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HOUSTON — After six years in the making and $40 million in investment, the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI) building opened this past weekend. Designed by Johnston Marklee and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the 30,000-square-foot structure has a certain lightness about it. Composed of cool white steel plates, glass, and stained Port Orford cedar, the building is low-slung and pressed lightly into the blue Houston sky — its façade barely there at some points, save for a tree or two casting its shadow and tracing a presence on the surface. Structural steel grids within the building’s plates rib out and give a gentle rhythm to the façade, and Ellsworth Kelly’s elegant, ivory-white “Menil Curve” (2015) — his last public sculpture — sits at the entrance, lightly reflective and bowing into line as one walks by.
The first thing one notices is the roof, a trapezoidal cantilever draped in the air as if by magic. A closer look reveals that the weight has been transferred onto the walls inside, one of Johnston Marklee’s many subtle details that slowly reveal how the architecture works — fitting for a building dedicated to drawing as an experimental, process-driven practice.
The fifth building on the Menil Collection’s campus, the MDI already feels settled in place, partly due to Johnston Marklee’s careful study of and references to the architects that preceded them: Philip Johnson, Renzo Piano, and François de Menil. Ever since Menil Collection founders John and Dominique de Menil collected their first work — a Cézanne watercolor in 1945 — they understood that drawing could be unique and considered, not just something ancillary or a throwaway sketch. Today, the Menil Collection’s holdings of drawings and works on paper stands at around 2,500 works, and it continues to acquire new work and question what the medium can be.
Founded as a program of the Menil Collection in 2008, the MDI is now complete, the first standalone building in the United States created especially for the acquisition, study, conservation, storage, and display of modern and contemporary drawings. Winning from a short list of architects (including David Chipperfield, SANAA, and Tatiana Bilbao) in 2012, Johnston Marklee has created a thoughtful study in dimension and scale, a museum just right for a medium so intimate and oft-overlooked.
Located at the center of the Menil Collection’s 30-acre campus, south of the Main Building and across from the Cy Twombly Gallery, the MDI seems to meld into greenery; a grand, live oak frames the structure, and three square gardens are directly incorporated into the building. One highlight is the courtyard for staff and visiting scholars, tucked inside the building and punctuated with a grove of streaked marble and young Japanese magnolias that filter dappled light into the corridors. During opening weekend, the trees poked through and whistled in the wind, but in a clime as unpredictable as Houston (where there was torrential downpour and a tornado warning just one day before I arrived), I imagine rain running down the roof in a shimmering curtain of water would be equally stunning. It’s this attention to detail that allows visitors to always be aware of light and space while in the MDI — whether it be a cloud passing over a skylight, or shafts of raking light warming up the building.
All around the MDI, the slanted roof recalls the high modern architecture of Alvar Aalto or Marcel Breuer — but once inside the main axis of the building, called the “Living Room,” the diagonals meet in a pitched gable roof that pays homage to the gray, post-war bungalows in the neighborhood. It’s a simple touch that gives the MDI the feel of something between a museum and a home; not exactly cozy, but not so big to be sterile, either. Comfortable.
In designing the new building, Johnston Marklee and the Menil Collection made a conscious decision to not make another ambiguous white cube (seen in so many museum expansions today). The architecture reflects what happens when you ask your clients — the curators, registrars, preparators, conservators, and staff in the building every day — what they need. Two fellows’ offices face the scholar courtyard — nice that they’re not in a corner or the basement — and mark the entrance to the Drawing Room and Study, where frosted skylights are folded over a pitched roof. The Conservation Center windows look out over two striking calligraphic Michael Heizer drawings in weathered steel, which have been relocated from the Main Building’s front lawn. Cut into a tomato-red Argillite gravel, the drawings are as close to the real thing in the Nevada desert as you can get.
Perhaps the most perceptive element of the building is in response to Hurricane Harvey and Houston’s tendencies to flood (Menil Collection security and facilities staff braved the storm in the Main Building, protecting the artwork). Johnston Marklee deliberately put the MDI’s storage in the basement, instead of attaching it to the side of the building, adding large grates at each entrance and automatic floodgates to keep drawings dry. A custom-built display shelf also runs the length of the storage space, allowing easy rearrangement and consideration of drawings without risking damage in transport.
The MDI inaugurated with The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns, a modest show in the 3,000-square-foot gallery. Two vertical windows allow for side lighting, but for this exhibition they’ve been blocked off, to let Johns’s grimy but pearlescent ink on plastic drawings shine in dim light. Curated by Kelly Montana, the exhibition is a progression of quiet knockouts, most promised gifts to the Menil Collection, with seven loans (the best works) from the artist himself. In “Skin I” (1973) Johns’s smeared cheek and hands are soaked onto the paper, then completely hazed over in charcoal. With 16-foot-tall walls and white oak floors, the gallery frames both Johns’s larger and smaller-sized drawings to scale; the work can breathe, and yet isn’t dwarfed by the space.
Back in the Living Room, a billowing, untitled Ruth Asawa from 1956 hangs in a pyramidal alcove. Hundreds of idioms — absurd out of context — are irreverently scrawled in pencil and bright marker across the wall in Roni Horn’s “Wits’ End Sampler” (2018). “Done and dusted”; “Shit hits the fan”; “BESIDE MYSELF” — the drawing defeats the clean lines of the Living Room, reminding me of scribbling frenetic thoughts in a notebook, just to get them down. Horn will have a two-part exhibition, curated by Michelle White, opening at the MDI next February.
Drawing is usually an immediate act — something everyday and close to the hand; it’s sensitive to texture and encourages close looking. The MDI embodies these ideas in providing easy access to the collection, its permeability to nature, and the scale of its spaces that only inspires us to look more attentively as the medium expands its definitions.
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