In the summer of 1962, Dan Flavin was 29 years old and working as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In a journal entry dated August 9 of that year, Flavin recalled a visceral encounter he had there with the Byzantine painting Christ in Glory. “There was a physical feeling in the panel,” he wrote. “This icon had that magical presiding presence which I have tried to realize in my own icons.”
“Byzantine Things in the World,” an exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston (through August 18), presents works by Flavin and other modern and contemporary artists—including Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, and Mark Rothko—side by side with Byzantine objects from the museum’s permanent collection. The show’s curator, Glenn Peers, hopes that this arrangement will help isolate the distinctive, odd, and, yes, magical aspects of Byzantine art.
For Peers, the category titled “Mystery of Vision” presents some of the most striking cultural comparisons. This section focuses on the cognitive and sociological dissimilarities between contemporary and Byzantine cultures. “They didn’t see how we do,” Peers says. “They had much different expectations of the world.”
These differences are evident in the Byzantines’ use of gold, a material they believed to be mysterious and, in some respects, living. Viewers can see this in a small gold reliquary box (ca. 1500) that’s no larger than a fist. In the show, the box sits on the floor so that it is lit unevenly, revealing some of the oddness and instability of the medium. It’s placed near Robert Rauschenberg’s painted-gold Crucifixion and Reflection (ca. 1950) and Yves Klein’s gold-leaf Untitled (Monogold), ca. 1960, demonstrating how more-recent artists regarded the material with somewhat less reverence.
“There is a kind of peculiar animism unique to the Byzantine world,” Peers explains. “Through this exhibition, I want to give these objects back some of their strangeness.”