Affecting Presence: The Menil Whips Up a Delicious Exhibition With What’s Available

Serving cup (kylix), ca. 520 BCE, signed by Nikosthenes (potter).
Serving cup (kylix), ca. 520 BCE, signed by Nikosthenes (potter).
The Menil Collection, Houston / Paul Hester

Caught. That was my first response when I walked into the exhibition “Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experiences,” which opened last week at The Menil Collection. Why hadn’t I done my homework? I knew I should have. I even had the time, but I frittered it away. Those old Hilton Kramer art reviews from the 1970s were just too tempting. So there I was, caught unprepared and expected to review the show for the Houston Press. Picture me in the gallery with that deer-in-the-headlights — or rather, reviewer-in-the-art-supernova — look in my eyes.

But since I’m not actually the center of the universe, no, not even the Houston art exhibition universe, after a few moments I realized that no one was there to quiz me. Maybe I could just skulk around; look at objects that were familiar, though now in the company of unexpected, unfamiliar others, or that were unfamiliar and made no more comprehensible to me by the familiar company they now kept; and then rush home for a cram session on that shirked homework.

Unlike a certain other exhibition in town just now, which, though showing us many amazing, rare and beautiful objects, puts me in mind of a behemoth lumbering around the country, this show is concise, modest and fully conscious of its transience — it will be only here, and only for a short while. Also unlike that other show, which is really just one beautiful thing after another, included because they all happen to be in the same museum, “Affecting Presence” is an exhibition with an idea at its core.

These items are on view because they somehow demonstrate that idea — some more clearly than others, but all in some relevant way. That’s the difference between an accumulation and a collection, or in this case, an exhibition: The one brings together objects because they’re appealing and available; the other tests each object against the idea and keeps only those that help make it visible.

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The objects that make up “Affecting Presence” are almost all selected from the Menil permanent collection. This is an approach that Menil curators and guest curators have taken for a number of shows in recent years. So many, in fact, that it’s become something of a signature for the museum — a signature nicely written in most cases.

It’s like making supper only with what’s in the pantry. You can’t make just anything that comes to mind because you don’t have everything on hand. So you set your mind to figuring out what you can make with what you’ve got. The Menil art pantry has some pretty fab ingredients, but it still takes a curator with imagination and talent to whip up a delicious exhibition with what’s available. Which is what Paul Davis, Menil curator of collections, has done.

The exhibition begins with a white tunnel into darkness, a bright light at the end teasing drama (even more drama than it has innately) from a black, jaggedly abstract headdress of carved wood, made by an unknown artist from among the Bamana peoples of Mali, raised on a white pedestal against a slate-blue wall.

To the right, an alcove of abstracted figures, both ancient and modern, Western, Eastern, African, Polynesian, from the tiny to the life-size and beyond, makes the first of a series of groupings of abstract paintings and objects loosely organized, as stated in the pamphlet that accompanies the show, “around the foundations of visual communication: color, line, shape, surface, rhythm, symmetry, etc.” I’m not really sure what that means, but I enjoyed walking among David Smith’s Forging III, a stainless-steel column 66 inches high; an even taller fernwood figure from some South Pacific island; and a 5th-century B.C. “fecundity idol” that stands a whopping three inches. Was it what you’d call a “Delicious Experience”? Maybe so, but let me get back to that later.

A little further around the gallery, in a grouping of wooden objects used for support (stools, headrests, etc.), it took me more than a moment to determine which one was a sculpture by Constantin Brâncu?i and which were “primitive” pieces. Okay, that’s cool. I think I’m beginning to see the point. Is it possible I didn’t need to do the homework after all?

Next, strangely yellow light bathed a huge Morris Louis oil (Beta Pi, 1960), muting Louis’s bold colors and the whiteness of the canvas just enough to make it a fitting complement to the 1830 Hawaiian cloak of red and yellow feathers it faced, the bleeding Louis undulations of paint echoing the great swoops of color in the cloak. Definitely getting it.

Then I noticed them — the eyes painted on the rim of a Greek serving cup from 520 B.C. watching as I toured the gallery, almost like a second guard. They put me in mind of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s looming billboard eyes in The Great Gatsby (about which I wrote a rather successful college paper, if I do say so myself, back when the novel was almost new) watching — Fiercely? Judgmentally? Do you suppose they knew I hadn’t done my homework? — the unignorable proof that these objects had presences of their own.

They do know how to put on a show at Menil. Visual drama, drama, drama. Dark walls; objects of radically different scales, some at eye level, some near the floor, some suspended in the air high above; some looking at you, some commanding your attention by their stolid presence; all lighted with almost theatrical bravura. If you don’t feel the “presence” in their shows, it must be your own damn fault. All that’s missing is incense and music. Or, wait. Do I hear a melody?

When I got home and cracked the books — literally, since I got hold of a copy of The Affecting Presence: An Essay in Humanistic Anthropology (University of Illinois Press, 1971) by Robert Plant Armstrong, one of the inspirations for the show (can you believe there are no CliffsNotes!?) — I learned, “The affecting presence is perpetrated by an artist after an affecting ‘idea’; it is the artist who brings about the work, but it is the work that presents. Once created, the work embodies the idea…” A couple of chapters of that and my head was spinning.

But I did get a sense that there might be some interesting questions floating around the gallery, some questions even lackluster students like me might puzzle over: Is there something about an art object that makes it powerful whether or not we know its history; is the “art” in the object, the execution or the intent; is it still art if there’s no one there to see it?

These may seem like self-evident or stupid questions, but I’m emboldened to ask them by a recent reading of the self-described English tranny potter and Turner Prize winner, Grayson Perry, who says, “The art world needs people to keep asking it questions, and thinking about those questions helps the enjoyment and understanding of art.” (Thank goodness his book doesn’t need CliffsNotes.)

So much for the “Affecting Presence” of the title. I’ll lend you my copy of the book if you want more. What about “Delicious Experiences”? According to the exhibition pamphlet, those are the words of Dominique de Menil herself, and come from her exhortation to look for such experiences in art, keeping in mind her admonition that finding them requires you to do your part (that would be the homework). They’re words describing such a charmingly French approach to life, perhaps now falling on somewhat deaf modern American ears, but no doubt true nonetheless.

It’s an approach to art that’s part of the Menil DNA. Ever noticed what little wall text they give to help you out? Even the nifty exhibition pamphlets they publish now are relatively recent for them. It goes all the way back to John and Dominique, the French founders, who had to do the work when they decided to collect. They weren’t born knowing art. They did their part and got the art here for us, and they expect us to do ours. Which seems fair, and good for us in the long run.

But here’s the only answer from the cheat sheet you really need to know: You can go to this exhibition without doing any homework and still enjoy it. Sure, the show-offs who always have their hands in the air may get better grades. But the art doesn’t care about grades. Whatever it is that makes it art (and I’m not sure even the smart kids really know what that is) makes this a show worth seeing even if you fail the test. The artists made the objects and sent them flying like little birds into the world, where they now have lives of their own. The curator made the show and left the gallery door open. Lucky us, even if some of his nuances fly a bit too high for me to catch.

“Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experiences”
Through November 8. The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, menil.org.

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