Best laid plans: ‘Dream Monuments’ at the Menil Drawing Institute

In the late 1960s, John and Dominque de Menil proposed an ambitious project to commission public monuments for Houston by Christo, Robert Smithson, Claes Oldenburg and others. Now a smart new exhibition displays the never-seen proposed projects along with contemporary work that challenges conventional ideas of the monument.


It was overcast and raining in Houston opening weekend of “Dream Monuments: Drawing in the 1960s and 1970s” at the Menil Drawing Institute; and the dramatic contrast between outside and in was fitting for a show loosely based on plans for outdoor monuments and monumental projects. Inside, dim lights swaddled the work in the newest of the Menil’s buildings. Wrapped in this soft, warm glow, I couldn’t help but think that the curators, Erica DiBenedetto and Kelly Montana, had given new life to an exhibition that John and Dominique de Menil had put to bed years ago.

Back in the late 1960s, the de Menils proposed “Dream Monuments” — an ambitious project that commissioned public monuments for the Houston area in concert with an exhibition of drawings and models by contemporary artists to be shown alongside architectural plans from the 19th and early 20th century. Unfortunately, the financial and logistical barriers to the commissions led the couple to shelve the project indefinitely.

This new look at “Dream Monuments” is packed with possibilities and adds 11 artists to the original six that the de Menils named on their checklist. Now, the curators present works on paper and in sculpture that range “from proposals and documents to forms fully realized” organized by soft thematic categories in four galleries. To the west are concept drawings for projects “to be made in other media” and “implausible constructions.” To the east are large technical drawings and models of “fictive cities and built systems” neighboring a group of casts, collages, and drawings of architecture and landscapes in “material and temporal flux.”

Along with the memory of the de Menils, which permeates the campus, the haunting works by Barbara Chase-Riboud, Beverly Buchanan, and Michelle Stuart offer a melancholic perspective on monuments.

Known for her monuments to Malcolm X and tall metal-and-fiber sculptures, Chase-Riboud’s charcoal drawing “Landscape and Cords” (1973) at first looked like a gravesite. As its title suggests, the drawing shows two main elements — a group of stones and some cord spilling out on the right side — and their relationship to one another is a curious one. Chase-Riboud drew several of the stones upright, and in the context of “Dream Monuments,” it’s easy to read the imagery as the ruins of a built structure where the cords once held something together. On the other hand, perhaps these smooth stones come from a beach or a riverbank. Like its references, the drawing looks slippery; the cords pool around the stones, which Chase-Riboud modeled with a succession of fine parallel lines. The ripple effect, in turn, echoes the stranded quality of the coiled lines. This directed study on the memory of materials results in a deeply moving union of elements and was one of the great highlights of the exhibit.

The payoffs in “Dream Monuments,” like Chase-Riboud’s drawing, are in the multitude of textures and references at work. Nearby, Stuart and Buchanan enlist different modes of memorial. Influenced by her early experience as a topographer and cartographer, Stuart made “#7 Echo” (1973) by rubbing graphite over a large scroll of paper across the uneven ground and then incorporating pulverized earth into the impression to record the landscape.

Michelle Stuart #7 Echo,
Michelle Stuart, “#7 Echo,” 1973. Graphite and ink on muslin-backed rag paper. Sheet: 52 × 62 in. (132.1 × 157.5 cm) Purchased with funds provided by the William F. Stern Acquisitions Fund, 2016-5

Buchanan’s works on paper and sculpture emphasize the enduring qualities of a memorial. The allover drawings from her “City Walls Sketchbook” (1976-77) along with “Wall Column” (1980) — a group of small cast-concrete sculptures — capture the fragments of their sites. While the weathered texture of the drawings and broken forms of the sculptures may carry familiar signs of urban decay, I was struck by their powerful sense of survival. These copies endure in spite of the unrelenting tides of time. They speak to a significant theme in the exhibition: how new forms, like interpretations, emerge from an artwork, never fixed in its cultural significance.

Robert Smithson, Cambrian Map of Sulfur and Tar, 1969. Crayon and marking pen on paper, 17 × 14 in. (43.2 × 35.6 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of the artist. © Holt / Smithson Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Paul Hester
Robert Smithson, Cambrian Map of Sulfur and Tar, 1969. Crayon and marking pen on paper, 17 × 14 in. (43.2 × 35.6 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of the artist. © Holt / Smithson Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Paul Hester

The gallery also hosts two crayon and pen drawings Robert Smithson produced in anticipation of “Dream Monuments.” Smithson proposed to recreate one of his hypothetical continents, Gondwanaland, with heaps of unprocessed sulfur and tar sourced from local Texas mines on a bed of soil. “Paleozoic Era, Cambrian Period” (1969) and “Cambrian Map of Sulfur and Tar” (1969) diagram a 400 foot-long map of what he imagined the prehistoric planet looked like over 500 million years ago. Using yellow and orange crayon to represent the sulfur landforms, Smithson dotted the dry land with a series of question marks and flooded two cross-sections with black seas of tar.

