Walktoberfest: ‘Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections’ opens

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Curator Joan Rothfuss with Franz Marc's "The Large Blue Horses" (1911).

Both the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are celebrating or about to celebrate major birthdays, but they’re going about it differently.

For its 100th, a yearlong party that begins Jan. 1, the MIA will bring in a series of special exhibitions from elsewhere (including “The Habsburgs,” from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum) and send art into the community via pop-up reproductions and art-wrapped water towers.

For its 75th, which officially starts tonight with Walktoberfest (a weekend of free access, extended hours and entertainment), the Walker is looking inward, reflecting on its history, its identity and its purpose.

And it’s doing it in the best possible way for those of us who want to know more about the internationally recognized arts venue in our midst, and about the evolution of art itself: with a sprawling exhibition that starts with the Walker’s founding and ends with a good idea of what to expect next.

“Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections” opens today and continues through Sept. 11, 2016, giving us plenty of time to take it all in. Curated by the Walker’s executive director, Olga Viso, who came here in January 2008 from the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., and Joan Rothfuss, a former Walker curator, it includes more than 130 works spread out over four galleries, organized chronologically by when they were collected and who was director. 

We’re greeted in Gallery 4 by Franz Marc’s “The Large Blue Horses” (1911), the first modern work the Walker bought, in 1942, under director Daniel Defenbacher. A masterwork by a major artist, it was also controversial; it had been banned by the Nazis as degenerate. Its purchase signaled the Walker’s early willingness to take risks and create conversations around art – in this case, about censorship and the power of art in society.

“The Large Blue Horses” is one of many famous and iconic works in “75 Years.” Others include Edward Hopper’s “Office at Night,” Chuck Close’s “Big Self Portrait,” Yves Klein’s “Mondo Cane Shroud” and Kerry James Marshall’s “Gulf Stream.” Selected from the Walker’s vast collections (13,000 objects and installations, plus films, videos, commissions, artist books and extensive archives) are pieces by Jean Arp, Joseph Cornell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko, Robert Indiana, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Frank Big Bear, Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman, to name a few.

Each gallery reflects the tastes and goals of one or more directors. After Defenbacher came H. Harvard Arnason, who expanded and diversified the Walker’s holdings. Then Martin Friedman (Gallery 5), who redefined the Walker’s collecting priorities to focus on “the art of our time” and looked to new and emerging artists, including multimedia artists. Kathy Halbreich (Gallery 6) took a global view, seeking out “alternative modernisms” in  other parts of the world and bringing in more art by women and artists whose work explores race and identity.

Olga Viso has been at the Walker for almost seven years, and in the Burnet Gallery, a selection of recent acquisitions shows her stamp. With genres getting fuzzier and more artists refusing to be labeled, she’s most interested in cross-disciplinary collaboration and experimentation. Works on display include Alfons Schilling’s “untitled (Andromeda) spin-painting,” a large black-and-white disc attached to an electric motor. When you press a red button on a wall, it spins. Daniel Arsham’s “Pixel Cloud,” a cluster of tinted plastic balls suspended in the air, was originally made as décor for performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

We asked Viso what it was like to discover how her predecessors had shaped the collection. “It’s been really inspiring,” she said. “Everything I understand about the Walker and knew before I came – that it supports artists from the beginning of their careers and maintains those relationships; that it’s about taking risks and experimenting, and going where artists take you – was confirmed when I went in and really looked at the collection, at what was acquired when and how …

“Daniel Defenbacher had the singular vision to turn [the Walker] toward contemporary art and design, in part because the MIA was emerging as the institution that was focusing encyclopedically and historically. It didn’t make sense to compete. … And the Walker wasn’t just an art gallery. There were film screenings, performances, an art school, commissions with artists. All of that was really foreign at the time. 

“Then Arnason gave it focus and direction, acknowledging historical selection but looking forward. And then Martin [Friedman] really took it forward. Part of that was opportunistic, because there wasn’t money to buy historical objects and backfill. He collected forward.”

