Understanding the scope of drawing at the MDI

November 2, 2018 GMT

Can a building “be” a drawing?

Not a rendering of some proposed architectural wonder, but the steel, glass and wood structure that finally materializes after years of planning, fundraising and construction.

JohnstonMarklee’s Menil Drawing Institute makes a case for it at virtually every turn: with long stretches of slanted steel awnings that define courtyards, with the grain of the dark-gray Port Orford cedar under those gables, with soffit lighting that streaks between the ceiling and walls of the linear “living room,” even with the veining of the Vermont marble that lines restroom walls and punctuates three serene courtyards in different ways.


Only the front portion of the building’s interior is open to the public, but much of what can be seen — in the architecture, the landscaping and the art on view — aims to address questions about what “drawing” means today. Bernice Rose, the MDI’s founding chief curator, was among the first visitors. She has described the enterprise as honoring “that very specific moment when drawing ceases to become a step towards painting and becomes an independent action of its own.”

For centuries, the definition was simple: A drawing was a work of art executed on paper. Though a drawing can still be a work on paper, and often is, that paper may be monumental. Or it may be Mylar. Or some less porous material one might associate with sculpture. A drawing can be made in air, or in the ground.

That’s part of the fun of exploring the Menil’s newly expanded campus. Here are a few of the eye-openers.

1. Living-room art

Two artworks in the living room represent the polar spectrum of drawing. The late Ruth Asawa made this hanging sculpture of oxidized copper and brass wire in about 1956. The shape references basketweaving, but not basketweaving for the simple-minded. Curators call the untitled piece “Hanging six-lobed, discontinuous surface with an interlocked top section.” Asawa, an American, learned to draw when she was incarcerated as a teenager during World War II in Japanese internment camps. She had the talent and good fortune to land at the legendary, experimental Black Mountain College, where Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller became her mentors.

Across the room, Roni Horn’s “Wits’ End Sampler” looks more accidental, like a stretch of drywall the building’s painters forgot to cover after the construction. It’s actually the result of a meticulous process of gathering handwritten idioms by about 300 people, in their own handwriting, and silkscreening each piece of text individually in a unique configuration that makes the piece site-specific. A visitor could spend hours reading it if for no other reason than to count the seemingly endless number of clichés in the English language — “stick to my guns,” “lose my head,” “beating a dead horse” and on and on. Next year, the MDI will present Horn’s solo show “When I Breathe, I Draw,” filling the building’s gallery with more defined, large-scale works.


2. Outdoor sculpture

“Menil Curve,” the slice of white metal near the MDI’s west entrance, is the last public commission that Ellsworth Kelly completed before his death at the end of 2015. The Menil owns a number of the great Minimalist’s works, including many drawings; the curve is among his iconic shapes. The sculpture’s reflective quality contrasts with the matte finish of the wall behind it, a relationship that changes with the daylight. View it from the sidewalk on West Main, and the piece almost disappears, becoming simply a “line” above the grass.

Michael Heizer’s zig-zaggy land sculptures “Rift” and “Dissipate” have moved from the front lawn of the “mother ship” museum to a dramatic new space on the MDI’s east side that looks like a stretch of Nevada outback. Suddenly, viewers see the essence of the sculptures as the artist intended them to look, with effects that change with the weather and daylight. Heizer oversaw the painstaking re-installation, which took more than a year of planning and subsurface work. The aragonite gravel landscape more closely re-created the works’ original setting in a Nevada lake bed. The actual sculpture, as Heizer sees it, is not the steel framing but the “negative space” that steel creates. (So drawing, in that sense, can be invisible.)

3. Lines in dialogue

Renzo Piano described the design for his Cy Twombly Gallery as “a butterfly landing on a rock.” That became an inspiration. “We don’t want to mimic, but we want to respond,” said architect Mark Lee, one of the JohnstonMarklee partners. The thin white edge of the steel on the MDI and the block wall of the energy house respond to the butterfly and rock theme, also framing a “new form of defined, open space” that didn’t previously exist on the campus, he added.

The gabled ceilings of the MDI respond to the Menil neighborhood’s bungalows. JohnstonMarklee also honors Piano’s main museum building in numerous ways — check out the corresponding gray cypress of some of the exterior walls; the generous porches around three sides; the continuous garden views; and the overall nature of atmospheric light — even though it comes in mostly from the sides of the MDI rather than the ceiling, as in Piano’s building. “You’re always aware of the weather outside,” architect Sharon Johnston said. “The ephemeral atmosphere was a mandate for us.”

4. “The Condition of Being Here”

Few artists have explored the possibilities of drawing as deeply and consistently as Jasper Johns. The MDI’s first exhibition shows his extraordinary range, through 41 works produced between 1954 and 2016. Seven are loans from the artist; the rest are promised gifts or belong to the MDI’s collection of 2,500 modern and contemporary masterworks. This is no biographical art-history lesson. It’s more about encouraging viewers to look and discover how Johns returns in myriad ways to themes that have engaged him for decades, including allusions to photographs and signature motifs such as flags, targets and numbers — which Johns calls “things the mind already knows.”

The show’s title — “The Condition of Being Here” — is borrowed from a sketchbook note he made in 1968 that begins with the line, “One would like not to be led.” Which seems a perfect way to approach both the exhibition, the exquisite building that holds it and the inviting landscape all around it. Houstonians are lucky to have many years of discovery ahead.