How’s this for a twisting story line? An architect commissions a famous artist to create a site-specific drawing in a house he has built for himself. The artist, who never touches his own works, creates exacting instructions that installation artists follow to create the 30-ft.-tall artwork in the living room of the home. The artist dies. A few years later, the architect dies, offering his home and the majority of his extensive art collection to a local but world-famous museum of which he was a trustee. The museum decides to sell the home and add much of the art to its collection, but there’s a problem with the wall drawing. It can’t be moved, and the museum is stymied by a restriction: It is not allowed to sell any artwork that has been bequeathed to it.
Here’s where the plot — and the drywall mud — thickens: the museum, unable to remove the artwork from the home without destroying it, comes up with an alternative plan. It will plaster over the drawing, rendering it unrecoverable.
Years later, the purchaser of the home is telling this story to a houseguest — who in a fit of curiosity grabs a dull knife and starts chipping away at the wall. The white coating flakes off. To his and his host’s surprise, a tableau of blue, red, and yellow appears: a fragment of the original drawing underneath.
What is this? The first 20 minutes of a new Wes Anderson movie, an episode of Columbo, or the setup for a Siri Hustvedt novel? No, its just the state of play at 1202 Milford St. in the Museum District. The artist is Sol LeWitt. The museum is the Menil Collection. The home is the former residence of Houston architect Bill Stern. And the plotline is still in progress:
YOU WON’T HAVE THE MENIL COLLECTION TO KICK AROUND FOR MOST OF NEXT YEAR Are you one of those architecturally sensitive types who has long suspected that the worn, squishy pine floorboards of Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection building were meant to serve as some sort of metaphor for the tenuous and uncertain nature of Houston’s oft-muddy groundplane? (Plus, they’ve got those underfloor AC registers interrupting it every few yards.) Well, good for you! — but tough luck: Beginning late next February, reports Molly Glentzer, the building will close for 8 months so that those well-worn floors can be refinished. Why should the job take so long? “The staff will continue to operate as usual from the upstairs offices, but some gallery walls will have to be dismantled and the collections shifted through the building during the sanding and finishing process.” Come November 2018, will the experience of walking through the museum be just as exquisitely unstable as it is now? Maybe not: “The leveling mechanisms under the wooden air-conditioning grills in the floor are also being upgraded,” Glentzer warns. Hurry and visit now, while it’s all still worn and creaky! [Houston Chronicle] Video of Sosie Merritt stomping on Menil floors, 2009: Brandon & Kristen Merritt [license]
A little brown box is now in place about where the gray and blue boxes of the Alabama Row retail strip are supposed to go, a reader notes. The construction trailer recently popped up inside the newish construction fencing now framing the long-empty lot along Mandell St. (across W. Alabama from the block holding the Menil Collection’s parking lot, and part of its bungalow herd). The new strip would sit just west of the 2-story brick house now holding cat spa and boarding facility Fat Cat Flats.
So far Alabama Row looks like it may be bookended by Vietnamese and burger joints, with room for some non-food offerings in the middle — that’s W. Alabama toward the bottom in the preliminary site plan below, with the strip’s parking tucked in back:
The remaining 2 thirds of the vacant Richmont Square complex are getting a few exterior decorating touches, a reader notes — among the increasingly wild parking lot median strips, many of the trees lining the Richmond-facing parking lot are sporting some new ribbons as of last week. The complex’s final tenants received an early-spring everybody-out notice, with the promise of demolition left hanging some time after the now-past May 1 move-out deadline.
What’s planned next for the space, once the last of the late-1960s apartment buildings are cleared out? Some clues come from the campus master plan map released in the Menil Collection’s 2014 annual report — 2 separate blocks south of the under-construction Drawing Institute are depicted where Richmont Square’s leftovers still stand, respectively hosting a wiggly-trailed park and a pale blue rectangle labeled for “future mixed-use” development:
Reader and mixed-media picture-maker Bob Russell sends along an update to his previous shots of the site of the Menil Drawing Institute, now preliminarily sketched into place in broad steel strokes. The framework shown at the top appears to be outlining that western interior courtyard that showed up in Johnston Marklee’s previous renderings of the building, which is going up where the now-level back third of the Richmont Square apartment complex once stood.
