We all could use a few moments of peace and beauty right about now, and one of Houston’s art treasures, the Menil Collection might just be the tranquil, though occasionally surreal, oasis we need.
Having experienced no hurricane impact to its collection nor any of the buildings on its Sul Ross campus near the University of St. Thomas, the world-renowned museum quickly reopened its doors on Friday to present a very special art gift for Houstonians.
The Menil celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a once-in-three-decades exhibition. The succinctly titled Thirty Works for Thirty Years spotlights some of the most important and beloved works in the collection from Pablo Picasso to René Magritte, the Dogon peoples in the Bandiagara region of West Africa to Dan Flavin.
The exhibition also helps to tell a story of John and Dominique de Menil’s personal relationship with some of the 20th century’s greatest artists as well as the museum’s deep connection to the city of Houston.
A Walk Through the Years
A few days before our lives were blown upside down, I toured Thirty Works with associate curator Clare Elliott. I soon discovered what a complex undertaking this Menil retrospective of its own collection has become.
The curators and organizers didn’t want to confine the selected artworks to one area in the main building and instead decided to use the chosen 30 like signposts or art hotspots to better explore the Menil as a whole. Visitors will find the 30 throughout the galleries of the main building as well as in Richmond Hall and the Cy Twombly Gallery, thereby having the chance to discover the links and interconnections between the highlighted works and the rest of the collection.
As we began our walkthrough, Elliot explained how they rearranged some of the paintings and sculptures already on view around the chosen 30. When I asked Elliott if curating became something like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, she admitted it at times was.
Yet, as we walked through the main building, I began to realize that a more apt game comparison was that the Menil has designed the ultimate art scavenger hunt and provided visitors with a map that truly illuminates the individual works.
A Guide for Art Adventurers
The Menil curators, as well as conservators and staff from the publications and public programs departments, produced a keepsake gallery guide for visitors that will help them navigate through the Menil to find the 30 artworks. Elliot explained that they wanted “a variety of perspectives from the museum” helping to create the guide. Guests can wander through, checking works off as they spot them, or they can go searching for each piece.
Each individual painting, sculpture or installation represents a year in the life of the museum. Some of the pieces were first acquired or went on view during that designated year, but other artworks represent an important exhibition mounted during that year. The gallery guide explains the significance of that particular artwork to the year, but also delves into the story of the each piece and sometimes how the piece fits into Menil and even Houston’ art history.
A New Perspective on Old Favorites
The exhibition will likely speak to both newcomers to the Menil and those art lovers who might think of the campus as a second art home.
As many times as I’ve walked through the Menil, I still found myself viewing the collection from a different angle both literally and figuratively as some of the galleries, especially in the Modern and Contemporary wing had been reorganized around the 30.
For example, as we entered a small sub-gallery holding three large works: Robert Rauschenberg’s National Spinning/Red/Spring (Cardboard); John Cage’s River Rocks and Smoke 4/9/90 #5 and Trisha Brown’s Untitled (Montpellier), each claiming their own wall, Elliot pointed out that the Menil can only occasionally display together these three works by interdisciplinary artists who occasionally collaborated with each other.
A short time later, in pursuit of the vivid fifteenth-century Byzantine icon Entry into Jerusalem, we entered into a kind of pocket section of the Byzantine and Medieval galleries that I don’t think I’ve explored in years.
Seeing some of the art, like Magritte’s Golconda (Golconde) representing 1989, will probably feel like uniting with a beloved old friend. Yet even frequent visitors might be unfamiliar with others, like John Chamberlain’s massive sculpture of crushed automobile parts, American Tableau, which has not been on view for about a decade, as its size requires a gallery for itself.
Thirty Works for Thirty Years will be on display through January 28, 2018. A month later — on February 26 — the main building will close to the public for updates and repairs. The Menil reached a milestone birthday and threw the city a season-long exhibition celebration, so they certainly deserve to take some time in seclusion to have a little work done.
Until then, the Menil Collection will keep its regular hours Wednesday through Sunday, allowing us the chance for our own much-deserved moments of quiet contemplation and renewal through art.