At the heart of the Menil Collection are modern works of art, mostly Euro-American, assembled by John and Dominque de Menil, who began to collect in earnest after they had relocated from France to Houston in the early 1940s. Their choices were shaped initially by Father Marie-Alain Couturier, who urged them to see spiritual aspirations in the abstract ambitions of modern art, and friendships with artists like Max Ernst and René Magritte, as well as scholars, dealers, and museum professionals, all of whom would have a profound impact on their collecting. In addition to renowned Surrealist painting, sculpture, and drawing, the museum is a good place to encounter work by artists active in Paris—early modern examples include pictures by Georges Seurat, James Ensor, and Pablo Picasso, and prominent practices after World War II are represented by Fernand Léger, Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, and the art informel of Wols, Henri Michaux, and others. A substantial group of work associated with the Paris-based Nouveau realisme of the 1950s and ’60s includes pieces by Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint-Phalle, and Yves Klein.
Transatlantic connections and contrasts between painting in Paris and New York at midcentury are evident in early canvases by Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and the Menil has significant classic works by Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. Key examples by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Cy Twombly represent the next New York generation. Subsequent currents include Pop art, political art, earth art, and conceptual art, and artists ranging from Claes Oldenburg and Lee Bontecou to John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and Walter De Maria. Sculptures by Mark di Suvero and Tony Smith are placed outdoors in Menil Park.
The museum opened in 1987 with Walter Hopps as its founding director, chosen for his work with artists the de Menils admired, including Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, and Kurt Schwitters. He also introduced to the collection such artists as Jay DeFeo, Ed Ruscha, and William Eggleston that he had supported over the course of his long curatorial career, which began in the early sixties in Los Angeles.