Review: An unprecedented new home for modern drawings opens in Houston

Art critic

When the Menil Drawing Institute opens here on Saturday in a smashing new building, more than a year after a planned debut was abruptly postponed just days before Hurricane Harvey devastated vast swaths of the Bayou City, it will boast a unique distinction. A sophisticated, $40-million facility built specifically for the acquisition, exhibition, study, conservation and storage of modern and contemporary drawings, it is the only place of its kind in the United States.

Call it a museum-plus.

The institute is the newest addition to the renowned Menil Collection campus, a 30-acre complex in a middle-class residential neighborhood. Set amid bungalows, the complex includes an eclectic art museum, two pavilions devoted to single-artist installations by painter Cy Twombly and sculptor Dan Flavin and a Byzantine Fresco Chapel, where long-term special installations are shown. (The austere Rothko Chapel is nearby.) Admission to all of them is free, setting a welcoming tone.

Add the Menil Drawing Institute to the list. It began a decade ago as the savvy brainchild of Josef Helfenstein, now director of Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Basel, and has been ably brought to fruition by Rebecca Rabinow, his successor as Menil director.


In size, the new single-story building totals 30,000 square feet. Yet, off the entrance hall, the public exhibition gallery is barely 1/12th of that. At 2,850 square feet, it’s the magnificent iceberg’s tip.

Drawings aren’t like paintings and sculptures. Typically made on paper, which is sensitive to long-term exposure to light, they cannot be permanently displayed for public exhibition in museum galleries. The roughly 2,500 drawings in the growing collection must be put away for safekeeping, like special-occasion china or holiday paraphernalia, yet available to be taken out when the circumstance demands.

The Menil Drawing Institute enjoys state-of-the art storage in capacious underground rooms. High-tech systems of dams and drains have been built to keep potential floodwater out, while complex humidifiers keep moist air in and at optimum levels. Upstairs, the conservation laboratory for works on paper is cutting- edge, its big east- and north-facing windows allowing for adequate — and essential — control of bright Texas daylight.

Nearby, a large study room invites scholarly scrutiny of individual drawings beneath a skylight fitted with a scrim to diffuse natural illumination. Small side rooms are places where drawings can be installed, tentatively and temporarily, as curators work out exhibition ideas. One is equipped with a sofa and upholstered side chairs — a casual place for colleagues to discuss the drawings they are looking at, or just to sit and think.

Drawings, often marked by modest scale, require close scrutiny. Together, those attributes yield a time-consuming intimacy.

That’s reflected in the opening show’s title, “The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns,” organized by curator Kelly Montana, and it encapsulates a central tenet of the artist’s enigmatic work. (The show celebrates the Menil’s publication this month of a six-volume catalog of more than 800 drawings made during Johns’ 60-year career; the title comes from a 1968 sketchbook entry.) Seven loans from the artist join 34 works from the Menil’s own exceptional collection for a tight survey of his familiar motifs — target, numbers, American flag, map, skin and more.

The array of drawing media is just about as broad as it gets — pencil, crayon, watercolor, encaustic, pastel, gouache, acrylic, metallic powder, ink and charcoal on paper and plastic vellum. How drawings might operate can be witnessed in the first two examples just inside the door.

A casual, off-kilter 1959 image of a target with a background of crimson crayon and a chunky frame sketched around it in pencil hangs next to a fastidious, almost clinically precise rendering of the same subject drawn in graphite and gouache on delicate tracing paper. Targets are an early Johns motif. Their concentric rings are a way to engage looking and aiming, filtered through the tactility of making marks on a surface.

Given the stark formal differences between these two examples, one might assume the shipshape second drawing cleans up a rough idea offhandedly initiated in the first. Yet, the neat and tidy second work is dated 1958/1967 — both before and after the casual sketch was made.

The crayon work apparently loosens up a motif already established, one that would later be modified again. What you get from the juxtaposition is a concentrated sense of art as a process of unfolding thought, zigging and zagging until the artist is satisfied.

Johns’ wide variation in materials also suggests drawing’s elasticity as a medium. A third target, this one from 1977, is rendered in woozy puddles of black ink on a plastic sheet, its liquid flows challenging the linear rigors of target practice. The show is concise, marvelously evoking the ways an artist explores in the studio.

