The first and definitive biography of the celebrated collectors Dominique and John de Menil, who became one of the greatest cultural forces of the twentieth century through groundbreaking exhibits of art, artistic scholarship, the creation of innovative galleries and museums, and work with civil rights.Dominique and John de Menil created an oasis of culture in their Philip Johnson-designed house with everyone from Marlene Dietrich and Rene Magritte to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. In Houston, they built the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, the Cy Twombly Gallery, and underwrote the Contemporary Arts Museum. Now, with unprecedented access to family archives, William Middleton has written a sweeping biography of this unique couple. From their ancestors in Normandy and Alsace, to their own early years in France, and their travels in South America before settling in Houston. We see them introduced to the artists in Europe and America whose works they would collect, and we see how, by the 1960s, their collection had grown to include 17,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, rare books, and decorative objects. And here is, as well, a vivid behind-the-scenes look at the art world of the twentieth century and the enormous influence the de Menils wielded through what they collected and built and through the causes they believed in.
Double Vision Review
- January 1, 1970Michelle LancasterBIOGRAPHY/ARTWilliam MiddletonDouble Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de MenilAlfred A. KnopfHardcover, 978-0-3754-1543-2, (also available as an e-book), 784 pgs., $40.00March 27, 2018“I’m after the excitement not the object per se—after the light, not the bulbs. I’d like to provide for people plenty of bulbs to switch on.” —Dominique de MenilY’all know that old question asking who you’d invite to your dinner party if you could invite anyone you wanted? I’d invite BIOGRAPHY/ARTWilliam MiddletonDouble Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de MenilAlfred A. KnopfHardcover, 978-0-3754-1543-2, (also available as an e-book), 784 pgs., $40.00March 27, 2018“I’m after the excitement not the object per se—after the light, not the bulbs. I’d like to provide for people plenty of bulbs to switch on.” —Dominique de MenilY’all know that old question asking who you’d invite to your dinner party if you could invite anyone you wanted? I’d invite Dominique and John de Menil.Born in France at the beginning of the twentieth century, they came to Houston, Texas, in the early 1940s with the family oilfield services multinational that would become Schlumberger Limited. John de Menil was a baron; Dominique the heir to Schlumberger, descended from a distinguished line of French intellectuals, important to the governments of kings and emperors. Over the decades, the de Menils built the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, and the Cy Twombly Gallery, and underwrote the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Their personal collection exceeded 20,000 works of art, including paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, rare books, and decorative objects. They were not only the vanguard of art collectors and advocates, but thought leaders in civil rights, human rights, and ecumenicism, often still a dicey proposition, not to say dangerous, in Texas.How in heck did these two wash up in Houston, you ask? It’s a fascinating story well told. Dominique and John de Menil come alive again in these pages.Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil is the new biography of the first family of Houston’s arts community by William Middleton. Middleton, a journalist and editor who has worked with Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and Texas Monthly, among other outlets, has written an encyclopedic yet profoundly personal account of not only the extraordinary lives of Dominique and John de Menil, but a history of the flowering of modern art in the United States post–World War II.Middleton begins in the New World, with the opening in 1987 of the Menil Collection. Part Two takes a deep dive into the Old World, Normandy in the eighteenth century, leisurely making his way back to Houston and the death of Dominique de Menil in 1999. Along the way we get an education—European history, American history, art history, and how to view art with a good eye and proper attitude, tracing their developing aesthetic from Alsace to Paris, then New York to Houston. Obviously a labor of love, Middleton’s book doesn’t shy from more difficult aspects of the de Menils, notably the controversy involving art thieves, cultural appropriation, and those Cypriot Byzantine frescoes. While it’s dense with minute detail and overly long—I suggest sitting with your knees drawn up so as to prop up the book and rest your wrists—it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Middleton’s superb work.Middleton conducted ten years of research and writing in Paris, New York, and Houston. He had the cooperation of the five de Menil children, as well as extended family, friends, artists, and colleagues. He was granted interviews, provided with candid family photographs, and given use of the family archives. Double Vision is an intimate work that includes not only sixteen pages of photographs, but also 135 illustrations throughout the text, representing an impressive feat of curation itself.Dominique and John de Menil are household names in Houston, and now, thanks to this supreme effort of research — indeed, immersion —the rest of Texas, and the world, will understand why the de Menils are considered “the Medici of modern art.””[Great artists] can be difficult, dissolute, but they are never base and in their quest for perfection they come closer to eternal truths than pious goody-goodies. So we are collectors without remorse.” —John de MenilOriginally published in Lone Star Literary Life.more
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