Author William Middleton (Photo Tim Walker)
William Middleton's "Double Vision" was released March 27, 2018, by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House.
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: In 1969, Dominique and John de Menil were being given a tour of the Museum of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design. As they visited the galleries, they kept hearing a common refrain: "If you like that, you should see what we have in storage." Intrigued, they asked to go into the basement, where they discovered a trove of some 45,000 objects, most of which were never seen. John wondered what might happen if a contemporary artist were to go through the vaults, picking and choosing material to make an exhibition. John called Andy Warhol, who immediately accepted. "Raid the Icebox with Andy Warhol" (October 29, 1969 - January 4, 1970), at the Institute for the Arts at Rice University in Houston, was a Pop Art revelation. Here, the exhibition postcard. (Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston)
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: "Raid the Icebox with Andy Warhol" contained over 400 paintings and objects, from a Cézanne still life to framed fragments of wallpaper stacked along the wall to almost 200 pair of old shoes, many displayed in the same rough wooden cases used in the basement storage. The entrance to the exhibition had one of the de Menils’ huge Warhol silkscreens, "Flowers," 1966, next to a corridor lined with dozens of mismatched wooden chairs hung along the top of the wall. "The kids of today want to know what Andy sees and what he likes," said the director of the RISD Museum at the opening of "Raid the Icebox." As Houston Chronicle art critic Ann Holmes wrote, "Judging by the throngs which swept through Wednesday night, you better believe it!" (Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston)
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: For the opening of "Raid the Icebox," the de Menils brought down to Houston some 20 guests, including Andy Warhol, Fred Hughes, Warhol superstar Jane Forth, Jed Johnson, and Henry Geldzahler of the Metropolitan Museum. There was an afternoon press conference where the artist took to mic to explain, in his cryptic way, the exhibition. Then, the de Menils had a dinner for 70 at their house, followed by the opening at Rice University, which attracted hundreds and turned into a major scene.
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: "For Children"(May 22 to August 29, 1971), was a triumphant exhibition curated by Dominique de Menil at Rice University. Over 40,000 kids attended the summer show, scampering over sculptures, such as this dragon by Niki de Saint Phalle, climbing ladders to peer into peepholes and finding their way through mazes. "Children hate to be spoon fed, once they can hold the spoon," Dominique explained. "They like to help themselves, to discover, to pick — effort is an added pleasure." (Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston)
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: The July 1904 wedding of Louise Delpech and Conrad Schlumberger, at her uncle’s house in Neuilly-sur-Seine. The wedding party included her brother Jacques Delpech, a Protestant minister (seated, center); Conrad’s brother Maurice Schlumberger, who would found an important private bank (standing, third from left); and his brother Marcel, who joined Conrad in starting what became Schlumberger Limited (third from right). (Courtesy of De Menil Family Papers; Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston)
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: Dominique, the second of three daughters, was a clear favorite of Conrad Schlumberger. Intelligent and strong willed, she was said to be the son he never had or "daddy’s little boy." Both loving and firm, Conrad was not shy about guiding her in life, returning letters with spelling errors circled and encouraging her to study more. On Dominique’s tenth birthday, he concluded a celebratory letter with a rousing mantra: "work, eat, sleep, be cheerful!" (Courtesy of De Menil Family Papers; Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston)
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: Dominique Schlumberger on the back steps of the Val-Richer, with Nika, the family dachshund. (Courtesy of De Menil Family Papers; Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston)
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: Dominique de Menil always mentioned the fact that there were no art collectors in her family, which was generally true, but it would have been difficult to grow up at the Val-Richer and not be sensitive to history and beautiful objects. (Courtesy of Anne Schlumberger)
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: In 1931, the year Dominique and Jean de Menil were married, they visited a chateau in Alsace owned by her cousin. The interior of Kolbsheim, an 18th-century structure in pink stucco with a red tile roof, had just been redesigned by a modernist Paris architect, Pierre Barbe. Dominique and Jean hired Barbe to renovate their Paris apartment — the first seeds of a de Menil aesthetic are here.
