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Menil Collection reopens after seven months of updates

September 24, 2018

The Menil Collection main building reopened to the public on Saturday, Sept. 22, after seven months of subtle updates and a reimagining of the gallery spaces.

Rebecca Rabinow, director of the Menil Collection, noted that the closure of the Menil originated because the fire detection system needed to be updated.

In doing that update, the staff had to take the art out of the individual galleries. This lead to opportunities to redo the flooring, as well as enhance the light in some galleries.

“So all of a sudden the scope of this little project was changing,” Rabinow said. “This was also a moment to turn to the curators and ask, ‘Is what is on view, should be on view?’ Let’s do a deeper dive into a permanent collection.”

According to Rabinow, there were items in the John and Dominique de Menil’s collection that had never been on display in the museum — until now.

“This became a two year, very concentrated effort of reimaging what the Menil galleries could be,” Rabinow said.

Rabinow urges visitors to keep coming back to the Menil, because the works in the collection will be rotating over the next 12 months.

A new painting that visitors will see when entering the Menil is Middle Passage, 1970, by Guyana-born British artist Frank Bowling. It was acquired by John and Dominique de Menil in 1970.

“This depicts the treacherous middle passage as slaves were taken from Africa and brought over to the Americas,” Rabinow explained. “We thought that there was no more fitting way than announcing what the Menil is about and how exciting this new installation is, than to put this on view.”

Michelle White, senior curator, and Paul Davis, curator of collections, gave a tour of the new galleries, highlighting pieces throughout.

The museum’s on display collection of modern and contemporary art has been expanded, as well as the surrealist collection.

“We can’t tell a story about modern art like most museums can, but we can present these pockets that tell us a bit about the de Menil’s collecting strategies. When they loved and believed in an artist, they collected that artist in depth,” White said.

Two new rotating series have been incorporated from the museum’s collection. These are Collection Close-Up, and Contemporary Focus. Collection Close-Up provides an exploration of lesser-known pieces of the Menil collection. This is starting with Claes Oldenburg and the Geometric Mouse.

Contemporary Focus highlights the de Menil’s support of living artists. It debuts with American artist Leslie Hewitt’s large geometric sculptures made of steel, Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again, 2012.

Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko paintings are also on display in a gallery. Locals may recognize Rothko as the artist who is the name sake of the nearby Rothko Chapel, whose paintings were commissioned by the de Menil’s for the space. Newman is the sculptor of Broken Obelisk, which is outside the chapel.

“We have one of the most remarkable collections of Newman. He only produced about 120 paintings in his lifetime,” White said.

A machine by Jean Tinguely, Dissecting Machine, 1965, on display at the end of one of the corridors, will be operated every at 12:15 for two minutes. It is artwork made out of motorized cast iron and welded steel machine parts, complete with dissected mannequin parts.

There has also been a new configuration of the Ancient World galleries, as well as a new gallery for the Pacific Islands art.

“We wanted to share these works in their utilitarian function,” Davis said, citing an example of an archaic kylix, or a Greek cup with a shallow bowl. “It is best displayed propped up. It was a wine basin, and this is how you would have drank from it.”

African and early modern European art is also on display in The Image of the Black in Western Art project, which includes a portrait of William Ansah Sessarakoo (1736-1770) by British portraitist Gabriel Mathias.

“The Menil’s started this project in 1960. This started as their response to the segregation and racial issues that they were witnessing in the south,” Davis said.

The Menil is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.menil.org.

rebecca.hazen@chron.com

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