more houston, mark and mies

IMG_1025Some recreational architectural viewing after Tuesday’s lecture…brunch at the Menil, you know, the sort of thing you get to do when the amazing Donna Kacmar is your host.  Houston is secretly one of my favorite cities, in part because it’s downtown is really the raw id of American urbanism–lassez faire raised to mega-skyscraper height–but also because of the pockets of amazingly urbane neighborhoods and some of the finest cultural institutions in North America clustered just outside of its steroidal central business district.

It helps, of course, if those neighborhoods were the benefactors of the Menil family.  Piano’s museum is just the nucleus of a handful of buildings in the Museum district that were funded by the heirs to the Schlumberger oil fortune.  Money well spent–not only on the museum but also on the nearby Rothko chapel and Cy Twombly gallery.  The Museum is in great shape, having just been re-clad and cleaned up.

IMG_1017Rothko is very much of the moment in Houston, too, with a show at the Museum of Fine Arts that traces his development out of surprisingly derivative early work (he had a Dubuffet phase, an Ernst phase, etc., etc.,) into the ethereal color canvases that still stop me in my tracks wherever I see one.  Several rooms of them add a whole layer to his work–you start to see themes developing in the smallest details, like whether the lines dividing color fields are sharp or fuzzy, whether the borders are taped or solid, etc., etc.  Rothko was an architect’s painter…the details prove surprisingly influential in how you see his ghostly color figures.

So, one quibble.  The Museum of Fine Arts has three buildings–the well-known Mies wrapper to the original structure, and a crisp Moneo addition across the street.  The Rothko show is in the Moneo, which works well enough.  Well scaled galleries, good sequence, etc., etc., and it was nice to be able to wander in and out a bit.  But some of the show’s really important moments are sketches and originals for the murals he painted for the Seagram Building in 1958–ultimately abandoned but striking in the way they expanded formally and tonally on his better known works.  The scale of them, especially when paired as intended, is bigger than the Moneo galleries really permitted (no photographs, of course, but here they are on the website:

So…we don’t get to see what these would be like across the street in, if not the Seagram itself, at least a contemporaneous Mies building? small point.  The show, especially with a brief, head-space-inducing stop in the Rothko chapel, would have made the trip worth it alone.  But a well-attended lecture, good student work to review, and a full roster of local cuisine made this a great couple of days.  Any lecture invitation that includes tacos and a discussion of barbeque tectonics is going to be well-received.  And, for the record, if the char on your brisket deserves to be called “bark” instead of just “crust,” you’re doing it right.


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