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: Also participating in the April 1971 dedication ceremony for Barnett Newman’s "Broken Obelisk": Coretta Scott King, whose husband had been assassinated less than three years before; Annalee Newman, the artist’s widow; and the concert choir of Texas Southern University, the historically black college in Houston. "We have here both a chapel and a monument," Dominique de Menil said of the pairing of the Rothko Chapel and "Broken Obelisk." "A place for worship and a memorial to a great leader. The association of these two remarkable sites should tell us over and over again that spiritual life and active life should remain united." (Courtesy of Rothko Chapel Archives)
Via @wfmiddletonauthor: "Museums are places we should fall head over heels in love," Dominique de Menil was fond of quoting one of her mentors, the Dominican priest Father Couturier. Before selecting Renzo Piano to design the building, Dominique drew up plans for an architectural competition. "The building should be of an intimate scale rather than monumental," she wrote. ‘"The visitor’s experience should be personal and intriguing. One must be drawn from space to space with a feeling of anticipation and excitement. A balanced interplay between exterior and interior spaces must exist, with natural light used as a source of illumination." Here, the 20th-century galleries in June 1987, with glossy black floors and soft natural light falling onto paintings by Braque, Miró, Matisse, and Picasso. (Photo Hickey-Robertson, courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston)
William Middleton at his Houston apartment in the summer of 2017. After a decade, the author has completed a marathon biography set to be published by Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, with a release date of March 27, 2018. (Photo Max Burkhalter)
After a decade-long journey, the edited manuscript of the de Menil biography rests near its author’s Maison Bonnet glasses. (Photo Max Burkhalter)
Contemplating research in a corner of a light-washed apartment transformed into a scholar’s office. Middleton based himself in Houston for more than 10 years, to conduct interviews and be near archives at The Menil Collection, and other primary source materials to gain insight into his subjects' lives. French bulldog Hubert, a muse for the author during his arduous writing process. (Photo Max Burkhalter)
Who were Dominique and John de Menil, and how and why did this French couple, whose wealth flowed from the Schlumberger energy business, transform the American art world?
That is the question that William Middleton poses, then brilliantly answers with depth and aplomb in his decade-in-the-making volume that is among the most anticipated events of the spring literary and art scene — Double Vision, The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil.
Just in: Tuesday, March 27 is the date for the debut of Double Vision from its esteemed publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.
Fittingly, the big reveal takes place in Houston, the city the Menils made their principal home, and indelibly shaped, since they relocated here during World War II. The venue for the book’s first public event is mindfully selected — the Rothko Chapel, the monument to modern art, human rights, and spirituality founded by the late de Menils and opened in 1971.
The evening — set for Tuesday, March 27, at 7 pm and co-organized by The Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel — will feature an author reading and book signing, followed by a reception for registered guests at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel.
But Dallas audiences won’t have to wait long to get into the act. The very next day, Wednesday, March 28, Middleton takes his book tour on the road, with a reading and signing at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Muscular and authoritative, yet sensitive, this book — the first even devoted to the art and activist couple whose discerning eye created The Menil Collection — promises to impact Texas’ and especially Houston’s standing in the international art world. It weighs in at a monumental 750 pages; 32 of those are dedicated to photos with 120 additional images appearing throughout the text, including many rare images published for the first time, and used by special permission from the de Menil family archive.
The biography’s author lived in Houston for more than a decade to shepherd his magnum opus to completion. Middleton is a respected journalist, editor, and former Paris bureau chief for the Fairchild publishing empire, with a well known byline that has appeared everywhere from The New York Times to Vogue and the International Herald Tribune.
Double Vision bears 65 pages of footnotes reflective of Middleton’s meticulous trans-Atlantic research. The resulting book delves deeply into the shared lives of the 20th century’s consummate, but most private, art patrons.
The Menils’ Courage
If the art world were the sole topic of Double Vision, it would be laudatory, but this book is so much more. It reveals the courage of a couple who stood up to provincialism and prejudice. They were the staunchest supporters of the late U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland — and helped ensure his victory to get to D.C. and serve on Capitol Hill.
Read insider tales about this biographer’s heroic research and writing process, including the unique challenges behind this book, here.
Without giving away too much of the story (PaperCity received an early advance galley from the publisher), suffice to say, Middleton has traversed riveting subjects — and centuries — in chapters that can each stand alone.