Just outside the gallery, a temporary mural elaborates, unfurling on a long, white wall in the entry hall. Artist Roni Horn used a variety of colored marker pens and a host of writing styles to sprinkle common aphorisms and epigrams in clusters from floor to ceiling. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; steal my thunder; brake [sic] the bank; come home to roost — her scribbles form little abstract pictograms, like earthbound constellations plucked from a night sky.

More immediately, the work reverberates against Johns’ precedent. Surely no coincidence, his pivotal 1956 painting “Gray Alphabets” hangs inside the Menil museum just up the sidewalk from the institute, an icon within its celebrated permanent collection. “Gray Alphabets” was the first time he made letters a subject. Their repetition ties together language and art in a post-Cubist motif that recurs throughout his work — and kickstarted today’s widespread use of text as image.

The artistic conversation continues nearby in the Cy Twombly Gallery, positioned just between the institute and the museum, where Horn’s wall of contemporary graffiti nods to the late artist’s monumental paintings. Twombly’s “The Age of Alexander,” “Hyperion (To Keats)” and other elegies to antique humanism feature disheveled calligraphy scrawled across wall-size canvases, shattering the big gestures of Abstract Expressionism into fragments of scrawled poetry. Horn’s whispered clichés establish a quiet tension between the conditioned nature of the individual in our heavily mediated society and humanism’s rational, autonomous self.

The Menil campus’ domestic qualities have always been integral to its charms. Renzo Piano’s 1986 design for the main museum is a cross between private house and public institution. Combining modesty and precision, it set a widely admired standard.

The measure has been splendidly met in the new building by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of the Los Angeles architectural firm Johnston Marklee & Assoc. Their first major public building — the second, the UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios, is under construction in Culver City — it’s a sophisticated stunner.

The architecture reflects Piano’s integration of residential forms and materials into an institutional structure. The exterior ground-plane for the entrance is maintained (there is no grand staircase to climb), portions of the building are clad in homey stained cedar, a shade-bearing portico runs along the pavilion’s sides and outdoor garden-courtyards are set against indoor glass-walled rooms. (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates did the landscaping.) The structure’s proportions reflect those of the 1920s bungalows in the surrounding neighborhood.

Yet, Johnston Marklee’s building looks nothing like Piano’s. Its most compelling feature is something entirely new. Crisply folded gables mark the dramatic portico roof and interior ceilings.

Some gables are halved and inverted, shaped to gently invite a pedestrian in, while stretched to maintain a brisk, horizontal roof-line along the street. Others are cut out to interweave positive and negative spaces and shapes. Pitched ceilings inside recall neighborhood houses. Indoors and outdoors are knitted together visually, physically and conceptually, rather than just being glimpsed through glass walls.

White planes of painted steel, concrete and drywall, flat or sharply pleated, obviously evoke origami — an art of folded paper with cultural roots in Asia and Europe. Here the reference to paper functions as a seamless abstract sign, designating the kind of art being housed within.

Drawing has been a key artistic activity at least since prehistoric sticks charred in fire were used to render the contours of bison and deer on the bumpy stone walls of ceremonial caves in Altamira, Spain, and Lascaux, France. In the intervening 15,000 years, drawings have been used for describing, ornamenting, visualizing, hypothesizing, testing, preparing and remembering .

But, today, drawing is in a class of its own. Conceptual art, the platform for the finest work made in the last half-century, insists on putting ideas on a par with crafted objects, so drawing steps up in significance: A drawing is the embodiment of artistic thought. As the Renaissance artist and historian Giorgio Vasari put it in “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects,” it’s “the animating principal of all creative processes.” In drawing, emergent ideas travel from brain to hand to sheet.

At least since 1921, when Vienna’s magnificent Albertina Museum passed from being a royal Hapsburg plaything to a public project of the newly established Republic of Austria, Europe has had a legendary repository for drawings made over 600 years by incomparable artists. This week at the Menil, America gets a modern Albertina.

Twitter: @KnightLAT