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The Last Eccentric

For two days before her funeral on January 3, Dominique de Menil lay in state, in

the French tradition, in the one-story modern home she and her husband built amid the Tudor and neo-Gothic frippery of River Oaks. A small Max Ernst painting of a moon emerging from an auburn thicket hung above her double bed. A single rose, a burning candle, a paperback New Testament and a French translation of the Sufi poet Rumi graced the nightstand where she kept her rosary and a book of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud. A desk, fashioned from two file cabinets and an enormous plank of wood, bore stacks of the unfinished business of a woman of letters.

A white cotton nightgown enveloped her body, her translucent hands neatly folded, her gossamer hair pinned in a twist, her form almost doll-like under the woven bedspread. Yet one thing gave lie to the illusion of frailty: Her solid jaw thrust willfully heavenward, lips drawn firmly, bringing to mind the phrase so often used to describe her: the iron butterfly.

Indeed, as many have noted recently, no one with a lesser will could have brought Houston what "the Medici of modern art" did. Without her, the city would not have had such visitors as Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, nor such residents as curator Walter Hopps and art historian William Camfield, nor so many buildings by Philip Johnson, nor stunning performances by the Whirling Dervishes, nor the Rothko Chapel, nor painstakingly rescued 12th-century Byzantine frescoes, nor even, as the Reverend Bill Lawson pointed out in his eulogy, the SHAPE Community Center in the Third Ward.

Yet the true story of the de Menils in Houston is not how much they gave to the city, but how much they gave to the city despite itself. John and Dominique arrived in Houston after fleeing Nazi-occupied France, and as liberal foreigners, they were labeled Communist. In the '40s, they begged to be allowed to hang modern art in the Museum of Fine Arts, but were refused. In the '50s, they hired one of the country's most innovative curators, Jermayne MacAgy, to direct the fledgling Contemporary Arts Association (later the Contemporary Arts Museum). In 1959, the museum dismissed her. In the '60s, they offered Barnett Newman's "Broken Obelisk" sculpture to the city in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. City Council turned it down.

Still, the pair did not give up on their adopted city. Examples of their behind-the-scenes interventions in favor of the disadvantaged continue to come to light, while the stories of their formative contributions to the city's art museums, the University of St. Thomas and Rice University have often been told, along with the seemingly inevitable coda of the Menils' abrupt withdrawals of support over issues of control. Their single most incredible contribution, the Menil Collection, was the one over which Dominique had total decision-making power (John died of cancer in 1973). Built during Houston's economic bust, it stands as a testament not just to one woman's strength of will, but to the value of indulging a singular vision. As curator Bertrand Davezac once said of the Menil, "[Most] museum collections form continents, this one archipelagoes.... The raison d'etre of islands is not to fill up the sea."

The words used in Dominique de Menil's obituaries pale in comparison to her personality. With her passing, we have lost far more than an "heiress," a "patron of the arts" and a "human rights advocate." We have lost the city's last great eccentric, a woman whose extreme unconventionality rarely failed to make a point. De Menil wore her mink coat inside-out because she liked to feel fur against her skin, but she went far beyond such frivolity. She fronted her home on what was then a servant's backdoor viaduct, San Felipe. She invited African-Americans to lunch with her society friends at the height of segregation. She flew to El Salvador in the middle of a guerrilla war to announce that the Rothko Chapel's human rights awards would go to that country's freedom fighters. On a more personal note, she once finagled a private moment with the Dalai Lama, produced a baseball from her purse and asked him to autograph it -- figuring that was one way to direct her godson's attention to the great religious leader.

Dominique's early forays into collecting were guided by an art-loving priest, and she could detect spirituality in the works of even Andy Warhol. Her museum would have no explanatory text on the walls -- not because she assumed that everyone was educated about the difficult art in the collection, but because she believed in the power of an unmediated encounter with the works.

