The Pilgrim in Houston: Surreal Rhymes With Menil

Dateline Houston . . . but no Houston skyline as we dart off the freeway, lose the skyscrapers looming over downtown, and slide off into a mixed through street – specialty furnishings and pawn shops – and then onto a narrow side street, Sul Ross, home to the Menil Collection. My brother-in-law has driven forty minutes in heavy traffic to bring me here; I have four, maybe five hours before he returns. I head past the furious landscaping being done to complete the new Michael Heizer sculpture that sweeps across the 400 foot front of the museum building, enter the door and walk past the front desk in the broad, bright foyer (there’s free admission at the Menil), turn right down the central corridor, and pause before the first doorway: SURREALISM.

I hardly dare breathe. It is just as I remember from a visit a few years back. Outside of books, this museum is my only true experience of what Surrealism means. Dozens of works: de Chirico, Magritte, Ernst, Picabia and Cornell. Striking images, especially Magritte’s visual puns familiar to folks with no idea what Surrealism means. The large gallery space is divided into smaller rooms of a dozen or so paintings each. Each space has two, sometimes three entrances, so you circle back through areas, peek around corners, compare paintings, view pieces from a longer perspective – intimacy and distance, the vague unsettling dis-ease induced by Surrealism. Claustrophobia and open-endedness. It’s dreamwork, what Andre Breton called “the interpenetration of the physical and mental to resolve the dualism of perception and representation.” It’s the uncanny that rises like perfume from the most familiar objects in your world. This vast Surrealist space is one of my spiritual homes.

I have that space is back in Portland, too, if only in my head, but still I’m incredibly envious of the Houstonites who have daily access to its physical space.

The Menil Collection in Houston is an extraordinary venture in concept, design and the exhibition of art. It is the vision of two Europeans, John and Dominique de Menil, who brought the family oil business and a burgeoning modern art collection to America at the beginning of World War II. The oil business gravitated to Houston, and pulled an idiosyncratic art collection with it, more than 16,000 pieces – most of it collected furiously between 1950 and the mid-1970s – pieces that reflect the personal, and one might say spiritual, tastes of the de Menils.

The Collection’s complex, located in an older Houston neighborhood, began in 1971 with Rothko Chapel, built to house 14 huge, somber, black and purplish paintings commissioned from Mark Rothko. Down the street is the main museum, a long, low gray building that holds the main collection of work in four areas: Byzantine artifacts and iconic art; what the museum calls “ancient art,” small sculptures from Paleolithic sources, as well as pre-Christian Greece and Egypt; “tribal” arts from Oceana, Africa and the Pacific Northwest coast; and twentieth century modernism. The separate Cy Twombly Gallery and Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, both opened in the mid-90s, complete the park-like complex that is surrounded by a neighborhood of modest bungalows, most of which are residences, though some house Collection offices and a bookstore.

John de Menil died in 1973, so it is Dominique de Menil’s sensibility that permeates the Collection’s mission. She died in 1997 after the major components of the Collection were in place. A woman of few words, she managed to say an awful lot in the two-page Foreword to “The Menil Collection,” an art book that was published at the inauguration of the museum in 1987. “I hesitate to write,” she says. “Events, people, situations, and works of art most all are always beyond what may be said of them. Language restricts, limits, impoverishes.” “Indeed,” she adds, “language has an inherent impotence as well as a disposition towards aggressivity.”

Her intellect bristles with ideas culled from the likes of Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Straus, but when she turned her eye to exhibiting the fantastic collection, she had one idea: preserving the intimacy she enjoyed with the works. And the art book that is a companion to the museum embodies Andre Malraux’s concept of the “museum without walls,” universality and cross-connections made possible by the international art market, both legitimate and black market, and the mass reproduction of art images in books. Each of the museum’s galleries is a unique space, full of natural light (except for the Surrealism space, which is very dark). And no aids to guide, or, as she thought, interfere with the experience. A short brochure introduces new shows. But in the exhibition areas, there are no texts on the walls, no structured guided tours explaining historical development. There’s simply exposure to art in an intimate setting, with Surrealism’s emphasis on the power of mythic correspondence, transformation and the “coexistence of contraries.”

Surrealism is the Collection’s core, its soul, largely because the de Menils met Max Ernst in Europe before the war and became unalterably infected with the Surrealist vision. The Surrealist core comes together in a little room that functions as a sort-of Joseph Cornell shadow box of the entire Collection. It is called “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision,” and in it are crammed the odd objects d’art actually owned by Surrealists or related items from the Collection – such as the Byzantine icons and New Guinea sculptures and Pacific Northwest masks – that influenced the Surrealists. It just might be that the microcosm of the whole Menil experience is the Louis XV display table that Dominique de Menil filled with “sundry items to enchant young people who visited her home.” Voila!

Reproductions generally don’t do justice to Surrealist works. De Chirico’s paintings in particular are more alive than they seem in books, with more surface texture, often because de Chirico used a rough weave canvas that is almost like burlap. Ernst’s surfaces, on the other hand, often have areas with a fine, lace-like filigree that doesn’t show clearly in books.

My one disconcerting thought as I wander back and forth through the Surrealist space is that, as we rounded the corner to the twentieth-first century, we adopted a frame of mind that now regards the twentieth century as finished, a catalog entry. We don’t mine it as thoroughly as we once did, when we regarded it as the living, eclectic source of our own history in the making. We want it summed up and simplified. So we’ve begun characterizing Surrealism, for example, in terms of representative major figures (such as Magritte and Ernst, who, by the way, have the most works in the Collection), and exclude secondary figures such as Victor Brauner or Yves Tanguy, whose work in the Menil’s “Surrealism” space is so visceral and unique.

Last time I was here there was an entire Tanguy exhibit with dozens of paintings, landscapes or seascapes, with meticulously-painted figures and shapes, a cross between odd-looking sea worms and smooth stones sculpted by the tides. Some of Brauner’s paintings in the Collection have mythic sources, while others are violent, with distorted, twisted figures and gaping, howling mouths that remind me of Francis Bacon’s popes and writhing wrestlers. You don’t see Brauner or Tanguy in general exhibits or survey works, and that’s a shame. So find them in books if you can, or perhaps on the internet, any “museum without walls.” Or make a pilgrimage to the Menil in Houston.