A New Way of Seeing Art

By Richard Barons
William Middleton Tim Walker

“Double Vision”
William Middleton
Knopf, $40

It is hard to imagine a time when works by artists like Max Ernst or Joseph Cornell were seen as inscrutable. Magritte is now a 20th-century old master, as is Andy Warhol. And while Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, and Robert Rauschenberg along with Clyfford Still may continue to befuddle an uninitiated museum visitor, there is rarely the shock of the new. 

Big pictures in huge white cube galleries are what we expect. We are thrilled when an art museum is naturally lit. We crave not to be forced to see an artist’s oeuvre marching to chronology. We want our curators to delight us as well as dissect our preconceived notions about what we are seeing and what we are feeling. We want the visual arts to transport us into multilayers of mysticism. Art is life and love. Art can heal. Art can offend. 

This whole aesthetic of looking at and learning about art was a formulated lifestyle that started with the marriage of Dominique Schlumberger and John (Jean) de Menil in Paris on May 9, 1931. The culmination of their theories, in many ways, was the opening of the Menil Collection on June 3, 1987, housed in Renzo Piano’s first American architectural project, built in Houston. Most recently, the Menil Drawing Institute (the fifth building on the Menil Collection campus) opened to the public on Nov. 3. Holland Cotter of The New York Times noted that “the Menil is widely regarded as the gold standard in institutional concept and design.” 

The story of how both de Menils were able to invent a new way for us to perceive art is an extraordinary intellectual journey well worth taking.

“Double Vision,” William Middleton’s massive biography of the de Menils, is exhaustive both in research and ephemeral minutia. The first 100 of its 760 pages are an imperative preamble giving the reader an invaluable portrait of both families. Wars intervene, fortunes are acquired and lost, of course, but most interesting are the creative family members who possessed vigorous interests in compiling historical facts, teaching, and writing. They inspired curiosity in both Dominique and John de Menil. To be certain, the main thread woven throughout this tapestry is a couple in love.

The de Menil family fortune came from Dominique’s father and his brother, Conrad and Marcel Schlumberger. They started, in the Alsace region of France, the Electric Prospecting Company in 1926. Their firm used electrical resistivity well logging to discover oil. The first success was in 1927. The company expanded to the United States in 1929, and the Schlumberger Well Surveying Corporation was founded in Houston in 1935. Today it is the largest oilfield service company in the world.

John de Menil was an investment banker who had studied law and English, did his military service in Morocco, and was highly religious. He spent six months sailing around the world on a scholarship from Ligue Maritime et Coloniale and turned 25 on the island of Tahiti. He returned home with a collection of anthropological artifacts collected on his journey. 

Dominique Schlumberger started collecting things when she was quite young. She loved tiny objects and searched the Parisian shops and flea markets as if on a treasure hunt. She studied physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne and became fascinated by the cinema. She traveled to Berlin to spend two weeks watching Josef von Sternberg direct his masterpiece, “The Blue Angel.” 

She met Baron John de Menil, now a handsome Anglophile and a 26-year-old junior executive with one of the top investment banks in Paris, on a May evening in a country house near Versailles. Dominique was 22. She was smitten, but her father was unsure even as his daughter assured him that there had been no talk of marriage. And John was unsure of the difficulty his family would have with his Catholicism and her Protestant background. John’s father knew that the children would have to be baptized Catholic. Compromise was achieved.

Their honeymoon went from Paris to Belgium to Barcelona and then to the Isle of Majorca. They flew to Morocco. Their adventures had just begun.

Dominique’s parents gave the young couple part of the upper floors of their three-story Paris apartment. They soon made friends with Pierre Barbe, an architect who introduced them to Max Ernst. They commissioned Barbe to redesign their rooms in a clean Art Deco mode. The walls were white; the curtains were white. Barbe also designed the furniture; the de Menils added antiques. Barbe really introduced the couple to art and artists. Jean Arp, Joan Miro, Christian Berard, Andre Breton, and Paul Eluard all became friends. 

Christian faith was a bond that grew stronger as their relationship matured. Dominique converted to Catholicism before their first child, Christophe, was born in 1933. Several years later she met Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican priest who was an advocate for modern art and its spiritual power. Another Dominican priest, Marie-Joseph Congar, excited John and Dominique de Menil with the church’s interest in ecumenism. One cannot underestimate religion’s power in their lives. 

Conrad Schlumberger died in 1936, and John de Menil was encouraged to join the family firm in 1938 at its Houston offices. With his business acumen, the company expanded worldwide. In 1939 he and Dominique spent time in Romania. Since Dominique had continued working with the Schlumberger firm, off and on, she knew the operation and joined him. They spent three years away from their young family while working together in Caracas, Venezuela. With the outbreak of World War II and the German occupation of France, the de Menils left Europe and took up residences in New York City and Houston, but always kept their apartment in Paris. 

