In Praise of Houston

March 24th, 2005 · No Comments · Artists, Texas

The Menil Collection, Houston, TX, Renzo Piano, architect

I was reminded how much I love Houston while we were marveling over the Renzo Piano exhibit at LAMCA in West Hollywood last weekend. Houston is very much like Los Angeles — both are highway towns with abundant traffic and smog, and relative proximity to the ocean. Both cities are swamped with the excesses of plenty and of poverty. Where LA has its celebrity royals, Houston has the sultans of oil. Both cities also have first-rate culture that can take visitors by surprise. While few people come to Los Angeles just to visit MOCA (despite its desperate wish that they would), even fewer people travel to the so-called Third Coast just to see art. But they should.

When we lived in Austin, we took regular trips to Houston to get our culture fixes. Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts has one of James Turrell’s best light spaces, The Light Inside, and an excellent collection of mid-20th century art.

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston has often excellent, if sometimes uneven, shows. We’ve seen Ann Hamilton, Maya Lin, Andreas Gursky, Shirin Neshat, and Bill Lundberg at the CAM. The CAM also does an occasional survey of area high school art, but much can be forgiven of an institution who puts out such great cheap catalogues.

Other Houston art highlights? DiverseWorks, the Glassell Core Program Residency, the Project Row Houses, and the Art Car Museum. Also, I’ll be following with interest the progress of the Taniguchi designed Asia House. Also worth a mention, Glasstire: Texas Visual Art Online, a pretty darn good online publication (great redesign of the site, by the way).

Back here in Los Angeles, the Renzo Piano and Building Workshop exhibit reminded me of my Houston allegiance because it includes the models of the understated Menil Collection, one of my favorite museums in which to while away a humid afternoon. Oh, this little gem of a museum! Quiet, humane, subtle, manageable, with its surprising gardens and natural light, with its sensible galleries, with its dignified seating in a charming, neighborly neighborhood. And the collection’s not too shabby either, particularly if you like Magritte, of whom I’m a particular fan.

Piano also designed the nearby Cy Twombly Gallery, also for the Menil Collection, and the architecture perfectly complements the work there. The Menil Foundation also operates the Rothko Chapel, and the far more moving Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, “the repository in the United States for the only intact Byzantine frescoes in the entire western hemisphere.”

Experiencing the Menil Collection is one of the few examples of gentility left in the art world. The art and architecture complement one another, the mood created is dignified and hospitable. If Piano can create the same effect in his redesign of LACMA, which I have often disliked for its hyper-active energy, noise, and frenzy (not to mention its corporate curatorial schemes), then Los Angeles will be a better place for everyone.

Category: Artists · Texas

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