Dominique de Menil: Art as Panacea

by Dung Ngo

A visit to the recent Charles James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art brought to mind a Proustian reminiscence. A yellow silk capelike coat, in particular, acted as an haute couture madeleine. 

When I was eighteen and a freshman at the Rice School of Architecture in Houston, I had to sign up for a basic drawing course. I vaguely resented this class because, like many of my dorm mates who had Advanced Placement credits in the sciences, I thought I should be able to bypass Drawing 101 based on my portfolio of (admittedly) self-evaluated drawings from high school. The chair of the department thought otherwise.

One night we showed up for class in our usual ratty T-shirts and cut-off shorts only to be told that we were going to an exhibition opening instead. Ten minutes later, we entered the doors of the Menil Collection, Renzo Piano’s debut American project, which had just opened a few months earlier. In one corner I recognized Jasper Johns (from my prodigious high school reading of Art in America) talking to a slight woman with gray hair pulled into a loose bun. She was wearing that aforementioned yellow coat, which I later learned was designed by the couturier Charles James, who had also decorated her Philip Johnson–designed house. This was, of course, Dominique de Menil.

The outlines of her story are widely known: From a very well-to-do Parisian family, Dominique Schlumberger married John de Menil and the young couple migrated to Houston right after World War II, in part because of her family’s oil business. The de Menils started collecting art, mostly contemporary and of their time, from René Magritte and Max Ernst in the 1940s and Joseph Cornell and Mark Rothko in the ’50s to Andy Warhol in the ’70s and so on. But the collection soon expanded to include tribal art and interesting, esoteric categories such as 18th-century visionary architectural drawings from the likes of Piranesi and Ledoux. When the collection got out of hand, Mrs. de Menil commissioned the up-and-coming architect Renzo Piano to design a structure to house it. It was Piano’s first building in America (but his second museum, after the Centre Pompidou).

I would see Mrs. de Menil again, sometimes in the same coat but more often with her trademark dark gray shawl, at the Rice Media Center, which acted as our local repertoire cinema (and which had been originally commissioned by her to house an exhibition on early 20th-century Russian avant-garde). Based on these sightings I would venture to guess she liked Italian neorealism and early Fassbinder. 

After graduation I was employed at Rice, and worked on exhibitions and publications that on occasion would bring my path to cross hers, and I would quickly learn firsthand Mrs. de Menil’s unwavering beliefs in the power of art, which brings us to my favorite personal anecdote about Mrs. de Menil, from my friend Nonya, a native Houstonian: When she was eighteen, Nonya got a summer internship with Mrs. de Menil and was tasked with typing up Mrs. M’s exhibition research notes onto little index cards. She was given a desk in the Philip Johnson house, and a little Olivetti typewriter. Everything was perfect for the excited young intern, except one of the typewriter keys didn’t work. After a week of typed index cards missing the letter “o,” Nonya nervously approached Mrs. de Menil with the problem. “Oh, I am so glad you told me—it will be fixed by the next time you are here!” she exclaimed.

The following Monday: same desk, same typewriter, same missing “o.” This went on for weeks, until Nonya got up the courage to confront Mrs. M for one more time. “But of course, I promised!” she said. “Tomorrow, when you come in, this problem will have been addressed!”

The next morning: same desk, same typewriter, same missing “o.” But above the offending typewriter Mrs. de Menil had hung a small, perfect Picasso.

Dung Ngo is a publisher at August Editions.

Image: Dominique de Menil in the gallery of the John Chamberlain installation for the opening of the Menil Collection, 1987. Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: © A. de Menil