“I CALL MYSELF COVETOUS,” the late Dominique de Menil once told this magazine. “I have an enormous appetite for what- ever turns me on.” Luckily for her adopted city of Houston, what she craved most was art of the highest caliber: When the Menil Collection opened as its own museum in 1987—with a Renzo Piano building to house the masterpieces amassed by Dominique and her husband, John—it was heralded as one of the world’s premier private collections. Now, twenty years later, the namesake treasury is putting the couple’s acquisitive bent on display with an exhibit of pieces they held dear.
To fully appreciate “A Modern Patronage: de Menil Gifts to American and European Museums,” it first helps to understand the woman behind it. In 1941 Dominique, an heiress to the Schlumberger oil-equipment fortune, fled with John and their young children from Nazi-occupied Paris to Texas. Though it was a priest of the family’s acquaintance who introduced her to fine art, it was Houston’s cultural shortcomings that moved her to start collecting. “There were no galleries to speak of, no dealers worth the name … That is why I developed this physical need to acquire,” she said. And acquire she did. The Menil Collection harbors 16,000 items: extraordinary antiquities, medieval and Byzantine works, African and Oceanian pieces, and a vast array of twentieth-century offerings with a considerable stash of Surrealist art.
But with this hunger also came an astonishing generosity, and the de Menils were committed to sharing their artistic wealth. Numerous purchases ended up as gifts scattered across the globe, bestowed to a host of museums. It is these crown jewels that now represent the heart of the exhibit: Brought together for the first time, they’ve been culled from near (as close as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York) and far (Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou and Musée du Quai Branly). “Even most of our staff didn’t realize that some of the greatest pieces the de Menils ever collected were given away,” says director Josef Helfenstein. “So basically all of the loans will be big surprises.”
Some will be more revelatory than others, like Jackson Pollock’s The Deep, which Dominique presented to the Pompidou in 1976 in honor of John’s passing three years earlier. An oversized canvas, it is a critical example of the artist’s last period and a noted departure from the drip paintings we’ve come to associate with him. (You can imagine its lender’s hesitation to part with it even for this occasion.) But there are plenty of other knockouts as well: Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair series, a four-foot-wide ceremonial bowl from Africa, Man Ray’s portrait of the Marquis de Sade, and an entire roomful of Jean Tinguely’s delicate sculptural machines.
The show’s true strength lies in what these works represent, namely, the de Menils’ larger passions: Many pieces reflect their devotion to civil rights; others capture their belief in art as an expression of human experience. “A Modern Patronage” certainly constitutes a noteworthy homecoming of sorts. But the eclectic assemblage is all the more significant for its compelling look into the psyche of its insatiable owners. Jun 8–Sep 16. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, menil.org
The Filter: Events
The evolution of the human figure in art is wor- thy of years of study. For those of us with less time, an exceptional capsule collection featuring some of the more indelible images of the twentieth century allows for a succinct yet encyclopedic overview of art’s most stimulating subject. The curators behind “ The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso,” which is coming to the Kimbell Art Museum this month, have managed to cull from an infinite pool and still give us a neatly chronological synopsis of the major breakthroughs of the form. Pablo Picasso serves as an obvious anchor for the nearly one hundred works, which date from 1890 to 1980. The Spaniard is, of course, practically synonymous with the portrait; the faces of his subjects spring quickly to mind (see his Harlequin With a Mirror, above), and the progression of his style typifies the century’s lust for experimentation. But the crux of “The Mirror and the Mask” is that the artists here (from Paul Cézanne and Amedeo Modigliani to Frida Kahlo and Francis Bacon), unlike their predecessors, are not beholden to their sitters, and their resulting creations are not conservative commissions but avant-garde reflections of historical events and artistic movements (Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and so on). As its title suggests, the exhibit begins with intimate self-portraits—there’s Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Edvard Munch staring back at you—and moves to less precise representations that often question identity and distort reality (picture Salvador Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the 21st Century, a bust with ram’s horns and two tongues that seems to be melting off its pedestal). To comb through all the finer, but no less significant, ideas in between, which “The Mirror and the Mask” delineates so precisely, you’ll need to set aside the time to make multiple trips through this survey. The nuances of the human face were never so fascinating. Jun 17–Sep 16. 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd, 817-332-8451, kimbellart.org
There will be no 800-number voting, no professional hair and makeup, and no Simon Cowell at The Big Squeeze, an accordion competition hosted by Texas Folklife this month. But the young players (28 is the age limit) vying for the $1,000 top prize don’t care. To them, this is as good as it gets. This is Accordion Idol. The inaugural field of wannabes has already been narrowed down to seven semifinalists, and after they play two songs of their choice for four judges, only three of these amateurs will survive to take center stage at the Miller Outdoor Theatre. And like that other contest, this one will hinge on audience response, though the judges will make the ultimate call. (An added bonus: The final evening