Nτομινίκ ντε Μενίλ-Αλέξανδρος Ιόλας

The Menil collection: Houston, Texas.

When asked in 1982 about the collection she and her late husband, John, had formed, Dominique de Menil stated, What characterizes my collection? Maybe a passionate curiosity for the past and also a vulnerability to poetry ... poetry of images revealing the beauty and mystery of the world ... [I] am very moved by ... art that ... expresses the tragedy of man's ephemeral condition" (de Menil 1983:50). At the time, Dominique de Menil was working with Renzo Piano on plans for The Menil Collection, the museum that would house the couple's collection and manifest its poetry (Fig. 1). Thoughtful and meticulous, Dominique de Menil labored over every detail of the design and, when construction was complete in 1987, the installation of the collection as well (Fig. 2). Her goals were clear: "I would like my collection to be displayed in such a way that it opens new vistas, that it reveals 'Terra Incognita'--islands beyond" (ibid.).


The Menil Collection, with its 16,000 objects, is but one outcome of this French couple's vision and philosophy. Intertwining art, social activism, and a profound spirituality, the de Menils left an indelible mark on their adopted city of Houston, both in the campus that houses their museum and related galleries and chapels, and in the effect their philanthropic projects had on various institutions in the city. Through their political action and support of museums and scholarly projects, they also affected a world beyond Houston and it is within this dynamic framework that the significance of their African art collection can be understood.

The African holdings at The Menil Collection number close to 1,000 objects, ranging from a miniature Kongo ivory finial (Fig. 3) to a near life-size Mboi figure from northeastern Nigeria (Fig. 4). There are concentrations of objects from Mali, including Dogon sculpture (Fig. 5), Bamana masks and headdresses (Fig. 6), Inland Niger Delta terracottas (Fig. 7), Benin bronzes (Fig. 8), and Lega ivories and "maskettes" (Fig. 9). These groupings of objects are punctuated by unique works, such as a Jukun figure (Fig. 10) and a Bongo figure (Fig. 11). Assembled largely between the 1950s and 1970s, the African collection was selfconsciously idiosyncratic, like the de Menil's collections from other areas. The couple did not have a predetermined agenda and did not aim to be encyclopedic in this or any part of their collection. The acquisition of an African object, like any other type, was the result of a strong response to the work itself. Dominique de Menil said, "I think I buy because I fall in love" (ibid., p. 49).


The couple put African art into conversation with the other parts of their collection, which grew over time to include ancient, Byzantine, medieval, modern, Oceanic, Native American art, and more. Openly embracing chance, the de Menils delighted in the ever-changing shapes the collection took over time. As Dominique de Menil stated in The Menil Collection catalogue,
   However well parenthood is planned, children are what they are, not
what parents decide. Like children, treasures of a collection are
what they are. Complex sets of circumstances brought these
treasures into the family: a chance encounter, a visit to an artist
or dealer, a glance at an auction catalogue, a successful bidding,
and, of course, a favorable moment for spending. This somehow
unsystematic approach was our way of collecting. Nothing was
excluded, yet deep inclinations existed. Constraints too: price and
availability (de Menil 1987:7).

The de Menils' humanist and spiritual inclinations provided a foundation for their wide-ranging collection. Whether displaying their art works in their homes in Houston, New York, or Paris, or installing them in exhibitions at various institutions they came to be affiliated with in Houston and elsewhere, the de Menils were interested in how art from different times and places spoke to the human struggle for meaning, in both the past and present. For them, putting diverse works of art into dialogue allowed conversations across time and space to unfold--conversations that could inform our own search for meaning.

The de Menils were married in Paris in 1931 and Dominique de Menil's conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism, her husband's religion, followed shortly thereafter. John de Menil, who was born into an aristocratic family in France, had obtained his law degree and was employed in the banking industry until 1938, when he began working for Schlumberger, the oil services company founded by his wife's father and uncle, Conrad Schlumberger and Marcel Schlumberger, respectively.

When the Nazis invaded France, John de Menil was in Romania on Schlumberger business and participating in the French resistance by disrupting oil shipments from Romania to the Nazis. Dominique de Menil and their two small children fled to southern France, where she gave birth to their third child, before making their way to New York; there they were reunited with John de Menil. The family moved to Houston in 1940-41, where Schlumberger Surenco, an overseas office of the company, was located, though during the war John and Dominique de Menil spent time in Venezuela as well. They eventually established residences in New York and Houston and maintained an apartment in Paris and a residence in Ponpoint as well. Houston became their primary home after the war. The de Menils set out to embrace and transform their new city. Dominque de Menil stated,
   I would never have started collecting so much if I had not moved to
Houston ... Houston was a provincial, dormant place, much like
Strasbourg, Basel, Alsace. There were no galleries to speak of, no
dealers worth the name and the museum--that is why I started
buying; that is why I developed the physical need to acquire
(Browning 1983:192).

