When John and Dominique de Menil settled in Houston during World War II, these ambitious French aesthetes must have seemed the quintessence of foreign. But our city has a way of turning outsiders into insiders, and soon the de Menils became Houston archetypes, lionized by their adopted hometown. They taught us volumes about modern art and architecture, and brought civil discourse to topics like civil rights. Their legacy endures at the exquisitely serene Menil Collection. Today it’s hard to imagine what Houston would be without these outsiders who became part of us. (It’s also difficult to fathom why there’s never been a book-length biography written about this remarkable couple, and that’s the subject of John Nova Lomax’s rollicking “Slow Dancing With the Muse.”)
Three miles north of the Menil, another museum celebrates what seems, at first, a different sort of outsider and aesthetic. In 1998, James and Ann Harithas founded the Art Car Museum, whose genesis came when Ann commissioned an art car by Larry Fuentes for an exhibition she curated at the Lawndale Art Center in 1984. “The original idea,” says James Harithas, “was to do a show that reflected Hispanic influence in American art. It started with low riders.”
Harithas had come to Houston in 1973 to run the Contemporary Arts Museum, following a stint as director of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. “I thought Houston was wide open,” he says, “an opportunity to start fresh.” But he believes his lucky chance was largely possible because Dominique de Menil had made Houston safe for avant-garde thinking. “I don’t think the openness existed before Dominique de Menil,” says Harithas.
So the Art Car Museum and the Menil have a stronger philosophical and aesthetic connection than a simple drive-by would suggest. Both Harithases have always made the case that art cars are not folk art but “a new fine art.” And John de Menil urged us to take art “off its marble pedestal and show it as a daily companion.”
That sounds like what’s going on at the Art Car Museum, where two winners of Houston’s annual Art Car Parade sit on display, bristling with almost tribal intensity. This year’s parade is May 11, and Michael Hardy’s amusing primer may inspire you to jazz up your own jalopy and join the procession.
Of course, Houston’s not just open to new ideas in art. Robb Walsh’s toothsome tribute to burgers affirms our eclectically receptive nature when it comes to cuisine, as well. When Houstonians head out for that most American of sandwiches, we happily, and hungrily, tuck into myriad international interpretations, from El Gran Malo’s Torta Burger to Plonk’s Guanciale Burger to Guru Burger’s Japaneiro. Check out “Houston’s Top Burgers” and discover a new favorite.
Meanwhile, James Harithas has moved on to create the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, where’s he’s turning the next generation of outsiders into insiders. The day I visited him there, he was meeting with a group of graffiti artists. He’s about to give Houston its first museum show devoted to former taggers. Come on in, all y’all!
John Ashby Wilburn
Editor in Chief