What do the recent acquisitions say about Viso as the Walker’s fifth director? “Artistic practices continue to evolve and shift. Artists don’t define themselves by media or genre anymore. So it’s about supporting artists who work across different platforms. Choreographers who make art, musicians who make videos. It’s happening everywhere, and we’re an institution that follows artists. … We’re trying to stay more supple, collecting artwork between the cracks. To bring in the Merce Cunningham dance archive [in 2011] was a big stake in the ground, and what future collecting looks like.”

See “Art at the Center” free tonight through Saturday (10 a.m.–10 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Also at Walktoberfest: free films, family activities, a Walker People’s Archive and a beer garden with live music and DJs, local brews and bites. FMI.

The picks

Opens tonight (Thursday, Oct. 16) at the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center: 38th Annual Members’ Juried Art Exhibition. Robyne Robinson served as juror and judge for this year’s show, which features work in many mediums, styles and techniques. The winners, including Best of Show, will be announced at tonight’s reception and awards ceremony. 6–8 p.m. Free and open to the public. Through Nov. 28.

Opens tonight at the Penumbra: “On the Way to Timbuktu.” Written and starring Petronia Paley, this one-woman show explores power, gender, sexuality and race. Part of Penumbra’s Claude Edison Purdy Individual Artist Festival. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15–$25).

The weekend

Several area artists have CD releases this weekend. All are worth going out for, but you’ll have to make a choice or flip a coin for Friday. 

Friday at the Dakota: Connie Evingson with the John Jorgenson Gypsy Jazz Quintet: “All the Cats Join In” CD Release. While Evingson can sing and swing anything from jazz standards to the Beatles and sly songs by Dave Frishberg, she shines especially brightly in hot club/gypsy jazz. Grammy-winning guitarist Jorgenson is a top gypsy jazz player; if you saw the feature film “Head in the Clouds,” that was Jorgenson as Django Reinhardt. Be sure to pick up a copy of the CD, whose title track features 93-year-old jazz and vocalese legend Jon Hendricks. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($35).

Friday at the Landmark Center: Dean Magraw & Eric Kamau Gravatt: “Fire on the Nile” CD Release. It’s already interesting that this is a guitar-and-drums recording (no piano, bass or horns), even more interesting that it’s coming out on Red House, the St. Paul-based indie label better known for singer/songwriter, folksy-bluesy music. Improvised in the studio, this is dynamic, eclectic music by two masters – guitarist Magraw, who calls his music “Heavy Meadow,” and drummer Gravatt, whose roots are deep in jazz and pre-jazz – who have found in each other kindred souls. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($18).

Saturday at Studio Z: Chris Lomheim: “Timeline” CD Release. Some things just take time, like recordings by pianist Chris Lomheim. It’s been 12 years since “The Bridge,” 20 since “And You’ve Been Waiting,” his debut recording as leader. Meanwhile, you could hear him around the cities at the now-defunct Artists’ Quarter, the Dakota, and Jazz Central, at private events and in the Saint Paul Hotel, where he has played for Lobby Tea since 1991. An artist whose sensitive, expressive playing has been compared to Bill Evans’, Lomheim is also an eloquent composer. “Timeline” is a double treat because it reunites the sympatico gang of “And You’ve Been Waiting” (Gordy Johnson on bass, Jay Epstein on drums) and it features all original compositions by Lomheim. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10).

Saturday at the Cowles: 2014 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards. An evening of performance honoring and featuring Native American artists. This year’s honorees are Douglas Limón (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin) from White Bear Lake, a beadwork artist; singer, carver, drummer and oral historian Delbert Miller (Skokomish) from Shelton, WA; Jody Naranjo Folwell-Turipa (Santa Clara/Tewa) from Espanola, NM, a potter; and Anton Treuer (White Earth/Leech Lake Ojibwe) from Bemidji, a singer for ceremonial drum groups, teacher, and storyteller. Performers include poet Heid Erdrich (Ojibwe), musician Wade Fernandez (Menominee), singer Jennifer Kreisberg (Tuscarora), Oneida Smoke Dancers (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin), the traditional hula group Pua Ali’i ’Ilima, Grammy-winning slack key guitarist Cyril Lani (Native Hawaiian), and hip-hop artist Frank Wain (Sicangu Lakota). Sponsored by First Peoples Fund. Preshow art auction at 5:30 p.m., performance at 7:30. FMI and tickets $100/$25). 

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