HOUSTON’S Menil Collection possesses a total of 17,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, objects and prints. Built on the collection amassed over several decades by the museum’s founder, oil heiress Dominique de Menil, and her husband, John de Menil, the museum’s holdings range from Mayan ceramics to medieval reliquaries to Magritte paintings. In one gallery of the main Renzo Piano–designed building stands a 9-foot-tall wooden Oceanic percussion instrument, carved over a hundred years ago. In another hangs Cy Twombly’s 33-foot-long Treatise on the Veil (Second Version), one of his largest canvases, which required 15 people to unroll and install. There’s a reason the de Menils have been called the Medicis of modern art.
DYNAMIC DUO Dominique and John de Menil in 1965 at an exhibition at Houston’s University of St. Thomas. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Courtesy of the Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston
Yet, according to William Middleton, author of the recent biography Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, when Dominique was asked which one of all these works she would save from a fire, she selected a simple Piet Mondrian illustration that the Dutch artist had scribbled on an envelope. It was, she said, a perfect example of thought and proportion, a window into the process of creating a masterful work of art.
Drawings were always an important subset of the de Menils’ collection—partly because the couple were taken with each individual work they acquired and partly because, pragmatically, drawings were more affordable than paintings and sculptures. Although the Menil has spent $8 million on drawings since 2015, the bulk of the collection came from the de Menils. That particular area of the couple’s interest is finally being honored with the 30,000-square-foot Menil Drawing Institute, the latest addition to the museum’s 30-acre campus, opening November 3. Designed by the L.A. architectural firm Johnston Marklee, the institute will be one of the only free-standing facilities in the United States devoted to drawing as a medium, with space for exhibition, conservation, study and storage.
Though there is some evidence that Dominique was considering creating a drawing institute just before she died in 1997, the building was conceived in earnest in 2009, when David Chipperfield Architects was commissioned to create a master site plan for the Menil. Several trustees—including Janie C. Lee and Louisa Stude Sarofim, who have each committed to giving the Menil 55 drawings from their private collections—championed the project. In 2012, Johnston Marklee was chosen to design the Drawing Institute, and the groundbreaking took place three years later. (Chipperfield also vied to design the building, making the selection of the lesser-known firm something of an upset win.)
LIGHT SHOW A gallery in the Menil Collection’s main building reinstalled with African sculpture. Photo: Giulio Ghirardi for WSJ. Magazine
Dominique’s interest in the Mondrian sketch had to do with the role it played in creating a larger and more significant work. Yet thinking of drawing exclusively as a stepping stone is “a misconception,” says Rebecca Rabinow, the Menil’s new director, who arrived two years ago from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “For many artists, historically, drawing was an end in and of itself. To have an entire building devoted to [drawing] says something to the general public.”
To help make the case, museum principals looked to Jasper Johns, whose drawings will be the subject of the institute’s inaugural exhibition, The Condition of Being Here. The Menil has a long and deep relationship with the artist. Dominique and John de Menil collected his works, and the museum has become one of the largest holders of Johns drawings in the world. Next month the Menil will publish the six-volume catalogue raisonné of Johns’s drawings. Johns also happens to have a highly specific relationship with the medium. “In many cases, he makes drawings after the completion of a related painting,” says the show’s organizing curator, Kelly Montana. “They’re almost a form of study that comes after the work, a form of experimentation.” This approach, she says, “breaks down all of those attendant assumptions” about drawing.
“They’re incredibly beautiful works,” Montana adds. “They are luscious surfaces—the ink just pools and spills; lines bleed into each other. [They] show that drawing is joyful and pleasurable.”
SHADOW PLAY The Menil Collection’s new Menil Drawing Institute, designed by Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee. Photo: Giulio Ghirardi for WSJ. Magazine
BOTH FRENCH by birth, Dominique and John de Menil began collecting in the 1930s, acquiring their first works when they were newlyweds and still living in Europe. Among their early commissions was a portrait of Dominique by German surrealist Max Ernst. (Today the Menil is one of the world’s most important surrealism repositories and holds more Ernst works than almost any other museum.) The couple eventually expanded their approach to include a wide selection of genres, from Paleolithic bone carvings to Byzantine artifacts to pop-art paintings. Their approach was decidedly eclectic. “There’s a huge range to the collection,” says Middleton. “Encyclopedic museums are about continents of art. The Menil is about archipelagos.”
Middleton believes that the de Menils would not have collected art so intensively if they hadn’t ended up in Houston, in the early 1940s. After fleeing the Second World War, the couple had no intention of bowing to the conventions of their new neighbors. The de Menils were outsiders but also instant oil royalty. Dominique’s father, Conrad Schlumberger , devised a way to detect oil via an electric apparatus, and by the time the de Menils arrived in Houston—where the Schlumberger Limited company had moved its headquarters from Paris in 1940—the firm reportedly electronically logged about 70 percent of the world’s wells. John, who eventually became the chair of Schlumberger Limited’s board, devised the company’s slogan: “Wherever the drill goes, Schlumberger goes.”
