Art + Social Consciousness = A Couple Called de Menil


Imagine a contest held to anoint the most influential art couple of all time. Surely the top vote-getters would be Houston%26rsquo;s John and Dominique de Menil, catalytic philanthropists whose lives intersected %26mdash; and impacted %26mdash; not only modern art, but architecture, film, human rights and politics in ways that positively, profoundly and humanistically altered 20th-century and 21st-century history in Texas and beyond. (The Dia Art Foundation was established by Menil progeny, for example.) Now a volume arrives that chronicles their legacy: Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil.

Image: Dominique de Menil with gallery model for %26ldquo;Max Ernst: Inside the Sight,%26rdquo; Rice Museum, Rice University, 1973; credit: John Lee Simons, The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection

It%26rsquo;s hard to believe, but this is the first-ever book to examine the de Menils%26rsquo; contributions to art and society in their entirety, which included bringing Philip Johnson to Houston to design their shockingly avant-garde (for its time and place) modernist home, completed in 1951, and tapping Renzo Piano for his first American commission: the building that houses The Menil Collection, the private museum they founded, which was recently named the second most important building erected in the world since 1980. The de Menils introduced Andy Warhol, Roberto Rossellini, Max Ernst and Ren%26eacute; Magritte to Houston%26rsquo;s citizenry (they took Magritte to a rodeo); founded the ecumenical Rothko Chapel; and were famous for their freewheeling, integrated kitchen-table salons where ideas and activism simmered. The pair also championed civil rights by supporting African-American candidates such as U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland and establishing the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation. Their thrilling dialogue about art, spirituality and human rights shines on today in the contemplative splendors of the Menil campus and in the consciousness of many.

Image: From left: John de Menil, Andy Warhol, Simone Swan, Fred Hughes, Dominique de Menil and Howard Barnstone in Buckminster Fuller%26rsquo;s geodesic dome for Expo 67, Montreal, 1967; credit: The Menil Archives

Edited with grace and understatement by Menil director Josef Helfenstein and Menil publisher Laureen Schipsi, Art and Activism digs deep into the museum%26rsquo;s archives to divulge previously unpublished photos and correspondence, placed alongside reminiscences about the couple by visual greats including Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Niki de Saint-Phalle and Mark Rothko, and essays from notables Renzo Piano, Houston architectural historian Stephen Fox, surrealist Dorothea Tanning (who was married to Max Ernst) and the late founding director of the Menil, Walter Hopps.

Image: Max Ernst with Dominique and John de Menil at the opening of %26ldquo;Max Ernst: Inside the Sight,%26rdquo; Les Salles de O%26rsquo;Orangerie, Paris, 1971; credit: The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection; photo: Andre Morain

Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil. Distributed by Yale University Press for The Menil Collection, $65 hardcover, at The Menil Collection Bookstore and area booksellers.

Image: Cowboys, Father John Meyer, Ren%26eacute; Magritte and Dominique de Menil at the rodeo, Simonton, Texas, 1965; credit: %26copy; A. de Menil

%26ldquo;%26hellip; in certain isolated and quite rare cases, people whose own lives and intellectual curiosities are of sufficient substance ... have somehow added some remote and haunting something to the art they have acquired. ... You and Jean fall very much into this feeling.%26rdquo; %26mdash; letter from Jim Love to Dominique de Menil, May 4, 1979 (excerpt from eight pages). Estate of Jim Love, The Menil

Image: Dominique de Menil at home, in Charles James and on Charles James couch, circa 1951; credit: F.W. Seiders


Image: Jean Tinguely, Francois de Menil, Niki de Saint-Phalle at Rice Museum opening, 1969; credit: Hickey-Robertson, Houston

Image: Alexander Calder%26rsquo;s sketch caricature of Dominique de Menil, 1964; credit: %26copy; 2010 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, The Menil Archives, The Menil Collection.

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