Modern and Contemporary
The Menil has never strived to be a comprehensive, encyclopedic collecting institution. Like other parts of the collection, Modern and Contemporary Art has its own distinct character, with deep holdings in concentrated areas—chiefly French painting before World War II and American postwar painting. One of the challenges in collecting Contemporary Art lies in the individualistic character of the collection from the mid-1980s onward.
“ Every work of art establishes its own base for criticism. Every work of art creates the climate in which it can be understood.”
–Dominique de Menil, 1972 Though a line, however indirect, can be drawn from early Modern Art through the 1970s, the contemporary collection is decidedly less focused and representative after that period. Late nineteenth-century drawings by Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, and Odilon Redon segue into representative works from the 1900s by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. These works act as precursors to the dramatic developments of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism (the latter representing the most extensive part of our twentieth-century collections). Comprehensive groupings of works by Giorgio de Chirico, Man Ray, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Paul Klee, and Fernand Léger are augmented by two stellar paintings by Piet Mondrian and one by Joan Miró. A 1921 painting by the American modernist Stuart Davis hints at the eclectic nature of several other artists in the collection who are represented by sole works. Five mobiles and several drawings by Alexander Calder are also a highlight. Five works by Wifredo Lam, seven by Yves Tanguy, twenty by Matta and a dozen box constructions by Joseph Cornell hint at the depth of the collection from the 1930s to the 1950s. Also represented from that time period are masterworks by Picasso, Georges Braque, Matisse, and others, including the under-recognized Tachist artist Wols.
This fertile period bridging the Atlantic from Europe to the U.S. also begins to look beyond Surrealism, to Abstract Expressionism and New American Painting, perhaps most vividly symbolized by Jackson Pollock’s 1941 The Magic Mirror and Mark Rothko’s Astral Image (1946). In addition to several drawings by Pollock and many important Rothkos are seminal works by Barnett Newman and singular pieces by Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes and others, including a sublime Ad Reinhardt and three magnificent abstractions by Clyfford Still. These works are complemented by several significant works of Conceptual pioneers like Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein.
By the mid-1960s, the collection mirrors the overlapping styles that characterize Contemporary Art of that period. The formation of the other major part of the collection—postwar American—is accentuated by large and diverse bodies of work by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg.
A trove of works by Larry Rivers also forms an important part of the collection, hinting at a degree of political-based art that comes to the fore in the late 1960s (these holdings include the artists Joe Overstreet and William T. Williams). Groups of works by Brice Marden and Frank Stella, also of this time period, continue the Abstract tradition that began at the Menil with Rothko, Still, and Newman. A 1966 Josef Albers painting links European geometric abstraction (seen in Mondrian) with Minimalism (seen in the early 1960s works of Stella).
Another strand well represented in the collection is the work of West Coast artists: John Altoon, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Bereal, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jay De Feo, Joe Goode, George Herms, Edward and Nancy Kienholz, and Ed Ruscha.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, new forms and materials—such as Minimalism, Neo-Dada, anti-form, earthworks, and installations—became an important part of the discussion in contemporary art. Significant bodies of work by John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, and Bruce Nauman act as a bridge between the “earth artists” and Minimalists and more contemporary work. Nauman’s early works from the mid-1960s (in performance, sculpture, and video) evoke the plurality of styles that have come to be known as postmodernism. A wall sculpture by Donald Judd represents a pivotal year for the artist, 1965. Two significant works from 1968 include Robert Morris’ untitled felt sculpture and Walter de Maria’s massive canvas, The Color Men Choose when They Attack the Earth.
From the mid-1970s to the present, the collection becomes more diffuse with major single works by Robert Ryman, Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eric Fischl, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Haim Steinbach. An artist strongly identified with the 1990s, Robert Gober, stands alone in the collection. Given its resonance with Surrealism and aspects of Warhol’s and Johns’s work, these Gober holdings (five works on paper and three sculptures) occupy a significant place for contemporary art in the collection.