Visit the amazing art collection of John and Dominique Menil.
In 1930 John and Dominique de Menil met at a ball held in Versailles outside of Paris. They had both attended University nearby and soon fell in love, married, and had five children. When John passed away in 1973, he was president of Schlumberger, an oil services company, and the couple resided in Houston, Texas in a home they commissioned by architect Philip Johnson. They collected art from all over the world as they travelled for business starting in 1945 with a watercolor by Paul Cezanne which they purchased for $500.00.[i]
John and Dominique de Menil, 1967
Their first public gift to the city of Houston was a statue by contemporary sculptor Barnett Newman which today stands in a fountain dedicated in 1969 to the memory of Martin Luther King, following his assassination. Made of welded steel, it graces a plaza that was later part of a Menil commission of another contemporary artist, Mark Rothko, who made large canvas paintings for a circular space that is a chapel for quiet contemplation for all faiths. Mark’s son, Christopher, is currently remodeling the space to conserve the paintings with proper daylight and space for lectures, performances, and the occasional state visit by persons such as the Dalai Lama who visited in 1991.
Rothko Chapel- Mrs. De Menil and the Dali Lama
Following the death of John de Menil, his wife commissioned Renzo Piano to design a main building for their art collection which she endowed and opened in 1987. The interior spaces are filled with light and garden designs to highlight the diversity of art in the collection from ancient to modern. The newest director, Rebecca Rabinow, grew up in Houston and after 26 years as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, she has moved back to lead the entire Menil effort which includes many additional parts.
Rebecca Rabinow- Menil Director
Renzo Piano – Menil Collection
Cycladic Figure- 2700 BCE
One of my favorite items in the collection is a very ancient small sculpture that is so modern looking that it takes a bit of time to recall how art has cyclical meaning from ancient times to the present!
In 1992, Dominique conceived a space for the artist, Cy Twombly, (1928-2011), and his works reside across the street from her main building.
In 1996 she acquired an adjacent grocery story complex and had it converted for the artist, Dan Flavin (1933-1996) and his work illuminates that interior space.
Dan Flavin installation
In 1997, Dominique got involved in a very complex transaction to acquire mosaics from a dealer in Turkey which had been looted from a small church in the town of Lysi in Cyprus. With the permission of the Lysi church fathers, she restored the works with extensive conservation, and had her son Francois design a small building adjacent to the Rothko Chapel for the mosaics. The works stayed there until the loan expired, and they were returned to Cyprus in 2012. This space is being converted into an arena for contemporary art installations at present.
Byzantine Fresco Chapel
Mosaic from Cyprus
Church in Lysi, Cyprus
The newest addition to the Menil campus is a center for the study of drawings from the collection which was completed in 2018 and designed by architectural partners Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee. This too is a very contemplative space open to visitors and scholars.
Since the introduction to the United States tax code in 1913 of the charitable deduction provisions, art collectors like the Menils have found great pleasure in being able to create space for public enjoyment of their art. There is no question that their art forms a legacy which many generations will enjoy and learn from in our complex world today. A visit to the Menil Collection is free for all visitors and a welcome respite in the busy city of Houston, Texas.
The Menil Collection – Houston, TX
[i] Middleton, William. Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars, Dominique and John de Menil, 2018.