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Texas - State Of Art (uk Article)

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Texas - the state of art

(Filed: 06/04/2005)

Billionaire connoisseurs have filled some of the most beautiful museums in the world with some of the greatest paintings and sculpture, says Richard Dorment

George Stubbs, Joseph Beuys, Philip Guston, Sigmar Polke, Dan Flavin: one thing these utterly different artists have in common is that they all have either just had, or are about to have, a major retrospective in London. That the exhibitions come from the United States isn't remarkable, but what is surprising is that they all originated in Texas.

The de Menil museum: designed by Renzo Piano

Until the last quarter of the 20th century, Texas hardly existed on the cultural map of America. Virtually every one of the state's major museums was built in the past 35 years. And, during the last decade or so, a new museum seems to open every year, inevitably designed by a leading international architect.

Art follows money, and Texas money comes not only from oil but also from cattle, land development, banking, and insurance. You only have to set foot in a Texas museum to realise how generous wealthy Texans can be. But they are also sophisticated collectors who have filled their museums with works of art of the highest quality.

But having a prestigious building and important works of art to show in it isn't enough to make a great museum. The people who fund these institutions also hire the best directors and curators. As a result, internationally acclaimed exhibitions that, in the past, came to London from Paris and New York or perhaps Chicago and Philadelphia, now come from Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. Quite suddenly, these cities have become a cultural destination comparable to the east and west coasts of America. They are, in their own way, as worthy of a special trip to see the art as Florence and Siena.

In a week of non-stop sightseeing, I saw an astonishing fusion of dramatic architecture and magnificent art, a visual feast unlike anything I've encountered in Europe.

My tour began with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the biggest in Texas and sixth largest in the US. Housed in a Mies Van der Rohe building, it reveals its riches gradually. In a monumental suite of galleries is one of the most interesting collections of renaissance and baroque art in the American South, including a jewel-bright Madonna and Child by Botticelli, and a recently acquired portrait by Rembrandt.

Here, too, is the Glassell Collection - 800 pieces of African gold, much of it incredible regalia from the royal courts of the Akan peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast and all of it superbly displayed.

In general, Texans began to collect too late to acquire the best Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and so tend to concentrate on contemporary, eastern and Pre-Columbian art. An exception to this rule is the Audrey Jones Beck Collection of late-19th-century art, which contains masterpieces by Pointillists, Fauves and Cubists. I could have spent hours with its dazzling Gustave Caillebotte scene in a summer garden, its ravishing little Seurat of a lady with a powder puff, and Matisse's 1937 Woman in a Purple Coat.

Typically Texan is the sense that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is expanding at a rate almost too fast to keep up with. Five years ago it opened an extension linked to the original building by an underground tunnel designed by light artist James Turrell, in which blue light turns gradually to red, and in doing so seems to thicken and become palpable so that you want to reach out and touch it.

While I was there, the director announced the largest ever cash gift to a US museum - a bequest from oil heiress Caroline Wiess Law of almost half a billion dollars. Add that to the existing endowment of $360 million, and you have a museum of world-class importance.

It is possible to compare the Museum of Fine Arts to other encyclopaedic museums in the US, but the museum created by John and Dominique de Menil is unique.

It contains paintings and sculpture that reflect the diverse artistic and intellectual interests of these two extraordinary people. The building, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, is an understated masterpiece. Though built on the scale of a major international museum, the galleries feel intimate - ideal for showing changing displays from the de Menils' collection of the Surrealists, their contemporaries and followers.

This is where you'll find Magritte's Golconde, the picture in which it is raining little men in bowler hats, and his famous Rape, the woman's-torso-as-a-man's- head. In these rooms, you see how Barnett Newman, Joan Mir

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