Never before known tales of the de Menil and Schlumberger family history, interwoven into the turbulent times of the French Revolution and World War I, are vividly told, including introducing the illustrious Schlumberger ancestor, 19th century statesman François Guizot. A prime minister under the last king of France, this figure, almost forgotten outside of his country, was one of the most powerful statesmen in Europe during the reign of Louis Philippe (1830 – 1848). He was Dominique de Menil’s great-great-grandfather.
Houstonians such as the seminal Jermayne MacAgy and the eccentrically brilliant Walter Hopps, founding director of The Menil Collection also come to life. The former, was so revered by the de Menils that she is buried in their plot at Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery in Houston.
MacAgy is best remembered for one of the most remarkable exhibitions ever mounted in Texas or at the mid-century — “Totems Not Taboo,” presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new Cullinan Hall in 1959. Middleton highlights the exhibition too as a “daring gesture” in the segregated South, with its emphasis on African art.
A Designer Couple
Design disciples will also find fascinating the glimpse into the de Menils’ interiors, including Middleton’s research on French architect Pierre Barbe, and his restrained aesthetic, which is traced from the couple’s first apartment in Paris to its apogee in their Houston house (architecture Philip Johnson, interiors Charles James) — then ultimately their museum.
A bonus from knowing Barbe was meeting Max Ernst, one of the talents who is a touchstone of The Menil Collection and its startling Surrealist galleries. The reader learns how the future patrons’ understanding of modern art grew and developed, from being shocked by Ernst to embracing his unsettling imagery. Equally revealing is Middleton’s research that the now iconic Ernst Portrait of Dominique (circa 1932) was once relegated, for 15 years, to the top of an armoire in their Parisian attic.
Other little known players emerge, such as the Alexandre Iolas, art dealer extraordinaire who closely involved himself with artists in a way few gallerists then or now do. From Iolas, the collecting couple would purchase more than 42 works by Ernst, as well as seminal creations by Magritte, de Chirico, Picasso, Braque, and Léger.
Double Vision is an apt book for our troubled times. Cinematic, with a love story at its heart about the couple who surmounted different religions (his Catholic, hers Protestant) in the decade leading up to World War II, it offers a captivating portrait of the little understood lives they created prior to 1941, when they first emigrated to Houston.
The de Menils’ three years spent residing in Caracas, Venezuela, during World War II — due to John overseeing Schlumberger operations there, before returning to Houston — is another installment in this volume that underscores the wide world they knew.
Chapters detail John de Menil’s valor in Romania for the Resistance movement (that resulted in a Croix de Guerre from the French government), and a dramatic 4:30 am retreat made by pregnant Dominique from the Schlumberger family home, Val-Richer, to avoid invading Nazi forces.
The pair of future patrons settled during a stimulating, often controversial era in a boomtown city where they subsequently brought in luminaries — Andy Warhol, Rosamond Bernier, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Norman Mailer, and René Magritte — who interacted with the locals and changed and enlarged the Texas cultural and humanitarian landscape forever.
The de Menil thread to the founding of Dia, and its support of artistic forces such as Donald Judd and his burgeoning Chinati Foundation in Marfa, is convincingly outlined. Middleton also tells the story of the 45-minute meeting that led to the hiring of Renzo Piano for his first building in America, and details why Dominique de Menil was the architect’s ideal client.
As for the author who is heading to the finish line following a decade of determination and tenacity in the face of complex, daunting research, and exquisite diplomacy required to earn the de Menil family’s trust, Middleton tells PaperCity via email:
“How do I feel right now? Well, it is astounding to me that the book is actually finished and is going out into the world in less than two months. It has been a very long, fascinating journey.”
“Once the book is published, I hope everyone will find the lives of Dominique and John de Menil to be as intriguing and as inspiring as I have.”
For more on Double Vision, read our exclusive excerpt in PaperCity magazine’s April issue. And follow the author on Instagram — wfmiddletonauthor — samplings of his photo wonders appear on the slide show above this story.
Finally, to reserve your seat for a reading, and be one of the first to acquire this richly textured biography, a list of signings in Texas follows:
Tuesday, March 27: Event at the Rothko Chapel in partnership with The Menil Collection
Wednesday, March 28: Dallas Museum of Art
Thursday, March 29: BookPeople in Austin
Tuesday, April 3: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (details to be posted soon)
Thursday, April 5: Brazos Bookstore in Houston
Tuesday, April 24: The Houston Seminar