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Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Menil Collection I (Perversely with no pictures of the art)

For as long as I can remember the name De Menil conjoured nothing less than magic. To me, the name invoked the spells of Breton, Eluard and Ernst. As a young, budding surrealist, their collection was the repository of all that was wondrous in art. By extension, they themselves had to be mages.

I never met Jean or Dominique. I wouldn't have known what to say or how to act. But as I got older and my interests grew less engaged with surrealism proper, I think I fell only more madly in love that Houston of all places had this family residing in its borders. That in itself was pretty surrealist. Naturally, through the Schlumberger family one could argue that it's perfectly rational that they'd be here; but I'd rather not emphasize such mundane connections and imagine that they arose like lotuses from the bayou muck and mud.

Magritte and Ernst came to Houston in my lifetime as a direct result of these stainless plants. In Art and Activism, Dorothea Tanning has a poem about Jean and Dominique and Max and her wonderful self. I've been a Tanning fan for a long time, feeling that she's only now getting her due while all the while she's been one of painting's great overlooked masters. Many will say that her work doesn't reflect any direct influence of her husband's but I saw a later work by Ernst that seemed to reflect something of hers. I think there was a subtle give and take between them; they were both too special to merely influence each other; they were both too remarkable to not engage in a dialogue of equals.

I had a Geocities page dedicated to Dorothea that I'd built in 2000, after going to a show of her then-recent paintings at Boston University. She had collaborated with poets like Ashberry and Merwin and produced stunning visual reveries of flower and sex. To me, she surpasses many modern masters. I love her more biomorphic work that seems to engage in that dialogue, not just with Max, but with Matta and her later work with the languid feminine forms amid the floral resonances, takes O'Keefe's thematics in a completely different and post-modern direction.

The Menil Collection has Ernst's “Le SurrĂ©alisme et la peinture (Surrealism and Painting), 1942”, one of the most evocative and meditative ruminations on art ever. The Magrittes are among the finest keys to dreams and it would be churlish to neglect Lam and Picabia. Strolling through the collection is strolling through oneiric reality. Strolling out of the collection into the antiquities room is to travel through time lost and regained. Centuries collapse into a present; Mesopotamian fertility goddesses, stone age bulls and Assyrian gods guide you through century upon century through the present. There's no escaping the collapse of personal temporal existence and the folding into the moment of artifactual history. It's something we should all be comfortable with.

You continue the amble into Indonesia and Africa and so-called primitive cultures further compounding the confusion of whether or not modernism is merely veneer on top of what is wild and beautiful and beautiful because it is wild. At some point, it becomes apparent that time and history verge on a precipice; a collapse or something, sometime prior to existing.

And then (we fall back into sequence), the recent past or almost-present shows up. This time (!), it's photographs from the Civil Rights era. With more immediate impact, emotions swell like waves on the ocean from the mind or from some place deeper. The resonance of these images sound like a piercing wail or a tuning fork from hell. The photographs show an unvarnished oppression and oppressor; the very fearful and stupid mind of the bigot that wants reality to conform to his own order, to his own self. That might be abstract if it wasn't in your face. There is the poignance of a 21 or 22 year old Bob Dylan hanging out and singing to a small group around a porch. There is the utter insanity of fire hoses and the thuggish redneck cops beating the crap out of humans exercising their humanity in the face of centuries of shit. We encounter time again.

If before, speaking sequentially, we coasted over an ocean of time, free-form waves of rising and falling eroticism and play, we now run into the linearity and solid/stolid time of the enforcer: the rigid Apollonian clarity turned to harsh, ugly daylight eradicating the dark and mysterious, the fun and ebullient play of fairy and deva. Those photographs are primary evidence of what happens when the world doesn't conform to what you think. The conflict doesn't just come out of some social/historical context but from frustrated desire-content, from the discomfitted and discomfitting disconnect of group thinking and utter ignorance.

You don't need to flee back to the surrealists, you don't need to run to Indonesia, you don't need to go 15,000 years into the past which is right inside you because it's all right inside you. That's why reviewing all this over and over again gives hope, over and over again. This is what art's about, really. It's not about who screwed who one night and gave rise to this or that painting or sculpture. It's about navigating the waves of the temporal and the phenomenonal with the winds of the eternal and noumenal.

The so-called conscious consciousness is just frontal and superficial until/unless it shuts up and gets out of the way. Then things can happen. This is what I see when I go into museums and galleries. Sure, there are individual works and some speak to me more eloquently than others, but in the end, they're all singing poems to bring me back to what lies behind el mundo mundial.

From the Menil, you can walk over to Rothko Chapel and sit in non-duality.
Rothko Chapel and reflecting pool
Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk
Newman's Obeilisk, full

And from there, to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel and rest in contemplation.
The Byzantine Fresco Chapel, outside the front door
The Chapel garden looking at the rectory.
The fountain in the garden.

Take your pick.

There are two other Menil locations that I'll get to later. In the meantime, I dedicate this entry to Jean and Dominique and to their family far and wide.

Newman floating
Floating away.

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