If you consider visiting North America’s great cities to see art, Houston might not make the list. It should.
The laid-back, sprawling Texan metropolis is home to The Menil Collection, an amazingly hospitable place to see the great art of the postwar period. And this month, with the opening of the Menil Drawing Institute, it got better.
That new centre houses and displays works on paper, beginning this month with a retrospective of Jasper Johns’s drawings. But the building itself, by Los Angeles architecture firm Johnston Marklee & Associates, is a work of art – and you can walk right in off the street, through lush gardens, to see the show without so much as a ticket.
Those two attributes are what defines the Menil: art and architecture of the highest quality, and hospitality. “We hope for this to deliver the close encounter with a work of art that is the hallmark of this place,” Kelly Montana, assistant curator of the drawing centre, told me.
It’s a distinct pleasure and somehow fitting in Houston, a city whose urban form is somewhat unplanned and informal. Its main “museum district” is not far away, centred on the Museum of Fine Arts Houston – itself a major institution that is, also, growing, with new buildings by Steven Holl completed and under construction.
At the Menil drawing centre, you move in sequence from the bright Texan sun to a canopy – a 18-metre-long expanse of folded steel – and then into a courtyard shaded by magnolias, until you enter the gallery’s lobby, and then the gallery itself. It’s a sensorially rich procession; the folding of the wall surfaces suggests origami on a massive scale, while the arrangement of windows, cedar panels, glass walls and tree canopies weaves the place to the low, sprawling campus of the Menil, lined by verdant lawns and grand, gnarly live oaks.
Mark Lee, who, with his partner and wife Sharon Johnston, leads Johnston Marklee, explains that this was deliberate: “We use the trees as a way to create a transition of light.” The progressively dimmer spaces, as you move from the outside world to the cloistered exhibition space, “help your eyes and your mind adjust, get comfortable.”
Getting comfortable here is easy. The front lawn of the Menil’s main building contains a work by Land Art pioneer Michael Heizer, stashed away in the deep-green grass. From here, you can stroll into any of the Menil’s gallery spaces, during opening hours, moving in seconds from the lawn to a room full of the greats of surrealism or a first-rate assemblage of African art.
This all began with Jean and Dominique de Menil, French expatriates who were drawn to Houston in the 1940s by her family’s oil business. They became vocal supporters of the civil-rights movement and important collectors, filling their home (designed by Philip Johnson) with an eclectic and important collection.
The couple moved into the public realm in 1973 with the Rothko Chapel, an ensemble of buildings and 14 canvases assembled for non-denominational contemplation. In the following years, Dominique de Menil acquired 12 hectares of the Montrose neighbourhood, and worked to fit the museum in among its existing bungalows – keeping it open to the public and hospitable.
Some of these houses became part of the museum’s campus – today one houses the bookstore – and the gallery buildings found a common language. Renzo Piano’s 1987 main building, which was recently renovated, and the 1995 Cy Twombly Pavilion are magnificent and low-key. Like the bungalows, they are one level. Also like the bungalows, they feature wood siding painted a soft grey, with largely white accents. And they are all interspersed with the amazing trees, predominantly live oak, that rule the neighbourhood. The whole ensemble feels remarkably low-key for a major cultural institution.
With a design competition in 2012, the Menil selected Johnston Marklee for its next phase. The building puts them in august company: Piano and Johnson are both acknowledged 20th-century masters. The new building is in dialogue with what came before; its cedar picking up on the siding of the modest houses nearby, and its white steel structural heroic gesturing to the complex ceiling of Piano’s first building, which scoops light into the museum.
“Spreading things out, and embracing the landscape,” Lee said. “You suddenly just find yourself in the centre of the building. There’s a visceral encounter with art that a lot of people feel is special.”
As he said those words, the leaves of the trees in an adjacent courtyard were feathering us with shadow. Indoors, outdoors, art and nature, light and shadow all came together.
The writer was a guest of the Menil Collection, which did not review or approve this article.