Texas Art Travel: Houston

by Christina Patoski September 1, 2011
A neon sign with the phrase " Make Tacos Not War'" hung on a blue wall.
Alejandro Díaz, “Make Tacos Not War,” 1976, neon on clear plexiglass. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova
A detail of a red dress with embroidered text on itl
Sarah Castillo, “Embroidered Tears” (detail with embroidery), 2017, Chicana Feelings Series, found dress, red embroidery thread. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova
A room sized shrine with 2 and 3 dimensional works and blue walls.
David Zamora-Casas, “Altar for the Spirit of Rasquachismo: Homenaje a Tomás Ybarra-Frausto,” 2024, mixed media altar. Photo: Beth Devillier
A detail of a shrine with a table covered in the pride flag and candles and flowers.
David Zamora-Casas, “Altar for the Spirit of Rasquachismo: Homenaje a Tomás Ybarra-Frausto,” 2024, mixed media altar. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova
Detail of a shrine with sculpture, photography, and objects.
David Zamora-Casas, “Altar for the Spirit of Rasquachismo: Homenaje a Tomás Ybarra-Frausto,” 2024, mixed media altar. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova

Ever since the mid-1970s, I’ve traveled to Houston whenever it was time for a good art fix. Back then, there were just a handful of fine art galleries to visit. The Museum of Fine Arts was a long way from becoming one of the largest museums in the United States. And the Contemporary Arts Museum had just made its landing, clad in a shiny stainless steel building.

Even though the Houston art scene was just a glimmer, there was always a good reason to spend five hours driving there, thanks to John and Dominque de Menil. The fabled French couple, who emigrated to Houston at the start of World War II, had methodically amassed one of the most important modern art collections in the world. In the mid-70s, they were sharing it with the rest of us through a series of remarkable exhibitions staged out of a hastily constructed bunker of a building they commissioned at the edge of the Rice University campus. It was unpretentious in every way, except for the amazing art on the walls. There you would be, in a room full of Joseph Cornell boxes or Magritte paintings, not a guard or surveillance camera in sight. There was nothing like it anywhere.

What a difference an oil boom makes. In 1970, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston counted 7,000 objects in its permanent collection. Over the next two decades, the collection more than doubled in size. Today, it has grown to a staggering 63,000+. The museum is renowned for their Renaissance, Baroque and Impressionist masterpieces, pre-Columbian and African gold, and its growing collection of Latin American art. The museum is also known for its photography collection, ranked one of the top collections worldwide, thanks to brilliant curating by Anne Wilkes Tucker who arrived at the museum in 1976 when there were no photographs in the collection. Tucker is still curator and still adding to the collection.

In 1986, the MFAH built an Isamu Noguchi-designed outdoor sculpture garden across the street. By the 1990s, it was clear that their Mies van der Rohe-designed museum could no longer contain the expanding collection. In 2000, the Audrey Jones Beck Building was built across the street, connecting seamlessly to the Caroline Wiess Law Building through an underground tunnel. Today, annual attendance at the museum brings it among the top ten museums in the United States. Expansion plans continue, with a third building on the drawing board.

Even though the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) has no permanent collection, it has distinguished Houston in the national cultural arena through award-winning, cutting edge exhibitions which focus on recent international, national and regional art. Exhibitions, always free, cover all media, from architecture to video to performance art installations. Among CAMH’s firsts, it gave photographer Cindy Sherman her first solo museum show in 1980.

In 1987 the de Menils unveiled a permanent home for their renowned 16,000-object collection. The understated Montrose-area building was designed by Renzo Piano to blend into the established residential neighborhood around it. Like so many of the surrounding bungalows, the low-slung Menil is painted gray with white trim. In addition to presenting work by contemporary artists, its admission-free exhibitions spotlight different parts of the collection which is strong and still growing in 20th century painting, sculpture, drawing, prints and photography and also includes significant collections of antiquities and the arts of Africa, Pacific Islands and Pacific Northwest Coast. The work of Rene Magritte, Max Ernst and Victor Brauner form the core of the well-known Surrealism holdings.

The Menil campus extends beyond the museum to include a series of buildings in a park-like setting, including apartments and houses—all painted in signature Menil gray. These are rented to staff for living quarters, used for museum offices or leased to independent non-profit organizations.