During the war period in New York, the de Menils encountered their fellow expatriate Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a French Dominican priest they had known in Paris. He believed strongly that the Catholic Church in France should call on artists to create works of art that communicated in a relevant and contemporary spiritual language. In the 1950s, he facilitated the commissions of numerous contemporary artists for the chapel at Assy (1950), Matisse for the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence (1951), Fernand Leger's windows at Audincourt (1951), and LeCorbusier's design of the Notre Dame du Haut chapel at Ronchamp (1955). As committed Catholics, the de Menils responded to his point of view.

Couturier brought the couple to New York galleries such as Paul Rosenberg, Valentine Dudensing, Curt Valentin, and Pierre Matisse. Soon after, they began to acquire works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, and others (de Menil 1983:36). Around the mid-1940s, they met Alexander Iolas, from whom they would acquire more than 300 works, assembling a significant Surrealism collection with strengths in the work of Rene Magritte and Max Ernst.

The de Menils' collecting interests quickly mushroomed, expanding to Oceanic and African art in the late 1950s: for Dominique de Menil,
   John Klejman ... made buying African art very tempting. He lived
just a couple of blocks from us in New York, and he had fabulous
African and Pacific Island pieces. We started slowly, but every
year added a few more primitive [sic] works (ibid., p. 37).

The couple also acquired African and other works from Julius Carlebach. Dominique de Menil recalled going to his gallery:
   It was the time when Carlebach was selling Northwest Coast art
acquired from the Heye Foundation. He had been selling them to Max
Ernst, Breton, and others. But even apart from Carlebach's early
little store, one could make discoveries, and that was one of my
favorite pastimes in New York in the fifties and early sixties
(ibid., p. 35)

While the de Menils did not seriously collect non-Western and Native American art until the late 1950s, it seems that they had at least a passing interest in such works prior to that time. They acquired an unexceptional Punu mask from Gabon from an unknown source in 1932, the year after their marriage. That same year they also purchased two Santani bark cloths from Jacques Viot, who, incidentally, was Max Ernst's neighbor at the time.

Max Ernst's circumstantial connection to this early Oceanic acquisition, Dominique de Menil's memory of Carlebach's gallery, and the fact that the beginning of the de Menils' important collection of modern art coincided with that of their African, Oceanic, and Native American collection, lead one to speculate that their interest in such works may have been precipitated by their modern interests. There is an undeniable Surrealist sensibility to the African collection, sometimes revealing itself in a strong resemblance between African and Surrealist works in the collection, such as Max Ernst's 1945 painting, Euclid (Fig. 12) and a Congolese sculpture (Fig. 13). There are also objects that simply appear surrealist in their form, such as the ivory Lega spoon (Fig. 14) that merges a utilitarian object with the human body.


Klejman himself was attuned to this resonance in describing the object for his clients on the invoice: "A very fine carving in ivory of a human figure conceived sur-realistically." (1) 2he Lega spoon was collected by Nicolas de Kun, a Belgian engineer working in the Congo, and sold to the de Menils by Klejman in 1961. Of the thirty-one Lega pieces in the collection, ten were collected by de Kun. The object files for these works include de Kun's descriptions and assessments of the works and provide the names of the village of origin, a rare instance of detailed information about African provenance. In addition, they include correspondence between the de Menils and de Kun as well as reports he prepared about the Lega works he collected at the request of the couple, attesting to their desire to know more about them and anticipating the careful research that would define their patronage in years to come.

While modern art may have provided an entree to African art, the de Menils' larger curiosity about the world around them likely provided other avenues to it as well. Having lived in Paris until the war, they were certainly not immune to the art coming from France's colonies. The collection's strength in Dogon art, for example, makes one wonder about their knowledge of the much celebrated Dakar-Djibouti expedition in 1931 and Marcel Griaule's subsequent work in the Bandiagara region. The de Menils' library provides evidence that at some point they began to follow the research of Griaule and his collaborators. In addition, John de Menil had encountered the continent prior to his marriage when he took a trip around the world, including stops in Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Australia, New Caledonia, and Tahiti. He subsequently fulfilled his compulsory military service by volunteering in the Rif Mountains of Morocco (Johnston 1977). This experience clearly had a favorable impact on him, as he chose to take his bride there on their honeymoon, touring by bus.

