August 3, 2010 - Menil Collection - Book Launch: Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil
August 3, 2010

Book Launch: Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil

Art and Activism
Projects of John and Dominique de Menil

Edited by Josef Helfenstein and Laureen Schipsi

Book is first to examine the Houston philanthropists’ contributions to art, architecture, film, and the civil and human rights movements

Publication date:
November 1, 2010

“I’d like to say what a marvel that you exist, and that you move about in the world as you do.”

“I personally…will and do celebrate your devotions, dedication and accomplishments.”

– Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg, in letters to John and Dominique de Menil

John and Dominique de Menil, arriving in Houston from France in 1941, built one of the world’s great art collections, championed modern architects and filmmakers, and became passionately involved in human-rights causes. In the process they transformed the cultural landscape of their adopted city.

The lavishly illustrated Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil is the first book to examine the couple’s wide-ranging interests over half a century – from art and architecture to philanthropy and politics. The de Menils established university art and media-studies departments; gave early architectural commissions to Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano; sponsored individual scholarships and funded civil-rights campaigns; built an ecumenical chapel with the painter Mark Rothko; presented one of the nation’s first exhibitions of racially integrated contemporary artists; took the Surrealist master René Magritte to a rodeo; and introduced Andy Warhol to an awed Houston. All the while they were building the art collection that would one day be housed in the world-renowned Houston museum that bears the family name – the Menil Collection.

Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil is a book of many voices – artists, activists, students, scholars, and family. Illustrated throughout with works of art from the Menil Collection and rarely seen archival photographs, the large-format book also includes private correspondence and reminiscences from artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Man Ray, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, and Niki de Saint Phalle.

John and Dominique de Menil met in 1930 – at a ball at Versailles – and were married the following year. An heiress to the Schlumberger oil-field services fortune, Dominique held degrees in physics and mathematics from the Sorbonne; Jean (who would anglicize his name to John) hailed from a military family of more modest means.

Had it not been World War II the young couple surely would have stayed in Paris. But John, who joined Schlumberger’s Romanian office as supervisor of operations, was forced to flee Europe after aiding the Resistance. The family – there would eventually be five children – reunited in Houston, home of Schlumberger world headquarters.

Finding themselves in a new frontier, John and Dominique were determined to make a difference – and with the de Menils, making a difference began at home. To accommodate their expanding art collection and growing family, they commissioned Philip Johnson to design a modernist house. Now known as Menil House, it became a laboratory for the museum – “its DNA,” said the Menil’s founding director, Walter Hopps.

The rapid growth of the de Menils’ art collection was astounding, given its modest beginnings: a Max Ernst portrait of Dominique that took her years to appreciate. After the war the couple began to acquire more European paintings and American contemporary works.

John died in 1973, shortly after the dedication of the Rothko Chapel. Dominique survived him by a quarter of a century, opening the Menil – Renzo Piano’s first U.S. commission – in 1987.

One of the themes that emerges from Art and Activism is the pioneering spirit with which the de Menils approached their projects. As Helfenstein and Schipsi write, “They set high standards for themselves and others, demonstrating the power and profundity of simple ideas executed with quality and passion. This book is a testament to the work they accomplished.”

Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil
Edited and with a Preface by Josef Helfenstein and Laureen Schipsi
November 1, 2010. 350 pages. 210 b/w and 106 color illustrations

Distributed by Yale University Press for The Menil Collection
Jacket design by Don Quaintance, Public Address Design
Front cover: Dominique and John de Menil, Rice Media Center, Rice University, Houston, 1971

The book includes a complete chronology of de Menil projects, exhibition history, a listing of the Menil film archive, and a selected bibliography.

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