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Two Walker exhibits offer glimpses of museum’s past and future

An art museum’s permanent collection provides a window into its history, certainly, but also into where the institution assigns value. As it makes acquisitions over time, the museum is staking out territory, declaring what it deems worthy of inclusion in the art historical canon.

When a museum mounts large exhibitions of work from its permanent holdings, as the Walker Art Center has done with the newly opened “Benches and Binoculars” and “Event Horizon,” the assemblage of art on view amounts to a nuanced declaration of institutional identity, an articulation of where the museum has been, but also where its current leadership would like to see it go from here.

“Event Horizon,” the Walker’s ambitious flagship show, offers a sweeping look into what director Olga Viso calls the “distinctive and defining core” of the museum’s collection of artwork made since 1960 – the focus is largely on living artists, a number of them quite young, all of whom are pushing the boundaries of contemporary art.

This cross-disciplinary show — with selections of photography, sculpture, painting, film, video and performance — was organized in a collaborative fashion by curators working in all areas of the museum, led by chief curator Darsie Alexander and curator Betsy Carpenter.

“Event Horizon” features some 90 works and is a sophisticated showcase of the Walker’s interdisciplinary focus. The show mixes pieces by the renowned — Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown — with those of lesser-known, emerging artists. The exhibition sprawls across three galleries and is conceptually organized around varying perspectives on “events” – public events, seen and remembered; the events surrounding an artist’s life and practice; and the event of viewing, the intimate activity of seeing and experiencing artwork.

In the adjacent Perlman Gallery, you’ll find the crowd-pleasing “Benches and Binoculars,” an inviting salon-style exhibition that pays homage to the museum’s roots and to its founder, T.B. Walker. To give the space a bit of Victorian charm, the gallery has been carpeted in royal purple and made comfortable with a scattering of matching benches (especially designed for the show by Walker designer Andrew Blauvelt), upon which sit binoculars through which viewers can spy details, even in the paintings occupying the highest reaches of the room.

Installation shot of "Benches and Binoculars."
Walker Art Center/Photo by Cameron Wittig
Installation shot of “Benches and Binoculars.”

“Benches and Binoculars” highlights several dozen pieces from the Walker’s prestigious collection of paintings — 30 of which have either never been shown publicly, or not in the last 20 years. The varied works, some of which were part of T.B. Walker’s personal collection, are installed cheek-by-jowl from floor to ceiling — much as they were in the founder’s original salon. Rather than organizing the work formally, according to chronology or style, curators have installed the paintings into in an approximation of the loose, more idiosyncratic sorts of arrangements you’d find in someone’s living room.

Alexander says, “We wanted to enable a dialogue between these pieces; and for the viewer, we wanted to create an experience of looking you don’t normally find in a museum.” As she points out, some of the rarely seen gems in the collection, she says, “There are some great hidden stories here, and we’re still excavating them.”

Some of the standout paintings are: Franz Marc’s “Die grossen blauen Pferde (The Large Blue Horses)” (1911), Edward Hopper’s “Office at Night” (1940), Jim Dine’s “My Studio # One: The Vagaries of Painting ‘These are sadder pictures’ ” (1978), Chuck Close’s “Big Self-Portrait” (1967-1968), Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Lake George Barns” (1926), Alice Neel’s “Charlotte Willard” (1967),Charles Sheeler’s “Midwest” (1954), Andy Warhol’s “Self-Portrait” (1978) and Carl L. Boeckman’s “Portrait of Thomas Barlow Walker” (circa 1915).

This marks the beginning of a long-term exhibition program at the museum, which will unfold over three years and bring large portions of the Walker’s collection into public view. In addition to a revolving selection of visual artwork, certain “active” sections of the show will feature a rotation of performances and film screenings (the first up is Bruce Conner’s avant-garde 1976 short film on the first U.S. nuclear test, “Crossroads”).

“Event Horizon” and “Benches and Binoculars” will open tonight with the “Walker After Hours” preview party from 9 p.m. to midnight (tickets are $35). You can find a list of the upcoming programs and events affiliated with this long-term exhibition program on the Walker’s website. For a virtual tour through some of the artwork in these two exhibitions, you can browse through an extensive online gallery guide/slideshow here.

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