Whatever the source of their interest in African art, once established, it developed quickly--in terms of both the collection itself and their ideas for how to put this collection to use. From 1951-56, they acquired seven African works of varying quality from several dealers. Then, beginning in 1957, the pace began to quicken and the quality of the acquisitions began to increase: nine works came into the collection in 1957, three in 1958, twelve in 1959, and forty in 1960. In the 1960s they acquired around 400 African works and more than 300 in the 1970s. Collecting in this area declined in the period following John de Menil's death in 1973, suggesting that he was particularly passionate about African art. In the 1980s, another zoo African objects were added, though more than l00 of these were a gift of Yoruba objects given by Texas Southern University professor Carroll Simms. Over the years, friends and dealers gave an additional 150 African works to the collection.

The decreased number of acquisitions in the 1980s reflects an overall trend in the collection as Dominique de Menil shifted her resources to the construction of the Piano building and the costs of running the new museum. While she made fewer acquisitions during this period, many of the pieces added were of exceptional quality, such as the Bongo figure (Fig. 11). This work and many others were acquired on the recommendation of her former son-in-law, Francesco Pellizzi (Benezech 1984:34). Pellizzi and other family members played an important role in making recommendations in this and other parts of the collection. The five de Menil children were given gifts of art by their parents from a young age and have made generous loans and gifts of these and other works in the African area. In the last two decades, only a handful of African works have entered the collection, though acquisitions continued in other parts of the de Menils' collection.

The de Menils frequented various dealers in New York including John Klejman, Julius Carlebach, Aaron Furman, John Wise, Segy Gallery, Henri Kamer (in Paris and New York), Mathias Komor, and Merton Simpson. For example, they made important Benin acquisitions from John Wise, including a musketeer and royal head that were in the Beasley Collection (Fig. 15). Merton Simpson sold the de Menils a group of Kongo Christian objects, including a crucifix that hung above the couple's bed (Fig. 16) in their Houston home, designed by Philip Johnson in the late 1940s. (2) In Paris, they purchased African works from Rene Rasmussen, Guy Montbaron, R. Duperrier, Pierre Langlois, and Charles Ratton; the couple acquired an important kuduo from Ratton in 1965 that they gave to the Musee de l'Homme, stating in their letter to the institution's director: "When we are in Paris, we like to go the Musee de l'Homme and to drift along quietly, visiting old friends in the glass cases and discovering new ones." (3) In the late 1970s, Dominique de Menil obtained a number of important works from Philippe Guimiot in Brussels, including four terracottas (Fig. 7) and a bronze figure from the Inland Niger Delta.


Klejman, however, was their most important source of African art and a significant advisor in this area as well. More than 200 African objects were acquired from his New York gallery, in addition to another 300 in other parts of the collection. Klejman came from a Jewish family in Warsaw, where he was a dealer of eighteenth century porcelain and decorative arts. (4) Following the war, Klejman and his family first went to Sweden, a base from which the dealer travelled extensively to France, England, the Netherlands, and Belgium in order to reestablish pre-war contacts with dealers and collectors before relocating to Mexico. In 1950 the family settled in New York, where Klejman established a gallery at 8 West 56th Street, moving to 982 Madison Avenue in the ParkeBernet Building in the late 1950s. Once in New York, he began to acquire African and Oceanic objects, as well as antiquities and European decorative art.

Klejman had first encountered African art in Paris in the 1930s, when he was studying pre-med at the Sorbonne, and quickly built on this foundation once in New York. He began purchasing African pieces from the secondary market, primarily buying from collectors and ex-colonial officials and missionaries who had returned to Europe with art. In addition, he purchased African art from dealers in England, Belgium, and France. These works of art were considerably less expensive than the decorative arts he formerly dealt in and represented an important opportunity as he struggled to establish his gallery in the United States. His young business improved considerably when he was introduced to Nelson Rockefeller and Rend D'Harnoncourt. The introduction was made by William Liberman, whose mother, Bertha Slattery Lieberman, was the 8th grade teacher of Klejman's daughter, Susanne. As his interest and expertise in this area developed, his list of clients grew to include not only Rockefeller but the de Menils, Jacques Lipchitz, Mr. and Mrs. Gustave Schindler, Raymond Wielgus, Jay Left, and other.

