Sometimes it’s a stroke of luck to do something stupid. If I hadn’t lost my passport, for example, I’d probably never have gone to Houston, Texas.
Every art dork knows that Houston is home to the Menil Collection, one of the most significant private art collections in the world, one that includes unique, individual buildings dedicated to Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Dan Flavin and Byzantine fresco. It’s obscene, opulent and free to enter, making it more than obviously worth a visit.
Still…Houston. It’s the headquarters for the diabolical genius art duo The Art Guys, as well as host to the most involved and over-the-top parade of art cars this side of Burning Man, but it’s still difficult to get up the energy to just go to Houston. Because, you know, it’s Houston.
However, Houston also is home to an official US Passport Agency, the kind of place where one’s passport can be replaced in a matter of hours should the demigods of bureaucracy decide it should be so from behind their shrines of bulletproof glass.
Because my flight for parts south of the border was already routed through Houston, I planned an overnight stay with enough time to stop at the Menil and beg for the privilege of shelling out $160 for an emergency passport replacement.
Judging from the distorted sense of distance suggested by Google Maps, I figured a cab drive from the airport would be $15 or $20. It was more like $52, before tip—a heads up for anyone as naïve as me. Houston is all about being rich, even if one’s just pretending. That’s why it’s nice that the truly rich (ie the Menil family) allow people to view their art for free.
The Menil Collection, and its related administrative and staff buildings, is in a sprawling complex of buildings, parks and sculpture all adhering to a spare “contemporary art destination” appearance that will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited the Chinati or Lannan Foundations. Who knows how all of these people ended up drinking the same architectural Kool-Aid? But then distinction in contemporary art is frequently only about its relation to everything else, while homogeneity within a cliquish spectrum is apparently a comfort.
It’s kind of like a Big Mac—it’s secret to success is that it tastes the same no matter where one encounters it. So it goes, as well, with private contemporary art collections; all the right aesthetic signifiers in landscaping, glazing, sparsity of material and flatness of color stimulate the same chemicals that go erogenous for lousy hamburgers.
But the Menils were doing it before it was cool. They began collecting in the 1940s and were bold enough to put Philip Johnson, their favorite architect, to work in Houston. Ardent supporters of modernism and surrealism, the Menils also amassed significant amounts of African and medieval art, lending their collection a legendary eclecticism.
Traipsing through the collection—and the traveling exhibitions the institution hosts—is a kind of delightful, flitting romp: Suckle from a sweet little Duchamp, sniff an Ad Reinhardt and sidle up to a Barnett Newman in a way that makes the docents nervous. Forgive them their abominable Mark di Suvero sculpture because of the subtle, well-maintained Michael Heizer work that slips through the grass.
Give me a choice between Rothko and Twombly and I’ll take Rothko every time…unless I’m in Houston. The legendary Rothko chapel was profoundly disappointing. The commissioned works were overbearingly austere and the insistence that the building is an actual sacred space was about as spiritually convincing as an Ikea catalog. I’ve had deeper experiences staring at a single, small Rothko in a corner than in this grandiose folly. In fact, I had a significantly more spiritual experience just outside the chapel by climbing a tree and relaxing under the deep blue sky.
Strangely, Twombly comes to the rescue. In a building dedicated to his paintings, one finds the awesome work “Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor),” a massive painting that took approximately 20 years to complete. It is the best painting I’ve seen all year and, alone, worth the trip to Houston.
The Flavin building is predictably lovely—if one goes for that sort of thing—and going there last positions one to walk easily back to a hotel in the Museum District. If the afternoon of art is sufficiently mind-opening, stop at the ridiculous little gay bar called “Decades,” where ’80s tunes rule, Jim Beam is cheap and playing ping-pong is free.
In this car-happy oil capital, everyone from the hotel concierge to the cop on the corner insisted that the expensive cab ride was the only way to return to the airport. When I asked about public transportation they looked at me like I might be the one thing they were most afraid of: poor. It took an extra 40 minutes, but I got from Houston’s Museum District to the airport for a grand total of $2.50, on some of the cleanest, most efficient buses I’ve seen, passport in hand.
The Menil Collection
1515 Sul Ross St.