The Couple That Changed Houston Forever

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While I can’t pretend that fried chicken, smoked brisket and a mind-blowing bowl of phô aren’t top of our list when we visit Houston, there’s one couple that will never fail to make our visit memorable - the de Menil’s. 

John and Dominique de Menil met at a crowded ball at Versailles in 1930, he a young noble of modest means with little formal education, she an heiress of the giant multinational oil-field services company, Schlumberger, boasting degrees in physics and mathematics. It’s not how one might imagine the story began but this unlikely pair was to become one of Houston’s most subversive influences, changing the city’s landscape forever and placing it firmly on the art map with not only the Menil Collection, but also the Rothko Chapel, Cy Twombly museum, Dan Flavin Installation and Byzantine Fresco Chapel. 

Were it not for World War II, the de Menils would likely have remained in Paris. Whether they would have gone on to become owners of one of the world’s largest private art collections, noted for its examples of Cubism, Surrealism, African sculpture, Mediterranean antiquities and contemporary works, one can only imagine. The reality is that the newlyweds were forced to flee their spacious Paris apartment in the early 1940’s after the Nazi invasion of France, finding themselves in the then American headquarters of Schlumberger: Houston, Texas.

It was immediately clear that the de Menils were not typical texan neighbors. Having fallen in love not only with each other but also with Modernism in all its forms, the de Menil’s had a long, low, almost windowless modernist  house designed for them by Phillip Johnson (his first residential commission). In a locale where the ideal home was a formal white-pillared mansion, this not only confused Houston locals who at first thought it was a doctor’s clinic, but it also served as a symbol to the city’s social elite of what the the de Menils could do. While there were indeed other modernist homes cropping up at the time, none had quite the audacity of theirs. 

 Dominique deMenil reclines next to a John Chamberlain sculpture

Dominique deMenil reclines next to a John Chamberlain sculpture

Max Ernst, René Magritte, Andy Warhol, Jean-Luc Godard, Michaelangelo Antonioni and Le Corbusier were amongst those who would join the de Menil’s for lively kitchen table dinners.
 The interior of the de Menil's home in Houston, designed by architect, Phillip Johnson

The interior of the de Menil's home in Houston, designed by architect, Phillip Johnson

The de Menils invited artists, writers, filmmakers, and scholars into their home. Max Ernst, René Magritte, Andy Warhol, Jean-Luc Godard, Michaelangelo Antonioni and Le Corbusier were amongst those who would join the de Menil’s for lively kitchen table dinners. Shocked by the segregation they found upon moving to the states, the de Menils not only backed civil rights and Martin Luther King, but even entertained blacks at dinner - an extremely radical move at the time.''John's feeling for the underdog really started in his childhood,'' Dominique once said. ''Life had been tough for him, and he saw how hard it was for some others.’'

The rapid pace and growth of the de Menils’ art collection was astounding given its modest beginnings. In 1945, John returned from a business trip to New York with a small Cézanne watercolor which he had bought for $300. That purchase led to acquisitions of more European paintings and American contemporary works during the couple’s frequent visits to New York in the 1940’s and 1950’s. They were known to buy entire shows from favorite galleries, including works by Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. ''We went crazy,'' admitted Dominique. ''We even borrowed money to buy art.''

 The African Art room at the Menil Collection, Houston

The African Art room at the Menil Collection, Houston

The de Menil’s shared a core belief that art is a necessity for all, as essential as the air we breath. Both committed social activists, they looked upon art for life’s sake above art’s sake and they saw the end goal as the public good. They contributed to and helped organize programs in Houston’s black community, including one of the city’s first serious exhibitions of African art. 

The de Menil’s shared a core belief that art is a necessity for all, as essential as the air we breath.
 Sculpture by Michael Heizer outside the Menil Collection

Sculpture by Michael Heizer outside the Menil Collection

When John passed away in 1973, it fell to Dominique to decide the future of the family collection. The Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York were both interested but, after much deliberation, she decided the collection should have its own museum in Houston - a telling insight into the couple’s relationship with the city. Adamant about her vision for the the museum, Dominique, then nearing her eighties, argued with her children over the selection of the architect Renzo Piano to design the Menil Collection, her children favoring an architect of more weight. ''I wanted a functional museum and they wanted great architecture”. The resulting building is a masterpiece of understated elegance, one which not only facilitates but enhances the experience of the art. Piano himself later fondly called Dominique the most stubborn woman he had ever met.

To avoid what she termed “museum fatigue”, Dominique de Menil decided that the collection would be rotated, showing only a small part at any one time. ''I wanted a place that gives the viewer time and space to look at art. Most museums are overloaded with works that compete for the viewer's eye, and there's a limit to the attention span. After an hour, you're tired and you don't see paintings any more.’’ The objects and works of art are intended to speak for themselves, there are no explanatory notes on the wall or media in the galleries, encouraging each individual’s personal encounter with the pieces. 

I particularly enjoy the Menil Collection because it doesn’t aspire to be comprehensive. It is very much a personal collection, built around the art loved and collected by the de Menil’s from the 1940s to the 1990s. And what it may lack in breath it by far makes up for in excellence in distinct areas. The incredible African Sculpture room, with its rare and beautiful pieces such as Dogon figures and masks, ceremonial ladles from the Dan people, and tomb sculptures from the Mahafaly people is, while by no means encyclopedic, an unparalleled source of inspiration for Quy and I, over and over again. 

Unlike so many #art museums today, there is no photography permitted in any of the de Menil galleries. As we paced slowly back and forth along the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall - the artist’s last completed work - it was hard not to notice how many of our experiences today are influenced by the act of taking and posting photos. An experience which couldn’t be further from the private, contemplative, spiritual experience of art that the de Menil’s cherished. As Dominique once stated “Nobody is visually naive any longer. We are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” Yet again, a woman ahead of her time. 

“What should move us to action is human dignity: the inalienable dignity of the oppressed, but also the dignity of each of us. We lose dignity if we tolerate the intolerable.”
— Dominique de Menil
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