The Rothko Chapel was the first of several art-specific buildings built by the de Menils. Beginning in 1964, they commissioned American abstract painter Mark Rothko to create paintings for a public meditative space they planned for St. Thomas University. Rothko painted 14 dark, monochromatic canvases for the enormous octagonal-shaped room that opened in 1971. Four long benches invite visitors to sit in the somber atmosphere of an overcast day, created by filtered natural light. The chapel is one of the most visited sites in Houston and has served as a museum and non-denominational sanctuary for more than 40 years.

Cy Twombly was the next artist to be honored by the Menil Foundation with his own permanent building. The Cy Twombly Gallery, half a block behind the Menil Collection, opened in 1995. Twombly, who emerged from the Black Mountain/Rauschenberg/Johns art orbit of the 1950s, helped to design the eight galleries that display a retrospective of his life’s work, including enormous “blackboard” paintings, sculptures and drawings.

Richmond Hall, a former grocery store that the Menil Foundation bought in 1985 and initially repurposed into a temporary exhibition space, is a few blocks away from the Twombly Gallery. In 1996, Dominque de Menil invited American sculptor Dan Flavin to create a permanent installation in the vintage building. Just before his death, Flavin completed the designs for three Richmond Hall light sculptures, all using his trademark medium, fluorescent lights. It’s easy to spot the corner building on Richmond Ave. by looking for the green fluorescent-lined roof.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel was among Dominique de Menil’s final philanthropic gestures to Houston. It opened in 1997 and displays a set of 13th century frescoes that had been ripped out of a chapel in Cyprus by looters. Recognizing the spiritual importance of the frescoes, Mrs. de Menil rescued them and through the Menil Foundation restored them. Today, they are acknowledged as the most important intact Byzantine frescoes of their size in the Western Hemisphere. The intimate chapel/museum was designed as a sacred public space by architect Francois de Menil, Dominque’s youngest son.

For all of its vanguard mindset and cultural sophistication, Houston is still very much connected to the swamp cultures of the Gulf. It’s this exquisite straddling of the high and the low that makes Houston such a fascinating city. If you’re into underbelly, fabulous funkiness, just spend the day driving around and you’ll see what I mean.

Artist Dick Wray had a lot to do with what I know about Houston. I met the colorful and recently departed Mr. Wray when we were in a group show together in Fort Worth in the 1970s. Over the years, he generously shared with me his Houston, which was off-the-museum-grid and over in industrial and working class parts of town. Our best adventure was meeting Jeff McKissack when he was still in the middle of building his Orange Show.

McKissack, a retired postman, lived in a modest frame house a few blocks off the Gulf Freeway and walked across the street faithfully every day to a vacant lot to work on his homemade monument to the orange, which he believed was the secret to a healthy and long life. He envisioned that his “show,” made out of scrounged materials, would someday outdraw the Astrodome as a tourist attraction. He hit his mark.

After McKissack’s death in 1980, a group of arts patrons led by Marilyn Oshman created a non-profit organization to keep the Orange Show going. Today, it is a world-famous folk art site and is considered an international tour de force at the front of the line among visionary art connoisseurs. It has had an enormous impact on the local art community, not the least of which is its wildly successful annual Art Car Parade.

Once the Art Car Parade took off, there was no stopping the Art Car Museum. A privately-funded contemporary art space, the museum’s exhibitions emphasize art cars, but also include the work of artists who are not well known. A recent show spotlighted art created by musicians. The gallery-sized space was founded by artist Ann Harithas, Houston’s original art car enthusiast, and her husband James Harithas, who moved to Houston in 1974 to be the director of the CAMH.

The Orange Show and Art Car Museum are indicative of Houston’s blossoming into the most vibrant art scene in Texas. Houston was a perfect storm—the town has always been full of mavericks, some of whom had a glut of money to spend. It’s a city of dreamers and schemers. A wide open port city with no zoning. High society in Houston has never been as closed and stuffy as other cities. The landed gentry have never been very grounded.

By the 1980s, alternative spaces and exhibition venues were popping up all over town. The Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery opened on the University of Houston campus. The Lawndale Art Center grew out of a 1979 fire that forced the University of Houston’s Art Department’s painting and sculpture studios to be moved to a warehouse on Lawndale Avenue. Diverseworks Art Space was created by a group of artists. The Houston Center for Photography and FotoFest, a biennial series of international photography exhibitions and programs, were founded. The Houston art scene had arrived full bore.