The object files reveal a warm relationship between the de Menils and Klejman, individuals brought together through the circumstances of the war who shared a burgeoning interest in the arts of Africa, among other places. The nature of their relationship is evidenced in correspondence in the object files and a number of significant gifts from Klejman, including a Dogon figure and a Kurumba headdress (Fig. 18), both of considerable age. Klejman was prone to providing lengthy descriptions of his objects, which could extend to two pages when he was particularly passionate about a piece and had detailed information on the provenance. His invoices are like works of art in themselves, neatly typed on onionskin paper and provided in duplicate, stating "GUARANTEED GENUINE" at the bottom and signed by the dealer with a flourish. The de Menils clearly relied on Klejman's advice, asking him to vet works offered by other dealers and to suggest a scholar to catalogue their collection. Klejman recommended Leon Siroto, (5) who had recently returned from an extensive research trip in Central Africa. He catalogued the collection in the 1970s and 80s.


The de Menils were excellent record keepers, creating files for each object in their growing collection that almost always included copies of invoices and, oftentimes, even the cancelled check written for the purchase. These records constitute an important archive, revealing the camaraderie between collectors, dealers, scholars, and museum professionals as the field of African art was developing in the 1960s and 70s. Prior to his death, John de Menil himself established the file for each new piece, ordering and orchestrating the photography. He felt very strongly about the necessity of producing high-quality photographs. In a letter from 1970 to his Parisian niece, Benedicte Pesle, John de Menil asked for her help in having a "good" photograph made of a Bedu mask the couple had acquired there from Pierre Verite. After registering his displeasure with the last French photographer who shot the couple's sculpture, he stated,
   It must be said that few photographers know how to handle
sculpture. The only ones I know who are good are right here in
Houston. They trained themselves through our demanding
requirements, and now are the best we know--so much so that we
bring sculptures from New York for them to photograph.

He then went on to explain the desired result of his request:
   We want light grayish background without shadows. For smaller
pieces frosted glass is the best method--and an umbrella does the
trick for larger pieces. The light should be even--the focus
perfect. Quite an assignment, isn't it? (6)

In addition to overseeing the photographic documentation of the collection, John de Menil created a handwritten document that was inserted in each object file, detailing the source and date of acquisition, ethnic attribution, and the date and function of the object as provided by the dealer. Oftentimes, these initial remarks were crossed out and more accurate information added, leaving a record of the de Menils' evolving relationship with the art works in the collection. These changing attributions were the result of the de Menils' own research as well as that of others. The couple was in regular contact with scholars, sending inquiries about specific works to Siroto, as well as Robert Goldwater, Daniel Biebuyck, Roy Sieber, Germaine Dieterlen, and others. The de Menils noted scholars' visits to their collection and the observations they made. Their quest to care for and learn more about the objects in their collection led them to consult with conservators and to ask Roger Dechamps at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels to undertake wood analysis. At times their inquiries led them to discover that a work they had purchased was of lesser quality than they originally thought or even that it was a fake. In these cases, rather than rotating it out of the collection, they held on to the object to put it to use for teaching purposes, believing that one's eye can be trained by comparative looking (Benezech 1984:34).

As their collection grew in multiple directions, they affiliated themselves with institutions where it would enrich the lives of others. The de Menils had formed a foundation in 1954 dedicated to "la rencontre humaine; to consciously open roads to knowledge and a communion of experience among men. It functions mainly within the fields of art and spirituality, education and science." (7) It would provide for the "support and advancement of religious, charitable, literary, scientific, and educational purposes." (8) In 1958, they founded the Department of Art History at St. Thomas University (UST) in Houston, hiring Jermayne MacAgy to be its chairwoman.

The de Menils had brought MacAgy to Houston in 1955 to be the director of the Contemporary Art Association (subsequently the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston). MacAgy was known for her theatrical installations, her ability, as Dominique de Menil said, to
   cast a spell on practically anything. If she desired that an object
be raised to the dignity of art, an art object it became. Nothing
was too humble, too banal or corny to be excluded from her
phantasmagorias ... she managed to confer style and charm to a
sardine can, a tureen of French pate, and a bottle of Lea and
Perrins sauce (de Menil 1968:10).

MacAgy came to have a profound impact on the de Menils, encouraging them to collect African works for the teaching collection and teaching them about the art of installing exhibitions in the university art gallery and occasionally other places as well. Dominique de Menil said of MacAgy that she
   always insisted that a collection--even a small one--was
indispensable for teaching. She felt the need to have artworks, for
students should not only look at slides and book illustrations, but
should be able to touch real works of art. This approach to
teaching played an important part in the formation of my own
collection. At that time I started to buy more systematically in
certain fields, such as African and Cycladic (de Menil 1983:43).

