(Temporary) Goodbye

The Menil Collection Will Close Soon for Restoration. I'm Going to Soak it Up While I Can.

One month until the museum's temporary closure, one writer looks back on her decades-long relationship with her favorite painting.

By Dana DuTerroil January 23, 2018

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The main building of the Menil Collection (1533 Sul Ross St.) will temporarily close its doors on Monday, February 26, 2018, after the conclusion of the exhibition Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma. The building will reopen to the public in fall 2018. In the meantime, other Menil Collection art buildings and greenspaces will remain open. Those buildings include the Cy Twombly Gallery, Byzantine Fresco Chapel, and Richmond Hall. More information here.

Dammit, they’ve moved my Magritte again. OK, technically the painting really belongs to the Menil Collection, the museum founded by Dominique and John de Menil, an art-loving activist couple who gifted Houston approximately 10,000 art objects from their personal stash. Nor is the painting really missing. But when you’ve been coming to the Menil Collection, the mothership of the 30-acre, art-filled campus since its 1987 opening, there’s a tendency to get a little possessive when the curators remove your favorite artwork from circulation.

I first entered the doors of the Menil Collection as a teenager studying creative writing at nearby HSPVA. Roaming the Menil’s galleries, I found myself captivated by James Lee Byars' The Halo, a gold ring standing 7-feet-tall and sculpted from brass that, to my girlish eye, looked more like an oversized hoop earring than an angel’s headgear. Later, I returned to the Menil as a Houston transplant living in New Orleans, popping in for an art fix. Unencumbered by explanatory placards and complimentary headsets, the Menil placed an emphasis on observing the art without distraction. The free admission policy encouraged free-range viewing with wandering eyes, unburdened from the pressure of taking in the entire collection in one visit.

My status as a Menil regular began upon my move back to Houston with visits alternating between quick looks and long encounters, a change prompted in part by a newfound love affair with René Magritte’s L’empire des lumieres (The Dominion of Light). At first glance, the painting lacks the surrealist mind tricks found in many Magrittes. There’s no cascade of bowler-topped bankers or a portrait of a pipe that’s not really a pipe. Instead, the painting, depicting a pink-hued home with minty green shutters, could be a postcard-perfect portrait of a Creole cottage outfitted with a French Quarter lamp post—except that the home is bathed in darkness, illuminated only by the lantern, despite the blue sky dotted with clouds above.

The duality of night and day in a scene reminiscent of my former New Orleans home inspired my own simultaneous, surreal outburst of tears accompanied by a wide smile. Subsequent viewings never diminished my reaction to the symbolic rendering of my heart still in New Orleans yet hopeful for my future here in Houston. The painting, to my recollection, has been absent since 2014, when it reappeared briefly for an exhibition featuring Magritte’s work after 1940.

And at the end of February, the Menil Collection, like my painting, will be on hiatus for repairs to the museum’s soft pine floors that bear the wear and tear of 30 years of art lovers wandering the halls. My reaction, like the one to my missing Magritte, is also bittersweet. I will miss my visits while remaining thankful for an institution that places a priority on preservation, from the art on display to even its flooring.

Faced with going cold turkey until the fall reopening, my withdrawal strategy is to binge on as much of the Menil Collection as I can during the temporary closure. A strict regimen of Menil Park people-watching accompanied by Cy Twombly’s color-splashed scribbles, the 450-plus portraits in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, and the rainbow bright, florescent stylings of Dan Flavin in Richmond Hall will serve as my remedy. And maybe, when the floors are restored and the double glass doors to the Menil Collection swing open once more, my Magritte will be there to greet me.

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