In the wake of Twombly's death in Rome on Tuesday at age 83, the single-floor building, designed by Renzo Piano, finds itself transformed from a suite of galleries celebrating the work of a living artist to a commemoration of a long career now complete.
Aside from a single guard who stepped outside occasionally to feed the squirrels, I had the place to myself Thursday on a muggy Houston morning. And apart from the low hum of the air conditioning it was completely quiet inside the building, which opened in 1995 and is designed on a 3-by-3 grid of perfectly square galleries measuring 26 feet by 26 feet. (One gallery is a double cube, so there are a total of eight rooms rather than nine.) The sun filtered through the off-white cotton fabric that is stretched above each of the rooms, providing a wash of light over the large canvases.
The story of the building actually begins in New York, where the Dia Art Foundation considered in the 1980s opening a series of single-artist galleries, including one devoted to Twombly. When a sour economy ruined those plans, Dia's sizable Twombly collection fell into limbo, with the paintings mostly tucked away in storage. After the Menil reached an agreement with the Dia board to move the paintings to Houston, the museum asked Twombly about the possibility of a separate building on its campus to show his work. He signed on and later donated a number of paintings from his own collection.
Twombly sketched out rather detailed preliminary designs for the gallery and then handed the project over to Piano, who had already completed the main Menil museum across the street. Piano's design for that building, a modestly scaled but sublime piece of architecture, ranks as one of the four or five best works in his prolific career.