The Menil Collection: 20th and 21st Century Art as “Daily Companions”

“Art: Take it off its marble pedestal and show it as a daily companion, refreshing, human and rich: witness of its time and prophet of times to come.”  – John de Menil

On the evening of Friday, February 5, the director of the Menil Collection, Joseph Helfenstein, and the Menil’s former curator of modern and contemporary art and new chief curator of contemporary art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Franklin Sirmans, hosted a twenty-first century conversation about the Menil’s installation of twentieth century art. Discussing the philosophy informing the arrangement of the twentieth-century galleries, the two gave an overview of their choices while highlighting the significant divergence of the Menil’s collecting and exhibition strategies from other art institutions, like MoMA, that are committed to an encyclopedic overview and didactic presentation of the history of modernism.

The evening began in the entrance room of the Renzo Piano designed building (1982–86) where the dark wood floors, diffused lighting, and the surrounding park-like setting of the Menil offered a relaxed, contemplative environment for the approximately 100 visitors. After a brief introduction, the two led the visitors into the galleries where the artworks are, as Helfenstein pointed out, exhibited without the typical barriers that tend to prescribe the viewing experience and ensure that viewers never come too dangerously close to the art. Through a lack of didactic wall panels, docent tours, and audio guides, the institutional philosophy of the Menil Collection aims to allow its art objects to take the lead and withhold a sense of a single narrative direction. Helfenstein and Sirmans discussed how specific juxtapositions of twentieth-century and contemporary works–such as those by René Magritte and Robert Gober–generate visual and intellectual dialogues without making explicit connections or foregrounding any single concept.

Unlike MoMA, the Menil Collection is a considerably more intimate space to encounter modern and contemporary art and unlike that much larger institution, the Menil also has limited holdings in classical European modernism, specifically Cubism. Helfenstein frames these differences in terms of positive potentialities, drawing attention to the Menil’s exceptional examples of two alternative lineages, each of which weaves a significant path through modernism’s history. The first is a trend toward spiritual abstraction—represented in works by Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman, and Bryce Marsden, among others. This impulse extends beyond the displays in the Piano building to the Rothko Chapel, resonates in the stunning Dan Flavin installation at Richmond Hall, and reverberates with the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. The second alternative Helfenstein identifies is what he refers to as figurative Surrealism, a tendency he aligns with a more political, activist impulse. This trend is reflected not only in the Menil’s rich holdings of Surrealism and non-Western art–specifically the arts of Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Northwest coast–from which Surrealism drew considerable inspiration, but also in the examples of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Robert Gober.

The current exhibition of the work of Maurizio Cattelan (February 12– August 15, 2010) weaves its own unique way in and out of this Surrealist narrative, reflecting upon the Menil’s holdings, perhaps unraveling some preconceptions about several well-known works, and opening up multi-directional dialogues with other works in the Collection. In the next post, I will discuss this exhibition in relation to these issues.