The “leaves” of Renzo Piano’s “light platform” are designed to modulate the influx of natural light. Photo: Giulio Ghirardi for WSJ. Magazine
The de Menils were determined to elevate the cultural landscape of their adopted city. They had their work cut out for them: At the time, the Houston Symphony shared performance space with the local rodeo and livestock show; one especially idiosyncratic program combined a classical concert with a wrestling match, in which a wrestler jumped onstage and conducted the orchestra. But the de Menils also embraced aspects of Texas culture, which they shared with visiting artists and luminaries. John once took René Magritte out to buy a cowboy hat; he also brought Andy Warhol shopping at a local saddlery company.
Houston’s relative lack of a sophisticated art scene—especially compared to those of New York and Paris, where the de Menils also maintained residences—lent added purpose to the couple’s artistic acquisitions. “They committed to the city; they saw it as a civil obligation,” says Middleton. At first, some of the de Menils’ friends and colleagues dismissed their efforts; one New Yorker they knew scorned Houston as a cultural desert. “It’s in the desert that miracles happen,” John elegantly retorted.
In 1948, the couple commissioned architect Philip Johnson, then just launching his career, to build them a 5,600-square-foot home in Houston’s elite River Oaks neighborhood. Finished in 1951, the stark, flat-roofed International Style house was unusual for Houston. Erected amid a sea of quaint antebellum-style houses, the home shocked many in the city. Yet the de Menils were immensely pleased with their revolutionary new residence, which, much to Johnson’s modernist chagrin, was decorated by American designer and couturier Charles James, who applied felt to its walls and brought in sensuous 19th-century furnishings. The structural elements Johnson put in place, including glass-walled atriums, a single-floor plan and the strong use of natural light, became signature features that the Menil museum buildings would incorporate in the decades to come.
Renzo Piano’s 1987 main building for the Menil. Photo: Giulio Ghirardi for WSJ. Magazine
For years, the couple exhibited works from their collection at local Houston institutions, but in 1980, Dominique began interviewing architects to create a Menil museum. (John died in 1973.) At the urging of the director of Paris’s Centre Pompidou, Pontus Hulten, she reluctantly met with Italian architect Renzo Piano. Like Johnson, Piano was an emerging talent at the time of their meeting, and he had just co-designed the Centre Pompidou with Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini. Dominique disliked the Pompidou and told Piano so. She felt it was too splashy and distracted from the art inside. Piano got the job, though—his first commission in the U.S. Dominique made it clear that she would be intimately involved in the process and that her vision was exacting. As Piano later recounted to Middleton, she told the architect, over a celebratory lunch, “Welcome to hell!”
The 100,000-square-foot Menil Collection, set in a residential neighborhood a couple of miles from the de Menils’ home, officially opened on June 4, 1987. It was almost the antithesis of the Centre Pompidou: low slung, spare and understated. Piano referenced the de Menils’ Johnson-designed residence, similarly infusing the museum with natural light via a ceiling that he called a “light platform”—a series of skylights with an underlayer of “leaves” that temper the brightness. The New York Times proclaimed the building “just perfect,” and Philip Johnson professed his “natural and despicable jealousy.” It was seen as a purist, accessible celebration of art, without the commercial trappings: no bookstore, gift shop or cafe inside. (“No boutiques and no blockbusters,” Dominique had instructed.)
A courtyard at the Menil Drawing Institute. Photo: Giulio Ghirardi for WSJ. Magazine
Over the past three decades, the Menil campus has expanded to include a Piano-designed Cy Twombly gallery, the Rothko Chapel, a Dan Flavin installation at Richmond Hall and a Byzantine fresco chapel. There is also now a Bistro Menil and a Menil bookstore, but both are discreetly stashed away in chic bungalows behind the main building.
The Menil Drawing Institute stands at the heart of the Menil plot, and Johnston Marklee partners Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee studied the surrounding structures for guidance. “We were thinking about the Drawing Institute as being a part of that family of buildings,” says Lee. Adds Johnston: “We hoped that when [it] was done, that you wouldn’t be sure if it came before Renzo’s building or after it, that it would feel suspended in time.” Their project was akin, they say, to a conversation among the generations of architects who have worked on or will someday work on Menil projects. “It’s like a chess game,” Lee says. “Renzo made his move. We made our move. We’re curious what the next architects will do.”
