The Menil Collection – art in context

It means so much – collection…collection of art; collection of antiquities; collection of museums; collection of philanthropic causes; marks made on the world; lives well-lived. John and Dominique de Menil were key figures responsible for propelling Houston to the top of the list of truly great art cities. They developed the art department at the University of St. Thomas and later the Institute for the Arts at Rice University. They had a long and storied history of support to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, to which they brought major exhibitions and gave important works. They engaged architects from around the world to bring the first modernist, international style buildings to the state. They amassed a collection of more than 17,000 pieces of art: paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints, drawings, photographs and rare books. The museum campus opened in 1987 with later buildings opening in the 90’s which house the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, the Bysantine Fresco Chapel. The Rothko Chapel (ca. 1971), the Loretto Park with Tony Smith and Mark di Suvero sculptures and the network of offices housed in bungalows and walkways tucked throughout the neighborhood complete the campus.

Last month, we got the chance to spend a nearly perfect day walking around the Menil Collection.

What a suprise! We started at the Rothko Chapel, fully prepared to wait with the crowds that would surely be lined around the block. Instead, we parked at the entrance, we walked though the garden to view Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” standing in the reflection pool out front and then we walked in.

I must admit I had brief concerns that we might be trespassing – “6 million people in Houston must know that you are not supposed to actually go the Rothko Chapel, right?” After I was convinced that it was open and we should check it out, we did.. and we loved it.

The austere space is an octagonal room constructed of brick and covered in gray stucco and capped with a baffled skylight. It is tranquil – actually , National Geographic Society named it “One of the world’s most peaceful and powerful destinations.” On the walls are 14 site-specific canvases painted by Mark Rothko. At first glance, they look like windows – a series of big blank black canvases. We walked around the room, looking at the canvases from different angles and taking in the effect of each from across the room. Then we moved in closer. We walked up to a canvas until we reached that point at which the painting completely filled our fields of vision. I expected to realize some sort of calming meditative state – you know, staring into an abyss.

What happed was amazing! It was the most unusual experience: the clouds outside passed over the skylight and it was as if the canvas came to life. We had been patient and open to what the works had to offer and, in turn they began to breathe…slowly at first “did you see that?” and then with a steadiness that allowed us to see the colors and strokes and patterns. We saw the purples and reds, the horizontal and vertical lines, compositions on display that had been mostly overlooked. We began to move from canvas to canvas, slowly and then more quickly as the paintings gave us the keys to unlock their treasures.

I have to tell you, I probably could have ended the day at this point and been fully satisfied with our discovery – but that is just not me; I almost always have to keep going. I am compulsive when it comes to looking at art and knowing one of the world’s great collections was just a block away…of course, we checked it out.

We walked through the Montrose neighborhood of modest little bungalows; down tree-lined streets and little gardens and walkways and then Loretto Park with Tony Smith and Jim Love sculptures up to the museum. We crossed over Michael Heizer’s negative spaces, rifts in the lawn and into the main pavillion.

I was delighted to be greeted with Yves Klein’s luscious blue paintings – I think I have said it in previous posts, but his paintings make me feel like I could just dive right into that pure saturated color. We toured the main museum building and were impressed with the collections. We saw the Claes Oldenberg “Strange Eggs”; we checked out the galleries of works by Ernst, Johns, Léger, Martin, Matisse, Picasso,Raushcenberg,Tanguy, Warhol. We saw indigenous art from Africa and the Pacific Islands; we got to see the Cycladic and Greco-Roman collections.

We kept it moving though – there was even more to see. We walked outside the main building and continued through the campus, ducking between bungalows to find Richmond Hall, an old neighborhood grocery turned dance hall. Dominique de Menil acquired it in the 80’s and had since converted the space to house site-specific light installations by Dan Flavin. It’s truly like stepping into another world: the grey concrete space is lined on either side with flourescent sequences of yellow, green, blue and red…vertical columns, one after another after another repeating through the entire space. It was pure joy.

