When I interviewed Dominique Schlumberger de Menil in Houston in 1987 for an article on her recently completed private gallery there by Renzo Piano—the Menil Collection, now universally esteemed as a pinnacle of modern museum architecture*—I found the seventy-nine-year-old collector and philanthropist, who was four decades my senior, to be superficially gracious but frustratingly distant. Tall, slender, her silver hair in a pompadour and chignon, and dressed with almost ostentatious simplicity, she seemed preoccupied with far loftier matters, as if she were attending a novena in the back of her head. Not for nothing has the elder of her two sons referred to this pious but purposeful powerhouse, who curated some of the most admired art exhibitions of the later twentieth century, as “the Reverend Mother Superior.”
My repeated attempts to engage her by mentioning art world friends we had in common met with evident disinterest. However, when she recalled visiting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala with her late husband, the oil field services executive John de Menil, I mentioned that the previous summer I had surprisingly spotted the saffron-and-maroon-robed holy man standing in a motoscafo on the Grand Canal in Venice and eating a gelato cone with boyish glee. At last she smiled, a sign of what I took to be her more-spiritual-than-thou affect.
We met at her much-talked-about house, which happily survives with much of its art and furnishings intact and is now used for special events by the Menil Collection. This one-story International Style brick box in the city’s fashionable but architecturally conservative River Oaks section was designed by Philip Johnson in 1948 (only his second commission), and although austere on the outside is rich and strange within. As I walked through its subtly colored, quirkily decorated, art-crammed rooms—pictures by Braque, Picasso, de Chirico, Ernst, Magritte, Rothko, Twombly, Johns, and Warhol jostled for attention with prehistoric objects, medieval artifacts, and tribal sculpture—I realized that a white cube is not required for the display of first-rate art. Looking at its emphatically low-key materials (black Mexican tile floors instead of marble or parquet, painted rather than paneled walls), I then grasped the Menils’ concept of stealth wealth. As the architect who in the 1930s renovated their apartment in Paris, Pierre Barbe, averred, “Cost is really not that important to the Schlumberger family as long as you can manage to make silk that looks like burlap.”
Although I was not surprised to find hanging in the kitchen a Mexican wooden cross nearly large enough for an actual crucifixion, I was startled by the house’s intriguing mash-up of furniture styles, which included the ornate Victorian Rococo seating of John Henry Belter. For rather than submitting to the Miesian clichés pressed on them by Johnson—paired Barcelona chairs, glass coffee tables,…
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