Amazingly, all of these institutions had staying power and are alive and well today. The Blaffer Gallery, recently re-named the Blaffer Art Museum, is closed until spring 2012 for major renovations. Lawndale, Diverseworks and FotoFest have moved to bigger, permanent spaces. The Station Museum of Contemporary Art, under the direction of the irrepressible James Harithas, is going strong after ten years of ambitious and enlightened exhibitions, many dealing with subjects too politically challenging for mainstream institutions.

Project Row Houses, located in the Third Ward, one of Houston’s oldest African American communities, has grown from 22 shotgun houses to 40 properties. Created by a group of African American artists who wanted to resurrect a historic, decaying inner-city neighborhood, the project provides rotating artist exhibition and residency spaces, as well as low-income residential and commercial rental spaces, a gallery and a park.

A block from the row houses is Cleveland “The Flower Man” Turner’s House, a festively over-decorated front yard folk art environment, which has become one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Rivaling it in popularity is John Milkovisch’s landmark Beer Can House, located in the middle of a residential neighborhood off of Memorial Dr.

More outdoor art installations, including a 30-foot tall Jean Dubuffet sculpture (relocated from 1100 Louisiana St.), can be found at Discovery Green, a 12-acre downtown park near the convention center. Keep an eye out for the fancifully decorated “art golf carts” which rove the park on the weekends.

Evenings are the best time to experience the newest addition to the city’s outdoor sculpture inventory, Tolerance by Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa. At the intersection of Allen Parkway and Montrose Blvd., seven giant Buddha-like figures kneel along the Buffalo Bayou jogging path. Plensa designed the ten-foot stainless mesh figures to be lit from within, making for a stunning nighttime visual statement, even as a drive-by.

Houston has one of the largest collections of public art at its two airports, installed inside the terminals and outside them. If you aren’t arriving by air you can check out the Intercontinental Airport collection of works here and works in the Hobby Airport as well as other civic art projects at the Houston Art Alliance’s website.

Now that you have a little background on the Houston art scene, check Glasstire’s exhibition listings to see what’s up now in the city’s museums, alternative spaces and numerous commercial galleries. And if you’re hungry and need a place to stay, check out the hotel and restaurant recommendations in the listings below.

Food $-$$$


Innovative Gulf seafood from Chef Bryan Caswell. The coolly aquatic mid-town restaurant is housed in a hip-ly renovated mid-century car dealership.
2600 Travis St. @ McGowen
(713) 526-8282


Anita Jaisinghan brings you the “best of classic, home style and street foods of India.” In the Kirby District north of the Colquitt galleries>
2800 Kirby, Ste. B132
(713) 522-2022

Cafe Express

A casual, healthy gourmet chain from Houston and the only place close to eat if you are at the MFAH, Glassell or CAMH.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
5601 Main St.
(713) 639-7370

Tacos a Go-Go

Good tacos, laid-back fun atmosphere, just a couple light rail stops up from the MFAH and close to the Isabella Court galleries. It’s also on the same block as The Continental Club live music venue.
3704 Main St.
(713) 807-8226

The Breakfast Klub

Hearty southern breakfasts including favorites like catfish and grits and wings and waffles.
3711 Travis St. @ Alabama
(713) 528-8561

H-Town StrEATs

High-end food truck dining, check out their parmesan truffle fries. Check Twitter.com/htownstreats for location schedule

Melange Creperie

Offers great Parisian-style crepes and it’s run by artist and art blogger Sean Carroll and his wife Tish Ochoa. Usually parked in front of Mango’s Café in the Montrose area.
Westheimer @ Taft St.
(713) 291-9933

Anvil Bar and Refuge

Houston’s first and best craft cocktail bar.
1424 Westheimer Rd. Ste. B

The Mink
A hip but not hipster bar
3718 Main Street

Poison Girl
Laid back and arty crowd.
1641 Westheimer Road
(713) 527-9929

(You can usually find a hotel downtown for around $100 if you check sites like Priceline, Expedia, Hotels.com, etc.)

