Visiting the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston in the week of his death


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It wasn’t conceived as a shrine, exactly, but the small, windowless Cy Twombly Gallery on the campus of the Menil Collection in Houston certainly feels like one this week.

In the wake of Twombly’s death in Rome on Tuesday at age 83, the single-floor building, designed by Renzo Piano, finds itself transformed from a suite of galleries celebrating the work of a living artist to a commemoration of a long career now complete.


Aside from a single guard who stepped outside occasionally to feed the squirrels, I had the place to myself Thursday on a muggy Houston morning. And apart from the low hum of the air conditioning it was completely quiet inside the building, which opened in 1995 and is designed on a 3-by-3 grid of perfectly square galleries measuring 26 feet by 26 feet. (One gallery is a double cube, so there are a total of eight rooms rather than nine.) The sun filtered through the off-white cotton fabric that is stretched above each of the rooms, providing a wash of light over the large canvases.

The story of the building actually begins in New York, where the Dia Art Foundation considered in the 1980s opening a series of single-artist galleries, including one devoted to Twombly. When a sour economy ruined those plans, Dia’s sizable Twombly collection fell into limbo, with the paintings mostly tucked away in storage. After the Menil reached an agreement with the Dia board to move the paintings to Houston, the museum asked Twombly about the possibility of a separate building on its campus to show his work. He signed on and later donated a number of paintings from his own collection.

Twombly sketched out rather detailed preliminary designs for the gallery and then handed the project over to Piano, who had already completed the main Menil museum across the street. Piano’s design for that building, a modestly scaled but sublime piece of architecture, ranks as one of the four or five best works in his prolific career.

Wrapped in a skin of custom-made concrete blocks and topped by a flying-carpet-like grid of steel louvers, the Twombly Gallery is simpler and less expressive than the larger Menil building, and feels more solid; by contrast, many of the paintings on view inside are airy, with Twombly’s trademark skittering, looping hand leaving wide sections of open canvas. After visiting the Twombly Gallery I stopped to talk with the Menil’s director, Josef Helfenstein. He said that the relationship shared by Piano, Twombly and Paul Winkler, Helfenstein’s predecessor as Menil director, was unusually productive -- ‘three people working together really seamlessly, in a kind of ideal collaboration.’

That harmony was in stark contrast to the tension-filled relationship between architect Philip Johnson and artist Mark Rothko as they worked on the design of the famed Rothko Chapel, which stands nearby. Their interaction grew so strained that Johnson left the project before the octagonal chapel was finished in 1971. It was completed by Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry.

Asked if the Menil had any plans to mark Twombly’s death, Helfenstein said, ‘We’ll organize some kind of event in the fall.’ And before then? Would the museum move the paintings around at the gallery or plan a commemorative exhibition there -- something telling the story of the artist’s life and career?


‘I don’t think right now,’ he said. ‘He would be unhappy about that.’

Helfenstein noted that Twombly, who was closely involved in deciding how to fill each of the gallery’s rooms, liked the display just the way it was. ‘What you see over there,’ he said, ‘is a kind of ideal retrospective of his work -- at least up to 1995,’ when the gallery was completed.

Helfenstein said Twombly had told him in recent years that he was working on ‘one last painting’ -- a large canvas that the artist hoped would eventually hang on the only remaining large blank wall in the gallery, along one side of the double-sized room. But Helfenstein said he didn’t think Twombly ever finished it.

-- Christopher Hawthorne, reporting from Houston