The floors, the floors, the floors. That's the first thing visitors will notice when they step foot inside the magnificently refurbished Menil Collection main building, set to reopen Saturday, September 22, after seven months of renovations.
Menil Director Rebecca Rabinow said the closure was an undertaking "born of necessity" at Tuesday’s press preview; the fire safety systems needed upgrades, and the black-stained Loblolly pine floors had degraded under three decades of heel strikes to take on an "interesting look." Considering both projects would require the removal of all artwork and non-load bearing walls, why not upgrade the lighting and re-do the bathrooms? What if they used the intervening months to plan a new exhibition that showcases the best of the museum's holdings?
The result is a reinvigorated space that doubles down on the museum's founding principles. According to a mammoth recent biography, Dominique de Menil envisioned an unpretentious, home-like environment for visitors to linger with art. There would be no coffee shop, no essay-length wall texts telling you what to think, and—most of all—not too much art. "Habit blunts vision," she said of the visual clutter found in other museums, and curators instead chose to display only a portion of the museum's objects at a time. For 12 months after the reopening, the Menil will continue to rotate works—many of which have never been on display—as a reward to repeat visitors.
Without exception, the rearranged galleries feel more spacious and well-paced. One large room, for example, displays a 50/50 mix of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, suggesting a clear conversation between each artist’s singular expressions of color. Down the corridor, gone are the maze-like twists and turns of the Ancient Art galleries, where distinctive Greek "eye-cups" and Byzantine icons steal the show. Still farther, at the far east side, a massive Cy Twombly canvas makes its debut in a sun-kissed gallery that's lit, in part, by a previously blocked window uncovered during the overhaul.
Visitors will also notice new surprises sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the museum. Curators tucked a lone mask in a corner behind a display of indigenous art, and a miniature Christo rests within the profile of a dividing wall in the contemporary galleries. And if you happen to visit at lunchtime—and we recommend you do—you might catch a rare sighting of Jean Tinguely’s grotesque Dissecting Machine—a kinetic assemblage of gears, body parts, and hacksaws—as it whirs into action at 12:15 p.m. for precisely two minutes.
Longtime patrons will still find continuity amid these new wonders, such as the heptagonal brown suede ottoman dominating the entryway, now reupholstered and restored. Curators chose to not disturb the beloved "Witnesses" room, home to an eclectic array of Surrealist objets d’art. And, in a bit of apparent fan service, the museum's considerable display of works by René Magritte has doubled in size to 55 paintings.
They're all familiar touches that remind us how soon the new additions might blend into the fabric of an institution that still, as intended, feels like home.
Menil Collection Reopening Celebration, September 22. Free. More info at menil.org.