Over the years, many visitors have mistaken the white-haired lady who sits behind the reception desk at the Menil for Dominique herself (the lady's name, actually, is Winfrey Purington). This is a quaint idea, but not terribly far-fetched, considering that until her death, de Menil was involved in the day-to-day details of the museum, from consulting with the framer to choosing works for an exhibit to editing catalog essays. And though she didn't play hostess, she wanted a museum scaled to feel like a home, so that viewers could imagine that they, too, owned the works. In her fiefdom, the intimacy of possession was tantamount to appreciation.  

Clearly, Dominique was consumed with a desire to possess. During one dry symposium on collecting art, held at the CAM, someone asked de Menil how she began to amass her collection. She replied that when she was six years old, she coveted a large pine cone that was in the possession of one of her cousins. She would do anything, she told her cousin, to have that pine cone. Her cousin replied that if what Dominique said were true, she would have to go sit in a nearby pile of "dog shit." The audience burst into laughter -- until someone asked what had become of the pine cone. Dominique replied, "I still have it."

Perversely, the more she possessed, the more she wanted to share, at least when she could do so on her own terms. Her imperial nature was born of an intolerance for mediocrity that, sadly, is nowhere to be found in today's art world. Who else would have told Jane Blaffer Owen, a Houston patron of the highest order, that the tapestry she wanted to give UST was simply not good enough for the collection?

Early on, the European doyenne irritated Houston's entrenched art establishment. Yet she did more than challenge the aesthetic status quo -- she also challenged the political and social status quo. The various human rights awards given by the Rothko Chapel drew attention to tragic and underpublicized abuses, and as early as 1977, a chapel colloquium addressed alternative strategies for development in Third World countries. The de Menils supported liberal candidates such as Sissy Farenthold, Fred Hofheinz and Kathy Whitmire. And though affable, establishmentarian Mayor Lee Brown was among the prominent mourners at Dominique's funeral, the de Menils preferred firebrands like the late Congressman Mickey Leland, whom they groomed for office. Indeed, their interest in Houston's black community predated radical chic, and was always accompanied by money.

Like its founder, the Menil Collection has always been discreet about its finances. But the Menil Foundation, which runs the museum, has long been preparing for the death of its founder and president. Though its $60 million endowment should cover a large percentage of the museum's operating costs, the museum has been reaching out to potential donors in uncharacteristic style. In April, the Menil threw the first fundraising gala in its ten-year history. After dinner, Dominique tottered up to the microphone and, like a queen addressing peasants, announced to the $2,500-a-plate crowd, "This is your museum!"

Despite that sentiment, the museum has long been part of Doville (as many call de Menil's amassed land holdings), part of an empire that must now find its way without Dominique's charisma. Though three of her five children serve on the Menil Foundation board, none has made Houston home. The board has named art patron Louisa Stude Sarofim as its new president. The question is, will the museum continue to be insulated from the influence of corporate sponsorship?

More questions remain for the Rothko Chapel, a separate entity with a $1.5 million endowment of its own. For 25 years, Dominique was virtually the Chapel's sole patron. At her death, its human rights awards remained unendowed, and no one yet knows what her will has in store. Most likely the vast majority of her fortune, estimated at $200 million, will go to her various foundations in Houston -- her children received their share of the family money early on. But will the will contain a detailed set of instructions, as controlling as de Menil was in life? Or will it be, like her simple wish "to be buried as a Catholic," a relinquishing of control to those she had already chosen to follow her?

Small wonder that de Menil gave up the ghost on the eve of the ribbon-cutting of Bayou Place, the city's latest piece of cultural banality. She was the model of the cultivated European who railed against the provincial philistines who surrounded her -- her civic projects aimed for the highest common denominator, not the lowest. Yet few aesthetes would have railed against the philistines with such a lack of snobbery. Dominique was, after all, once a philistine herself. As a young Parisian wife, she hid on top of her armoire the portrait Max Ernst painted of her; only later did she appreciate the surrealist. It was in nurturing her own soul that she developed the desire to nurture ours.  


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