back in h-town: rothko chapel

Last week I posted about the Menil Collection, so of course I now need to talk about the little Rothko Chapel as well! It’s a block away from the Menil and was commissioned by the same Dominique and John de Menil, but the last time I visited it was probably around 10 years ago. While the Rothko Chapel is technically a chapel … it doesn’t really feel/seem like a chapel other than the atmosphere inside. It’s actually more of a mini gallery of Mark Rothko’s paintings.

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Er … this cat is not the Rothko Chapel. But he (or she?) was hanging out in front of it, so I just had to take a photo. But hmm … it doesn’t look very happy at having its picture taken. The Rothko Chapel itself is a bit … odd. Okay, very odd. It’s modern architecture (courtesy of American architect Philip Johnson), so whatever. The exterior is brick and the main interior is an octagonal space with 14 large black paintings (that aren’t completely solid black, but still essentially black) on the walls and some benches. Its skylight is baffled, probably because they realized light was bad for the paintings and the dimness of the space now is kinda nice.

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At the Menil, there are a few Mark Rothko paintings that are essentially extras for the Rothko Chapel. That was pretty interesting. In the Rothko Chapel, the large format of the paintings and the darkness of their hues, organized around the perimeter of the very regular and dim space, created a heavy, serene environment that felt safe to be in. But in addition to the front desk/receptionist guy, there were two people monitoring the main space, and  for a such a small space it seemed overkill. When I entered, there was one woman sitting quietly on a bench, but a group of tourists (with a baby!) entered shortly after, and they were not in there for silent contemplation.

I know museum guards and watchful volunteers are necessary to prevent vandalism, which is an unfortunate statement on today’s society … but it’s hard to appreciate a space when it’s made to feel like a prison with someone always watching you. And it’s great that more people going out and appreciating art and architecture … but it’s annoying when they don’t offer the deserved respect. If I could have the Rothko Chapel to myself, now that would be nice. But as it is and despite my love of chapels and churches and cathedrals, I doubt I’ll be visiting it again any time soon … unless I’m bored. Then, maybe.

back in h-town: menil collection

The Menil Collection is a short drive away from the MFAH and CAMH in downtown Houston. It has its own parking lot (yay!) and is free admission (yay!), but it’s only open Wednesday through Sunday, which are kind of odd hours. I know the museum more for the architecture than the art, and more for its history than its current events.

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The Menil Collection is a museum housing the private collection of John and Dominique de Menil and was opened to the public in 1987. Basically, the Menils were loaded, very much a part of the art scene, and contributed a lot to Houston in terms of the arts and architecture. They were also patrons to Philip Johnson, who went on to help define modern architecture.

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The Menil Collection is located in a fairly residential area, near the University of St. Thomas, and it fits its surroundings. It’s a pretty simple rectangular structure with wood siding painted gray, a low profile, and a surrounding portico. You enter in the middle and go either left or right to the galleries. The collection itself is kind of odd, split between twentieth century and contemporary works on the right and antiquities and African stuff on the left. The three exhibits going on right now are “Progress of Love” (weird contemporary stuff, some of which is downright pornographic), “Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs” (eh), and “Dear John & Dominique: Letters and Drawings from the Menil Archives” (kinda interesting if you’re interested in the museum itself or art scene and don’t mind reading, but not much to look at).

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As a side note, there seem to be a whole lot of museum guards for the relatively small museum (smaller than the MFAH but larger than the CAMH) – and they’re strict! I didn’t get yelled at, but there were a lot of other people that got evil eyes and strongly worded “No photos” or “Stop that.” Then again, a Picasso got vandalized last June at the Menil, so I can imagine they’re being vigilant to avoid a repeat of that incident. Or maybe it was because I was there when it first opened for the day and the guards were still in a morning grouch.

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The architecture is a classic. Not sure how many people know of the Menil, but we studied it in architecture school, which could be because I went to school in Texas … where we studied a lot of Texas buildings. But it was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, and that dude’s internationally famous. And for good reason. The Menil Collection is mostly known for its louvered ceiling, which bounces light into the museum space, since natural light generally looks great but the ultraviolet rays from direct sunlight can damage artwork. In some of the gallery spaces the ceiling is completely covered to further protect the work from light, which is understandable but unfortunate. But the exterior, where the louvers are exposed … well that could use a real good scrub down.