An Interior of Spiritual and Artistic Subtlety

Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes professor of English at SMU, writes about Houston's John and Dominique de Menil Collection.


We don't normally associate austerity and self-effacing understatement with Texas, especially with free-wheeling Houston—city of oil, money, bayous, sports and urban cowboys. But courtesy of one great immigrant couple from France, John (1904-73) and Dominique (1908-97) de Menil, this city with no zoning laws possesses a locus of spiritual and artistic calm in the middle of a tranquil, verdant, in-town residential neighborhood abutting the University of St. Thomas.

The Menil Collection, in a great Renzo Piano building, houses the late couple's specialized collections of African and ancient art, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Across the street stands another Piano building, dedicated to the work of Cy Twombly, also a Menil favorite. Down the block, the couple's architect son François has made a tiny chapel for a group of Byzantine frescoes.

And in a small park, bordered by modest gray cottages owned by the de Menil Foundation, stands the initially unprepossessing Rothko Chapel, a 20th-century melding of art and religion that represents the joint vision of an artist, his patrons and other collaborators. Think of it as the American equivalent of Matisse's Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France.

The Rothko Chapel opened on Feb. 27-28, 1971. It is celebrating its 40th anniversary year with concerts, lectures and ecumenical religious events that attest to its continuing service to residents of Houston (weddings of all kinds take place here) and to out-of-towners who have made it a pilgrimage destination.

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