He and Johnston also say that their design was informed by the nature of drawing. The ceiling of the main foyer resembles origami; the building itself has what Lee calls “domestic” proportions, to suit smaller drawn works. Made of steel, cedar and concrete, the institute shares the basic Menil elements but required many technical interventions. For example, the natural light had to be diffused to keep the drawings from fading. “The mark of the Menil is top-lit galleries,” says Johnston, who explains that such a feature could not be replicated in the Drawing Institute. The architects subdued the harshness of the Texas sun with steel canopies around the entrance; light filters in via three courtyards and strategically placed windows.
Another view of the Piano building. Photo: Giulio Ghirardi for WSJ. Magazine
Houston’s dense humidity also had to be tamed inside the building, as even a hint of dampness could pucker delicate paper. Plus, there were storms to consider. During Hurricane Harvey last year, the Menil buildings did not flood, but Rabinow and the institute architects were taking no chances. They installed a state-of-the-art anti-flooding system. The room where the drawings are stored is suspended in a sort of basin; any water that seeps in drains there. Powerful, water-activated floodgates protect the storage-space entrances. “This area does not flood,” says Rabinow.
The opening of the Drawing Institute was delayed for a year as further adjustments were made. “We could have rushed it,” Rabinow says, surveying a sun-bathed atrium courtyard, filled with young magnolia trees and white rocks. “But we’re in it for the long run, and I wanted this building to be as close to perfect as possible. I have not one regret about delaying. When I walk in here now, my heart sings.”
RABINOW HAS ALSO been overseeing a major renovation of the main Piano building, which reopened on September 22 after a seven-month closure. It all began innocuously enough, Rabinow says, when she was informed that the main building’s fire sensors needed to be replaced. “But to do that, you have to remove the art from the rooms,” Rabinow explains. “If you’re going to take the art out of the rooms, then that was an opportunity, at long last, to refinish our floors. If you’re going to refinish the floors properly, you have to take out the non-load-bearing walls. And that opened up all of these possibilities.” For the reopening exhibitions, curators chose to display over 750 works, all culled from the museum’s permanent holdings and many of which had never before been exhibited. “What began as simply a construction challenge ended up being a way of really doing a deep dive into the collection,” says Rabinow.
A courtyard at the Drawing Institute. Photo: Giulio Ghirardi for WSJ. Magazine
Several of the newly shown works speak to the de Menils’ history of activism. If Dominique and John experienced aesthetic culture shock when they first arrived in Texas, they also found themselves face to face with the reality of living in the segregated American South. Appalled by the racism they witnessed, they became outspoken human- and civil rights advocates. The de Menils believed that their position came with responsibility. “What we do with our power—our overwhelming power—is…very important indeed,” John wrote to a friend in 1964.
Their activism took many forms: John gave financial support to African-American political candidates and to progressive school board candidates who worked toward the elimination of segregation. Beginning in 1967, he helped pay the legal fees of the TSU Five—a group of African-American students from Texas Southern University who were falsely accused of starting a riot. The de Menils helped launch the political career of the late Mickey Leland, a black activist who became a six-term congressman. (“I really loved him,” Leland once said of John. “He was a feisty guy, he didn’t give a damn for the establishment.”)
The de Menils remained unrelenting in their support of civil rights causes, and their worldview was reflected in their art collection. In 1960, they initiated a still-ongoing project titled The Image of the Black in Western Art, and about 25 percent of the ancient art in the Menil’s permanent holdings now consists of African works and works depicting black figures. As a gift to the city of Houston, the de Menils helped buy a 1967 Broken Obelisk sculpture by Barnett Newman, for installation near City Hall—with the stipulation that it be dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. When the city declined to honor the dedication, the couple bought the piece outright and installed it in the middle of the Rothko Chapel’s reflecting pool.
OPENING ANGLE Steel canopies shield the interiors of the Menil Drawing Institute from the Houston sun. Photo: Giulio Ghirardi for WSJ. Magazine
The de Menils also acquired important modern works by black artists, some of which are now showcased in the renovated main building. Middle Passage, a large 1970 painting by Guyana-born British artist Frank Bowling, has been given pride of place in the museum’s foyer; this is the first time the Menil has exhibited it. Two large 1971 painted canvas works by American artist Joe Overstreet—Ancestral God and Free Direction—now hang in the same gallery as Treatise on the Veil (Second Version). “Overstreet has very much been overlooked,” says Menil senior curator Michelle White. “I am intentionally putting him alongside Twombly as a way of making a statement about his importance in the history of painting.” Newly purchased works by contemporary African-American artist Leslie Hewitt, including her 2012 sculptural piece Untitled (Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again), also have a solo showing in one of the main building’s galleries.
The front-and-center placement of Middle Passage, says Rabinow, “makes a big statement about what the Menil is doing.” She is looking forward to using the Menil’s galleries to prompt difficult conversations. Doing so, she says, honors the museum’s roots and directives. “There are going to be spaces where we address the very complicated moments of the meeting of cultures; we have a legacy of doing that,” she says. “And that’s going back to the de Menils’ vision, and their desire for social justice.” •