Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Menil Under Masks

The exterior of The Menil Collection, Houston, Tex.
The Menil Under Masks
by Daniel Cappello

Houston —It began in a storied architectural icon, and, last week, the story came full circle, in a modern architectural landmark all its own. Jean de Menil and Dominique Schlumberger met, in 1930, at a dance held at Versailles. He was an ambitious banker from a military family; and she, the daughter of Conrad Schlumberger, the entrepreneurial scientist who built the worldwide oil company Schlumberger, Ltd.

The invitation to The Menil Collection’s masked ball
By 1931, the couple had married and settled together in the noble 7th arrondissement of Paris. During the Second World War, the family, including two daughters, Christophe and Adelaide, moved around France, escaping the advancing German troops. Jean left the country and eventually found himself in Houston, Texas, where Schlumberger’s American headquarters were located. He would take over American operations for the company, and his wife and their three children (Georges, the couple’s third, meanwhile was born in France) would join him by the early 1940s.

The family grew (another son, François, and daughter, Philippa, were born in America), and Houston became their new home. Jean anglicized his name to John, and the de Menils commissioned a young architect to build a new home for them. John and Dominique’s new residence in the River Oaks section of town was Phillip Johnson’s first commission, and the result was one of the first International Style residences in the state of Texas.

The house was filled with the art that John and Dominique had begun to pursue with a passion – their collection that would grow to include more than 15,000 paintings, sculptures, objets, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books. European artists dominated the collection, from Surrealist artists such as Max Ernst, René Magritte, Man Ray, and Giorgio de Chirico, to Cubist and School of Paris painters like Léger, Matisse, and Picasso.

By the 1960s though, American, Pop Art, and Minimalist artists were being acquired, from Jasper Johns to Andy Warhol and the de Menil residence had become the salon of Houston, often filled with visiting artists, intellectuals, scientists, and civil-rights leaders. (John and Dominique were as dedicated to Houston’s art scene as they were to progressive politics.)
The de Menils cultivated friendships with many of the artists who visited their home, and they expanded their own influence by donating to universities and art institutions in Houston, including the Contemporary Arts Museum and Rice University, where they founded the Institute of the Arts.

When John de Menil died, in 1973, it appeared as if the couple’s plans for erecting a space to house their collection -- which by then had become one of the most significant of the twentieth century, spanning works from the Paleolithic era to the present  — died with him. Dominique’s quiet intelligence seemed to sink her into even more of a reserved life than usual. However, years later, now Houston’s self-styled matron of the arts, she resolved to finish the plans that she and her husband had begun to lay at the time of his death.

She wanted a building that seemed “large on the inside but small on the outside,” with spacious interiors and design elements reminiscent of their home -- dark floors, large windows, atrium gardens, and art at eye level. In 1980 she began working with Renzo Piano, who designed a museum in human scale, with an unimposing exterior of glass, steel, and calming gray cypress siding. Architecturally imaginative ceilings combined louvers and skylights to modulate the intense sun, while expansive windows allowed abundant natural light to flood the interiors. The effect was to create a simple, harmonious interaction with the collection, but not to compete with it.

In 1987, the Menil Collection opened to the public. It is a vast, rotating repository of four areas—Antiquity, Byzantine and Medieval, Tribal, and Twentieth Century Art (with a concentration in Surrealism)—and it remains free to the public to this day, along with the neighboring de Menil institutions, the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Rothko Chapel, and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum.
The dinner tent on the front lawn
Two Fridays ago, as the Honorary Ball Committee, President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter, The Honorable and Mrs. James A. Baker III, Madame Danielle Mitterrand, Madame Claude Pompidou, His Excellency the Ambassador of France and Madame Jean-David Levitte, and Renzo Piano invited patrons, supporters, and guests to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Menil Collection, with a masked ball.

