The Menil Collection

Cultural Oasis Turns 25

by Marene Gustin

You’re driving through the tree-lined neighborhood with its charming bungalows, when suddenly, there it is: The Menil Collection’s stunning Renzo Piano-designed building. It hardly looks like a museum, with its simple gray painted wooden sides, wide porches and oddly shaped white roof — which allows natural light inside without directly hitting the art — that belies the amazing collection of art that resides inside.

“I love the approachability, accessibility and humanity of The Menil,” says resident Tom Williams. “Unlike so many museums, The Menil seeks to put the viewer into the space of the artwork so that you can absorb it as work and as a vision, rather than maintain the distance that forces one only to see it as an object.”

And he’s hardly alone, the museum, which turns 25 this year, brings visitors from around the world to enjoy the leafy 40-acre campus that includes the main building housing the extensive art collection acquired by the de Menils during their lifetime, the Dan Flavin Installation, the Cy Twombley Gallery and outdoor sculptures.

“It’s hard to believe it opened June 4, 1987,” says museum spokesperson Vance Muse. “And that it was the first Piano commission in the U.S.”

Since 1987, when aviator sunglasses were all the rage, The Simpsons first premiered on Fox and artist Andy Warhol died, Piano has become a recognized architect of museums and buildings not only in America but around the world. And, of course, The Menil has become a beacon of art here in Houston.

So, for the silver anniversary, the museum is planning some very exciting things for 2012.

There’s the Men of Menil fundraiser in March, a men only black-tie affair featuring Japanese Sumo wrestlers no less, and a big gala planned for November.

And there will be some stunning art exhibits this year. From March 2 to June 10 you can view Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, the first ever retrospective of the renowned sculptor’s paintstick drawings.

“His drawings have this incredible physicality when you stand in front of them,” says The Menil Collection’s Michelle White who curated the exhibit composed of works from major public and private collections from around the world. “I would love for people to come away from this with a different idea of what drawing can be.”

Serra uses blocks of melted down paintsticks on paper and linen to create modernist drawings with breath and texture that the New York Times calls “genuinely radical” and “physically unsettling.” The exhibit opened in April of last year at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, then travelled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last October. Both received rave reviews. As an added bonus here, Serra will come to Houston to create several large-scale, site-specific drawings at the museum.

Also, in late March running through late July, the museum will feature This World Is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs.

The 70-year-old Lyon is well known for his poignant black and white candid photographs documenting America’s history of injustice from the civil rights struggle in the South through the life of Midwestern motorcycle gangs to his intimate photos of death row inmates at Texas’ Walls Unit. Most recently he’s pointed his camera at the children in China’s booming, polluted industrial cities and America’s Occupy protesters.

The exhibit is drawn from the 246 Lyon photographs in the museum’s permanent collection and many of the artist’s newer works including some never-before-seen Occupy photographs.

“I think we’re in a time of struggle and change today and that’s been a constant in his work,” says Toby Kamps, curator of the museum’s modern and contemporary art. “So I thought it was time to look at his work again. Plus I just love black and white, hand-held street photography.”

Lyon, who will be here for the opening, has a history with Houston. When he lived here briefly he met Dominique de Menil, who built and filled the museum with her family collection before gifting it to the city. De Menil provide support to Lyon, showing his death row exhibit, Conversations with the Dead at Rice University and provided funding for his film The Abandoned Children about Colombian orphans in 1975. The film, recently restored, will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Brown Auditorium Theater during the exhibit.

“I think he’s one of the greatest in the street photography movement in the U.S.,” says Kamps.

Kamps will also curate the July through October exhibit, Silence; paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, performances and sound works that consider the absence of sound as a subject and a medium in contemporary art.

Dominique de Menil said she wanted “only to discover treasures, to bring them back home, like one makes a bouquet, without too much reflection and in the process for the joy of the eyes.” The Menil Collection, a public museum open free of charge to all who enter, is her gift to the people of Houston and to the world.

If you haven’t visited in a while, 2012 is the time to see The Menil Collection.


1515 Sul Ross Street

Houston, TX 77006

Tel 713-525-9400 
Fax 713-525-9444