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Texas Adopts the Arts

Once the Rothko Chapel was completed, the de Menils began to plan a museum to hold their considerable art collection. But John died in 1973, and it was only in 1980 that Dominique finally commissioned Italian architect Renzo Piano to design the museum. Finished in 1987, the Menil Collection is a large but elegant rectangular building. Its color matches the gray of the wood-frame houses Dominique bought up on the city blocks just north and south of the museum, an area that has come to be known as Menilville. The Menil Collection makes available to the public one of the most eclectic private collections of modern and contemporary art in America. It contains pieces, many of them major, by Picasso, Max Ernst, Matisse, Paul Klee, de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, and Warhol. "I go to the Menil about every two weeks when I'm in Houston to wander around and bask," says the playwright and devoted art collector Edward Albee, who teaches each spring at the University of Houston.

Across the street from the museum is another gallery devoted to the work of a single painter, Cy Twombly. A colleague of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Twombly emerged as an important figure in the seventies, and Philippa (now Fariha) de Menil purchased many of his works for the Dia Center for the Arts, a New York‚based not-for-profit organization she helped establish. Dominique again hired Piano, who designed a white concrete-block building with a stretched-scrim, louvered ceiling that can be adjusted to control the amount and quality of light entering the rooms. In the gallery's collection are several of Twombly's masterworks, including The Age of Alexander and Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor). "Twombly is a sailor and loves light through sailcloth," explains the Menil Collection's founding director, Walter Hopps. "It's an extraordinary space that provides an intense experience. There's nothing in the way, nothing between you and the work."

Other additions to Menilville followed. François de Menil designed the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum expressly for two 13th-century Cypriot frescoes. And in 1996, Dominique commissioned an installation by Minimalist sculptor Dan Flavin. Colored fluorescent tubes line two facing walls in a converted 1930's grocery store, now called Richmond Hall. Flavin's piece was to be one of his last: he died that same year.

Not so long after, on December 31, 1997, Dominique herself died at age 89 in the house Philip Johnson had built for her nearly a half-century before. A good portion of her estate, some $200 million, went to the Menil Foundation, which she set up to make sure her museums, galleries, and chapels would remain open to the public. "She humanized art," Barbara Davis says. "She brought it to the people. That will be her legacy." At present, the foundation is trying to decide what to do with the Johnson house; ideally, those board members who want to open it to the public, even on a limited basis, will win out. With the de Menils' priceless art collection displayed in rooms whose interiors were designed by couturier Charles James, this unpretentious house still feels oddly inhabited.

OF LATE, THERE SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN MORE MUSEUM construction in Texas than in any state in the country. In 1998, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art opened at the San Antonio Museum of Art—an $11 million project that houses Rockefeller's select but notable collection of Pre-Columbian, Spanish colonial, and Hispanic modern and contemporary folk art. That same year, a former Greyhound bus terminal in El Paso became the city's art museum. In the Dallas‚Fort Worth area, too, numerous museums have opened recently or are under construction. Last fall, real-estate tycoon Trammell Crow and his wife, Margaret, made their extensive collection of Asian art available to the public, and this year another collector, Raymond Nasher, commissioned Renzo Piano to design a sculpture center, to be located near the Dallas Museum of Art. An outdoor sculpture garden and indoor gallery will display Nasher's 300 pieces of modern and contemporary sculpture by artists such as Matisse, de Kooning, Picasso, Alexander Calder, Rodin, and David Smith. Nasher's collection is so respected that it was the subject of an exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1997.

Dallas's sister city of Fort Worth has always had the Kimbell Art Museum, not unlike New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in the variety if not the scope of its collections. But the Kimbell will soon have competition from existing museums that are undergoing expansions. Directly across the street, workers recently broke ground on the new wing of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Ando has rarely worked outside his own country, where his clean, neo-Modernist buildings are acclaimed for their sensitivity to the particularities of place. This new space, to open in the fall of 2002, will showcase the museum's superb collection of modern masters. Equally significant to architecture buffs is the addition to the Amon Carter Museum, known for its eccentric collection of American art, which ranges from Frederic Remington to Stuart Davis. The original 1961 building, designed by Philip Johnson, is famous for its view of the Fort Worth skyline; Johnson has been commissioned to do the third extension to the museum, which, he says, will serve only to highlight the existing structure.

THERE'S TALK THAT A MUSEUM MAY ALSO BE BUILT IN the west Texas town of Marfa to exhibit the work of Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd. Whether or not that happens, Marfa already has enough art on display to make it a worthwhile destination for any art lover. Finding your way to Marfa is no small feat, though. It's so isolated that, as a visitor once put it, "You can't even get static on the radio." If you do make it there, you can see the considerable legacy of Donald Judd, who lived in Marfa for two decades, and who is increasingly viewed as one of the most influential sculptors of his generation.

In 1946, on a bus trip from Alabama to Los Angeles, the Missouri-born Judd passed through the Southwest for the first time. Years later, in 1971, when he was living in Manhattan and yearning to escape, Judd remembered west Texas. "I chose the town of Marfa (pop. 2,466)," Judd wrote, because compared to other towns "it was the best-looking and most practical." Marfa was mainly known, insofar as it was known at all, for being the location where director George Stevens shot his 1956 Texas epic Giant, which starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. (The cast stayed at the El Paisano Hotel; it still stands near Marfa's town square.)

Soon Judd had relocated to Marfa, and was buying up land and buildings in which to display oversize pieces of art. (His efforts were funded in part by Dia, which has its own exhibition space in New York and maintains such large earthworks projects as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in Utah and Walter De Maria's Lightning Field in New Mexico.) One of Judd's purchases was Fort D. A. Russell, an abandoned cavalry post. Judd himself lived in a compound he called the Block. It is not open to the public.

When Dia cut off funding in 1986 (because of its own financial difficulties), Judd, whose work sold well during the art boom in the eighties, continued to buy up Marfa. At one point he owned so many buildings that his various construction projects made him the town's largest single employer.

In February 1994, Judd died of lymphoma. Under the auspices of an organization he set up called the Chinati Foundation (named for the area's Chinati Peak), Judd's holdings included many significant installations, now open to the public. The centerpiece is a work by Judd himself: 100 41-by-51-by-72-inch aluminum cube-like pieces that fill two former artillery sheds in Fort Russell. Also on the fort's grounds are a huge horseshoe sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and a wry installation by Ilya Kabakov. (In one of the barracks, Kabakov upended furniture and scattered books and papers about the room as if to suggest a Soviet school that has been abandoned.) Nearby, in a former wool storage facility, numerous pieces from John Chamberlain's famous car-wreck series are on display.

But what may be Chinati's most ambitious art project to date is not yet finished. Six of the barracks will be given over to a massive fluorescent-light installation by Dan Flavin, who was such a close friend of Judd's that Judd named his son after him. (Flavin Judd is overseeing his father's estate—which controls whatever Judd interests Chinati does not—until it is closed. The remaining holdings may be transferred to the nonprofit Judd Foundation.) This installation, which Dan Flavin finalized just before his death in 1996, will be his largest, bigger than the one Dominique de Menil commissioned for Richmond Hall. In its scope and ambition, the piece cannot help but add to Judd's already significant achievements at Marfa. "I have a vision that Marfa will become a place of pilgrimage over the coming years," says Fredericka Hunter, owner of Houston's Texas Gallery and president of the Chinati Foundation's board. "People are just beginning to understand Judd's contribution to art. As for Marfa, there's no place like it in the world." Nor, or so it seems, like Texas.


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