HOUSTON -- The new Menil Collection is a magical museum. It leads the eye to mysteries. It summons many gods.
It does not try to teach as other institutions do. It is not encyclopedic or in any way pedantic. Its objects come from Africa, Mexico and Moscow, from the bogs of Celtic Ireland, the studios of Manhattan, from Paris and Peru. They spin the mind away from textbook linearities, yet somehow seem allied. Their touchstone is the sacred. Together they suggest a seeking that has governed more than 15,000 years of the history of art.
The oldest is a bit of bone incised with trotting reindeer. It was carved in Ice Age France. The newest is a halo, nearly eight feet high, and sheathed in gleaming gold. It was made by James Lee Byars in 1985. They could not differ more, and yet they do not clash.
The museum is a gift to Houston, to the nation, from Dominique de Menil. With her family's foundation -- their fortune comes from Schlumberger, the oil field service firm -- she provided more than half the money for the 100,000-square-foot, $25 million building (the remainder was provided by other Houston donors). With her late husband John, who died in 1973, and more recently with Walter Hopps, the Menil Collection's imaginative director, she chose its works of art.
When her husband came to this country after World War II, he changed his name from Jean to John, dropped the accent from de Me'nil and stopped using his title; he was born a French baron. For reasons of simplicity, his museum and foundation is called Menil.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this strange museum -- which goes on view today -- is its mood of spare austerity. It contains 10,000 objects, though far fewer are on view. It has Pollocks and Picassos, Rauschenbergs and Warhols, and a whole room of de Chiricos, another of Cornells, another of Magrittes. (Washington's museums, all of them together, cannot begin to match its surrealist collection.) It has antiquities from Europe, Africa and Asia, relics from Byzantium and rooms of tribal art. Yet one rarely thinks of money here. Instead one is reminded of rituals, of worship, of a polytheist's church.
The building has a look of Protestant humility, of Texas ostentation intentionally avoided. One does not pay admission. There is nothing here for sale, no knickknacks, no boutiques. A block-long sky-lit corridor, a sort of an interior street, cuts straight through the building. The daylit rooms beside it are blank and white and simple. The lighting is amazing, but it is only lighting. There are no complicated labels, no fancy installations. There is little here to catch the eye, except the art itself. Everywhere one senses opulence denied.
Dominique de Menil seems to wear about her a similar simplicity. Her presence is at once humble and commanding. She is sometimes called "the Abbess." She is, at 79, still exceptionally beautiful. Her hair is white, her speech precise, her pale skin translucent. It is easy to imagine her content in some monastic cell, with a crucifix, a cot, a book of sacred writings and a single work of art to spur her meditation.
"And what is art," she asks, "if it does not enchant? Art is incantation. Like Jacob's ladder, it leads to higher realities, to timelessness, to paradise. It is the fusion of the tangible and the intangible; the old hierogamy myth -- the marriage of heaven and earth."
The Schlumbergers were Protestants, puritans of sorts, Calvinist Alsatians. As a child she was given but a single doll. And art was seen as frippery. "My mother and her mother would have loved to buy paintings and could have afforded them," she once told Pontus Hulten, "but when my grandmother had wanted to buy a Gauguin, her husband said no, and in those days women did not dare do anything without the approval of their husbands.
"My mother loved the impressionists, particularly Ce'zanne, but she never bought anything, because my father did not approve of spending money for paintings. On the Alsatian side of his family, one did not indulge in what was considered 'luxury': no rare books, no antique furniture, nothing really expensive except perhaps some silver. Yes, one had to have silver, but not paintings. Paintings were considered ostentatious. Certainly I did not inherit a tradition of patronizing the arts, but I inherited the craving, the unfulfilled craving of my mother and grandmother."
She inherited as well a sort of tribal memory of the massacres of Protestants in Roman Catholic France. She converted to Catholicism just before her marriage, and one senses in that act something more elusive, an awareness of the saints and of other holy spirits, aspects of the godhead, worshiped with devotion in realms beyond her own.
She says: "The Catholic cannot say 'Only I hold God.' "
Much of her inheritance -- that craving for possession, that deep distrust of lavishness, that sympathy with underdogs, and that certainty that God is known to other cultures -- fills her new museums and swirls around its art.
Though the art is shown in groups, in what one might call chapters, one is not asked to read them in any special order. Exploring this collection is like flipping through the pages of Malraux's ecumenical "Museum Without Walls." Here, as in that volume, the objects on display seem to call to one another as if paying no attention to style or to time.
Among the earliest and loveliest works in the collection is a figurine from Turkey, a small reclining female idol, senuous and plump, made in southwest Anatolia, circa 5600 B.C. She is not alone. Her sisters here include a figurine from Mali, a strange, large-eyed reclining nude by Romania's Victor Brauner from 1946, a seated plaster woman modeled by George Segal in 1967, and an another sort of odalisque that also hints at death, Magritte's reclining coffin, "Madame Recamier" of 1967.
Near that Turkish figure stands another sort of nude, a superb standing figure fashioned in the Cyclades circa 2700-2400 B.C. Her body has been purified, as if wed to numbers. That odd, compelling sense of the sacred made visible through mathematic's magic is sensed throughout the gallery's opening exhibition. One sees it in a figurine, a woman like a cross, that was carved in Cyprus in 3000 B.C., and in a standing cubist nude painted by Picasso in 1909-1910, and in the elongated strangeness of "Standing Woman" (1953), a small painted plaster by Alberto Giacometti.
Grids, in this exhibit, begin to sing of crosses. One feels that in the tall, straight lines of Barnett Newman's paintings, in Mondrian's right angles, in Frank Stella's painted bands of aluminum and copper, and nowhere more mysteriously than in Robert Rauschenberg's early, unfamiliar "Crucifixion and Reflection" (1950-51).
