Catherine D. Anspon looks back at the most memorable exhibition milestones in the history of the institution forged by the late Dominique and John de Menil — and examines why The Menil Collection still remains the gold standard, a place for serious art pilgrims and a Mecca among the world’s museums. Plus, the latest on the Drawing Center, coming circa 2017.
What is it about The Menil Collection? Is it the Renzo Piano-designed building, which has been hailed as one of the top two most significant works of international architecture in the last 30 years? The collection of 17,000 masterpieces including 70 Rauschenbergs, 51 Twomblys, 135 Ernsts and a huge Flavin that gets its own grocery-store building? Or the campus — a leafy, bungalow-lined inner-city neighborhood that also boasts the Rothko Chapel, the Cy Twombly Gallery. Richmond Hall (the home of the aforementioned luminous riches of light pioneer Dan Flavin) and the waiting-for-its-next-incarnation Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum? To truly understand the vapor surrounding the Menil, the clue lies in the exhibitions that for 25 years have served up a perfect mirror of the extraordinary collection. Never grandiose, the antitheses of blockbusters — even though their significance is potent — the Menil’s shows have paralleled and illuminated the four collecting areas of the museum: antiquities, Byzantine and medieval, tribal (including the famed African galleries), and the 20th and 21st centuries (shaped always by a trove of hypnotic Surrealism holdings). Here is a recounting of 25 touchstone exhibitions mounted at the Menil — and why they mattered.
A Glance Back at 25 (or so) that Defined the Decades
“Silence” (July 27 – October 21, 2012). Curator Toby Kamps’ most extensive exhibition to date interwove spiritual to political aspects on the absence of noise and included mid-century masterworks by Rauschenberg, John Cage and Robert Morris.
“Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective” (March 2 – June 10, 2012). The heroic, almost apocalyptic drawings of Serra, room-sized installations of dense blackness, suggested the heart of outer space. Curator Michelle White worked with the artist on this retrospective, which forever changed our concept of drawing.
“Upside Down: Arctic Realities” (April 15 – July 17, 2011). Showcasing the ancient art of the Arctic people from the storied collection of Adelaide de Menil’s anthropologist husband Edmund Carpenter, this white-light exhibition futuristically installed by L.A. artist Doug Wheeler was one of the most sublime moments in the museum’s history.
“Maurizio Cattelan” (February 12 – August 15, 2010). Before Cattelan had his Guggenheim moment, former chief curator Franklin Sirmans brought him to the Menil. The results were at turns sacred and almost profane, as well as tinged with Surrealism and Dada.
“Vivid Vernacular: William Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Walker Evans” (January 11 – April 20, 2008.” This intimately scaled show, which coincided with FotoFest, highlighted the strange beauty of the American South through the eye of its three lensman who captured it best.
“NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith” (June 27 – September 21, 2008). Another Sirmans coup, “NeoHooDoo” probed questions of faith, religion and spirituality. And who can forget Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ platform for a silver-lamé-clad go-go dancer or the fragrant altar of Amalia Mesa-Bains.
“Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces” (February 23 – May 13, 2007). Organized by director Joseph Helfenstein, this look at the inventive master’s work with cardboard and ceramics that mimicked cardboard was packed with revelations, including some about our country and the era that produced
all the packaging.
“Lessons from Below: Otabenga Jones & Associates” (September 14 – December 9, 2007). Continuing a tradition begun with Warhol of having artists “raid” the collection, the Houston-based, Whitney-exhibited collaborative paired objects from the museum’s African and Native American collections with works by Calder, Cartier-Bresson and noteworthy outsider artists including hometown visionary Henry Ray Clark.
“Chance Encounters: The Formation of the de Menil’s African Collection” (May 26 – September 10, 2006). Kristina Van Dyke adroitly curated this exploration into the DNA of the museum’s extraordinary holdings in African art and the modern and contemporary talents who inspired the collection.
“Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse” (July 22 – October 2, 2005.” Director Josef Helfenstein curated this jewel-box presentation on two visionary artists, alongside peeks into their studio, by photographers Edward Weston, Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Charles Shannon.
“Robert Gober: The Meat Wagon” (October 28, 2005 – January 22, 2006). We still have creepy memories of the delicious Surrealism of Gober, who interwove his own startling moments (from a fireplace burning with children’s legs in lieu of logs and a hunk of cheese sprouting human hair) along with surprising art historical juxtapositions with Degas, Delacroix, William Eggleston, Mark Rothko and more.
“Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments” (October 8, 2004 – January 2, 2005). Who can forget the extraordinary power of Beuys, who influenced generations — the monumental splendor of the vitrines bursting with large boulders, his primordial coal-dust creations and the famous felt suit.