Family members on hand included Christophe de Menil, who invited this writer as one of her dinner guests, and who designed her family members’ masks, drawing inspiration from works in the collection by Matisse, Warhol, and Northwest Coast totems; Adelaide de Menil, who wore a Christophe de Menil gown; Susan and François de Menil; Joy de Menil, a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly; Benjamin de Menil, founder of Iaso Records; and Victoria de Menil, of London.

Co-chairs Janet Hobby, Louisa Stude Sarofim, Leslie Elkins Sasser, and Marcy Taub Wessel gathered on the grounds of the Menil to greet guests, who included: Lois Chiles and Richard Gilder; Lynn and Oscar Wyatt; Hermès C.E.O. Robert Chavez; Menil Director Josef Helfenstein and Dorothee Helfenstein; Fayez Sarofim; Carl Palazzolo; Susie and Sanford Criner; Mel Chin; Janie C. Lee and David Warren; August Uribe; Bob and Gracie Cavnar; Frances Farenthold; Bertrand Davezac, in from Paris; Franklin Sirmans, the Menil’s new curator of modern and contemporary art; Rick Lowe; Nina and Michael Zilkha; Nick Flynn; and Dickie Landry.

Cocktails and the opening of a silent auction were followed by dinner, which was held under a tent on the front lawn. The band Chic featuring Nile Rodgers performed, drawing a large majority of guests to the dance floor. Close to the stage, Susan and François de Menil took to the floor. Toward the back, but directly in front of Christophe and Adelaide, Joy, Benjamin, and Victoria de Menil moved with smiles on their faces to live renditions of the songs made popular by Rodgers during the time of their grandmother’s realization of the Menil: “Le Freak (C’est Chic),” “Upside Down,” “I’m Coming Out.” The dance may have changed, and Renzo Piano’s glass windows might have replaced the gilt of Versailles, but on an unusually humid-free night in Houston, there was a sparkle among de Menils, and a sense of their history and their family future.
Ball Co-Chairs Louisa Stude Sarofim, Leslie Elkins Sasser, Janet Hobby, and Marcy Taub Wessel
Tony Arnold
Hon. and Mrs. (Ellen) Patrick Berron, Consul General of France; Joel Savary, French Cultural Attache, Houston; and His Excellency the Ambassador of France, and Jean-David Levitte
Melanie Lawson and John Guess Jr.
Paul and Janet Hobby
Bill Stern and Christophe de Menil
Laura Casey
Mark and Debra Grierson
Daniel Cappello and Jeff Caldwell
Emilia Rossato and Renzo Piano
Shannah Ferguson and Esta Kronberg
Lynn Wyatt as a “walking Frank Stella”
Judy Nyquist, Marita Fairbanks, and Rainey Knudson
Kelli Blanton and Beth Moore
Chic featuring Nile Rodgers
A table setting
Atmosphere under the tent
J. Randall Powers, Sissy Davis, and Robert Chavez in bespoke Hermès masks
Warren Weitman and Eve Reid
L. to r.: Warren Weitman and Eve Reid; Denise Rich, Nile Rodgers, and Marcy Taub Wessel.
Pat Breen and Carson Seeligson
Marc Melcher and Shayna Andrews
Rhonda Judy and Bill Davis
Adelaide de Menil, with mask by Christophe de Menil
Isabel and Ransom Lummis
Kate Gubelmann, Warren David, and Jimmy Gubelmann
Francesca Fuchs, Katrina Moorehead, and Miranda Lash
Phoebe Tudor in Zang Toi
Susan and Francois de Menil
L. to r.: Allison Leland and Rick Lowe; Chrissy Farrington and Francois de Menil; Becca Cason Thrash.
Bobby and Judy Gerry
Molly Gochman and David Graeve
Menil Collection Director Josef Helfenstein and Dorothee Helfenstein
Joy de Menil, Victoria de Menil, and Benjamin de Menil in masks by Christophe de Menil
Lisa Eads and Eleni Fuller

Click here for NYSD Contents