A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James
Charles James (1906-1978) is considered by many to be America’s first couturier. Starting out as a milliner, by the 1940s he had established himself as a premier fashion designer with an elite clientele that included Millicent Rogers and Gloria Swanson. John and Dominique de Menil were introduced to James during that decade, and Dominique de Menil began to buy pieces from him soon thereafter. As the relationship deepened, the couple became great champions of James, commissioning both furniture and couture, collecting his sketches, donating examples of his work to museums, and hiring him to dress the interior of their home, his only residential commission. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James explores the work of the designer in relation to two of his most committed patrons and clients.
As a couturier, James was known for his virtuosic design and construction. His clothes fuse a Victorian aesthetic with forms derived from nature and are defined by dramatic curves and metamorphic extensions from the body. The silhouettes are further accentuated by unusual color choices that heighten their sculptural dimension. For James, the true possibilities of design lay not in the human form or in the material, but in the space between the body and fabric, which he described as a “wall of air” and later fashion photographer and close friend Bill Cunningham called “a thin wall of air.” Such a design theory connects James’s fashions to sculpture and architecture, where the body is transformed by the engineered structures surrounding it.
After the completion of their Philip Johnson-designed home in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston in 1950, John and Dominique de Menil hired James to dress the interior. James’s style was the very inverse of Johnson’s minimal, sparse modernity. He introduced felt and velvet covered walls in butterscotch and fuchsia; hand mixed paint colors in mauve, aqua, grey, and blue; and installed sweeping curves through custom furniture and other carefully selected items. As in his fashion designs, the juxtapositions often have a surreal undertone that dovetailed with the de Menils’ artistic interests and collection. Further, James’s intervention in the de Menil home results in a multitude of rich tensions as the structures of international modernism interact with the voluptuous fluidity of James’s interior design.
A conversation between wardrobe and interior, this exhibition presents a selection of evening gowns, suits, coats, and daywear from Dominique de Menil’s personal collection, complemented by furniture James designed for the de Menils and wall colors that evoke their home. Several of James’s sketches for furniture and sculpture reveal his working process, and a carefully curated selection of works from the Menil Collection reflect James and the de Menils’ mutual affinity for the surreal.
A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James is curated by Susan Sutton, Curatorial Assistant.
This exhibition is generously supported by The Brown Foundation, Inc./Allison Sarofim; David and Anne Kirkland; Anne and Bill Stewart; Michael Zilkha; Accenture; Lazard Frères & Co. LLC; Diane and Mike Cannon; Sara Paschall Dodd; Peter J. Fluor and K.C. Weiner; Gensler; Tootsies; Lynn Wyatt; Jerry Jeanmard and Cliff Helmcamp; Carol and Dan Price; the City of Houston; and an anonymous donor.
Image: Charles James, Dress Form for Dominique de Menil, ca. 1950. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Adam Baker.
fresh: Haim Steinbach and Objects from the Permanent Collection
fresh: Haim Steinbach and Objects from the Permanent Collection is an exhibition of sculpture and other works from the Menil Collection organized in collaboration with New York-based artist Haim Steinbach. Since the late 1970s, Steinbach's three-dimensional work has involved the display of preexisting things. As in fresh, his 1989 work in the permanent collection consisting of two bottle racks and two shovels presented on a custom-made red Formica shelf, he painstakingly arranges household items, toys, and other everyday items on support surfaces of his own invention. This exhibition will present a broad range of familiar, new, and rarely seen three- and two-dimensional works of art from the museum’s collection along with other materials from the museum in groupings conceived by Steinbach.
fresh is an oblique homage to artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) who, famously, divorced bottle racks, shovels, and other commonplace objects from their conventional contexts in his proto-Conceptual sculptures called readymades, which elevate commonplace things to the realm of fine art through the artist’s intention. Its title is a reference to a punning sculpture by Duchamp in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Fresh Widow, 1920, a miniature French window with blacked-out panes. Working closely with the Menil’s curators, conservators, and exhibition designers, Steinbach contributes his ideas and presentation strategies—playful and profound—to an exhibition that expands in new ways on a central tenet of the Menil’s philosophy: the idea that works of art from different times and places can spark new connections.
In addition to Steinbach, the exhibition will include works by Sol LeWitt, Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, Diego Giacometti, René Magritte, and self-taught artist Hawkins Bolden. It also will feature examples from the Menil’s extensive collections of historic frames, Americana, and objects used in its loading dock and curatorial offices.
This exhibition is generously supported by Chinhui and Eddie Allen; Franci and Jim Crane;
Diana and Russell Hawkins; Scott and Judy Nyquist and the City of Houston.
Image: Haim Steinbach, fresh, 1989, Plastic bottle racks, wood paddle, and metal and wood snow shovel on Formica-laminated wood, 77-3/4 x 96-1/2 x 23-3/4 inches, The Menil Collection, Houston, purchased with funds provided by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation / Awards.
ON VIEW THROUGH | September 7, 2014
A Thin Wall of Air:
ON VIEW THROUGH | August 31, 2014
fresh: Haim Steinbach & Objects from the Permmanent Collection