The art world and its patrons, dealers, museums, auction houses and hangers on have become front page news. Art fairs, biennials, art storage, hidden transactions, repatriation of stolen masterpieces, all these are the subjects of our continuing fascination.
But the essential work, the ability of the artist to make things, is in constant precarious flux. Artists are in and out, auction prices up and down. Collectors are busy scrambling for the right thing to put on the wall, looking over their shoulders most of the time at what the market is doing instead of buying things they love.
“The gifted artists are the great benefactors of the world,” said Dominique de Menil, a patron who is the subject of Double Vision a new joint biography with her husband John by William Middleton. de Menil and Middleton remind us that the ability to wisely commission things, to spot things before they are a la mode, to exhibit them in a cohesive, personal fashion is equally as rare.
She, an heiress to the French Schlumberger oil fortune, he, a baron who became the head of the enterprise, had a long and productive marriage. Together they discovered their love for certain artists, their passion for introducing them to a wider world, their understanding of the capricious nature of creativity, their recognition that they need be in it for the long haul to make a profound difference..
After stints in Paris and Venezuela they moved their growing family to Houston to be at the center of the oil world. They made a conscious decision to focus on Texas and were both ardent researchers and citizens in their quest to build a world class collection, one that grew organically out of admiration and was not stage managed by dealers. Aristocrats who plunked themselves down in a town where rodeos were what passed for sophistication, who did not disdain their Texas neighbors but instead included them in their journey to make a collection and a museum were, and are, rarer still. A photograph of Magritte in a cowboy hat at the rodeo instead of his signature bowler is proof that they were also able to remix the two worlds in a wholly original way
Certain artists were more favored than others. Besides Magritte, Ernst, Rothko, Twombly, Flavin, Warhol, and certain architects, Pierre Barbe, Johnson, Piano. These became friends and cohorts in the drive to push Texas, New York, Paris and by extension the rest of the world up the art hill. But they also bought indigenous objects and sculptures. (At any one time the Menil is only showing a portion of the collection. A new wing for drawings by LA architects Johnston and Marklee is opening in the fall).
By all accounts a devoted but occasionally irascible man, John built out the oil business and then stayed to watch over it. Dominique variously a shop owner, a gallerist, a decorator, a patron, reserved and no nonsense, became the sole engine after his death and actually got the Renzo Piano building built, no small feat in the conservative town. Both inspired acolytes as well as a certain measure of fear. John is rumored to have had a long affair but author Middleton does not confirm it. (A new book by Simone Swan, his alleged mistress, is supposedly on its way.) Middleton instead quotes at length from love letters they sent each other through the years. “On collecting they were absolutely a partnership,” he affirms. “They always shared this together no matter what else was going on in their life”. . Other things were surprising to learn, for example, Dominique’s lifelong quest for religious enlightenment.
As parents to their children they were largely absent but not indifferent. They loved their children, but had no guilt and were far from American style helicopter parents. Middleton gives them a pass on this because of the times, their French-ness, etc. What they were doing was evidently more important than burping, jiggling, homework. Coziness and stability came instead from beloved nannies. Nor were the children always able to leap over the high bar that was set for them. (full disclosure: I knew Francois in the seventies.)
But as identifiers of curatorial and managerial expertise (Walter Hopps was their first museum director) the parents were second to none. Bringing up curators is easier than bringing up babies for sure.
The de Menils have largely abandoned Houston. But their museum stands, in my opinion, still Renzo Piano’s best work. Just recently I was at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the much smaller but equally poignant home of patrons who had deep and abiding relationships with those they collected. Big is not always better, but in the case of the Menil collection, the work is of a very high, very original caliber (just take a look at the Rockefeller or other Texas collections that have been and are going up for auction: much tamer, much less ambitious, more blue chip-y) The de Menils followed their own instincts, well ahead of the herd.
Middleton reportedly spent ten years on this book, and its scholarship and reach is commendable. The photographs are wonderful, both the black and white ‘family’ snaps, and the color plates of the incredible art. It does what all good biographies should: urge you to discover their life’s work first hand.
All images courtesy Random House