In 1959, MacAgy gave Houston its first significant exposure to non-Western, Native American, and pre-Columbian works of art in an exhibition titled "Totems Not Taboo" hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), but organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum (Fig. 19). The exhibition, comprising objects from more than forty public and private collections, including those of the de Menils and Adesoji Aderemi, the Oni of Ife, literally lifted visitors out of their space through the creation of a U-shaped platform. One ascended the stairs, rising to meet the objects placed on towering pedestals. The show was a major success, warranting the praise of Buckminster Fuller, who cabled:
   You bring honor to Houston as the community first capable of
realizing and [sic] adequately representative constellation of a
world around [the] fundamentality of art, whose integrity
transcends the vast remoteness of time and geography separating its
spontaneous fundamental outcroppings all around the edgelands and
islands of the southern hemisphere ... invisible to our
predominantly northern hemispheres [sic] continental preoccupations
... you celebrate the opening of a new era of man's enjoyment and
knowledge concerning his whole history around the earth. (9)


Rene D'Haroncourt was in attendance and, based on photographs, appears to have led tours of the exhibition. It is unclear how the couple formally met D'Harnoncourt, MOMA's director from 1949-67, but John de Menil's service to that institution's International Committee beginning in 1953, and Board of Trustees in 1962, would have meant that they got to know each other rather well over time. Furthermore, John de Menil became a trustee at the Museum of Primitive Art in 1960, serving with D'Harnoncourt, who was vice-president. (10) The de Menils' collection was shown at the Museum of Primitive Art in 1962 and a catalogue was produced, the first publication focusing exclusively on their non-Western and Native American holdings (Fig. 20). In 1961, the de Menils tapped this New York network to persuade James Johnson Sweeney to assume the directorship of the MFAH. The de Menils were active supporters of this institution and once Sweeney arrived in 1961, they worked to build its holdings, making monetary gifts and giving works of art, including African and Oceanic objects.


Even while they were involved in the MFAH and other institutions, as well as New York museums, the de Menils built the art history department at UST. When MacAgy died unexpectedly in 1964, Dominique de Menil rose to the challenge of heading the department and organizing and installing exhibitions in the gallery. She followed in the steps of her mentor, putting different parts of the collection together in evocative installations and transporting viewers into an alternate universe. One of the first exhibitions she mounted after MacAgy's death was "Humble Treasures," which presented the African objects in the de Menils' collection as sacred art (Fig. 21). As she stated in the introduction to the catalogue,
   Masks and ancestors' figures, now in museums and collections, were
once focal points of high-volted tensions. Charged with religious
emotions, they were feared and treasured as sacred objects, as
abodes for spirits, as magic bridges between this world and the
supernatural one (de Menil 1965:1).


By 1968, they had built up a library, a teaching collection, and a staff of five, including the appointment of Mino Badner as professor of "primitive" art in 1965. Like MacAgy, Badner encouraged the de Menils to acquire African art works for the teaching collection. These objects were used in the classroom, passed around to give students intimate contact with their subject of study. As Dominique de Menil explained, the student "may observe a sculpture from all angles, feel its weight, smell it, caress it. A work of art has invaded his territory and demands his reponse" (Battock 1969:407). Badner died prematurely in 1977 and he was not replaced. The de Menils supported scholarship in African art history beyond these departments, funding, for example, the doctoral study of Sylvia Boone at Yale and the fieldwork of a Columbia University student. In addition the Foundation funded other education initiatives, giving scholarships to students at Texas Southern University (an African American university in Houston) and supporting the Institute of International Eduction, where John de Menil served as a board member.

Tensions with the administration of UST had prompted the de Menils to decamp to Rice University in 1969, taking the art history department with them. There they founded the Institute for the Arts and constructed an exhibition space called the Rice Museum. In addition, the de Menils moved the Media Center established by Gerald O'Grady at UST to Rice, aided in their endeavors there by their friend and collaborator filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. The Media Center featured work of African filmmakers as well American and European ones, hosting seven African filmmakers in 1970 and showing their work as part of a film festival that toured the United States. (11) The de Menil's interest in the nascent field of African film led to the Foundation's support at least two filmmakers. After consulting with Rossellini, the de Menils gave financial support to Moustapha Alassane from Niger, one of the filmmakers who had come to the Media Center in 1970, and the Nigerian filmmaker Ola Balogun, both of whom were at the beginning of their important careers. (12) Both shared connections to Jean Rouch, whom the de Menils would come to know through Balogun. In the early 1970s, memos and letters in the archive reveal that the de Menils were opening to the possibility of contemporary African expression, both in film and art. In a letter to Balogun from 1972, for example, John de Menil stated that he saw the potential in Balogun's film that the Foundation was supporting for "a true African expression of an African faith, thus an authentic African work of art of modern times." (13) While the essentializing language may strike one as anachronistic, the hopeful sentiment expressed was certainly ahead of its time.

