is like exploring hidden rooms that unfold one after the other with more caches of gems. Egyptian mummy portraits from 150-200 AD—including Mummy Portrait of a Young Woman, demonstrates the influence of both Roman thought and the parallels between early Christian imagery and the pagan paintings of Egypt. Residing in vitrines with small staggered pedestals are Turkish abstract idols of terra cotta, bowls and vessels from Italy and Greece, Iranian stag figures and other representations of ancient cultures. Again, while the collection is not all encompassing, there was a clear dedication to aquiring excellent, high quality examples from isolated periods.

Following these galleries is another space dedicated to changing exhibitions, often stemming from the museum’s vast collection. On my last visit, Deep Wells and Reflecting Pools curated by Houston-based artist David McGee was still on view. He critically and thoughtfully brought together rarely seen works from the collection to provide a unique glimpse into the African American history of representation. The convergence of these particular objects crosses many time periods and encompasses both high and low art. While some of the objects have been or currently are controversial, they also serve to emphasize the de Menil’s deep commitment to racial issues and their open-mindedness and inclusive ideals regarding the expansion of their collection. These galleries often serve to illuminate the motivations behind the de Menil’s choices in both art acquisitions and lifestyle, another recent exhibition, Luis Barragán: an Unbuilt House for the Menil, presented architectural models and detailed the personal correspondence between Dominique and the celebrated architect allowing for insights into her own aesthetic and ideas.

Interior view, Oceanic Gallery and Garden Atrium... Photo Credit: Hickey-Robertson, Houston


The next galleries are my favorites and I never fail to spend time here. Filled with reliquary figures, totems, Kente cloths, and masks are the African and Oceanic art presentations. In particular, the two rooms filled with large-scale sculptural works—totems and masks—continually astonish me. Surrounded by windows that look into enclosed gardens the tribal arts of Africa, New Guinea, Melanesia, and Polynesia come alive and evoke a powerful spirituality. The middle garden connects the two sculpture filled rooms with transparent windows serving not only to filter in natural light but also allude to the jungle and further the distinctive character of the space.

At the far end of the building are the last large galleries. These spacious rooms are filled with an ambitious and exciting program of temporary exhibitions. Recently seen have been the photographs of Olafur Eliasson, Ellsworth Kelly: Tablet, and the current exhibition of Cy Twombly: Fifty Works on Paper. These galleries, like the rest of the museum, promote the viewing of art in the most advantageous way. The installations are always thoughtfully laid out without overcrowding, wall texts and didactic materials are kept to a minimum and instead helpful and informative brochures are generally provided for each exhibition. It is these elements that provide a serene viewing experience. The entire museum can be undertaken in a few hours without encountering the museum fatigue feared by Dominique. Instead, viewers can take it all in or pick and chose selected works to reflect on from the amazing collection.

Exiting the museum does not mean an end to encountering art as beyond the walls of the main building reside several satellite spaces forming a compound of sorts. Each additional space has a specific focus and compliments the main collection. Within walking distance are the following:

Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum:

Simple and elegant, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum was consecrated and opened in 1997. The combination of thirteenth century frescoes (originally from the dome and apse of a Byzantine chapel) with the modern lines of the free-standing glass structures shaping the chapel was the inspiration of architect François de Menil. The play of darkness and light creates an ephemeral setting ideal for reflection and meditation before these paintings. The frescos—one depicting the Virgin with archangels Gabriel and Michael, and the other illustrating Christ—were initially part of a chapel in Lysi, Cyprus. The original frescoes were cut up into thirty-eight pieces by thieves with the intention of being sold for profit; when this plan was brought to light the Menil Foundation bought the works, restored the images and donated them to the Church of Cyprus. By presenting the works in a sacred manner, not unlike their initial manifestation, the museum restored the spiritual element of the frescoes.

Cy Twombly... Proteus... 1984... Synthetic polymer, colored pencil, and graphite on paper

Cy Twombly Gallery:

This year celebrates the ten-year anniversary of the gallery’s dedication. This building, also designed by Renzo Piano, houses more than thirty works by Cy Twombly. Again showcasing Piano’s hallmark use of natural light, an airy atmospheric lighting that invokes sun rays piercing through a chalk haze imbues the space. This is harmoniously reminiscent of Twombly’s chalkboard paintings which can be seen in the room behind the entrance. This atmosphere shifts and changes throughout the building depending on the canvases seen in the various rooms. The green tones in Untitled 1988, wherein Twombly portrays the landscape and waterscape of Juniper Island, infuse the air and evoke the saturated mist of a forest. Conversely, the pink tone apparent in the following room which features the work, Untitled, (Analysis of the Rose as a Sentiment Despair) 1985, tinges the air with a pre-sunset glow. Walking from room to room, influenced by the subtle shifts in color which echo Twombly’s works on the wall, it is easy to be drawn into the artist’s gestural abstractions filled with individualized mark making and literary illusions.

Richmond Hall: Dan Flavin Installation:

The most recent addition to the compound is the Dan Flavin installation. In 1998, as her final commission, Dominique asked the artist to create three site-specific works for a 1930’s grocery store building. Using light as his medium and exploring how it functions in space, Flavin transformed the outside of the building with green fluorescent tubes running along the east and west walls. Entering the building the viewer is confronted with two diagonally mounted large-scale white fluorescent tubes. Most impressive however, is the interplay between color, light and perspective as seen in the third commissioned work. Rhythmic stripes of alternating pink, yellow, green and blue bulbs placed both above and below and a line of deep blue creates discrete boxes of color that permeate the space three-dimensionally. Additionally, recreating Flavin’s influential 1970 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York four white fluorescent sculptures from the Monuments for V. Tatlin series are featured in a back room.

Rothko Chapel:

One of the most popular destinations, the Rothko Chapel foreshadowed the museum building itself. Commissioned by the de Menils in 1969, the chapel was dedicated in 1971 not long after Mark Rothko’s suicide. Originally designed by Philip Johnson (who also designed the de Menil’s home) the project was completed by architects, Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubrey. The octagonal room filled with benches, mats and cushions invites quiet contemplation of the fourteen canvases created by Rothko in his signature blocks of soft grays, deep purples, browns and blacks. The space suggests a meditative ambiance, and is open and welcoming to people of all faiths as well as non-believers, so much so that the entrance hall has books relating to various beliefs—the Bible, the Koran, and Buddist and Hindu teachings among others. Often just entering the chapel brings about strong emotions, yet ultimately, after spending time considering and becoming immersed in the paintings an uplifting feeling suffuses the body. Outside is a contemplative reflecting pool which normally has Barnett Newman’s sculpture, Broken Obelisk, 1963-1967, honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., residing in it.

Images courtesy The Menil Collection

Jennifer Jankauskas is an Independent Curator and writer living in San Antonio.

also by Jennifer Jankauskas
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