The Cy Twombly Gallery: The Menil Collection, Houston

by Paul Winkler and Carol Mancuso Ungaro
Yale University Press, May 2013

August 6th, 2013


We have yet to visit the Menil Collection in Houston but it is very high on our “must do list”. The Menil has an extraordinary reputation as an unparalleled art viewing experience, near religious in it pure veneration of the art object. Believing in the primacy of the artwork itself, visitors will note a distinct absence of didactic information (no wall texts, tours or audio guides) and in this information-saturated era this is a welcome change. It’s a deep respect for the ability of the art and artists to communicate directly with the viewer that underpins this restrained mode of display. Until we make it to the Menil we’ll be pouring over the pages of the recent publication The Cy Twombly Gallery: The Menil Collection, Houston which is not only a beautiful document of their extraordinary Twombly collection but also an important record of this collaboration with the artist to create ideal conditions of display for his work.


Commissioned by Dominique de Menil, the Cy Twombly Gallery opened on February 10, 1995. American, but living in Rome, Twombly was revered for his monumental abstractions often bearing primal, meta-cursive, script-like graphic markings. The Cy Twombly Gallery tells the story of creating an unmediated communion with this artist’s work, which Josef Helfenstein, the Menil’s Director, proclaims in the book’s foreword as “one of the most successful presentations of a single artist’s work anywhere.” The monographic museum was designed by Renzo Piano with a deep sensitivity not only for the structure itself but also the way it integrates into its surrounds and interacts with its neighbours, including the Rothko Chapel. Through essays by Paul Winkler, the Menil’s Director at the time, and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the gallery’s Chief Conservator, the long process through which the Twombly Gallery came to be is described in intimate detail starting with an initial visit with the artist in Rome in 1989. Twombly was already extremely well-versed in architecture and Piano based his design on a sketch by the artist. Piano described the structure–at once sound and ephemeral–as “a butterfly alighting on a firm surface”, reflecting the combination of heavy exterior walls and the ephemeral nature of the light-filtering planar roof system. Winkler describes Twombly as being intimately involved in the gallery’s creation offering opinions on the arrangement of the galleries, structural materials, and the proportions of the spaces and their openings. He also helped hone the selection of paintings and sculptures to be on view, eventually gifting the majority of them to the Menil.


Adding to the book’s charm are first-hand accounts of Winkler and Mancusi-Ungaro’s relationship with the famously private artist. After one visit to see the restoration of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, Twombly proclaimed “After seeing that, my art looks like chicken scratches in the dirt!” As a reader, the close working relationship between the artist and both writers is apparent. As a conservator, Mancusi-Ungaro offers incredible insight into Twombly’s technique: the way the artist preferred to work with canvases nailed directly to the wall, how he painted over markings he did not like, that he might use opaque plaster filler directly from the can, his preference for fingers rather than a brush, and that Twombly added dirt to soil the pure whites in his paintings giving his canvases an enhanced materiality. Notably absent is any explanation of or insight into the work from the artist himself. Described as reserved and reticent on this topic the closest we get to an interpretation of his oeuvre is a statement to Winkler that “Critics tend to pick things from artists’ work to fit a theory. That’s not how art is made…We don’t need literal interpretation of visual things. Enjoy it for visual, sensual reasons, not literal, interpretive reasons.”


In addition to these intimate observations about the artist offered by two people closely involved in the process of creating this very special space, a photographic tour of the Twombly Gallery gives readers vibrant visuals of the final results of this collaborative effort. Starting with an image of the sprawling American Live Oak across from the entrance and providing successive installation views through the galleries, you are immediately struck with a sense of just how clean and considered the spaces are; each wall seems the perfect match for the painting on it or the sculpture in front of it. The book also catalogues thirty-three paintings and eleven sculptures including incredibly detailed close-ups of many of the works capturing the rustic patina of his bronzes, the subtle texture of the canvases, the delicate markings of Twombly’s hand and the densely layered nature of his paintings, capturing their raw and vibrant energy. The photography is sumptuous and generous. The Cy Twombly Gallery brilliantly captures this incredible synthesis of art, architecture and light and confirms this is a worthy pilgrimage for anyone interested in his work.

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