Black and Blue and Red All Over in Houston

With the Menil Drawing Institute opening on the eve of the US midterm elections, what Houston says about the future of the country

BY Evan Moffitt in Critic's Guides | 04 DEC 18

We came down like the rain, hard and angular. I landed in Houston in the midst of a vicious storm, not long before air traffic control grounded all departing flights. This wasn’t in the forecast, I thought – but then the airwaves that weekend were full of shaky predictions: a big Blue Wave was coming, and it was going to break first in Texas. I had arrived for the opening preview of the new Menil Drawing Institute, four days before the US midterm elections.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017, the city was far from prepared. Its low-lying sprawl flooded faster than anyone had expected; its highways became muddy estuaries. With 107 dead and more than 30,000 displaced, it remains tied for the costliest cyclone on record. On the ground, in this new storm, little seemed to have changed. As I dined downtown, the wind howled as it swept palms backwards in limbo poses. Rain flowed over low curbs and shallow gutters, with nowhere else to go. Houston’s flood control system, like its urban topography, is a patchwork that’s difficult to piece together – reflective, perhaps, of this largely unplanned city, with its low-lying suburbs and wealthy enclaves on higher ground.

South Elevation, Menil Drawing Institute, Louisa Stude Sarofim Building, Texa
South Elevation, Menil Drawing Institute, Louisa Stude Sarofim Building, Texas. Courtesy: the Menil Collection, Houston; photograph: Richard Barnes

The stately Menil Collection is nestled in one dry pocket, a residential neighbourhood known as the Oaks. Nearby River Oaks is home to George H.W. Bush, and the former residence of Dominique de Menil, the Collection’s founder and a visionary patron of postwar art. (The house itself, completed in 1950, is a modern marvel, from its Philip Johnson design to its luscious Charles James interiors. The two men’s contentious relationship might be the most productive queer catfight in the history of home design.) The Menil’s campus has always been as forward-thinking: from its landmark 1986 Renzo Piano building to its famously austere Rothko Chapel. The Drawing Institute, designed by LA-based firm Johnston MarkLee, is a sensitive addition to the museum’s campus. The low-slung roofline, formed from vast sheets of white-lacquered steel, zig-zags like accordion-folded origami paper. To the east and west, these sheets extend beyond the Institute’s exterior walls to form elegant veranda around square Zen gardens, planted with magnolias and chunks of zebra-striped marble. A third courtyard, to the north, provides ample light – and a garden view – for the curatorial offices that face it.

According to architect Sharon Johnston, the Institute’s design merges domestic qualities of the Menil House – a low profile and central courtyard – with the liturgical orientation of a church: a central nave-like axis the architects call ‘the living room’ fills the interior lobby with light, which pours in through glass walls and catches in the ceiling’s angular vaults. This hall is as ample as the only exhibition space, which adjoins it – a relatively small rectangular gallery with plastered windows and modulated lighting – making the Institute’s architecture feel more immediately open and inviting than its art. This is reflected as well by the many spaces tucked out of view, like the cloistered study centre and subterranean storage facility: enviable scholarly resources that will mostly remain hidden from the public. (The latter sits in a kind of ‘bathtub’, an elaborate flood-control system.)

Jasper Johns, Bushbaby, 2004, acrylic and graphite pencil on paper mounted on paper, 87 x 60 cm. Courtesy: The Menil Collection, Houston, © Jasper Johns and VAGA at Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York

As the fifth building on the Menil campus, the Drawing Institute is also the first freestanding museum dedicated to modern drawing in the United States. This is surprising, given the medium’s almost incomprehensible elasticity (though Menil curators define it by paper support). It seems fitting, then, that the Institute’s inaugural exhibition should be of the modern master Jasper Johns, whose works on paper and acetate are perhaps his most beguiling. Johns began drawing on plastic at least as early as 1966, and the exhibition features early examples of his iconic Numbers and Flags. Two remarkable charcoal body prints, Skin (1965) and Skin I (1973), show the artist’s face, palm and arm hair as if pressed against foggy glass. In later plastic drawings, such as Periscope (1977) and Farley Breaks Down (2014), ink pools in eddies, distorting Johns’s signature motifs into an oily mirage.