Hilton Americas, Houston
Near the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green Park.
1600 Lamar
(713) 739-8000

Hotel Zaza
Used to be the venerable Warwick, now the tarted-up and aggressively boutique Zaza. Great location next to the MFAH and CAMH. Quick light rail trip up to the Isabella Court galleries and down to the always-great Rice Gallery.
5701 Main St.
(713) 526-1991

Sara’s Bed & Breakfast
Located in the Heights, Houston’s first (and 19th century) suburb.
941 Heights Blvd.
(713) 868-1130

Asia Society Texas Center

1370 Southmore Blvd.
(713) 439-0051
Opening late fall 2011

Byzantine Fresco Chapel
4011 Yupon St.
(713) 521-3990
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
5216 Montrose Blvd.
(713) 284-8250
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Cy Twombly Gallery
1501 Branard St.
(713) 525-9400
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Fine Arts Museum, Houston
1001 Bissonnet St. (Caroline Wiess Law Building)
5601 Main St. (Audrey Jones Beck Building)
(713) 639-7300
Closed Mondays

Glassell School of Art
5101 Montrose Blvd.
(713) 639-7500

Houston Museum of African American Culture
4807 Caroline St.
(713) 526-1015
Opening in 2012

The Menil Collection
1515 Sul Ross St.
(713) 525-9400
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet
(713) 639-7300
Closed Mondays

Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden
Montrose Blvd. @ Bissonnet St.
(713) 639-7300

Richmond Hall
1500 Richmond Ave.
(713) 520-8512
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Rothko Chapel
1409 Sul Ross St.
(713) 524-9839

Alternative and University Exhibition Spaces
Art Car Museum

140 Heights Blvd.
(713) 861-5526
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Art League of Houston
1953 Montrose Blvd.
(713) 523-9530
Closed Sundays

Blaffer Art Museum
University of Houston
120 Fine Arts Building
(713) 743-9521
Closed for renovations until spring 2012

Diverseworks Art Space
1117 East Freeway
(713) 223-8346
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

1113 Vine St. #101
(713) 223-5522

Houston Center for Contemporary Craft
4848 Main St.
(713) 529-4848

Houston Center for Photography
1441 W. Alabama St.
(713) 529-4755
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Lawndale Art Center
4912 Main St.
(713) 528-5858
Closed Sundays

Project Row Houses
2505-2521 Holman St.
(713) 526-7662
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Rice University Art Gallery
Sewall Hall
6100 Main St.
(713) 348-6069

Station Museum of Contemporary Art
1502 Alabama St.
(713) 529-6900
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

University Museum at Texas Southern University
3100 Cleburne St.
(713) 313-7145
Closed Mondays

Artist-Run Spaces (The hours can be funky so check the websites first.)
BOX13 ArtSpace
Over in the East End but worth the trip.
6700 Harrisburg Blvd
(713) 533-8692

the joannex
Brian Rod and Cody Ledvina operate this space in a house near the Menil.
1401 Branard

Optical Project & Bill’s Junk
Artist and Glasstire Newswire Editor Bill Davenport curates exhibitions and junk in side-by-side spaces.
1125 E 11th St.
(713) 863-7112

Artist Sasha Dela shepherds a host of fascinating shows and events.
2041 Norfolk St.
[email protected]

For the city’s NUMEROUS commercial galleries, check the Glasstire Houston listings.

Folk Art Landmarks
Beer Can House

222 Malone St.
(713) 880-2008

Flower Man’s House
2305 Francis St.

Orange Show
2402 Munger St.
(713) 926-6368
Closed Mondays & Tuesdays

Art in Public Spaces
Buffalo Bayou/Tolerance

Allen Parkway @ Montrose Blvd.

David Adickes Sculpturworx Studio
2500 Summer St.

Discovery Green
1500 McKinney

George Bush Intercontinental Airport
2800 N. Terminal Rd.
(281) 230-3000

Texas Southern University
Mack H. Hannah Hall
3100 Cleburne St.

William P. Hobby Airport
7800 Airport Blvd.
(713) 641-4000


(All photos copyright Christina Patoski.)


Christina Patoski is a journalist and photographer who lives in Fort Worth. A former NPR reporter, she has been published in Newsweek Magazine, The New York Times, Life Magazine, and USA Today. Her photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the United States, including the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. She received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship grant for her video and performance art which was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art,the Walker Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.






























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