The Menil Collection is a low-slung block of grey in the middle of a quiet green square in an old Houston neighborhood. Daylight wafts in through the roof’s white leaves. Tropical plants fill the atrium of its African art gallery, and bamboo thickets at the exterior windows protect artwork in passageways from direct sun.
Grey surrounds the central building too, on facades of bungalows owned by the Menil Foundation since the 1960s. The bungalows predate the Collection, but are now its subdued outbuildings, matching in what’s become known locally as “Menil gray.” It’s not proprietary or recognizable like Yves Klein Blue, but a color chosen to serve a practical purpose: given the Menil’s situation in a city without zoning restrictions, the grey identifies a corona of bungalows that, if sold, could easily give way to tall condominiums or commercial strips or both.
Renzo Piano, architect of the Menil, said: “The famous theory about making neutral space for museums because then then architecture does not compete with the art is a stupid idea. If you make a neutral space you kill art… That is why the research we have done on the Menil is about atmosphere… You have to work on the immateriality of the museum - light, vibration, proportion.”
- Pamela Smart, Sacred Modern, p. 124
The color of the sedate complex was inspired by an exhibition the Menil’s founder, Dominique de Menil, and curator Patrice Marandel put on at the Rice University “Art Barn” in 1973. “Gray Is the Color” was a show of grisaille works dating from the thirteenth century to the twentieth. Grisaille, monochrome decorative painting that permits only shades of grey, black and white.
Grey is shadow, the dimming charge of day or or night losing its grip. It is no color at all, or it is everything - a totality of color muddled. Green and gray are lovely together. Gray is not death but life’s shadow, its underside. Green bark rusts, and a freeze silvers its victims - think winter gardens and planters and gutters. Watching grey grow is more like watching color calm.
Inside the walls and floor are neutral shades that deepen the intimacy of the space. The darkest and most permanent of these is the smallest gallery, with a name of its own. “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision” is the kernel of the museum, the place for Dominique’s most personal collection of knick knacks and bibelots and masks and toys and dolls and avatars and weapons and taxidermy.
This is the set of totems to which the Collection’s Surrealists (Brauner, Ernst, Magritte, Hans Arp, Duchamp, Klee, Miró, Oppenheim, Picabia, Tanguy, Tanning) were devoted. It represents the convergence of the museum’s many wings, buildings and - especially - personalities. While most of these objects - loosely described in a pamphlet if not on the walls - do circulate, a colorful old desk remains permanently poised in the window, still full of the treasures that Dominique saved for children:
So I am stuck, wondering what it is about this particular fascination with grey. Is it an escape from the heat or a reflection of the dreadfully, inevitably dim sun? Afternoon thunderstorms that drown the streets in summertime? Grey is also the color of Paris, Mrs. de Menil’s first home. Grisâtre. Like Houston in the summer France is grey particularly in spring, in its steady rhythm of stone and concrete and marble and sky and glass and water.
Maybe it is just a cloak of calm and elegance in honor of the utterly un-self-consciousness and playfulness, and sometimes even guided obliviousness, that's at the heart of the Collection.
Like its forebear grisaille, grey's a good backdrop for subtlety.