Houston soon became the family home. Over the years, John de Menil would become president of Schlumberger Overseas and Schlumberger Surenco, covering Latin America and the United States as well as the Far and Middle East. Today this Fortune 500 company ranks number 388.

By the late 1940s, the de Menils were acquiring art in earnest. Trips to New York City often began with a stop at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, where Dominique first met the artists Tanguy, Matta, and Tamayo. Their sophistication in modern art had jumped forward from their first commission of a portrait of Dominique by Max Ernst in the early 1930s. Both de Menils were unimpressed by the colors and composition. After seeing it in the artist’s studio, it was never mentioned again. It turned up when a close friend was asked if he recognized the sitter while browsing in a Parisian frame shop. He did, and the shopkeeper called Dominique and asked her to please pick it up. It was promptly wrapped and placed on the top of an armoire in their attic. When they retrieved it the 1940s, they saw it with different eyes. It was a wonderful Max Ernst and became an important part of their surrealist works.

Together they acquired an impressive and very personal collection. Dealers, collectors, curators, philosophers, professors, and artists all were part of their coterie. In many ways, John was more spontaneous in his selections. He was quick to make up his mind, while his wife was more careful and methodical in her approach to a newly discovered artist or style. Together they often huddled in an out-of-the-way corner of a gallery to discuss a possible purchase. They labored over who was to be the architect for their new Houston house, working out every detail in a most detailed way. 

But what is often overlooked is the role Dominique played as a teacher and curator. Having lived in Paris and New York, they found Houston to be a young city still finding its path to important architecture and needing support for its cultural institutions. In 1951 she curated “Calder-Miro,” an exhibition for the Contemporary Arts Museum, which was founded in 1948 as a non-collecting museum. Thirty-three Calder sculptures and 23 Miro works were lent by national museums and private collectors.

Dominique was involved in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the University of St. Thomas, where she was appointed acting director of the art history department. In the late 1960s, her ambitious programming included “Made of Iron,” an exhibition of over 500 pieces of wrought iron spanning centuries. “Visionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu” was one of her traveling exhibits that I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late ’60s. It had a very strong influence on my erstwhile career.

Separately they accomplished wide-ranging initiatives supporting publications, worldwide conferences, and exhibitions, bringing major architects together with needy institutions and enlarging numerous museum collections. Together they worked for world peace and immigration and against segregation. They gave the world the Rothko Chapel, commissioned Larry Rivers’s “Some American History,” and asked Andy Warhol to curate an exhibition of items from the storage vaults of the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design. John de Menil came up with the title, “Raid the Icebox With Andy Warhol.”

John de Menil died in Houston on June 1, 1973. He and Dominique had thought about a museum for their collection of about 10,000 pieces ranging from small Anatolian idols circa 3200 B.C. to a 1988 Cy Twombly triptych at 157 1/2 inches by 624 inches, and had settled on Houston after much speculation and after finding out if such an enterprise would find both intellectual and local financial support. The museum should be a shared gift. But the plans were in infancy; there was not even an architect. 

Their children wondered if their mother would slow down. That did not happen; indeed her commitment to the museum and Houston went powerfully ahead. The force was for the future. She died on Dec. 31, 1997.

Mr. Middleton’s biography of Dominique and John de Menil is an enlightened account of an iconic couple who animated their special relationship with each other and a time in the 20th century when cultural negatives boiled over. Their strong beliefs in humanity and how education and opportunity can enrapture humankind was not naive. Nor was it not heartfelt. Their philanthropy was part of their faith.

The last quarter of “Double Vision” traces the birth of the 30-acre museum complex — the Menil Collection. It is an awe-inspiring adventure that completely captures what goes into the creation of one of the most carefully thought-out art museums in the world. Its main building is a truly sublime environment for contemplating art. Though in some ways a teaching museum, the works reflect the de Menils’ passion in art’s mystical and spiritual narrative. The works don’t make up an encyclopedic art history lecture, but rather show the broad tastes of passionate acquisition. The labels are rudimentary — it is about seeing the art, not reading about it. 

Who should read this book? Anyone who cares about the visual arts.

The de Menil family has long been part of the South Fork. Three of Dominique and John de Menil’s children did or still do reside here and have all played roles in the region’s cultural and municipal institutions. 

Richard Barons was the executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society from 2006 to 2017 and remains its senior curator. He lives in Springs.

The Menil Collection’s Oceanic galleries include, far left, a fernwood sculpture from Melanesia and, far right, a ceremonial drum from the Austral Islands of Polynesia. Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston
The Menil Collection building, completed in 1987, was Renzo Piano’s first project in this country and is considered his greatest work. Paul Hester, Courtesy of Menil Archives, Menil Collection, Houston