The de Menils had met Balogun when they traveled to Africa to meet with elders and religious figures as part of their exploratory research for the creation of an ecumenical chapel devoted to human rights, the Rothko Chapel. The de Menils traveled to numerous countries, including Switzerland, France, Italy, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, India, Cote d'Ivoire, and Nigeria. (14) In Abidjan, they met with the renowned oral historian Amadou Hampate Ba, as well as French and Ivoirien scholars and Catholic leaders. Hampate Ba was enthusiastic about the de Menils' project, telling them,
   I have always wanted to work to unite men. "Search for that which
you have in common with your neighbor" my master used to say.
Disaccord is inherent in human nature: intelligence is dedicated to
looking for new aspects, new expressions; it always diversifies.

In Nigeria, they met with Ekpo Eyo, Ulli Beier, Wande Abimbola, and others, in addition to Balogun. After the chapel opened in 1971, the de Menils invited Abimbola came to Houston in 1973 to participate in the first Rothko Chapel symposium, "Traditional Modes of Contemplation and Action."

The de Menils' philanthropy was complemented by their involvement in politics on a local, national, and international level. They were passionate supporters of human and civil rights. In Houston, they engaged in the fight to desegregate Houston's schools, making contributions to local organizations such as Citizens for Good Schools and Blacks for Representative Government and supporting the voter registration efforts of Senator Barbara Jordan. They funded numerous candidates who shared their goals, including Congressman Mickey Leland. The couple met Leland when he was a student at Texas Southern University and he became a great friend and collaborator. They also contributed to grass roots organizations such as SHAPE Community Center, a self-help organization dedicated to bettering the lives of the predominantly African American community in Houston's Third Ward.

The de Menils saw the potential to effect social change through the study, placement, and presentation of art. For example, in 1960 they launched a research project called "The Image of the Black in Western Art," an ambitious attempt to amass a photographic record of every Western depiction of Africans or peoples of the African diaspora in art from the ancient period to the twentieth century, which they described as "an archeological archive of racial relations, happy and unhappy." (16) The Foundation also hired a team of researchers to interpret this archive. They produced a multivolume publication that made a significant contribution to our understanding of the visualization of race in recent decades (see, for example, Vercoutter et al. 1976). In 1994, the project was moved to the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African American Research at Harvard University, under the supervision of Karen C.C. Dalton, where this important work continues. Volumes I, II, and IV have been published to date, covering the ancient, medieval, and modern periods, respectively. Volume III, which deals with the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries, is in the final stages of preparation for its long-anticipated publication. A duplicate "Image of the Black in Western Art" archive is housed at the Warburg Institute in London.


The de Menils also used their art collection to advance their political goals. In 1969 they offered to the City of Houston a partial purchase of Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk (1963-67), with the balance to be paid by the city. Their offer, which included a dedication of the art work to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was rejected. They purchased the work themselves and eventually sited it in the reflecting pool in front of the Rothko Chapel. Foundation memos repeatedly demonstrate that "Black culture is one of the major commitments [sic] of the Foundation," (17) whether through its support of higher education for African Americans, candidates with civil rights platforms, research projects, or display of the African collection. In writing to Siroto in 1970 about the acquisition of a Bandjoun headdress, John de Menil noted, "As you know, we want to start a program of exhibitions and lectures to meet the increased interest of the blacks for the civilization of their forebears. They cannot fail to get the message of this head--a proud message." (18)

While the de Menils felt that the African collection could be a source of strength and pride for the African American community in Houston during this period of turmoil, they also felt that African art could provide a point of entree to black cultures for white audiences, demonstrating the under-recognized contributions of the diaspora to American and world culture. To this end, they asked Mickey Leland to work with them to find a site for an exhibition that would bring art to a community underserved by museums. In 1971, Leland located an abandoned movie theater called the DeLuxe in Houston's Fifth Ward, a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood, where the community worked together with the Foundation to renovate the building. An exhibition of contemporary art, curated by New York artist Peter Bradley, was installed, featuring the work of an integrated roster of artists including Bradley, Anthony Caro, Sam Gilliam, Kenneth Noland, Robert Gordon, Daniel Johnson, Larry Poons, and William T. Williams. When the show closed after about a month with more than 4,000 people attending, the de Menils worked with community leaders to put the space to new uses, lending part of their African collection for an installation that lasted two years.

