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A Private Collection With Soul

June 14, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

HOUSTON — Ground control to Major Tom. . . . Houston has had its troubles recovering from an oil-glut recession and NASA's travail after the Challenger disaster, but plucky Houstonians have gone ahead with expensive cultural projects dreamed in palmier days. Recently the city launched the new multimillion-dollar Wortham Theater Center downtown and last weekend orbited the Menil Collection, a permanent $24-million museum to house a legendary private collection amassed since the 1930s by Dominque de Menil and her late husband John.

The couple immigrated here after the Nazi invasion of France and eventually became heirs to a fortune amassed by Mrs. De Menil's family, who made a device to test for the presence of oil deposits marketed through their company Schlumberger Ltd. (Mrs. De Menil pronounces it Schloom-bear-zjay , as any good Frenchman would.)

Like the Ewings of Dallas, the De Menils became a dynasty. But unlike the TV family, they and their five children pursue ideals rather than more money. Mom and pop promoted civil rights and ecumenical religion in conservative Houston, building the all-faith Rothko chapel, among other things. All the children collect and involve themselves in aspects of the arts. Philippa, probably the best known, is immersed in Islamic religion and sponsored the visionary Dia Foundation along with her husband Heiner Friedrich. The foundation subsidized artists' large-scale projects such as Walter De Maria's "Lightning Field," but had to be reorganized after running huge deficits and aggravating such well-know protege artists as Robert Whitman and Donald Judd.

Opening the Menil Collection ends speculation and dashes hopes cherished by museum directors who longed to have all or part of it for their institutions. (Mrs. De Menil, incidentally, sits on the board of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.)

Establishing the collection in Houston certainly cheers up the locals and bolsters boosters' pride in those who insist on viewing city and state art holding as some sort of cultural Grand Prix.

(The score is skewed and the odds are stacked, but evidently Texas now regards itself as racing California for second place, with Chigago trying to regain its lost eminence in that position.)

More significant than this adolescent sense of competition is the question of whether the trend to establish private museums such as this, Chicago's recently opened Terra Museum of American Art, London's Saatchi Museum or Cologne's Ludwig Collection, is a good idea.

Received wisdom has it that private collections best serve the public when integrated into historical compendiums, so it is possible for the visitor to see the development of epochal styles and the range of an individual artist. It is good, they say, to devote showplaces to individual artists like Paris' Picasso Museum or to epochs like Munich's ancient classical Glyptotek.

Private collection museums, however, leech public museums of evermore expensive works, act mainly as monuments to collector's egos and, worst of all, fail to make sense.

By any sensible measure, that should be the problem with the Menil Collection. The building is certainly OK. It is an understated gray-and-white clapboard nestled on a block in the green residential Montrose district not far from old De Menil art suitors, St. Thomas University, Rice University and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. A trifle barnlike for some tastes, the design by Renzo Piano serves the art handsomely. A rotating display of the 10,000-work, $175-million trove is on view in ground-floor galleries with the rest available to scholars in "open storage" upstairs.

But the collection itself lurches from a gaggle of ancient and medieval art to a swath of tribal and primitive objects to a core of modern and contemporary works with almost no historical mortar between the bricks.

In the end, all that proves is that there are ways of making sense that have little to do with history, period styles or artistic personalities. There is the sense of sensibility and on that count, the Menil Collection is among the most supremely coherent and superbly aesthetic of caches.

Ground control to Mme. Dom. . . .

The Menil Collection has soul. It is held together by what the French Symbolist poets called "correspondences" and psychological jargon terms "synesthesia"--the idea that there can be a harmonic connection between apparently unlike things such as colors and sounds, lending them a rhymed sense of rightness when put together. (In one famous experiment, volunteers drank beer while listening to tonal sounds. It turned out that one sound made the beer taste great, another made it seem bitter.)

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