These traces from the past — represented by Stuart and Smithson on a geological scale and Chase-Riboud and Buchanan on an archeological scale — draw refreshing parallels between concept drawings, architectural plans, and landscapes that put aside clichéd debates about the relationship between the artist’s idea and the work of art. Instead, the exhibition emphasizes the variety of documentary materials and techniques the artists incorporated into their practice.

Project proposals by Mary Beth Edelson, Agnes Denes, and Jackie Ferrara engage with the utopian aspects of monuments and their potential to impact change. Edelson’s vibrant work, “Earth Works: Reclaiming the Land” (1976), figures an opportunity for healing the polluted landscape. She devised a monumental project in the image of the Great Mother whose breasts and belly cap “open pit uranium mining in the Gas Hells of Wyoming.” In contrast to the bleak photograph of the strip mine collaged on the left, Edelson’s plan animates the wasteland with giant blue breasts and rolling green hills. Denes’s “Citadel for the Inner City — The Glass Wall” (1980) has an analogous affirming effect. She designed a concave glass pyramid in silver ink appropriate for a society guided by introspection.

Installation view of "Dream Monuments"
Installation view of “Dream Monuments” showing Jackie Ferrara’s “Drawing for A200 AJUT” (on the wall) and the nearly eight-foot pine structure “A200 AJUT.” Photo by Paul Hester

Whereas Denes idealized the form, Jackie Ferrara’s “Drawing for A200 AJUT” (1979) and nearly eight-foot pine structure “A200 AJUT” (1979) feel like a response to the question, how do you make a pyramidal shape that doesn’t look like a pyramid? You make incremental changes to the proportional relationships between the assembled parts. Interested in dividing forms in an innovative way, Ferrara lengthened or shortened each plank in relation to the one before it to create stepped curves and inclines. In the context of “Dream Monuments,” Ferrara’s structure expands the definition of the monument from the monolithic to the collective. Here, too, there’s a potential for political messaging.

Of all the works on the de Menils’ “Dream Monuments” list, I loved seeing two works in particular by Walter de Maria and Christo.

De Maria’s “Desert Walk/Walls in the Desert” (1964) are a set of six pencil drawings that propose building two parallel quarter-mile-long concrete walls through which people could walk. The walls are six inches thick, stand eight feet tall, and four feet apart. Each of the six drawings corresponds with a different perspective of the installation, and even though the faint pencil marks are nearly impossible to see, they reward a little squinting. One isometric projection shows a tiny limousine arriving on-site in style against two sloping hills in the background. Another drawing illustrates an aerial view with two straight parallel lines running across the page with a small dot in the center to represent a “person in the walls as seen by a helicopter.” “The entrance or the exit” shows two walls converging in a dynamic “IXI” formation. Like the isometric and aerial views, there’s an exciting tension between the shapes on the page and what the drawing represents.

Christo, One Million Stacked Oil Drums, Project for Houston, Galveston Area, 1970. Pencil, crayons, and map on paper, 36 × 52 in. (91.4 × 132.1 cm). Estate of Christo V. Javacheff. © Christo. Photo: Andre Grossman
Christo, “One Million Stacked Oil Drums, Project for Houston, Galveston Area,” 1970. Pencil, crayons, and map on paper, 36 × 52 in. Estate of Christo V. Javacheff. © Christo. Photo: Andre Grossman

Seeing one of Christo’s drawings reminded me how they make you fall in love with them. “One Million Stacked Oil Drums, project for Houston, Galveston, Area” (1970) depicts the project in three parts — a massive stack of bright multi-colored oil barrels in the shape of a mastaba against the white ground, an aerial view of the installation in pencil, and a small map of Houston with a red circle indicates that the structure would sit somewhere off I-45 north of Galveston. The way Christo blocked out the color and diagramed the proposals with maps and schematic drawings of the site is sensational. It’s no wonder. Christo and Jeanne-Claude often sold scale models and drawings of their proposals like this one to fund their projects.

It’s not often that the history of an exhibition has much in common with its subject matter. What at first seemed like a meditation on false starts and deadends began to feel more like a rebirth. With “Dream Monuments” there is a strong sense of possibilities in the passage of time and in the evolution of an artwork and in the exhibition itself, whether that’s through interruption, revision, or construction. I walked away from the show thinking less about the notion of monuments or monumentality, or the drawings themselves as the remains of work exhumed from storage. Instead, I thought about the varied approaches each artist took to produce their projects and the wonderful parallels between the extended exhibition timeline and the speculative work on view.

“Dream Monuments: Drawing in the 1960s and 1970s” continues through Sept. 19 at the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston,

Taylor Bradley
Taylor Bradley
Taylor Bradley is an art historian based in Houston. Bradley specializes in modern and contemporary art with a focus on the history of photography and conceptual art. She received her BA in Art History with distinction from Boston University (2008) and earned her MA (2012) and PhD (2019) from The University of Texas at Austin.

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