One of the most incredible and prolific art collections in the world resides in Houston, Texas – The Menil Collection. Cubist, Surrealist, Modernist, Abstract Expressionist, Byzantine, Minimalist, Pop Art: all of these styles and more can be found at this art museum, the result of decades of collecting by a fascinating family whose forward thinking and deep connections in the art world led to this incredible collection. Their art collecting was fueled by a deep and powerful philosophy that guided their work, leading to a seemingly random collection that nonetheless carried significant purpose and weight. The Menil Collection currently stands as one of the most important art museums on the planet, and it remains that way through the innovation of the two founders, the de Menil , and the philosophy they took to art collection.
The amazing story of the Menil Collection begins in the 1940s. John de Menil and Dominique de Menil, two of the premiere art collectors of the 20th century, began an intensive search for some of the most brilliant and modern art of the time. Their first painting ever bought was the 1895 painting Montagne, a work by Paul Cezanne. The de Menils were Catholic, a philosophy which guided much of their art collecting. They were inspired by Father Yves Marie Joseph Congar and his stance on ecumenism (the idea that there should be one unified Christian church) to go out and collect works of art from all over the world (Helfenstein & Schipsi, 2010). To their minds, art was absolutely essential to the human journey, and in order to understand the human condition better, art had to be experienced and enjoyed on a visceral and spiritual level. This attitude is what helped to inspire the Menil Collection.
The de Menils wanted to learn more about the spirituality of modern art, and how modern art could affect the same. To that end, they sought to collect a substantial collection of art from around the world, becoming paragons and patrons of the 1960s art world. They befriended many of the artists they collected works from, including Andy Warhol and Max Ernst, and became scholars of eclecticism, both in art and in spirituality. Tens of thousands of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, books and more were collected by the end, many of which still reside at the Menil Collection (Helfenstein & Schipsi, 2010).
The Menil Collection carries a stunning array of artworks from a variety of twentieth century artists. Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and more are just some of the artists whose works grace the minimalist walls of the Menil Collection. In more modern catalogs, the Menil Collection features contemporary and pop art from artists like Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly and more. Apart from the modern collections, the Menils also have Byzantine, Tribal and Medieval art on display, demonstrating a deep sense of history and time as they explored their love of art (Helfenstein & Schipsi, 2010).
When one visits the Menil Collection, one immediately gets the impression that the de Menil family placed a great emphasis on the dominance of the artwork altogether, as well as the intention of the original artist. Great care has been taken to not interrupt or mediate the experience of the viewer within the gallery. Pieces are set up in very small, contemplative spaces with careful use of light and space; the aesthetic of the museum itself does not betray or take attention away from the artwork. This lets each individual piece breathe and have its own effect on the viewer. As Dominique de Menil once said, “Perhaps only silence and love do justice to a great work of art” (Menil.org, 2012). There is no wall text to explain the composition or the intention of the piece, tour guides through the museum, or an acoustic guide to the works on the wall. These pieces are meant to speak for themselves, and the de Menils wish to allow the reader to engage in dialogue with the piece, without being colored in opinion by the interpretations of others.
With the eclecticism of the collection, as well as its unique layout and minimalist design, the Menil Collection serves as one of the more incredible and fascinating art museums on Earth. Its inventory is a microcosm of art from around the world, with a myriad of styles – a truly ecumenical approach to art, and one that melds the artistic with the spiritual. The de Menil brothers were innovators in the art world, both as collectors and collaborators with modern artists of all types. To that end, the Menil Collection is a reflection of their forward thinking and their mission to find more beneath the surface of art.
Helfenstein, Josef, and Laureen Schipsi. Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de
Menil. Houston: The Menil Collection, 2010.
“History/Philosophy.” Menil.org. 2012. Web.