Here, on display in an unremarkable neighborhood near the University of St. Thomas, is one of the world's great private collections. Jean and Dominique de Menil arrived in Houston in the 1940s, fleeing the war in Europe. For more than 4 decades, they purchased and commissioned works of art; brought artists, architects, and academics to the city; organized groundbreaking exhibitions; and did much for Houston's art museums and for the art departments of Rice University and St. Thomas University. Their collection, especially the modern art, is vast, so much so that only a fifth of it can be exhibited in the museum at one time. The structure housing the collection was designed by Renzo Piano, who worked closely with Mrs. de Menil. It's graceful and personable and doesn't seek to impress the visitor or impose itself on the collection. In these qualities, it's the physical embodiment of Mrs. de Menil's ideas about experiencing art. When you walk into the museum, there is nothing between you and the art -- no grand lobby with marble stairway, no large banners or gift shop vying for attention, no tickets to buy, no tape-recorded tours. Viewing the art becomes a direct and personal experience.
The Menil Collection is concentrated in four areas: antiquity, Byzantine and medieval, tribal art, and 20th century. This may seem an incongruous mix, but, strangely enough, it holds together. The collectors never intended to gather up the most representative of a period; they simply followed their own tastes, which were modern. And one interesting consequence of this fact (intended or not) is that, in walking through these galleries one right after another, the viewer gradually discerns a universality in some modern art that connects it all the way back to antiquity and across the boundaries of Western culture to the tribal peoples of other continents.
In addition to the main museum, four satellite buildings form a museum campus. One of these satellite buildings is the much-talked-about Rothko Chapel, with its 14 brooding paintings by Mark Rothko, created specifically for this installation and the last works before the artist's death. In front of the chapel stands Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk. A block south of the Rothko Chapel is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, which is worth seeing as much for the building that houses them (designed by François de Menil, son of Jean and Dominique) as for the frescoes themselves, which were ransomed from international art thieves. Across the street from the main museum, in a building also designed by Renzo Piano, is a permanent exhibition of the works of Cy Twombly, which, though perhaps difficult to approach, are easy to view because of the gallery's exquisite light. It lends a luminous quality to the large artworks, and just being in the place somehow livens one's spirits. Finally, Richmond Hall, 2 blocks south of the campus, holds an installation by minimalist neon-light artist Don Flavin.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Very Highly Recommended 2010