“Twilight Epiphany” (2012), The James Turrell Skyspace at the Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion at Rice University.
Photo: Florian Holzherr, Courtesy of Rice University.

The Ultimate Art Lover’s Guide to Houston

The Cultivist shares a shortlist of what to see and do in the cultural booming Texan city

Texas is the unsung gem of the American art world, from scenic Marfa to alternative Austin. There is one city, however, that simply cannot be missed: Houston. The museum capital of Texas, Houston is home to the legendary Menil Collection as well as the prodigious Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the largest art museum in the Southwest. Making the fall a great time to visit, in November the Menil Collection will unveil its Menil Drawing Institute, a new building devoted to the acquisition, exhibition, study, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings. But what really sets Houston apart are the handful of treasures that are found only here. These are our picks of the city’s must-visit destinations. 

The Cy Twombly Gallery, a nearby branch of the Menil, which houses works by the artist from 1953 to 2004. Photo: Don Glentzer, Courtesy of the Menil Collection, Houston

TWILIGHT EPIPHANY, A JAMES TURRELL “SKYSPACE” 

A striking James Turrell “Skyspace” at Rice University. Photo: Michael Stravato

Steps away from Houston’s Museum District, the Rice University campus boasts one of James Turrell’s signature “Skyspaces,” which are special open-air observatories that allow viewers to contemplate the sky under controlled conditions. Titled Twilight Epiphany, this installation comes equipped with an LED light sequence that responds to the sunrise and sunset, complementing the natural light for an unforgettable visual experience. The best part is that it’s free and open to the public, although reservations must be made in advance.  

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THE MENIL COLLECTION

A work on paper by Jasper Johns, on display at the Menil Drawing Institute’s inaugural show. Photo: © Jasper Johns/Licensed by Vaga, New York, Courtesy of the Menil Collection, Houston

Located in a serene Renzo Piano–designed building on a sprawling lawn, the Menil Collection offers one of the best museum experiences to be found anywhere. The 10,000-piece collection of John and Dominique de Menil includes works from prehistory through the 20th century, with special holdings in areas the couple were passionate about, including European Surrealism. The newest attraction at the museum, the Menil Drawing Institute, will open on November 3 with “The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns,” an exhibition that will trace the chronology of the artist’s career. The new space, according to the museum’s director, Rebecca Rabinow, offers “a deeply thoughtful, highly personal window into the practice of drawing.”

MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON

The Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, features a bronze by Émile-Antoine Bourdelle. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/BuyEnlarge/Getty Images

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the crown jewel of the Museum District. With a permanent collection of over 65,000 works spread across several buildings, it is one of the largest and most impressive museums in the U.S. One of our favorite parts is the tunnel that connects the two main buildings: Light artist James Turrell transformed it into a hypnotic, glowing passageway of changing colors titled The Light Inside. Also, don’t skip the tranquil Cullen Sculpture Garden, which was designed by the architect and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. This autumn, the exhibition “Always Greener” will feature selections from the museum’s vast collection that relate to the American suburbs. The show includes a number of major midcentury artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Philip Guston.

ISABELLA COURT 

The Isabella Court galleries. Photo: Jeff Wilson

Isabella Court is often described as a new or up-and-coming arts complex, but its history stretches back to the 1920s. As soon as it opened, the Spanish Colonial Revival apartment and retail building attracted artists, musicians, and other creative types. Today its peeling stucco walls and wrought-iron detailing provide a magical backdrop to some of Houston’s top galleries, including Inman Gallery and Art Palace. No trip to Houston is complete without a visit to this architectural treasure.

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ROTHKO CHAPEL 

Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas. Photo: Hickey Robertson

Perhaps the most iconic of the sites associated with the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel was commissioned by the Menils and completed in 1971. It functions today as a nondenominational chapel, drawing visitors from all faiths and walks of life who come to stand in meditative silence in front of Mark Rothko’s monumental canvases. While Rothko experimented with hundreds of color combinations during his career, the paintings at the chapel are all monochrome fields of black or purplish hues.

A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2018 Fall Issue under the headline Under Texas Skies. Subscribe to the magazine.

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