The Menil says construction should wrap up some time next year. Here’s a few more angles on all the angles already in place:
Is the park-in-back strip center now a certifiable thing in Houston? Here’s the latest rendering of the small shopping center designed by Ziegler Cooper Architects for the corner of W. Alabama St. and Mandell St. in Montrose, across the street from the Menil Collection parking lot. Like the smaller center at the corner of Westheimer and Dunlavy now home to the Common Bond bakery and the slightly larger one developed by Braun Enterprises at 20th St. and Rutland in the Heights, Alabama Row scoots up just about as close to the main drag as the city’s development rules will let it. And it looks like the building’s south face, fronting West Alabama, is meant to be seen as its front:
The back third of the Menil-owned Richmont Square Apartments has now been cleared away. Left to dispose of: a below-grade swimming pool in the middle of the lot, plus a garage apartment behind the DaCamera building at 1427 Branard St., next door to the Menil’s Cy Twombly gallery. Swamplot reader and artist Bob Russell takes a break from creating his own satellite-imagery-inspired drawings to send in the above quick ground-level panorama of the sketchy spot where Johnston Marklee’s low-slung $40 million Menil Drawing Institute will be mapped out and filled in.
TILDA GOES FULL MENIL From the looks of this W magazine fashion shoot with photographer Tim Walker, glacial space oddity Tilda Swinton managed to gaze upon and or fondle every objet d’art John and Dominique de Menil brought to Houston, be those treasures stashed away in their River Oaks home or on display in the Montrose museum. At the latter, while wafting through the South Seas galleries in a full-length Del Pozo coat, Swinton was in the mood to coo, ah and ooh. “They presumed art to be good for human dignity,” Swinton says of the de Menils to William Middleton, W correspondent and author of an upcoming biography on the arts patrons. “There is a practical magic that shows itself in the exquisite simplicity of each installation; there is nothing to get in the way of a direct relationship between the viewer and a work of art.” (With unfortunate results, in one high-profile recent case.) Swinton also donned “a painted metal corset by the London designer Johanna O’Hagan, a pair of black boots by Versace, and little else” in order to recreate Retour de la Belle Jardinière, Max Ernst’s 1967 reincarnation of his own La Belle Jardinière, a 1923 Surrealist near-nude that was later condemned as “degenerate art” by the Nazis and presumably destroyed. (The first Jardinière was itself Ernst’s reworking of a Raphael Madonna-and-Child painting by the same name.) The de Menils purchased Retour, thus affording Swinton and Walker the chance to shoot a retour of a retour of a retour of la Belle Jardinière. “This is the special magic of these collaborations,” Swinton tells Middleton, still clad in her skimpy Jardinière regalia. “There is not just a vague referencing of de Menil but also an immersion into her world. We’re crossing into a no-man’s-land between history and imagination, in an attempt to evoke her spirit, and the spirit of the world she inhabited.” [W ] Photo: Tim Walker / W magazine.
THE MENIL COLLECTION GETS ITS RAP TRIBUTE In advance of their exhibition and performances next month at the Art League of Houston, where they’ll recreate 5 performances by the Art Guys, “while adding a twist that could only come from Black Guys,” artists and musicians Robert Hodge and Philip Pyle II released what appears to be the first-ever song about Houston’s Menil Collection — or at least the first one available on the iTunes Music Store (where it costs 99 cents, but you can preview a short segment for free). And over on Glasstire, Bill Davenport has helped out the auditorially challenged by transcribing (most of) the entertaining and insider-y rap-style lyrics, including the catchy chorus (“Riding by Menil slow, you don’t need no cash flow, we the only negroes, Hodge and Phil”). Sadly, no accompanying video has been released, but a note on the website of Everything Records indicates an album entitled presenting . . . The Black Guys is forthcoming. A solo show of Hodge’s paintings opened last Friday at the CAMH. [Glasstire; Everything Records] Cover art: The Black Guys
SNIFFING OUT THE SUBTLE SECRETS OF THE ROTHKO CHAPEL Exploring the Menil’s quiet, deep-purple monument, the Chronicle‘s Leah Binkovitz turns up a couple new lines of investigation: “In a turn Rothko, with his proscriptions for proper viewing, could never have anticipated, the chapel has its own Yelp page. ‘Whatever, some people don’t like to think too much about life and what our place is and if you’re one of those people, this isn’t the place for you,’ writes Eric J. in his recent review, ‘You need to head on down to Moody Gardens for “Pirates” or whatever.’ Inside, there’s a collection of Rothko paintings — dark and turbid — that surround the viewer. When the sun sifting through the clerestory shifts, the purple panels shine like scars. People meditate on cushions on the ground or lean against each other on the benches. The occasional crinkle of a plastic bag breaks the silence. There’s a smell, a specific Rothko Chapel smell. That’s the first thing two dashing young men in khaki shorts comment on when they leave the chapel.” [Houston Chronicle] Photo: Ed Uthman [license; cropped]