Between the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dominique and John de Menil planned an exhibition, never realized, with the intriguing title of Dream Monuments.(1) A monument can be many things. It can be a sculptural or architectural work that commemorates something or someone historic, an archaeological site deemed worthy of preservation, or even an area of land with protected geological features. The addition of “dream,” however, adds complexity to those common definitions. The combination contrasts the concrete, physical reality of such places and markers of the past with the mysterious inner workings of the imagination and unconscious, open to scenarios that simply cannot happen in the material world or, when they do take form, resist easy explanations for how and why they exist. Dominique de Menil suggested as much when sketching out the parameters of what a dream monument could be. “Leave out what is definitely architecture” and “sculpture,” she wrote in one of her notes conceptualizing the exhibition.(2) In practice, “leaving out” led the couple to consider a broader range of possibilities. The developing show grew in scope until it practically covered the globe from time immemorial.
Despite the vast reaches of the de Menils’ research, the most logistically demanding aspect of Dream Monuments was scheduled for a particular place and time: Houston, 1969. The couple sought proposals for outdoor projects by artists associated with what was then called Earthworks but is now better known as Land Art. These site-specific environments typically blended natural resources and ecologies with human interventions into the landscape, often inspired by ancient monuments and ruins. The proposals submitted for this unfulfilled project defy the traditional notion of the monument as a work of sculpture or architecture, laying bare the ideologies that attend it in ways that complemented and even augmented Dominique de Menil’s initial thoughts on the dream monument. The program, however, was fitting for another reason—it’s ill-fated end.
The history of Land Art is filled with unrealized projects and unfulfilled ideas. Such is the burden of work that aims to move the earth, which often requires significant funding, considerable space, permits, engineering expertise, skilled labor, and heavy machinery. The de Menils’ aspirations for bringing this type of work to Houston as part of Dream Monuments was no different. Their attempt, and the thinking that underpinned it, reveals just how difficult redefining the idea of the “monument” could be, even as postwar art in the United States was already pushing the term towards new meanings and purposes. This essay investigates the rub between those powerful visions and their limiting circumstances, when the fantasy of what might have been meets the story of what happened.
At first, the de Menils planned a traditional exhibition of drawings and models for monuments from the 19th century to their present day. Dream Monuments was to be a traveling show comprising works—many never realized in full scale—by “little known architects, artists and craftsmen” alongside those by “contemporary artists as Oldenburg, Christo and others.”(3) Dominique de Menil penned those words in June 1968. Yet the opportunities and encounters to come in the following months would raise her and her husband’s expectations for the project in Houston. By January 1969, John de Menil had retired as Chairman of Schlumberger, the oil field services company founded by Dominique de Menil’s father and uncle.(4) Now the couple, who traveled frequently between Houston and New York City, had even more time to devote to their shared pursuits.
It was on one such trip to New York in early 1969 that Dominique de Menil scheduled studio visits with Robert Smithson and Dennis Oppenheim, two artists making Earthworks.(5) From that point onward, the scope of Dream Monuments changed dramatically. Dominique de Menil decided that the “definition of [the] monument” would now encompass “any sculpture or architectural piece which is meant to be outdoors and which has no other function than to impress, exalt, or commemorate.”(6) Already interested in examples from World’s Fairs, she broadened her research to run the gamut from “megalithic stones” to “sixteenth- and seventeenth-century engravings” to 20th-century novelty architecture like Lucy the Elephant, a pachyderm-shaped attraction in a New Jersey beach town.(7) She gathered articles about both realized and unrealized monuments and collected photographic reproductions of drawings, paintings, prints, and sculptural and architectural models depicting examples that might fit an expanded definition of the monument from “ancient to modern times” as it developed across the world, especially in North Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Middle East.(8) Uniting these disparate materials was an interest in work that, in her view, seemed to make the impossible plausible while taking the pleasure of fantasy and invention seriously.