Texas Adopts the Arts
From Houston to Dallas to the flatlands of west Texas, the brashest state in the union is booming—and building museums faster than it can drill for oil. Paul Alexander reports on how Texans are hitching up to the hallowed halls of culture
On an early fall evening in Houston, a typically hot and muggy one, some of the city's most powerful business and social leaders gathered in the expansive main hall of the Museum of Fine Arts. They were there to celebrate the opening of a retrospective of Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist best known for his Social Realist‚style murals, who, together with his wife Frida Kahlo, changed the face of Mexican painting. The men wore business suits—with or without cowboy boots; the women, designer dresses in electric shades of red and purple. A more common topic of conversation than Rivera and his art was the museum's giant new addition, an $83 million project under construction next door. The four-story, 192,000-square-foot Indiana-limestone structure, designed by Pritzker Prize‚winning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, opens March 25. It will be named for Audrey Jones Beck, who, with her husband, donated a prominent collection of works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Seurat, and other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists.
When the Beck Building opens, this art museum, established in 1924, will become one of the largest in the country. But the stakes are a lot greater than the construction of more exhibition space might suggest. All across Texas—in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and even El Paso—art museums are either undergoing major expansions or being built from scratch. To an outsider it might appear as if Texans are trying to buy culture, much the way the University of Texas at Austin has been accused over the years of buying academic legitimacy by spending millions to acquire original manuscript collections for the Harry Ransom Research Center. But to Texans, spending large sums on art museums is nothing so much as an expression of civic pride, a love that often borders on blind adoration.
Sometimes this devotion to place takes on odd overtones. Witness a phenomenon rarely seen elsewhere: residents bequeathing their estates—even their houses—to art museums. For instance, in March 1999, Rienzi, once the home of Harris Masterson III and his wife, Carroll Sterling Masterson (her father was one of the founders of Humble Oil, which became Exxon), opened as an extension of Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. It contains examples of English furniture, European paintings, and an impressive collection of 18th-century Worcester porcelain. But Rienzi pales in comparison with Bayou Bend, the sprawling Colonial Revival mansion formerly owned by legendary Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg. After her father bought the property in the early part of the century, Hogg and her brothers built the house, struck oil, and created eight gardens, renowned for their azaleas. Once Bayou Bend opened as the American decorative arts wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1966, the public could tour the house, located on Lazy Lane in exclusive River Oaks (Houston's Beverly Hills), and see rare pieces of American furniture, Audubon prints, and a collection of ceramics and silverworks that includes pieces by Paul Revere.
Given this distinctly Texan philanthropy, it wasn't hard for the Museum of Fine Arts to raise the millions needed for the Beck Building. With the addition, the museum, which currently comprises the original Beaux-Arts building and two Mies van der Rohe wings built in 1958 and 1974, will be able to display permanently works that, due to space limitations, could be shown only on occasion—such as certain paintings by Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol. As if to underscore its already significant Pollock holdings, the museum bought 18 works from the artist's estate just before breaking ground on the Beck Building. "The Beck will focus international attention on the museum and Houston," says Joseph Havel, one of the associate directors, who is himself an artist. (He created the bronze sculpture Curtain that will be displayed on either side of the Beck's front doors.) "It's a very active and exciting art scene that's only going to get brighter."
Havel isn't alone in his enthusiasm. Two nights after the sponsors' preview of the Rivera show, which drew the cream of Houston society, the MFA was packed, not with the cultural elite, but with mainstream art lovers—members of the museum who support the institution with as little as $40 a year. While hundreds of people streamed into the museum—2,000 would ultimately show up—a mariachi band played in a corner of the main room. Before the night was over, viewers were standing 10-deep to look at Rivera's paintings. (Rivera, who championed public art, would have loved the MFA's sculpture garden just across the street. It contains an array of pieces by artists as varied as Matisse, Frank Stella, David Smith, and Ellsworth Kelly.)
The next night, not far from the museum, another crowd turned out for another opening—actually several openings and open houses on Gallery Row, a group of eight galleries ("our little SoHo," one owner calls it) in a strip mall. The main event was at the Barbara Davis Gallery, a show of drawings and sculptures by James Surls, the Texas-born founder of the Lawndale Art Center, an alternative exhibition space. "It's happening here," says Barbara Davis. "Texans aren't just decorative-art buyers anymore; art has become a lifestyle for many collectors. I've been in business for seventeen years, but the big change has taken place over the past four or five years."
With local institutions such as Project Row Houses, which presents the work of Texas artists in an area reclaimed from urban blight, and a recently refurbished Contemporary Arts Museum, there are enough art-related functions that it can be hard to keep up. Some nights, as many as 20 events are going on at once—a level of activity that ranks Houston with cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, if not New York itself. "The gallery scene has developed here—that's for sure," says Doug Lawing, who gave up a legal practice five years ago to open a gallery downtown. "I have a national client base; I just happen to be located in Houston."
IF ONE WOMAN COULD BE CONSIDERED THE MOTHER OF arts patronage in Houston, if not in all Texas, it's the late Dominique de Menil. In a state where supporting the arts has become de rigueur among certain social cliques, de Menil has assumed legendary status. In many ways, Dominique, along with her husband, forged the way for a style of patronage based as much on a commitment to place as on an individual vision. What's more, the de Menils reflected perfectly the Texas vogue for Modernism. While Texans will collect art from other periods, it's what's current—contemporary, even cutting-edge—that appeals to them most. A state of pioneers—and pioneering art.
