Rare Film Documents Landmark Menil Exhibition

Artist Dario Robleto introduces a never-before-seen documentary about the 1969 exhibition The Machine As Seen At the End of the Mechanical Age.

By Michael Hardy November 18, 2014

Film Screening: Man, Art, Machines
Nov 18 at 6:30
The Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross St.

Houston artist Dario Robleto was doing research in the Menil Collection archives for his show The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed—on exhibition at the Menil through January 4—when he stumbled across a documentary about a famous 1969 exhibition that Dominique de Menil brought to Houston. The show, The Machine As Seen At the End of the Mechanical Age, was organized by legendary curator Pontus Hultén for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Dominique had arranged for it to travel to the University of St. Thomas, where she and her husband Jean were major patrons.

Only a few months before the show was due to arrive, however, the Menils decided to cut ties with St. Thomas and decamp, along with many of the artists and art historians they had helped hire, to Rice University. There was only one problem: Rice didn’t have an art gallery. So with only a few months before the MOMA exhibition was scheduled to arrive, the Menils commissioned a temporary exhibition space from local architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry: a metal-paneled, utilitarian structure that came to be known as the Rice Art Barn, and which helped spark the Tin House architectural movement in Houston. (Rice unceremoniously bulldozed the building earlier this year, ignoring protests from faculty and architectural historians.)

Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston. The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, 1969. (Mar. 25–May 18) (MoMA 1968 (Nov. 25-1969 (Feb. 9). 53 1/4 x 23 1/2 in. (135.3 x 59.7 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston

Image: Paul Hester

The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age was the first exhibition held at the Art Barn, and it brought world-famous artists like Jean Tinguely, whose work was featured in the show, to the Rice campus. The 30-minute documentary Robleto found in the Menil archive, directed by William Colville, documents the pathbreaking exhibition. But for reasons the artist still doesn’t understand, it has never been screened publicly until now.

Robleto speculates that the film, which features a narrator riffing philosophically on the themes of the show, may have been too weird for the Menils. “It’s almost like a wildlife film of the ’60s,” Robleto told me. “The cameraman is almost filming the art and the art viewers like they’re sneaking up on a creature in the wild. There’s this hushed narration in the background, and he says the most beautifully dramatic things.” Beyond the film’s historical value, Robleto sees numerous connections in it to his current exhibition, which was inspired by two epic quests undertaken in Houston in the 1960s—to send a man to the moon, and to build an artificial heart. 

He notes that Dr. Denton Cooley performed the first successful artificial heart transplant during the run of the exhibition (“You probably could have thrown a rock from Rice and hit the hospital where it occurred”), and that, two months after the exhibition came down, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, in fulfillment of President Kennedy’s promise, made at Rice University in 1963, to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. “It’s such a great moment in our city’s history,” Robleto said. “There was this optimism about what technology can do."

Robleto’s exhibition itself stands at the crossroads of art and science; recent visitors to the Menil may have noticed University of Houston students standing at the entrance to the exhibition handing out EEG headsets designed to measure people’s brainwaves as they experience the art. The headsets are part of research currently being conducted by UH neuroscientist Jose L. Contreras-Vidal into the effect of art on the human brain. Contreras-Vidal hopes to use the research to design artificial limbs that can be operated by thought alone.

Following tonight’s screening of the film, Robleto will give a talk about the ongoing research. “Here’s another moment when technology and culture combine,” said Robleto, who studied biology in college. Before the exhibition opened earlier this year, he told me that one of his greatest ambitions in life was to have his artwork somehow contribute to scientific knowledge. That ambition is now being realized. As he put it, “I’m trying to honor the experimental side of the Menil’s history by actually having an experiment at the museum.”

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