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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Texas Museums

Billionaire connoisseurs have filled some of the most beautiful museums in the world with some of the greatest paintings and sculpture


Texas Museums - the state of art

(Filed: 06/04/2005) by Richard Dorment from

George Stubbs, Joseph Beuys, Philip Guston, Sigmar Polke, Dan Flavin: one thing these utterly different artists have in common is that they all have either just had, or are about to have, a major retrospective in London. That the exhibitions come from the United States isn't remarkable, but what is surprising is that they all originated in Texas.

de Menil museum
The de Menil museum: designed by Renzo Piano

Until the last quarter of the 20th century, Texas hardly existed on the cultural map of America. Virtually every one of the state's major museums was built in the past 35 years. And, during the last decade or so, a new museum seems to open every year, inevitably designed by a leading international architect.

Art follows money, and Texas money comes not only from oil but also from cattle, land development, banking, and insurance. You only have to set foot in a Texas museum to realise how generous wealthy Texans can be. But they are also sophisticated collectors who have filled their museums with works of art of the highest quality.

But having a prestigious building and important works of art to show in it isn't enough to make a great museum. The people who fund these institutions also hire the best directors and curators. As a result, internationally acclaimed exhibitions that, in the past, came to London from Paris and New York or perhaps Chicago and Philadelphia, now come from Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. Quite suddenly, these cities have become a cultural destination comparable to the east and west coasts of America. They are, in their own way, as worthy of a special trip to see the art as Florence and Siena.

In a week of non-stop sightseeing, I saw an astonishing fusion of dramatic architecture and magnificent art, a visual feast unlike anything I've encountered in Europe.

My tour began with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the biggest in Texas and sixth largest in the US. Housed in a Mies Van der Rohe building, it reveals its riches gradually. In a monumental suite of galleries is one of the most interesting collections of renaissance and baroque art in the American South, including a jewel-bright Madonna and Child by Botticelli, and a recently acquired portrait by Rembrandt.

Here, too, is the Glassell Collection - 800 pieces of African gold, much of it incredible regalia from the royal courts of the Akan peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast and all of it superbly displayed.

In general, Texans began to collect too late to acquire the best Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and so tend to concentrate on contemporary, eastern and Pre-Columbian art. An exception to this rule is the Audrey Jones Beck Collection of late-19th-century art, which contains masterpieces by Pointillists, Fauves and Cubists. I could have spent hours with its dazzling Gustave Caillebotte scene in a summer garden, its ravishing little Seurat of a lady with a powder puff, and Matisse's 1937 Woman in a Purple Coat.

Typically Texan is the sense that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is expanding at a rate almost too fast to keep up with. Five years ago it opened an extension linked to the original building by an underground tunnel designed by light artist James Turrell, in which blue light turns gradually to red, and in doing so seems to thicken and become palpable so that you want to reach out and touch it.

While I was there, the director announced the largest ever cash gift to a US museum - a bequest from oil heiress Caroline Wiess Law of almost half a billion dollars. Add that to the existing endowment of $360 million, and you have a museum of world-class importance.

It is possible to compare the Museum of Fine Arts to other encyclopaedic museums in the US, but the museum created by John and Dominique de Menil is unique.

It contains paintings and sculpture that reflect the diverse artistic and intellectual interests of these two extraordinary people. The building, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, is an understated masterpiece. Though built on the scale of a major international museum, the galleries feel intimate - ideal for showing changing displays from the de Menils' collection of the Surrealists, their contemporaries and followers.

This is where you'll find Magritte's Golconde, the picture in which it is raining little men in bowler hats, and his famous Rape, the woman's-torso-as-a-man's- head. In these rooms, you see how Barnett Newman, Joan Mirˇ and Jasper Johns all come directly out of Surrealism, as though continuing a line of thought begun by Magritte and Ernst.

There is an incredible gallery filled with African art and fetish figures actually owned by the Surrealists. A rabbit warren of galleries displaying African, Egyptian, Roman and oriental antiquities reinforces the sense of personal contact with Mr and Mrs de Menil.

Across the road, Renzo Piano designed a suitably ethereal pavillion for the display of Cy Twombly's paintings, sculptures and drawings, which opened in 1995. Together with the famous chapel enshrining seven nearly black paintings by Mark Rothko and another housing two 13th-century Byzantine frescos that the de Menils rescued and restored, the four buildings form a complex that takes at least a whole morning to see.