Painters seen by some as irreligious formalists here are represented by objects that, like mantras, must have been produced to encourage meditation. One such contemplative object is a small green grid by Jasper Johns of 1953. There are no letters and no numbers in its little squares; there is nothing there but paint. It seems a portrait of the void.
There is no German expressionism in the Menil Collection, and little from the Renaissance, or from 19th-century France. But the objects here are so in tune one does not think of gaps.
They sometimes sing of color. As one steps into the building one is greeted by a giant Barnett Newman, a vast and open field of bold cadmium red. To the left there hangs a painted cloth from the Northwest coast, "Curtain With Thunderbird and Whale," c. 1860. The bird's wings are that same red. That color appears once again farther down the hall behind a clawing man made by Francis Bacon. The Newman seems a blessing carried by the thunderbird to Bacon's figure of despair.
No object here is stranger than "The Wondrous Head" from Ireland. Carved some 1,600 years ago, that Celtic head of oak was found in the mid-19th century buried in a bog. In 1955, some curator (who must have been half-blind) dismissed it as a minor ethnographic curiosity, perhaps from New Zealand, and though it is regarded now as an Irish national treasure, it slipped onto the market. It was recognized for what it was by the de Menils.
Washington's Duncan Phillips, another personal collector, was primarily attracted to still lifes and small landscapes and brilliantly tuned colors. He yearned for delectation. Both John and Dominique de Menil loved works of art that make one think of worlds one has not seen.
They bought, as did few others, the consistently mysterious art of the surrealists. For where others sensed but games and jokes, they recognized together another sort of seeking. They turned, for similar reasons, to the art of ancient cultures, to Byzantium and Africa. "The recourse to the invisible is a mark of the religious, a search for spirituality," writes Dominique de Menil. We see our age as secular, but these two collectors sensed that old, familiar yearning for the spiritual time and time again in contemporary art.
They sensed it in the field paintings of Newman, Rothko, Pollock, Still, Brice Marden and Yves Klein. They saw it in the grids of Mondrian and Cornell. They glimpsed in the death-dark works of Warhol and of Bacon, and in the anguish that is summoned by de Kooning and John Chamberlain.
They learned from many teachers, first from Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican friar who led them to the world of modern art, then from Jermayne MacAgy, who helped them see the beauty that resides in strangeness, and last from Walter Hopps.
And what they learned again from art -- an ecumenical broad-mindedness, a sympathy for distant gods, a confidence in their own views, a deep distrust of cant -- flourished in their lives.
Both the de Menils worked as hard to battle bigotry as they did to promote art.
Dominique de Menil says her husband learned to detest bigotry while warring on the Nazis and fighting with the French Foreign Legion in Morocco. She dates her own commitment to "my first encounter with America. I landed in New York in June 1941 and reached Houston, Texas, soon after. In those days segregation in the South was as firmly established as a law of nature. I found myself in a car packed with soldiers. I moved to a less crowded one, empty but for three or four blacks. A conductor soon told me I could not stay there. I had crossed the color bar. Indignation grew with time ..."
Twenty-five years ago the Menil Foundation established a continuing research project on "The Image of the Black in Western Art." That project has, so far, resulted in an archive, in three thick published volumes, and in some of the most poignant works in the collection.
One block from this museum stands the Rothko chapel, another ecumenical project of the de Menils.
It was Jermayne MacAgy's early death that first spurred its planning. "When Jerry died, nothing made sense anymore," Dominique de Menil has said. "When the floor collapses, it is time to make an act of faith."
It was conceived as a Roman Catholic chapel for the University of St. Thomas, a local Catholic college the family had long supported. It is not a Catholic chapel now. Bar mitzvahs have been held there, and holy Sufi dances, and Buddhist weddings, too. Houston's Moslems worshiped there until they founded their own mosque. Its dark, majestic pictures were completed by Mark Rothko just before his suicide. The "Broken Obelisk" that stands in the reflecting pool outside was made by Barnett Newman, another Jewish artist.
The "Broken Obelisk" once stood outside the Corcoran. It was brought by John de Menil to Houston, and offered to the city -- which did not accept it -- as a monument in memory of Martin Luther King. When the city balked at the de Menils' "controversial" dedication, they put the "Obelisk" up themselves.
One of the most amazing objects in their new museum is a tiny golden Byzantine reliquary from 6th-century Yugoslavia. You cannot see that tiny and yet awesome object without thinking of the holy. The "Obelisk," the chapel, the dark Rothkos within it, have now been tied to that small casket by bonds of mental resonance. Seen now in this context all these varied objects seem monuments erected in defiance of the void.
This museum is a monument. No collection more important, or moving, or coherent, has been unveiled in postwar America. The new Menil Collection has been beautifully installed by Hopps, but its collection is so large, and so richly tied together, that to sense its wholeness fully will require many years.
Its objects, like so many ghosts, hover in the memory. One of the most touching is a 1937-1943 painting by Francis Picabia. The work has a strange story. William Camfield tells it nicely: On one fine spring day in 1943, a neighbor was awakened by the painter's shouting wife. "Francis was ruining all his paintings; he was painting flowers on everything in the studio, and he refused to stop." The neighbor "hurried over, but Picabia would not stop for him either, insisting that it was a beautiful spring day, that he felt elated, and they he was having a merry time painting daisies on everything."
Something of that ecstasy is felt among the new and ancient objects housed in the museum. The dark ones and the bright ones -- like the waltzing coupled painted by Picabia -- seem to dance together. It is as if the de Menils, both committed Catholics, had somehow strewn their faith in the Resurrection, and the flowers of the beautiful, in the face of death.