"Between Land and Sea" at The Menil Offers Art From Regions Not Our Own

Ellsworth Kelly, Tablet #65 [Five Sketches]
Ellsworth Kelly, Tablet #65 [Five Sketches]
Photo courtesy of The Menil collection, Houston, Anonymous gift in honor of James A. Elkins, Jr. © Ellsworth Kelly

The Menil Collection has just opened a nice little show of regional art. It follows another that opened in February, and yet a third (now closed) last November. And the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has a big regional show taking up one of its major exhibition spaces. Can you believe it? So many exhibitions of regional art here in Houston in just six months. Amazing.

Before anyone (including museum curators and directors) gets overly excited or incensed at my observation, I should point out that none of the art in any of the shows is art of this region. That might verge on the provincial. But in each show the art is brought together based on the premise that artists working in the same place at roughly the same time (or even over time) draw something from that fellowship of place — something that somehow manifests in their work. How else would you define regional art?

The shows I’m talking about are the just-opened “Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip”; “Holy Barbarians: Beat Culture on the West Coast”; “ReCollecting Dogon” (art of the Bandiagara region of West Africa); and “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950.”

My job here is to review “Between Land and Sea,” curated by Michelle White. Before this show opened at Menil, I didn’t know much of anything about Coenties Slip — a street or two of Lower Manhattan demolished and redeveloped decades ago, but lingering in literature (Moby Dick), and in the art of the artists in the show. Even though I’ve read the opening pages of Moby Dick many times (I even once read all the way to the end, but that was some years ago — never mind how long precisely), I’ve never paid close attention to the Manhattan geography lesson Melville gives there: “Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward.”

But I certainly knew the names of some of the artists: Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin and Robert Indiana are hard names not to know if you give even a passing glance at the art museum world these days. Jack Youngerman, Lenore Tawney and Chryssa are now a little less well known, but they do pop up sometimes, especially Youngerman here in Houston, perhaps because his large painting titled Rochetaillée (1953) is in the MFAH permanent collection — and on loan to the exhibition. Youngerman is, in fact, one of the stars of the show, based in part on Rochetaillée, but even more on four small blazing works on paper in orange, yellow and black from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Words like “star” and “blazing,” though, aren’t the best choices for evoking the “calm” I felt after spending an hour in the show. An hour is a long time to spend in a small show in our frenetic age. (You’ll understand the aptness of “frenetic” if you’ve tried driving anywhere in the Museum District lately.) An hour surrounded by these subtle, small works begins to verge on meditation.

That is, perhaps, in part how the impact of this particular region weaves in. In Melville’s day, Coenties Slip was an actual artificial waterway giving ships access to the docks that would become streets when the area was filled in by the mid-19th century. A hundred years later, when the artists moved in, among the attractions of the place were old, by then disused buildings with large spaces, low rents, and views and scents of the sea, a world away from the artistic tumult of abstract expressionism uptown.

For the artists who moved there, the between-land-and-sea aspect echoed a between-past-and-present in art, since they were working after abstract expressionism and before minimalism — and even between the past of America, where Melville and Walt Whitman had walked, and its future, as the area was redeveloped with the modern skyscrapers of today. The between-ness of the place influenced the artists and infused the work. Presto, regional art.

Elsworth Kelly is in the show in plenty. There’s so much of him, in fact, that he spills over into the main entrance lobby, where, with half a dozen works, he gets a little show of his own. In the exhibition proper there’s another large horizontal geometric Kelly, facing the large horizontal geometric Youngerman through the door. This would have been a moving dialogue except for the reflection off the glass covering the Kelly. My plaid shirt, breaking into the Kelly-Youngerman conversation, made for an unpleasant screech that’s unusual in Menil exhibitions. Perhaps another look at lighting could work that out.

I’m not yet evolved enough to fully appreciate Martin’s later grids. Not enough there for my taste. But her earlier works, like those in this show, often thrill me — in a quiet way, of course, since it’s a calm show. Perhaps it’s because the lines aren’t yet quite straight, as in Island No.1 from 1960; there’s sometimes texture to the support (in other words, you can see the canvas threads), as in The Book, 1959; and the colors haven’t yet faded to the paleness of wraiths, as with Horizon, 1960. This is mostly “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid,” the title of a film and exhibition I got to see in New Mexico a few years ago (she lived and worked in New Mexico before and after her Coenties Slip days), and it’s the Martin I adore, including the very un-Martin-like Surrealist-tinged abstraction from 1955, her big painting here.

Robert Indiana, for me, is mostly the Love guy, after a ubiquitous image he created in 1967 for a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card. I suppose I should be ashamed to admit that. Now, with a wall of his little works in this show, I have an enlarged view of him. I’ve read that he made the first stencil-like words in his paintings using discarded sign letters he found abandoned in his Coenties Slip loft.

But for me the gratifying revelation of this show is Lenore Tawney, whose linen, silk and canvas Seaweed weaving from 1961, the giant of the group at 120 inches by 32 inches, is subtle and beautiful, harmonizing art and nature, and perhaps embodying the qualities that make the art of Coenties Slip distinctive.

“Between Land and Sea” isn’t just an exhibition island unto itself. It’s also a bridge to works on show elsewhere in the Menil at the monent. Kelly and Martin are both included in “The Beginning of Everything,” the big drawing show in the gallery next door. One of the Kelly works in that show, the 1948 Self Portrait done just before he moved back to America from Paris, following his friend Youngerman to Coenties Slip, is a charming depiction of an uncertain young artist at the beginning of what would be a long, spectacularly successful career. Very touching. Here too are some of Martin’s later grids. And in the other direction, one of Indiana’s large paintings from a few years after the Slip days hangs in the permanent collection galleries at the east end of the museum.

It’s interesting that half the artists included in “Between Land and Sea” are women, and that a few, at least, are gay — indicative of a diversity not always (maybe not even often) the case in American art circles not so long ago. That’s particularly timely in this age when diversity is on our minds.

To end where I began, our museums are full of regional art right now, as they always are, since all art is regional if you look at it that way. Scouring the regions of the world in search of art lets us see some amazing things: Components of the World (Adouron Bew) by Amahigueré Dolo, a 2007 wood and clay piece in “ReCollecting Dogon,” is for my money the most important work of art on show in Houston this season. And Coenties Slip, not quite so far away as Africa, has made a fine little show at Menil. So exhibitions of regional art can be good, and who knows, maybe sometime soon they’ll even want to look to regions closer to home.

Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip
Through August 6. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, menil.org


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