There is much more to see in Houston, but I must move on to describe the major museums in Dallas and its sister city, Fort Worth.

The concentration of art here is even more intense. My first stop in Dallas was to the most recent addition to the city's many museums - the Nasher Sculpture Centre, which opened in 2003. Again designed by Renzo Piano, the building consists of five pavilions with barrel- vaulted glass ceilings leading out to a sculpture garden. The building's perfect proportions create a light-filled space in which to contemplate selections from the spectacular collection of more than 300 modern American and European sculptures formed by Raymond and Patsy Nasher.

The Fountain of the Moor
The Fountain of the Moor

Inside, you find the smaller works, from the plaster cast for Rodin's The Age of Bronze to bronzes by Giacometti and Matisse, and constructions by Picasso, Naum Gabo and Antony Gormley.

The monumental sculptures (Calder, Serra, di Suvero, Hepworth, and Jonathan Borofsky) are outside, and the displays change constantly.

But the powerhouse around which art in Dallas revolves is the Dallas Museum of Art, a 1984 building by Edward Larrabee Barnes that houses a vast collection of contemporary, African, Indonesian, Pre-Columbian, and Spanish Colonial art. Here, too, you find an amazing collection of 80 mainly Impressionist paintings collected by the publisher Emery Reeves, with a luscious still life by Manet.

Among the rarities housed in the museum is Frederick Edwin Church's Icebergs, one of the greatest of all 19th-century American paintings, and a vast state bed in the Gothic Revival style, made in 1844 by the Philadelphia cabinet-maker Crawford Riddell for the Lincoln bedroom in the White House.

Here too are three often reproduced paintings by the fascinating Gerald Murphy, the wealthy American dilettante who was a friend of F Scott Fitzgerald and Picasso in the South of France in the 1920s. His Razor (1924) perfectly bridges the imagery the Cubists took from advertisements to the imagery Pop artists took from billboards.

The recent commitment of three major collectors to donate to the museum 800 works of art by such figures as de Kooning, Twombly, Beuys, Duchamp, Judd and Nauman means that in the coming decades Dallas will house one of the 10 most significant collections of post-war and contempoary art in America.

A 30-minute drive to Fort Worth brings you to the Kimbell Museum, the masterpiece of the revered American architect Louis Kahn.

It has long been considered one of the most beautiful museums in the world, the building that put Fort Worth on the map. With its pavillion structure, barrel vaulting and natural light, the Kimbell was the visual inspiration for all those buildings of Renzo Piano we just saw.

The quality of the collections - Old Masters and non-Western art through to 1950 - is unsurpassed. From a magnificent Duccio The Raising of Lazarus (1311) to a tiny masterpiece by Sebastiano del Piombo, Head of a Woman (1530s), every work on display commands total attention.

I was particularly struck by the quality of the sculpture, from Bernini's terracotta model for the Fountain of the Moor (1653) to a terracotta bust of a woman, thought to be Isabella d'Este, by Gian Cristoforo Romano of 1500. The collection is unified by the intensity of feeling you find in almost every picture, from Turner and Corot to Mondrian, Matisse and a superb Cubist Picasso.

From the Kimbell its a few steps to the Amon Carter Museum, designed by Philip Johnson in 1961 to show the (ghastly) wild west paintings and sculptures by Frederic Remington and Charles M Russell. The jewel of the original collection is Thomas Eakins's Swimming, but since then the museum has collected a broad range of 19th- and 20th-century American painting, sculpture and photography.

Giving the Kimbell a run for its money as a showpiece is the most recent addition to Fort Worth's architectural galaxy, Japanese architect Tadao Ando's New Modern Art Museum, a concrete and glass palace that from certain viewpoints seems to float above a shallow reflecting pool, the interior providing 53,000 square feet of galleries to show a still growing collection of post-war art, including masterworks by Pollock, Rothko, Warhol and Anselm Kiefer.

Finally, I have to say how much fun Texas is. For all their sophistication don't suppose for a moment that these cities are all about high culture. In Fort Worth, my visit to Billy Bob's, The World's Largest Honky Tonk, and my guided tour of the sublime Cowgirl Museum by beautiful former singer with the Dixie Chicks, Laura Lynch Tull, were two of the highlights of an unforgettable week.

Read also Texas University museum


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