June 2012, the Menil Collection (Fig. 1) in Houston, Texas, celebrated its twenty-fifth year as a public institution. Situated in Montrose, an inner-city enclave populated by residential blocks, the Menil houses the privately assembled collection of John and Dominique de Menil.
John de Menil (1904–1973), a young banker, and Dominique Schlumberger (1908–1977), the heiress to the oil services company, Schlumberger Ltd., met and married in France in 1931. During World War II, the couple relocated to Texas where John was named director of the Schlumberger family business. The de Menils began building their collection in the 1940s and soon became prominent figures in Houston, renowned for their support of modern art and architecture. The couple continued to collect twentieth century art into the 1970s and in 1972 the de Menils approached architect Louis Kahn about designing a museum to display their holdings.
Working with Kahn, the de Menils purchased entire blocks in Montrose and planned to replace the existing residential structures with the museum and adjoining gardens. When John passed away suddenly in 1973 and Kahn less than a year later, plans for the museum were put on hold. It wasn’t until 1980 when Dominique met  Italian architect Renzo Piano that they resumed.

Fig. 1: Exterior view of The Menil Collection. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography by J. Griffis Smith/TxDOT.
Fig. 2: Double-square gallery in the Cy Twombly Gallery. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston, 1995. Photography by Hickey-Robertson.

The result of Dominique and Piano’s partnership was an entire campus populated by a variety of buildings, each exhibiting their own treasures. Rather than dominate the location as Kahn had envisioned, the Menil, which opened in 1987, blends with its surroundings. The main building has nearly 30,000-square-feet of gallery space and resembles the neighboring bungalows with its wide stretches of glass, dark wood floors, and large lawn. Dominique, who believed  art should be viewed without pretense, opted to eliminate wall texts, formal tours, and audio guides so that visitors create their own experiences and contemplate each piece uninterrupted. The Menil also depends on the sun for lighting, allowing viewers to see how the seasons, weather, and time of day affect each artwork.

Fig. 5: Interior of The Menil Collection featuring Head, Sabean, Arabian Peninsula, 1000B.C.–200 A.D. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography by J. Griffis Smith/TxDOT.

In addition to the main building, the Menil campus includes the Cy Twombly Gallery (Fig. 2), the result of a collaboration between the Menil, the Dia Art Foundation, and the artist, which features a permanent retrospective of Twombly’s (1928–2011) large-scale works, and Richmond Hall, which contains a site-specific sculptural light installation (Fig. 3) by the Minimalist artist, Dan Flavin (1933–1996). Also on site are a number of outdoor sculptures as well as the Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, which were built by the de Menils but operate as separate foundations from the institution.

The Menil Collection features nearly 16,000 objects including paintings, sculpture, decorative objects, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books. The museum boasts a strong core of European art including Surrealist works by George de Chirico (1888–1978), Max Ernst (1891–1976), Rene Magritte (1898–1967), Man Ray (1890–1976), and Yves Tanguy (1900–1955) as well as Cubist and School of Paris paintings by Fernand Leger (1881–1955), Henri Matisse (1869–1954), and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) (Fig. 4). The Menil offers a number of post-war works by artists that John and Dominique not only collected, but also befriended including Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Yves Klein (1928–1962), and Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Individual collections devoted to antiquities (Fig. 5), Byzantine, and Medieval artworks, and the arts of Africa, the Pacific islands, and the Pacific Northwest draw formal and spiritual connections among  contemporary works and ancient and indigenous objects. Highlights from these collections include a strong Cycladic collection from 3000–2000 b.c., a gold casket from 6th century Macedonia, and over 1,000 African objects including headdresses, terra cotta figures, and sculpted wooden masks.
Currently on view at the Menil is Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs (through February 3, 2013), which features a group of collages Oldenberg (b. 1929) completed over a two-year period after he moved to New York City from Chicago in 1956. Upcoming exhibitions include Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible (April 19–August 18, 2013), which features work by Bess (1911–1977) who spent years living in isolation in a Texas fishing camp creating a large body of small-scale canvases, and Wols (September 13, 2013–January 12, 2014), which features the work of the draftsman, painter, and photographer. Along with Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), Pierre Soulages (b. 1919), and Georges Mathieu (1921–2012), Wols (1913–1951) was a leading figure in Tachisme, a European movement that often drew comparisons to Abstract Expressionism.

Fig. 4: Interior of The Menil Collection featuring from L-R: Wilfredo Lam (1902–1982) La Visitante (The Visitor), 1948; Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Femme au Fauteuil Rouge (Woman in a Red Armchair), 1929; Victor Brauner (1903–1966) Mort de la Lune (Death of the Moon), 1932; Victor Brauner (1903–1966) Signe (Sign), 1945; In the next gallery: Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012) Cousins, 1970. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography by J. Griffis Smith/TxDOT.
Fig. 3: Dan Flavin (1933-1996) Untitled, 1996. Installation view, Richmond Hall. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography by Hickey-Robertson.