Anyone who's spent enough time at the Menil Collection's permanent surrealism exhibit eventually gets the point: Primitive art was a huge influence on the surrealists. But that exhibit is heavy on the Magritte, unfortunately, so the level of abstraction offered by African forms isn't particularly emphasized. The museum's current show, "Chance Encounters: The Formation of the de Menils' African Collection," should replace the surrealism one, as it more elegantly encompasses the grand theme of the entire Menil Collection.
Renowned for its size, depth and sophistication, the Menil Collection constantly offers new surprises and continues to affirm its excellence. And according to those who've visited the museum's basement, what you see on display in "Chance Encounters" is a paltry fraction of this mind-blowing treasure trove. The exhibit magnificently plumbs the archive and communicates the de Menils' universal, humanist message in full. In the museum notes, curator Kristina Van Dyke quotes Dominique de Menil: "What could never have been written is all there; all the dreams and anguishes of man. The hunger for food and sex and security, the terrors of night and death, the thirst for life and the hope for survival." In fact, moving in a clockwise direction through the exhibit, it becomes obvious that this show represents the life cycle.
In the first room, or "birth," religious iconography permeates the space. Crucifixes, both of African origin and traditional, suggest an awakening of spirit. The bright, natural light enhances the effect, kicking off the journey.
In the second room, wild imagery implies a childlike state. Bizarre mosquito masks with long, skinny snouts give an angular energy to the room. Sharp, circular African throwing knives inflict a boyish preoccupation with weaponry and athletics. Certain pieces have been mounted at high positions on the walls, suggesting an upward perspective, a child's-eye view of the world. The African forms create a network within the gallery that transmits abstraction. Zoomorphic Head on a Foot, an eight-inch-tall wood sculpture from northeastern Congo, resembles a bird neck and head that's been stuck inside a boot. Max Ernst's Night and Day is here, depicting a dark, primitive landscape with little frames of illuminated color. It's an effective surrealist piece that gives an elegant nudge to the narrative.
Stepping into adulthood, the exhibit begins to reflect a more sophisticated conflict. Andy Warhol's Little Race Riot, a black-and-white silkscreen of a black man being attacked by a police officer's German shepherd, is juxtaposed with an amorphous African sculpture. Full human forms begin to appear, as well as more throwing knives (especially brutal-looking ones). Victor Brauner's Sapphic Complex mirrors the knives' forms and abstracts the shapes into humanoid figures. Francis Bacon's Study from the Human Body, hidden in a cubbyhole, reinforces the idea of the emerging personality with its abstract representation of a nebulous individual entering a doorway.
The de Menils' African collection really starts to assert itself as the exhibit turns toward old age. One room is a microcosmic population of earth, front-loaded with African sculptures and littered with marble busts of the Greek and Italian variety. A wonderful African woodcarving stand, maybe seven or eight feet tall, looks like a giant piece of coral (it's actually a utilitarian ladder). The appearance of this everyday tool gives a familial feel to the room, like a home with the presence of family members. It evokes wisdom and repose. The vertical positions of these sculptures and their tribal, totemlike austerity transmit tranquillity even though they seem like obstacles as one traverses the area into the final room, which is the most sparsely inhabited of the entire exhibit.
The space is anchored by a primitive wooden bed. (A deathbed, perhaps?) A giant brass ring rests against one wall, resonantly symbolizing having come full circle. As with the birth room, we're in bright light again, which makes Mark Rothko's No. 10, a mostly yellow canvas with a horizontal white bar, vibrate with warmth. The lack of detail in the room levels the space emotionally; things have moved toward blankness. The trip is excellently wrapped by a large Rauschenberg, Crucifixion and Reflection. The dual-tone white-and-taupe painting is an elegant closer to the exhibit; it reflects exactly the right tone and symbolically emphasizes African forms seen throughout the show.
Also on display are materials that explain the history behind the African collection. In 1959, Bernard Fagg, director of the Department of Antiquities in Nigeria, issues a frank warning to John de Menil: "As far as possible, will you try and ensure that customs officers never get their hands on these specimens. One of my terra cotta heads from New York was broken by the British customs at London Airport." De Menil's copious notes on certain specimens are displayed, even name-dropping the surrealist works they represent, as well as photographs of Dominique de Menil during the installation for the museum's opening in 1987. These extras only sweeten the package, offering insight into the fascinating story behind arguably the world's most important private art collection. This exhibit has a point of view and a universal lesson, and Van Dyke has translated it brilliantly.
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