‘BIG OIL STRIKES GUSHER OF PROFITS’ read a front-page headline in The Houston Chronicle on the morning of the Drawing Institute’s private opening. Though founded in 1836 by land speculators, Houston has always been an oil town: when black gold was first struck there in 1900, its population doubled twice within two decades. Dominique de Menil was heiress to Schlumberger Limited, a drilling equipment corporation. The news seemed crowned by that night’s gala, a glitzy parade of silk cravats and flowing ball gowns. I scanned for a glimpse of the Bushes.

Cassils, Inextinguishable Fire, 2018, single-channel video, installation view, the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston. Courtesy: the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York; photograph: Alejandro Santiago

The other news that day was one of impending invasion: a young, telegenic congressman from El Paso was on track to become the first Democratic Senator from Texas in 25 years. Beto O’Rourke became an unlikely national sensation when he won the nomination to unseat Ted Cruz, a right-winger so vile even his conservative colleagues dubbed him ‘Lucifer’. Young, charismatic, frank and progressive, O’Rourke seemed a model of everything Cruz is not. And in bruise-blue Houston, his apparent popularity suggested a broader change was coming. Long-held Republican districts – including the Menil’s – were suddenly, for the first time, in play. A literal turf war unfolded in River Oaks, where sprawling mansions duelled their neighbours with lawn signs.

By some figures, Houston is the most diverse and fastest-growing city in the US – and so, tired of the gala’s white septuagenarian crowd, I set out for a nightcap at a local gay bar. Guava Lamp was mostly empty, but a succession of drag queens mounted a small stage as a group of their friends cheered them on. The crowd was mostly Hispanic, the soundtrack Selena and Celia Cruz. A small Day of the Dead shrine to famous divas burned by the corner of the bar, and one queen shared her story of coming to the US from Mexico as an infant, and learning about her heritage through what others had carried with them. When she finished Cruz’s swan-song, La vida es un carnaval, her face painted skeletal white, the MC switched the radio on by accident. ‘John Culberson is WRONG on healthcare.’ The crowd, too used to campaign ads, stifled a laugh.

Cassils, PISSED Alter, 2018, urine collected from the citizens of Houston, boric acid, acrylic, installation view, the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston, Texas. Courtesy: the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York; photograph: Alejandro Santiago

The first Republican to win Culberson’s district (the Texas 7th, which includes the Oaks) was George H.W. Bush – who died last Thursday – during his first run in 1967. It has been in GOP hands ever since. Wealthy Houston’s voting represented a shift for the Republican party towards fiscal and social conservatism. Culberson ads played nonstop on an AM channel in my Uber as I travelled to the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, a squat garage straddled by a parking lot, its asphalt cracking in the sun. There, the performance artist Cassils was erecting an irreverent monument to the election: a towering, refrigerated glass tank of urine, 200 gallons of it, collected from Houston residents. The piece (PISSED, 2018), a reference to the discriminatory ‘bathroom bills’ presented every year in the Texas Statehouse – to restrict the use of public lavatories to people of the corresponding birth-assigned genders – had a strangely religious visual effect (all references to Andres Serrano aside): it faced, opposite a long, narrow corridor, a huge projection of the artist doused in flames. The video, Inextinguishable Fire (2007–15), shows Cassils garbed in a ski mask and slathered in flame-retardant gel, as real fire slowly consumes the frame. No stranger to physical pain, Cassils has also melted ice with their naked body – Tiresias (2011), also performed at the Station – and re-enacted police beatings as solo choreography on the floor of a dimly light parking garage (Powers That Be, 2015), documentation of which screens in surround here. On my way out of the museum, an attendant dutifully handed me a polling place sticker. ‘I PISSED’, it read against the stripes of an American flag.

I came, I pissed, I voted. Though the Big Blue Wave never quite broke, Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives. Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz, but John Culberson was unseated by a young progressive named Lizzie Fletcher. For the time being, oil will continue to flow and rain will keep on pouring in this dysfunctional yet diverse metropolis. How Houston handles its ruptured demographics and turbulent climate may point the way for the rest of the country.

Main image: Jasper Johns, Untitled (detail), 1984, ink on plastic, 67 x 87 cm. Courtesy: The Menil Collection, © 2018 Jasper Johns and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in London, UK.