Finally, we made our way to the Cy Twombly Gallery. He is one of my favorite artists (I know, I know I have a lot of them) – coincidentally, I went to school in his hometown of Lexington, VA. His work is hard to categorize – not exactly AbEx, not quite Minimalism not Pop, but all of those. If you explore his seemingly crazy, energetic scribbles, you find traces of poetry – references to history and mythology and always scrict adherence to composition. The marks are set, then erased and then brought back. The colors melt like the fading of memories of stories being told. This time around, my favorites were the green paintings. The gallery is a gorgeous, light-filled space (again baffled skylights) that avails itself from one space to the next. The design of the space combines with the work, much like the other buildings on the Menil campus.

The effect thoughout the collection is to elevate the experience and to interact with the artwork. For me, it made me look at artwork that I thought should be familiar and consider the power of context.

Barnett Newman "Broken Obelisk" at Rothko Chapel

Barnett Newman “Broken Obelisk” at Rothko Chapel

Michael Heizer at Menil Collection

Michael Heizer at Menil Collection

Rothko Chapel

Rothko Chapel

Cy Twombly Gallery

Cy Twombly Gallery

Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall

Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall

The Lucky Elite

I was reading an old article that Janet Tassel wrote in the Harvard Magazine about the role art museums play in civilization. She goes on a bit in different directions, but ultimately reflects the line of thinking that museums are repositories of collected objects that showcase the greatest achievements throughout the ages. As institutions, they should be be set apart and keep a view to the long arc of history, not the whims of popular society.

In the article, James Cuno (then of the Harvard Museum, now head of the Getty) and Philippe de Montebello (the Metropolitan) both concur that museums are by definition elitist. “That is what art is, and that is what every visitor to the museum is—by crossing the threshhold they are joining the elite.”

This got me to thinking – the other day I went to the Hirshhorn to see Ai Weiwei’s exhibit “According to What?”  I was really looking forward to it and wanted to make sure I took my time and thought about the works and gave each and every installation and object the thoughtful consideration it was due.  Given I might have been a little hungry and going to an exhibit with low blood sugar is not the best, but I found myself distracted and really annoyed by almost everyone around me.

I was put off that no one seemed to treat the show with the same deference that I was giving it. I know it was a holiday weekend and a lot of people were travelling but really…pulling suitcases through the museum?  It seemed to me like the kids were running around – making shadow puppets on the walls of video projections; people were taking calls to arrange travel, to make dinner plans, and who know what kind of sordid engagements. One guy had his skateboard – and the cameras were click, click, clicking….ughhhh!!!

I got to the installation of beautifully crafted chests that are designed so that viewers can look through their various openings and see the phases of the moon. After waiting patiently for my turn to check it out, when I got to the opening my lovable and humorous partner was there smiling through the other side.

He got me to stop a moment, breathe and re-frame my experience.  I could choose to enjoy myself or not and I could choose to be bothered by the crowds or not.  I looked around and actually envied those other people – the kids running around without a care and the adults that didn’t need to give their full attention to the exhibit. How wonderful it is that children are exposed to art and given the opportunity to be themselves around it. All those visitors were living their lives in a setting where art was a part of it.

It occurs to me that a lot of us don’t get that luxury of experience – I didn’t grow up running around inside museums and galleries. For most of us, if we do wind up crossing that ‘threshhold’, we stand in awe of what we’ve been missing.

For those lucky elite, they’re not missing a thing.

Moon Chests – Ai Weiwei with Warren

Seeing Artwork During Vacation

We just got back from vacation; we spent 7 days in Barcelona with my partner’s parents and then took a few extra days for ourselves to drive up into France and around Provence. 

