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Byzantine and the bizarre

There is always something interesting to see at the Menil–a free art museum in Houston open Wednesday through Saturday. Yesterday I arrived shortly before a busload of junior high students mobbed the entry way all chattering loudly. Some said they were going to start at one end rather than the featured exhibits of the Byzantine and Forrest Bess.

Forrest Bess was a loner, a fisherman who lived in a small hut on an island near Bay City Texas. He eked out a living of sorts fishing and sold a few paintings. At some time he gathered enough money together to visit New York and he tramped up and down the streets looking for a gallery to represent him. He happened on Betty Parsons who took over gallery space from Peggy Guggenheim when she moved to Paris. Betty took on his work–small quirky paintings of symbols and odd color combinations. Forrest became consumed with the idea of hermaphroditism and worked endlessly on a thesis which he wanted Betty to display along with the accompanying artwork. She firmly and consistently said no–, probably a good thing as he decided to prove his theories with self-mutilation.

The Byzantine collection displayed images from the 13th and 14th century pairing them with objects from the 20th century. The Byzantine featured a lot of iconographic images, parts of churches or perhaps the front veil. It was a bit difficult to understand the modern day objects ranging from a surprisingly pleasant painting by DeKooning–not of ugly women with big teeth–I think he had problems with the women in his life who probably wanted him to be more responsible, a huge golden halo that was about ten feet tall, a square of textured gold leaf, and ‘Glacier’ by Rauschenberg which is fabric imprinted with newsprint in two separate layers hanging on the wall with newspaper stuffed behind it to give it form. Rothko had a pleasantly colored painting but Barnet Newman’s work was still somber. I wonder if he ever laughed or spit watermelon seeds from the porch on a Sunday afternoon.

I did not get a chance to see the southeast collection as that was when the students arrived but I was most pleased to get a long look at the camouflage Last Supper by Andy Warhol. It is quite large easily thirty feet across and six or eight feet high. I always wonder about the technical aspects of such a piece. DaVinci’s famous Last Supper is overlaid with a green camouflage pattern and repeated once. The first time I saw it in person was during a museum course in which we explored the behind closed doors functioning of a museum. Dominique’s philosophy was that if this was to be an art museum, then the workers needed to have original art hanging in their office. Immediately I wanted to find something I could do at the Menil to be so close to such wonderful work.


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