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Sweeney remembered

James Johnson Sweeney was bigger than life. I mean, I knew him more through his work than other things, but the Museum then was just totally amazing. Those installations—the Picasso bathers, the Tinguely show, the Olmec head. I mean, that was a moment that no other city at that time could rival. It was really just extraordinary that somebody had that sort of imagination and would think about doing those works in there.

[As far as leaving Houston] he wasn’t happy here. It was much too small a pond for him. His wife didn’t want to live here and I think he was gone a great deal. I don’t think that the trustees then—who were thinking in this sort of long-range way—[saw]what Sweeney was doing. I remember a complaint from some friends of my parents who were involved at the Museum saying, “Well, Sweeney goes to New York all the time. In fact, goddamnit, he has his catalogs printed in New York. Look—here’s a Sweeney catalog and here’s another one. Does that really look like it was worth a trip to New York?” But that’s what he knew. He could only work in a certain level of quality, but it was great.

The institute for the arts

It’s not that the de Menils were not deliberate in what they did, but a lot of what they did was in response. I don’t think they might have done [these things] on their own. For example, Bill Camfield had just been hired by Jerry MacAgy—he came to work at the department [at St. Thomas]when Jerry died. The first two weeks of that really galvanized Dominique. She decided that instead of just helping to fund this department that she would run it. Bill would take care of the academic part and she would take care of the exhibitions, bring in the guests and all those other things that needed to be done. She said—and I’m sure other people would quote her—that she might very well have been happy to stay at St. Thomas. But John de Menil…we never talked about Black Mountain but I can’t believe that wouldn’t have been a model to some extent of what an art school could be like—and his concern at St. Thomas was that there was a very prescribed series of religion and philosophy courses that [might] keep potentially interesting students from coming to the University. And he said to the administration that they really needed to drop those things, or maybe they would not stay at St. Thomas. I think he was stunned when they said, “See you later.”

Just those two things brought the end of the art department and sent [the de Menils] to Rice. And at Rice I think as they got closer to their mission they realized they really wanted to do it on their own without having to explain anything to anybody—sort of like the Institute for Religion. So at Rice, it seemed like there was a necessary next step—I know that there was talk at one point when the Shepherd bequest was made to Rice, that there would be perhaps a fine arts building where there would be a Rice museum and the Shepherd School of Music and something else…and I think they just didn’t want to be partners in anything anymore. They wanted to do what they wanted to do.

The de menil house

When I was at St. Thomas after my junior year and senior year, John and Dominique really liked to have students around and we would be invited to dinners at their house—the Philip Johnson house—with artists, or to go out to dinner just after a show opened. Then we began to go over to the house a great deal, sometimes to work, sometimes to deliver things—I mean, we were employees, but we were also friends.

Turning off of San Felipe into that driveway was like going into a foreign country in the most amazing way. The architecture was different. The art was different. The food was different. The language was different. The smell was different. Everything about it was transporting and I think for all of us that house as much as anything got us all involved in art in a way. It was so freeing because there were no rules in a way. Things were beautiful or weren’t, and if they were beautiful, they were beautiful together. It was something we were all working toward on our own sort of individual levels that we could afford. You saw the degree to which art, architecture and design could really take over your life, and I think it’s a very significant place.

A postscript

I never felt any deprivation [in Houston]. I didn’t feel that things were provincial or any of that. They may have been, but there were examples of everything that was going on here and I guess the great luck was that we had access to it.

Karl Kilian was interviewed on September 13, 2006. You can listen to the interview here .

Questions & Answers

are nano particles real
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Preparation and Applications of Nanomaterial for Drug Delivery
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Smarajit Reply
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Source:  OpenStax, Houston reflections: art in the city, 1950s, 60s and 70s. OpenStax CNX. May 06, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10526/1.2
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