Today, September 22, 2018, marks the reopening of Houston’s Menil Collection. It’s been closed for seven months for updates and repairs (a looks-like-new floor, a new fire-detection system, updated restrooms, etc.). Art and museum lovers from Texas and beyond (and everyone in Houston who have gone without the Menil for the majority of 2018) have been anxiously waiting to see what the museum’s staff was working, collection-wise, on while the galleries were empty. We knew when the Menil closed that its main reopening project would be a building-wide reinstallation of the museum’s collection, including works that have never before been exhibited. Glasstire attended a preview of the Menil’s reopening, and has word on the museum’s fuller plan.
For the next year, the Menil will rotate in and out works from its permanent collection throughout the building. This is the first time in the Menil’s 30-year history that it will use every gallery space available to show its permanent collection, and the longtime thematic elements of the galleries have been varied slightly. The west galleries that normally house rotating exhibitions now hold early 20th century art (essentially Cubism through Abstract Expressionism), and the east Modern and Contemporary galleries address post World War II through present day.
Since the Menil is known for its Surrealism collection, the curators decided to give it a little more space: the gallery’s entryway that used to be a narrow, choose-your-own-adventure room is now more open and inviting. This look continues through the Surrealism galleries, as they are all wider and less maze-like. Perhaps to compensate, the galleries have been extended — one of the things about the Menil’s renovation is that to properly refinish the institution’s floors, workers had to take out all non-load-bearing walls. The museum’s director, Rebecca Rabinow, says that this offered the institution’s curators a unique opportunity to redesign gallery layouts and floor plans, something that has not been done (or done extensively) since the building opened in 1987. These galleries highlight the Menil’s deep holdings of certain artists: a room of works by Max Ernst (the museum has the largest collection of Ernst’s work in the world), and a room full of René Magritte paintings are of particular note.
Additionally, especially in the Surrealism galleries, visitors will notice enhanced lighting. When the building was first built, Dominique de Menil decided to have every other light removed as a cost saving measure. During the museum’s renovation, however, staff reinstalled the lighting where it was originally intended — in fact, the electrical framework was already installed, so the job was reportedly pretty straightforward.
The first round of works in the Menil’s early 20th century galleries also focuses on the institution’s deep holdings of particular artists. Various Picasso works populate the first room, and then give way to a number of paintings by Fernand Léger. The next large space is devoted to the conversation between the works of Alexander Calder, Piet Mondrian, and Joan Miró — three artists who impacted one another.
Next, some of the Menil’s staples: a room dedicated to Barnett Newman (the same gallery space held a retrospective of Newman’s canvases in 2015), and another room dedicated to Mark Rothko. Finally, the wing is finished by a dimly-lit installation of works on paper by various artists, some of whom have a Texas connection.
On the opposite side of the building, the Menil’s Modern and Contemporary galleries start with post-war European art. A Jean Tinguely machine greets visitors in the building’s main hall (the machine will run daily at 12:15PM for two minutes), and the gallery space opens up to works by Yves Klein, Takis, Lucio Fontana, and another kinetic piece, this time by Pol Bury, that will run daily from 12:30-1PM.
A sizable gallery off to the side has floor pieces by Walter De Maria, two works by Joe Overstreet, and a large-scale Cy Twombly painting. This space also opens up the gallery’s corner window looking onto Menil park — a window that hasn’t been used for the past 30 years. These galleries are finished off with a selection of promised gifts and other works by Robert Ryman, Forrest Bess, Frank Stella, Richard Serra (a piece from his 2012 retrospective at the museum), and a beautiful copper sculpture by Roni Horn that blends seamlessly into the Menil’s newly blackened floors.
Two smaller galleries just off the building’s main hall will be used for rotating shows throughout the next year — the western gallery will rotate out recently acquired works by living artists (the first exhibition is a show of works by Leslie Hewitt), and the eastern gallery will host various “Collection Close Up” exhibitions, doing deep dives into the Menil’s holdings. The first exhibition in the series is Collection Close-Up: Claes Oldenburg and the Geometric Mouse.
The institution’s displays of art from the Pacific Islands have been updated as well, with new installation concepts in the foliage-backed gallery just off of the Menil’s main hallway. Consisting of larger pieces installed in the center of the gallery, flanked by smaller works on either of the space’s side walls, the installation blends ceremonial objects with functional, everyday objects.
Just opposite of this gallery, in the hallway, is the Menil’s new, more inclusive take on art from the Americas. This area’s pedestals and display cases include works from Mesoamerica, South America, Mexico, Guatemala, and more. A special section of this area includes ivories from the recently exhibited Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art. As with the museum’s other collections, these displays will rotate.
This 2018 reinstallation also marks the first time the Menil’s ancient through 18th century works have been reorganized in its 30-year history. In addition to being rearranged and displayed in new ways, this gallery section now centers around a richly painted blue room highlighting the museum’s Byzantine icon collection. As always, these gallery spaces connect to the museum’s collection of African art, which retains the same general layout as in the past, but has been reconfigured in terms of display.
A particular highlight of the Menil’s African art holdings is a special section devoted to The Image of the Black in Western Art, a project begun in 1960 by John and Dominique de Menil as a response to racism and segregation in the U.S. The pieces in this section explore the issues of slavery and the exchange of culture between Europe and Africa from the 15th to 19th centuries. This section will be accompanied by a handout, explaining the de Menil’s project.
So there you have it: a walkthrough of the newly reopened Menil Collection. The Menil officially opens to the public today, September 22, 2018. This is the first iteration of the institution’s year-long, building-wide permanent collection installation.