One Hundred Years Strong: Tour the Major Modernist Thrust of European/American Art at the Menil

Ostensibly this is a review of the exhibition "Barnett Newman: The Late Work," which recently opened at The Menil Collection. It's their major show of the spring season, and I'll talk about it some toward the end.

But even more important than a single major show is the opportunity the Menil is giving us for the next few months to take an exhilarating visual tour through the major modernist thrust of European/American art for the hundred years from the 1860s to the 1960s.

With a couple of special exhibitions (including Newman), a stunning reinstallation of the permanent collection, and the old standby -- but always standout -- Surrealist holdings, they're giving us here in Houston an art-history experience that can be bested only at the likes of MOMA in New York or the Centre Pompidou in Paris, if even there.

In the beginning is "Becoming Modern," a small joint show of 19th-century French drawings from the permanent collections of the Morgan Library and the Menil. Since I recently wrote (or, perhaps more accurately, gushed) about this show and the little group of early modernist oils that accompanies it (added to since I first saw it), I won't repeat myself except to say: This is the place to start.

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Then it's on to the Surrealist galleries next door. For the moment, pass by the de Chiricos and go into the gallery to the left. Here some later Cubist works -- a beautiful Picasso, some Légers, and an oil and a drawing by Juan Gris -- get us from Picasso's Femme Nue of 1910 in the hall to the next phase at the end of the nineteen teens. The Gris works are especially worth noting. He died young, so his paintings are scarce, unlike the seemingly dime-a-dozen Picassos that blanket the world (which are -actually more likely to run $100 million apiece these days).

In the same gallery is a wall case of half a dozen much later pieces, including a Rauschenberg cardboard box. They seemed out of place until I realized that they're probably intended as an echo of Dada -- the short-lived movement that turned art on its head after World War I. Dada rejected everything -- politics, culture, establishment art -- that the participants thought had contributed to the insanity of war. Another rejection, the one these objects hint at, would happen later on.

But Dada was quickly swamped by Surrealism. Ah, Surrealism, when the subconscious, that all-pervasive obsession of the early 20th century, took over. The Surrealist collection is one of the glories of the Menil, perhaps the collection for which it is most famous, and rightly so. They've got it all, from the earliest days of de Chirico to the late Magritte and Ernst, Wifredo Lam, and Matta and Picasso in his Surrealist phase. There's not much Dalí, but then some would say he was really more a showman than an artist anyway. Otherwise, the Menil has everybody in Surrealism who counts.

Next the action shifts to the other end of the building and across the ocean. In what I think is one of their most exciting moves in ages, the folks at the Menil have beautifully reinstalled the permanent collection in galleries returned, more or less, to the original 1987 configuration. Madame de Menil, notoriously picky about installation, would probably be pleased. At least she should be.

Again go through the first galleries for now and turn the corner. It's here that you'll see the hand-off of momentum in modern art from Europe to America. Braque and Picasso (always Picasso) stand sentinel in the corridor, flanked on one side by Mondrian and late Léger (both spent the first half of the '40s in America) and on the other by a pivotal grouping of 1940s works by the Europeans Fautrier, Dubuffet and Wols and the Americans Pollock and Rothko -- these two represented by early works from artists in the grip of Surrealism brought over by artist/refugees fleeing the disruption of World War II. It's in this gallery that the shift across the Atlantic becomes crystal clear.

Something similar had actually been tried before, during World War I, when the migration of Duchamp, Picabia, Gleizes and others of the Parisian avant-garde had inspired Americans like Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis and Georgia O'Keeffe to strive for an American version of modernism. That time the artists had gone back when the war ended, taking the momentum with them. This time the momentum stayed whether the artists went back or not, and Americans, both immigrants and the native-born, ran with it straight into Abstract Expressionism.

For which return to the corridor and face north. Before you hangs a breathtaking Clifford Still, rising up like a natural formation in blacks, reds and oranges. Note the Calder mobile, also in black and orange, playing off it. Thrilling.

Perhaps because they sensed where things might go, the de Menils were selective about the Abstract Expressionists they collected. No de Kooning or Franz Klein or drip Pollock for them. This was clearly by choice, since they gave away major works -- Pollocks to MFAH and the Pompidou, for instance -- that they would certainly have kept if they'd been collecting everyone. No, they kept Still and the shimmering Rothkos in the same gallery, done before his dismal days, and Barnett Newman. (I really will be saying something about him soon.)

It's clear in the next gallery, as you look at the minuscule Giacometti figure beside a roiling Francis Bacon across from a couple of works by Yves Klein in gold and his namesake blue, that there were still things going on in Europe. But the energy was in America.

Around the corner, in what might be called the gallery of the gay guys, works by Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns offer a sort of neo-Dada rejection of the heroic, mostly manly, sort of self-important aspects of AbsEx painting -- a rejection perhaps most evocatively captured by Rauschenberg's infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing, which is exactly what it sounds like. The drawing isn't in this show since it's not in the Menil Collection (see the web for details), but there are other wonderful things, like Rauschenberg's tiny Red Clay Painting (to Pete) -- about as far from Abstract Expressionism as can be. Makes you wonder if they might have been reacting to some rejection of their own.

Right outside is Pop, which mostly means Warhol, but also James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha and George Segal in this instillation.

And that brings us at last to Barnett Newman. The show of his late works is the culmination of this look at the great hundred years in the history of modern art, from the beginning of the turmoil to the absolute chaos of contemporary.

For me, Newman's work is a lesson still to be learned and a pleasure yet to be appreciated. The "zips" -- his term for the thin vertical strips that divide many of his canvases -- don't have much zip for me. But I'm already half won over by the openness of the white galleries and the way the vents in the black floors look almost like zips themselves. The paintings and space look made for each other, which goes far toward making an exhibition an event.

I intend to apply myself to my studies over the next few months. By putting myself in the capable hands of Newman and the Menil, I fully expect that I, too, will come to know the ecstasy of the zip by the end of the run. I'm saying that in all sincerity.

There are other stories of modernism that can be told by other collections. And they should be told, since looking only at the established canon -- even when it's shown as beautifully as it is now at Menil -- keeps us from seeing lots of other things that are exciting and beautiful in their own way. Probably when the Whitney Museum of American Art opens its new building in New York next month, it will tell some of those stories, like the uniquely American modernism of Thomas Hart Benton and his followers as they painted a modern version of the American scene. They explicitly rebelled against what they saw as a decadent European tidal wave. That's the direction the Dallas Regionalists of the 1930s took, as distinct from Houston artists of earlier days, who were firmly in the stream of international modernism, even though far on the edge. This was thanks in part to the de Menils, but also to a remarkable woman we now hardly remember named Emma Richardson Cherry, who brought ideas of modern art back to Houston from Europe and New York for decades starting in the 1890s.

It was an amazing hundred years for art, and it's an amazing spectacle the Menil is giving us. In 1,500 words, it's only possible to skim the surface. You can stop anytime and go deeper -- in the galleries, in the library or on the web.

The point is, it's all there, offering us the chance to see and learn. To paraphrase an unforgettable line of the great Judy Garland as she looked in rapture at the wonders of a world's fair in her own hometown (yes, I'm a gay man of a certain age): I almost can't believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in Houston.

"Barnett Newman: The Late Work" Through Aug 2. 1515 Sul Ross Street, 713-525-9400, www.menil.org.


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