The Menil Collection, Houston, TX
The Menil Collection is a private museum in Houston, Texas, mostly focused on ancient, modern, and contemporary art.
Philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil began collecting works of ancient, African, and surrealist modern art in the 1940s and, in the ’80s, decided to open a museum in Houston aimed to display their collection to the public.
Above: the Menil Collection’s main building, photo Thomas Nemeskeri (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Opened in 1987, The Menil Collection is located on a 30-acre campus which, along with the main building, it also encompasses a pavilion dedicated to the works of American artist Cy Twombly, the Richmond Hall, displaying major works by Dan Flavin, the Menil Drawing Institute, and the famous Rothko Chapel, created in 1971 to house a cycle of paintings commissioned to Russian-born American artist Mark Rothko.
The two-story main building of the Menil Collection was designed in the mid-’80s by Italian architect Renzo Piano (who also designed the Cy Twombly Gallery opened in 1995).
That designed by Piano is widely considered one of the best art museum buildings in the world.
The clients required that “the works should be viewed under daylight”, therefore the architect conceived an innovative roof, a ‘solar machine’ designed to convey natural light into the galleries.
The system is composed of 291 daylight-filtering curved elements, called “leaf”.
To maximize the natural light contribution, a central ‘spine’, open onto a tropical winter garden, was included in the design.
The museum also features the so-called ‘treasure house’, a climate-controlled archive and artwork storage space located on top of the building.
An exterior view of the Menil Collection’s main building; photo by Rocor (CC BY-NC 2.0).
The main building, transverse section, image courtesy RPBW
Close-up view of the solar roof “leaves”, photo by Mike Rastiello (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
An interior view of the Cy Twombly Pavilion; photo by Keith Ewing (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Menil Collection comprises over 17,000 pieces, ranging from ancient to contemporary art, which encompasses paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects, prints, drawings, art books, and photographs.
The collection is divided into sections dedicated to Arts of Africa, Arts of the Americas and Pacific Northwest, Arts of the Ancient World, Arts of the Pacific Islands, Medieval and Byzantine art, Modern and Contemporary Art, and Surrealism.
The modern art collection of the museum includes masterpieces by Max Ernst, René Magritte, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, among many others.
Menil Collection, two “Blue monochromes” by Yves Klein, ca. 1960, photo by Robert and Talbot Trudeau (CC BY-NC 2.0).
The Menil campus
As mentioned earlier, along with the main building, the Menil Collection’s complex includes various pavilions dedicated to single artists, artistic movements, and research activities.
The Rothko Chapel is a pavilion that was built in 1971 to house 14 large paintings by Marc Rothko (1903-1970). In 1959, Rothko, who was of Russian Jewish descent, invited to participate in the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, proposed the creation of a chapel of expiation offering to paint works for it for free, but an agreement with the organizers was never achieved.
His idea of building an inspirational meditation venue for people of different cultural and spiritual beliefs was eventually realized in Houston by the de Menils. Rothko personally supervised the project, which was completed a few months after his death.
Besides Rothko’s exceptional murals, the famous sculpture Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman is located in front of the pavilion.
An exterior view of the Rothko Chapel; photo Mike Linksvayer (Public domain).
Also part of The Menil campus, Richmond Hall was originally built in the ’30s as a grocery store. The building was acquired in 1985 by the Menil Foundation to accommodate three large-scale installations by celebrated minimalist artist Dan Flavin (1933-1996); a fourth work by Flavin was added in 2003.
Completed in 1995 after a design again by Renzo Piano, the Cy Twombly Gallery is dedicated to the work of American artist Cy Twombly (1928–2011), and houses paintings, sculptures, and drawings he made from 1953 to 2004.
Cy Twombly Gallery with the work “Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor)” (1994); photo by Keith Ewing (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Byzantine Fresco Chapel was built in 1997 to house two rare 13th-century fresco paintings; after a long inquiry, it emerged that the paintings were actually stolen in the ’80s from the church of St. Evphemianos in Cyprus and, after an agreement between the Menil Foundation and the Church of Cyprus, the frescoes were finally returned to their original country in 2012. Today, the chapel is used as a contemplation, performance, and educational space, and for long-term art installations.
Completed in 2017 after a design by Johnston Marklee Architects, The Menil Drawing Institute is a building dedicated to the “exhibition, study, conservation, and storage of modern and contemporary drawing”.
Menil Drawing Institute; photo Kristina D.C. Hoeppner (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The museum’s park includes a beautiful open-air sculpture gallery with works by Mark di Suvero, Michael Heizer, and Tony Smith.
In 2009, a new master plan aimed to redesign and renovate the campus was designed by British architect David Chipperfield. The first works envisaged by the project, including a new bistro-restaurant building, were completed in 2014.
The Menil organizes temporary exhibitions, lectures, conferences, film screenings, music concerts, dance performances, and special events.
Menil Collection’s park with the work “Isolated Mass-lower slash-Circumflex” by Michael Heizer, photo by Osbornb (CC BY 2.0).
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