Barcelona is a treat and it was great to get to share it with family.  I used to travel there on business, but it was new for the rest of our group.  We decided to rent an apartment right off La Rambla and enjoyed the convenience of being in the heart of the city.  From there we easily walked along the marina in Port Vell, over to the beaches of Barceloneta, through the gothic quarter and along the famed Passeig de Gracia.  One day we took a drive up to Figueres to see the Dalí museum and then we walked around Girona, enjoyed lunch in the old town and checked out the 11th century gothic cathedral.

After the folks left, we headed up into France and toured around a few days in Provence. The French border is only two hours and yet worlds away – we were struck by the changes in landscape as we skirted the Pyrenees and drove into the Camargue (an alluvial plain – a landscape that reminded us of the Chesapeake Bay), the food, the culture and the expense (seemed like the cost of everything immediately doubled). We stayed in Arles and then did excursions to Aix, Avignon and Montpellier.

All in all, it was a great trip for us – we did a lot but not too much…we paced ourselves and ultimately it was just right. We did wind up seeing a fair amount (okay, a lot) of art along the way – my top 10 this time around:

  1. Fundacio Miró
  2. Picasso Museum
  3. Sagrada Familia
  4. La Pedrera
  5. Dalí Museum in Figueres
  6. Palau de la Musica
  7. Park Güell
  8. Fundació Antoni Tàpies
  9. Hervé Di Rosa at Carré Sainte Anne in Montpellier
  10. Van Gogh café in Arles

La Pedrera

Palau de la Musica

Salvador Dali sculpture


Sagrada Familia


“l’Oeuf” (Place de la Comédie) in Montpellier

Hervé Di Rosa Yhayen (Procession)

Cafe Van Gogh

El Anatsui at the Denver Art Museum

“When I Last Wrote to You about Africa” is El Anatsui’s retrospective show, currently at the Denver Art Museum.

It’s funny…I find myself talking about favorite artists and I guess I have a lot of them because he is definitely one of my favorites.

I first began seeing his work about 10 years ago when I was travelling back and forth to London. Since then, I have admired his work in New York, Washington, DC, Paris, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Seattle and here in Denver. I have been enamored with the metal tapestries of bottle caps draped on walls, suspended from the ceiling and seemingly dropped onto the floors. I have tried to grasp the underlying meanings of using recycled found materials, and the obvious consumption and economic engines behind the overwhelming volume of bottle caps, largely from liquor bottles.  I have looked at the patterns and made my assumptions about their connection to distant and unkown (to me) cultures.  Mostly, I have enjoyed the high/low; hard/soft; heavy/weightless; effortless/meticulous nature of the work…they are truly stunning, shimmering works that leave me spellbound.

So with all that in mind, I thought I had some idea of who El is as an artist and what I could expect in seeing the retrospective, pulled together by Lisa Binder, Curator at the Museum for African Art, New York.

I was so wrong – I was in no way prepared for the breadth of experience and depth of his work.  The show brings together the full range of the artist’s work, from wood trays carved with symbols familiar to the Akan people of Ghana; his Broken Pots series (and his unbroken ceramic pots); beautiful paintings rich in color, symbology and landscape; driftwood statues, and even the beloved metal wall-hangings that have taken the art world by storm in recent years. I was thankful to get to hear him talk about his experiences, his development as an artist and as a professor and his mostly just his work.

If you get the chance to see the show, in Denver through the end of the year, and then in Dallas this winter, do…definitely do.  I have a feeling you might just discover one of your favorite artists too!

El Anatsui – Old Cloth Series at Denver Art Museum

Antony Gormley at Phillips Collection – Drawing Space

You may be familiar with Gormley’s sculpture; immidiately recognizing his body dissolving into space – blurring the distinction between materials and their surroundings.

This exhibit, of 70 works on paper and two recent sculptures continues that exploration of form in space. It is a beautiful show that fills only 2 salons in the museum, but creates a lingering sense of the engagement we, the viewers, have with our environment.

I am including some of my favorites from the show:

Aperture XIII, 2010 by Antony Gormley @ Phillips Collection


















Bodies in Space, Black, 2007 Antony Gormley @ Phillips Collection