During this period of intense activism, one finds in archival documents authored by John de Menil a thoughtful questioning of the Foundation's role in these projects. He appears increasingly aware of the complexities of his own position of wealth and power in relation to the poorer and predominantly African American communities with whom the Foundation was working and struggling to find ways he could engage in this work in more equitable ways. (19)

John de Menil died in 1973 and Dominique de Menil carried on many of these projects and took stock of the Foundation's goals in the years following her husband's death. In a973, the couple had been in discussions with Louis Kahn to design a campus in the Montrose area of Houston that would house their collection and facilitate their various projects. When Kahn himself died shortly after John de Menil, this idea was put aside. By the late 1970s, Dominique de Menil was again exploring seriously the idea of a independent institution. After a period of research and travel, the Foundation hired Renzo Piano in 1980 and engaged in a lengthy design process, a prolonged discussion between the architect and client that would allow the de Menils' evolving philosophy about art to be made manifest in the museum. In 1987, The Menil Collection, a gift to the city of Houston, opened to the public.

The African gallery installation remains largely intact from 1987 (Fig. 22), as there was no curator for this part of the collection prior to my appointment in 2005. The installation was overseen by Dominique de Menil with assistance from her goddaughter Dominique Malaquais, who at the time was getting her PhD in African art history at Columbia, as well as the museum's founding curator, Paul Winkler, and director, Walter Hopps. One enters a large white gallery, split into two sections, the first featuring Dogon, Bamana, and Baule art works complemented by the display of four terracottas from the Inland Niger Delta that Dominque de Menil acquired in the early 1980s. The middle portion of the gallery houses a large case of Benin sculpture, before transitioning to an installation of masks and headdresses from West and Central Africa. Many of the art works in this section feature animals and spiritual beings and are large in scale, in contrast to an adjacent case of smaller objects depicting the human form, setting up a relationship that suggests the diminutive stature of humans in relation to a larger world. A second gallery is enclosed by glass and contains large-scale sculpture on pedestals with no bonnets. This gallery abuts a central garden with the Oceanic gallery placed on the other side, an arrangement that allows one a view onto other parts of the museum. This design element was used in other areas of the museum to effect conversation between different parts of the collection.


Like the museum as a whole, label text in these galleries is kept to a minimum and no didactic information is provided. When possible, objects are presented without glass or plexiglass barriers. These were conscious decisions on the installation team's part, intended to provide visitors with a sense of the immediacy of their encounters with the objects. This effect is heightened by the strong use of natural light in the garden gallery and ambient light in the interior one. Dominique de Menil felt that there was a place for scholarship and text, but the gallery should be reserved for the experience of art, where one's own associations with and responses to the object could unfold in time. In the introduction to her collection catalogue, she spoke to this:
   I hesitate to write. Events, people, situations, and works of art
most of all are always beyond what may be said of them. Language
restricts, limits, impoverishes ... Indeed, language has an
inherent impotence as well as a disposition towards aggressivity.
Perhaps only silence and love do justice to a work of art (de Menil

Marie-Therese Brincard, in an insightful essay on the collection written in 2005, observes:
   The overall decontextualized aesthetic approach to display in the
museum also reflects the de Menils' approach to collecting. Each
"archipelago" is on equal footing, a balance that distinguishes The
Menil Collection from most other art museums, in which objects from
non-Western cultures are felt to stand in need of
"contextualization." Dominique de Menil's sense of sparseness in
display, indeed, both assumes and requires equality, in that an
object--whatever its cultural provenance--exists here in a space of
aesthetic perception, not of didactic design (Brincard

The planned 2008 reinstallation of the African galleries and collection catalogue will take the philosophy the de Menils developed about art through their wide-ranging projects as a starting point. The history I have explored here was the subject of an exhibition I organized in the summer of 2005, "Chance Encounters: The Formation of the de Menils' African Collection" (Fig. 23). This exhibition marked the first occasion that many of the African objects in the collection had been on view since the museum opened in 1987.


In the coming years, The Menil Collection will increase its presence in African art history through future exhibitions, publications, and programs. It is our hope that the African collection will better serve scholars and visitors as John and Dominique de Menil intended, for they saw these works, like the rest of the collection, as an ongoing point of convergence between human beings past and present, never possessed by one but "possessed" by many. Reflecting on a work from the National Gallery that she had always admired, Dominique de Menil stated,
   I am so fond of this strange and miraculous little painting
[Domenico Veneziano, St. John in the Desert, ca. 1445] that I
experience it as totally mine when I stand in front of it. And I
think that in years ahead there will be those, unknown to me, who
will take and "possess" works that I have acquired (de Menil

I wish to thank my colleagues at The Menil Collection for their generous assistance with this article: Geraldine Aramanda, Mary Kadish, Mary Lambrakos, Amy Sullivan, and Michelle White.

References cited

Battock, Gregory. 1969. "'A Young Teaching Collection:' From Art to Idea." Art Journal 28:406-410.

