More than a dozen years ago, my sister moved to Houston for a medical residency. For an East Coast, Italian family, it was as she moved to Antarctica-- extreme climate and the edge of the world. I was immediately resistant to the idea of having to visit and refused to consider the idea that she would actually commit herself to the city for more than the four required years. I was wrong.
H-Town had me the minute we walked around the Montrose neighborhood and stumbled across what would become my yearly mecca, the Menil Collection. The Menil, borne out of John and Dominique de Menil's vast personal collection of modern art, and located in one of Houston's coiffed suburban neighbourhoods, is my idea of fun-- a sprawling green park with large public sculpture, picnics and a Renzo Piano-designed free museum (1987) that cleverly resembles a larger version of the aluminium-siding, one-level houses that border the park.
I didn't want to like Houston, I really didn't. But how could I help myself when the Menil handed me a silver platter of who's who in 20th century art. Along with the museum, there is a separate gallery dedicated to Cy Twombly's paintings and sculptures (1995), a site-specific Dan Flavin installation (his penultimate, 1996), a reconfigured Byzantine chapel (since dismantled and returned), the meditative Rothko chapel (1971) and huge Tony Smith, Mark de Suevero, Jim Love and Barnet Newman sculptures. It was as if Dominique had asked me what I envisioned my world to have. And apparently, she already had it in mind, commenting in the 1980s that " . . . nobody is visually naive any longer. We are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.”
So yes, every time I visit H-Town, I visit the Menil. Sometimes all day when I need a full immersion, sometimes just for a second when I need to find myself-- nothing beats self-reflection than a walk around the Twombly Gallery or a few minutes in the Rothko Chapel. Or else I swing by the Flavin installation at night to catch a glimpse of his UV rainbow.
Three facts about Houston: it is big, it is kitsch and it has contemporary art. I like it.