Legacy of Art

January 1, 2005 by  
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Amid a peaceful neighborhood in the museum district, there awaits the awe-inspiring Menil Collection. What began as a couple’s art collection has become a beloved gem of art in Houston. The collection, and the satellite galleries that surround it, have ensured the de Menil family legacy will continue.

Collection of dreams
The Menil Collection, which opened in 1987, began as the private art collection of John and Dominique de Menil. The collection, considered as one of the greatest privately obtained in the 20th century, consists of just less than 15,000 pieces, ranging from the Paleolithic era to present day.

The assortment of works includes everything from sculptures to prints, drawings to photographs, and also incorporates rare books. Four main areas largely define the collected pieces: Antiquity, Byzantine and Medieval, Tribal, and 20th Century Art. With its concentration on Surrealism, the 20th Century Art section has been labeled one of the best collections of its kind. The Menil Collection displays pieces from the permanent collection, as well as special exhibitions.

Not only is the art unique, but the gallery does not lend itself to the traditional museum space. The buildings infuse natural light from large windows, the creative roof and skylight system, and atrium gardens throughout the gallery. This light allows the changes in weather, seasons and time of day to be reflected in the art.

Literature in art
In 1995, the Menil Collection worked with artist Cy Twombly and the Dia Center for the Arts to open the Cy Twombly Gallery. The space, designed by Renzo Piano, consists of a permanent installation of Cy Twombly’s work, fusing the elements of “gestural abstraction, drawing and writing.” Visitors find literature references and Mediterranean and Near-Eastern influences included in the exhibit. More than 30 of Twombly’s pieces can be found at the gallery, including paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Amid these works, visitors can find his large-scale masterpieces, including “The Age of Alexander” and the “Triumph of Galatea.”

No boundaries
The last, and possibly most important, project the de Menils started was The Rothko Chapel. This intimate, nondenominational refuge, which includes 14 of Mark Rothko’s paintings, was designed by Howard Barnstone. Facing the chapel is the sculpture dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Broken Obelisk,” which is recognized around the world as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century. The chapel’s “modern meditative environment” is open to people of all faiths and beliefs and is often the site of religious ceremonies. It is also a place where people can freely experience and understand different traditions and cultures. Visitors travel from across the globe to view the chapel as an artistic masterpiece and a gathering place of religious freedom.

It also serves as a rally site often used to promote peace, freedom and social justice. Such leaders as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama have come to The Rothko Chapel to share their experiences, knowledge and talents with open-minded Houstonians.

Retrieved from thieves
Housing the only two 13th century Byzantine frescoes in the western hemisphere, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel opened in 1997 and was designed by Francois de Menil. The masterpieces were retrieved from thieves and then placed on display at the Menil. Stolen from a chapel in Cyprus in the 1980s, the thieves cut the works into pieces to smuggle them off the island. The Menil Foundation rescued the masterworks, with the knowledge and approval of the rightful owner, the Church of Cyprus. The foundation then undertook a two-year project to restore the pieces to their original grandeur. To show their gratitude, the Church of Cyprus allows the foundation to keep the pieces as part of a long-term loan. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, which combines rough stone, opaque glass and rich woods, was specially constructed to house these beautiful works of art.

Simply light
Featuring one of only two permanent installations by Dan Flavin in the United States, Richmond Hall offers a one-of-a-kind art experience. A self-taught minimalist sculptor, Dan Flavin features fluorescent light as the medium. His pieces allow visitors to connect with this elemental component of life and capture the “indefinable dimension of light in space.” The installation in Richmond Hall features three site-specific pieces that were created in 1996. A blending of color, light and perspective is achieved through the simple arrangements. H

The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, (713) 525-9400, www.menil.org

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