Benezech, Anne-Marie. 1984. "La rime et la raison: le choc des mondes." Interview with Dominique de Menil. Arts d'Afrique Noire 51:33-7.

Brincard, Marie-Therese, forthcoming. "Dialogues in Silence': The de Menil's Collecting and the Menil Collection of African Art" In A Century of Collecting African Art in American Art Museums (working title), ed. Kathleen Bickford Berzock and Christa Clarke.

Browning, Dominique. 1983. "What I Admire I Must Possess" Texas Monthly (April):141-7,192-209.

de Menil, Dominique. 1965. "Introduction" Humble Treasures, p. 1. Houston: The Art Department of the University of St. Thomas.

--. 1983. "Dominique de Menil" Interview by staff of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in The First Show: Paintings and Sculpture from Eight Collections, 1940-1980, eds. Julia Brown and Bridget Johnson, pp. 35-50. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art.

--. 1987. "Foreward." In The Menil Collection, pp. 7-8. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

--.1968. "Introduction." In Jermayne MacAgy: A Life Illustrated by an Exhibition, pp. 10-12. Houston: University of St. Thomas.

Johnston, Marguerite. 1977. "The de Menils" The Houston Post, 9 January.

Vercoutter, Jean, et al. 1976. The Image of the Black in Western Arts. Vol. 1, part 1. Houston: Menil Foundation.


(1) Object file X 150, The Menil Collection.

(2) When the de Menils hired Johnson to design their home on San Felipe in 1948, they effectively launched his career in Texas. They subsequently underwrote his design for the master plan of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, which he completed in 1957, with construction commencing the following year. Around this period, he designed the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, which opened in 1961.

(3) Object file, Gift 070, The Menil Collection.

(4) Susanne C. Klejman, personal communication, 6 June 2005, 16 November 2006, and 6 March 2007. This and other information about Klejman's personal history comes from these conversations with Susanne C. Klejman, to whom I am indebted for her willingness to share her family history.

(5) John de Menil to Leon Siroto, 5 May 1970, Siroto files, Menil Archives. In this letter, John de Menil states, "We have, together with our Foundation, an important collection of African sculpture--about 500 pieces--and we would like to have it catalogued authoritatively. Your name was suggested by John Klejman, who said that you are the outstanding authority in the field"

(6) Object file CA 63025 (de-accessioned), The Menil Collection. The Houston photographers to whom he refers are Blaine Hickey and Ogden Robertson.

(7) "Notes on The Menil Foundation (Draft)" October 1974, Foundation correspondence 1970-75, Menil Archives.

(8) Vertical files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas, Austin.

(9) Western Union telegram from Buckminster Fuller to Jermayne MacAgy, 28 February 1959, MacAgy papers 03/15 and Totems not Taboo 02A/02, Menil Archives.

(10) John de Menil served on MOMA'S International Committee from 1953-73 and as a trustee from 1962-73. He was a trustee at the Museum of Primitive Art from 1960-73.

(11) Press release, Rice University papers 03/12, Menil Archives.

(12) Memorandum to Grants Committee, 10 June 1972, Projects and Grants 11/05, Menil Archives.

(13) John de Menil to Ola Balogun, 25 August 1972, Projects and Grantsn/05. In this letter, John de Menil thanks Balogun for introducing the couple to Rouch. They stayed in contact with the filmmaker and he came to visit The Menil Collection after it opened in 1987.

(14) Exploration Log No. 4--Africa, February 23-March 1, 1972, Rothko exploration log papers, C 1-7, 1971 72. The chapel's design was originally commissioned by Philip Johnson but finished by Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. It houses a suite of paintings by Mark Rothko that were commissioned by the de Menils. The chapel originated as a memorial to MacAgy and was envisioned as "an instrument for encounters" between various religions as well as "those who do not acknowledge God but are close to him in their search for peace and justice" (See Exploration Log No. 1: Memorandum to the Board of the International Ecumenical Center, 13 October 1971, Rothko exploration log papers, C 1-7, 1971-72.)

(15) Ibid. Hampate Ba refers here to Tierno Bokar, his teacher in Bandiagara.

(16) John de Menil to Ola Balogun, 25 August 1972.

(17) Memorandum to Grants Committee, 10 June 1972.

(18) John de Menil to Leon Siroto, 13 October 1970, Scholars' papers, Menil Archives.

(19) Memo to Grants Committee, 15 November 1972, Projects and Grants, Menil Archives; Draft of memo from John de Menil, 9 July 1972, Projects and Grants, 11/05 Menil Archives.

KRISTINA VAN DYKE is Associate Curator for Collections at The Menil Collection.

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