Dominique de Menil's father was Frenchman Conrad Schlumberger, who invented a device to locate oil that made him very rich indeed. Dominique married Jean de Menil in 1931. As Europe came under the shadow of Hitler, the couple left the Continent and settled in Houston. There Jean (who changed his name to John) ran the Schlumberger company office. All of Texas society waited to see how the de Menils would spend their money.
They began by hiring a young architect named Philip Johnson to build a house for them in River Oaks. That house would change the direction of American architecture, prefiguring the weekend home the architect would later build for himself in New Canaan, Connecticut—the seminal Glass House. The residence Johnson designed for the de Menils, his first, had five bedrooms in a 5,900-square-foot rectangular structure—big enough to accommodate a brood that grew to five children: Georges, Philippa, François, Adelaide, and Christophe. Building on a collection they had begun in the forties, which included a number of Modernist masterpieces, the de Menils began, in the sixties, to buy works by contemporary artists whose popularity increased dramatically during that decade—Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. At the same time, the de Menils supported a range of social causes. Especially sensitive to racial issues, they endorsed the Black Panthers and later sponsored local African-American politicians such as Congressman Mickey Leland, who became a close friend.
In the mid-sixties, the de Menils approached Rothko about creating, as Dominique would describe it, "a religious environment, a sacred place." When Rothko suggested an octagonal-shaped chapel that would house new paintings he'd create especially for the project, to be open to the public, the de Menils again turned to Philip Johnson. Johnson's Rothko Chapel contains 14 paintings—each a beautiful, large monochrome canvas—that Rothko produced from 1964 to 1967. The de Menils were proceeding with the construction of the chapel when, in 1969, they offered Barnett Newman's sculpture Broken Obelisk to the city of Houston, with the stipulation that it be dedicated to Martin Luther King. The city refused. Unfazed, they decided to create a space for the work themselves—next to the spot they'd chosen for the Rothko Chapel. The meditative quality of the Rothkos seems to echo in the sober lines of Newman's obelisk, which is set in a reflecting pool just outside the building.
Visitors came by the thousands to the Rothko Chapel, until it was closed in 1998. Cracks had appeared in the foundation and threatened to destroy one side of the building. Following renovations, the chapel will reopen early this summer.
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.
The museum boom in Texas may sound as big as the state itself, but many of the exhibition spaces, old and new, have been designed for tightly focused collections that were formerly in private hands—so you won't get as lost as you might in the Louvre, nor will you be disappointed by what's on view. Most museums, exhibition spaces, and galleries are open from 10 to 6, but call to confirm opening hours.
Museum of Fine Arts Houston 1001 Bissonnet St.; 713/639-7300; closed Mondays. On view from February 13 to May 7 is the landmark exhibition "The Golden Age of Archaeology: Celebrated Archaeological Finds from the People's Republic of China." The museum's sculpture garden, open daily, is free to the public.
Contemporary Arts Museum 5216 Montrose Blvd.; 713/284-8250; closed Mondays; free.
Menil Collection 1515 Sul Ross St.; 713/525-9400; Wednesday‚Sunday; free.
Rothko Chapel 3900 Yupon St.; 713/524-9839; free (reopens in early summer).
Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum 4011 Yupon St.; 713/521-3990; Wednesday‚Sunday; free.
Project Row Houses 2501 Holman St.; 713/526-7662; Wednesday‚Sunday; free.
Barbara Davis Gallery 2627 Colquitt St.; 713/520-9200; by appointment only.
Texas Gallery 2012 Peden St.; 713/524-1593; Tuesday‚Saturday.
Rienzi 1406 Kirby Dr., River Oaks; 713/639-7800; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and all of August.
The European decorative art and antiques wing of the MFAH. Reservations required.
Bayou Bend 1 Westcott St.; 713/639-7750; closed Mondays.
The MFAH's American decorative arts collection. Visits with a tour only; call for reservations.
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 1309 Montgomery St.; 817/738-9215; closed Mondays; free. On February 13 the museum opens the second part of a show dedicated to Bruce Conner, best known for his landmark assemblages and short films of the 1950's and 60's.
Kimbell Art Museum 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.; 817/332-8451; closed Mondays. Through March 26, "Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion" presents a mandala sand painting, and 60 sacred paintings dating from the 13th through the 20th centuries.
Amon Carter Museum 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd. The original Philip Johnson building is closed during its expansion. Selected works from the permanent collection are temporarily on view at "the Carter Downtown" (500 Commerce Street; 817/738-1933; closed Mondays; free).
Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art 2010 Flora St.; 214/979-6430; closed Mondays; free.
Dallas Museum of Art 1717 N. Harwood St.; 214/922-1200; closed Mondays; free. A show of Gerhard Richter's multiples and 20 paintings opens on February 12.
To make the trip to Marfa, fly either to El Paso or Midland and drive 200 miles into the town that Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd—and James Dean—put on the map. (The town was named for a character in The Brothers Karamazov.)
Chinati Foundation 1 Cavalry Row, Marfa, just off Hwy. 67; 915/729-4362. The foundation manages a collection of works either made or assembled by Judd during his 20 or so years in Marfa. Chinati is open Thursday to Saturday for tours at 1 and 3 p.m., or by appointment. Suggested admission is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and students.