The Untold Museum District, Part II

The Houston Museum District is home to a number of hidden treasures and untold stories. This is the second installment in a series looking at some of the lesser-known facts related to the 19 museums in the district.

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

It’s not exactly a secret sculpture – the 50-foot palm tree bursting out of a steel pyramid is hard to miss. But it’s the story behind the sculpture “Manila Palm: An Oasis Secret” that is intriguing. Some people mistake the only permanent exhibit at the CAMH for a real tree. In fact, it’s artist Mel Chin’s homage to the palm, a tree he admitted to never having liked.

Before creating the palm, Chin had just completed an installation for Ann Harithas’ Robinson Galleries – in which he flooded one room with water and another with sand. He wanted to recycle the sand afterwards to create a desert environment somewhere. The opportunity came with “Main Street ‘78” – an exhibit of outdoor sculpture held in downtown Houston – which was the impetus for Manila Palm and its first home.

The sculpture originally had sand scattered around it. The palm fronds were made out of fiberglass, and the rest was plant-based — wood and manila rope wound with burlap and sisal bags. The rusted steel pyramid is a scale model of the great pyramids of Egypt; the cracks near the top follow patterns of the Nile.

Chin’s work transforms these basic materials into magical symbols. His plan was to create an oasis in a grandiose fashion, representing how booming Houston was at the time and the city’s developing grandiose architecture like the Astrodome — which Chin likened to the Coliseum in Rome. When the exhibit closed, Harithas, who owns the sculpture, loaned it to the CAMH.

In September 1988, the sculpture was removed for renovation – to update materials that were weathering in the Houston heat. When the pyramid was removed, museum staff discovered that the inside was furnished with a cot, table, lamp, foot stool and carpeting. They also found magazines and literature from the 1978 presidential election.

Chin said he put nothing inside. When recently asked about it, the artist said “All I can say is that someone set up camp within the pyramid for a while, with carpeting and a small table and some cookware.  This added to the lore of the piece.”

Menil Collection

The Menil Collection is known for its striking modern paintings, rotating exhibits and ancient artifacts from around the world. One exhibit, however, that can be easy to miss is the Menil’s invisible installation.

At the Menil’s north entrance, there is an acoustic work by artist Max Neuhaus. In the late 1960s, Neuhaus gave up a career as a virtuoso percussionist to pursue a unique type of art that would define a physical space with continuous sound. His piece “Sound Figure” is easy to walk through without noticing – it produces a subtle, nonmusical sound that requires attention to hear.

Approaching the Menil, people tend to quiet down and prepare for the art inside – it’s this moment of heightened awareness that makes attendees more sensitive to sound. This is what’s required to notice Sound Figure.

The piece also has an interesting background story. Neuhaus first met the late Dominique de Menil at a dinner party in New York in the 1970s. When the artist described his recently installed sound work, “Walkthrough,” at a Brooklyn subway station, de Menil ordered the whole dinner party to get up and visit the work. She ordered 10 limousines to transport everyone to Brooklyn.

One secret surrounding the piece remains – the techniques Neuhaus pioneered to create the work. It’s not something the artist plans to share.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

As the oldest art museum in Texas, the MFAH certainly has an interesting history. Its roots begin in the Public Art League formed in 1900, the site was dedicated in 1917 and the central building opened in 1924. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the name was officially changed to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And it was around that time that James Johnson Sweeney was appointed as museum director, ushering in a new sophisticated aesthetic in the space.

Houston Chronicle, Februray 6, 1962

Sweeney excelled at dramatic installations. One primary example at the MFAH was the exhibit “Three Spaniards: Picasso, Miró, Chillida” in 1961. Sweeney built a 38-foot long, four foot deep pool outdoors complete with a surrounding pebble beach to serve as a backdrop for Picasso’s six bronze “Bathers.” Since one of Picasso’s figures was meant to be plunging into water, Sweeny had his crew install a diving board as well. Inside the building, he hung five large paintings, suspended from the ceiling on strong, thin wires and unframed. Critics credited Sweeney with meeting the challenge of the hall’s expansive space.

The papers reported that the pool and sculptures stopped traffic. Society editor Liz Brandt called the exhibit “the Biggest (everything’s massive) Little (there are just four other works on display) Show in museum history.” An impressive opening crowd gathered for the show, and admirers continued to check out the bathers for the duration of the installation.