“Tabletki: Russian Icons from The Menil Collection” (October 3, 2003 – January 25, 2004). This exhibition, concurrently mounted with “Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism” (October 3, 2003 – January 11, 2004), curated by Matthew Drutt, underscored the spiritual in Russian art, from the days of the icon painters to the the mystical Malevich.
“James Rosenquist: A Retrospective” (May 17 – August 17, 2003). The last of the great living seminal Pop painters, billboard-scaled Rosenquist had his due in a dual museum mounting shared by the Menil and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, organized by the Menil’s mythic founding director, Walter Hopps.
“Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond” (February 1 – May 26, 2002). The ethereal Martin came to town along with her works that echo the museum’s aesthetic, in an exhibition organized by the director at that time, Ned Rifkin.
“Mineko Grimmer: Remembering Plato” (September 26, 2001 – February 3, 2002). Who can forget the gentle plop, plop, plop as Grimmer’s sculpture melted and stones descended into a waiting reflecting pool. Zen and eternal.
“Yves Tanguy Retrospective” (June 1 – September 30, 2001). The under-known Tanguy was given his day — and was shown to be worthy of the limelight. His lunar-landscape-like canvases hint at planetary voyages.
“Pop Art: U.S./U.K. Connections, 1956 – 1966” (January 26 – May 13, 2001). Outsiders of the art world, curatorial duo David Brauer and Jim Edwards organized a survey of the mighty Pop movement that cracked open a window for its British proponents. Richard Hamilton, Clive Barker and R. B. Kitaj rubbed shoulders with Warhol and the American gang.
“Cy Twombly: The Sculpture” (September 20, 2000 – January 7, 2001). This internationally touring exhibition touched down at the Menil, revealing Twombly’s sensitive melding of the antique and contemporary, translated into the media of sculpture.
“Sharon Kopriva: Work 1986 – 1998” (June 9 – August 20, 2000). Organized by the late Walter Hopps, this survey underscored the potent archetypes of the Houston sculptor and painter, as well as the museum’s long-standing support and collecting of Texas artists.
“Surrealism + Witnesses: A Surrealist Wunderkammer” (August 4, 1999 – ongoing). Curated by Edmund Carpenter and former director Paul Winkler, this permanently on view Wunderkammer distills the mysterious objects from world cultures and natural history that moved the Surrealists.
“Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective” (February 13 – May 17, 1998). One of most brilliant, influential
and wide-ranging artists of the 20th century was showcased at this retrospective organized by Walter Hopps, which spilled over into and was shared by the MFAH and the CAMH.
“Joseph Cornell” (October 3, 1997 – January 4, 1998). The exquisite assemblages and rare and refined sensibility of Cornell’s fabled boxes mirrored the Menil’s aesthetic.
“Cy Twombly: A Retrospective” (February 12 – March 19, 1995). The retrospective coincided with and took place at the newly unveiled Cy Twombly Gallery, designed by Renzo Piano, which marked another architectural and art destination on the museum’s campus.
“Magritte” (December 19, 1992 – February 21, 1993). Besides Cornell, perhaps no Surrealist is more identified with the Menil than Magritte (his La Clef de Verre canvas graces the catalog cover). This international traveling survey of 150 of his compelling canvases was among the high points of 1990s programming.
“Viewpoints: Mel Chin” (April 28 – August 25, 1991). Once a preparator when the de Menils organized exhibitions at Rice University, Mel Chin was singled out for his own show years later. His amalgamation of art, activism and nature, as unfurled in his Revival Field, still resonates.
“James Reaben” (December 1, 1990 – January 20, 1991). This explosive sleeper of the work of the late Reaben, a Houston artist who succumbed to AIDS early on, interwove dream imagery with political content and signaled that this museum would never be about the art market or merely the big names.
“John Chamberlain” (June 7, 1987 – April 3, 1988). The museum’s inaugural show of Chamberlain’s crunched-metal sculpture (resembling totems from Easter Island, yet strangely modern) remains a benchmark. Walter Hopps curated.
And Upcoming: Two to Grow On
“The Progress of Love” (December 2, 2012 – March 17, 2013). Former Menil curator Kristina Van Dyke co-organizes an unexpected exhibition that looks at the African continent’s response to Western notions of love.
“Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible” (April 19 – August 18, 2013). Coming Spring 2013, assistant curator Clare Elliott mounts a show for this late Bay City, Texas, visionary, whose energetic abstractions escaped their creator’s reclusive life to inspire and impact artists throughout the state and beyond, including his installation compiled by Robert Gober for the 2012 Whitney Biennial and recreated here.
Coming Circa 2017
The Menil Drawing Institute, to be designed by L.A. iconoclastic architects Johnston Marklee, will add square footage to the museum’s master plan via a serene one-story structure set amidst a trio of courtyards. The addition will showcase a collection, guided by chief curator Bernice Rose, that has burgeoned to more than 1,200 holdings after beginning modestly in 1945 with a single Cézanne watercolor.