Walker Senior Curator Siri Engberg shares how she and colleagues brought a different approach to presenting the newest exhibition of works from the collection by considering contemporary art through the lens of five familiar art historical themes.
It is an exciting curatorial opportunity and challenge to assemble an exhibition drawn from a museum collection. Has this painting ever been shown with this drawing? What if this video were shown in a room with that photograph? How would this work from the 1970s find new resonance paired with this one by a young, emerging artist?
Collecting work made in our time and presenting it in a constantly shifting context affords countless ways to interpret and make connections for visitors. Rather than having a backdrop of staid collection galleries where little changes over time, the Walker’s curators aim for each re-hang of the collection to be presented as a special exhibition, which gives us the chance to find fresh ways to connect the dots, present visitor favorites alongside new acquisitions, and tell a different story about contemporary art. Rehanging the collection can be illuminating, sometimes surfacing works that have been “out of circulation” for years. At other times, the process helps us find gaps, leading us to seek out new acquisitions. All told, objects in the Walker collections number over 15,000: 11,500 works by nearly 2,500 artists in its Permanent Collection, with an additional 4,000 works residing in special collections for film, artist’s books, and study works. This means that our collection is mid-sized (by contrast, New York’s Museum of Modern Art houses more than 200,000 works of modern and contemporary art) and is one with a character all its own.
In working together to assemble the exhibition Five Ways In: Themes from the Collection, curatorial fellow Jadine Collingwood and I were interested in making a show that could speak to many visitors, one that might offer a range of entry points to dispel the often-held preconception that contemporary art is impenetrable, confusing, or facile. We knew we didn’t want a straightforward chronological progression of works, suggesting a narrative about one work leading to the next, and so on. We also knew that there were works in the collection that hadn’t been on view in decades, as well as new additions not yet seen by the public.
To reconcile these questions, we began grouping our early selections into familiar genres as a way to offer up examples from the collection that might tell a new story. This approach yielded some unexpected combinations, and created what we thought could be provocative conversations between works. Ultimately, we landed on five themes, tried and true throughout the history of art, but also subjects that would be recognizable to many viewers: landscape, the interior scene, portraiture, still life and the everyday, and abstraction. As we assembled the groupings, we brought in the Walker’s interpretation fellow, Alexandra Nicome, to pose questions that could frame these ideas for the museum visitor: what do we expect a landscape to look like? What do interiors reveal about the artist or about contemporary life? What constitutes a portrait?
The exhibition’s five themes gave us the opportunity to weave together a number of works that have long been cornerstones of the collection, such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s Lake George Barns (1926), added to the Walker’s holdings in 1954, an austere composition in grays and greens that captures the stark openness of rural America. In the galleries, the painting is in conversation with more abstract works referencing the landscape, such as Joan Mitchell’s Posted, a luminous diptych from 1977 that has not been on view since 2005, and more recent masterworks, such as Kerry James Marshall’s Gulf Stream (2003), the artist’s contemporary take on a composition by Winslow Homer that is richly layered, both visually and conceptually.
Nearby, LA-based artist Catherine Opie’s photographs of ice fishing houses, made during her 2001 Walker residency, form a barely-there horizon against the vast fields of Minnesota snow. It was interesting to find other works in the collection drawn from nature that also verge on the abstract, such as Ellsworth Kelly’s Green Rocker (1968), a sculpture that relates to the artist’s spare contour line drawings of water lilies; and Minnesota-based artist Alexa Horochowski’s Cochayuyo (2014), a mesmerizing video and sound work showing undulating movement of giant kelp at the ocean’s surface off the shores of Chile, presented as a double-projection Rorschach pattern. Each of these works allows us to be momentarily immersed—in a narrative, a moment in time, or a meditation on the natural world—while allowing us to also see the unlimited range of approaches an artist can take to an enduring subject.
The exhibition’s second section, Inside, features an array of interior scenes. We selected works portraying a range of locations, inviting the visitor to consider how an artist’s chosen subject might suggest broader social dynamics or a glimpse of a more personal narrative. One such work is Edward Hopper’s Office at Night (1940), which entered the collection in 1948. The painting, among the most iconic in the artist’s career, is also one of the Walker’s best-known works. Because the Walker’s collection focuses mainly on works from the 1960s to the present, however, it contains few examples from that particular moment in time. Office at Night is thus a bit of an outlier and poses unique curatorial questions about how the painting might be appreciated today: how has it resonated with subsequent generations? What sensibility in Hopper’s work—which was inspired by film noir, as well as long walks or rides on the elevated train to glimpse vignettes of everyday life in the city—might be present in the work of others? What is it about the painting that might also be timeless? In this exhibition, we elected to pair the Hopper with George Segal, whose 1964 sculpture The Diner depicts a similar familiar urban scene. Beyond their settings, these works share a distinct mood of isolation and loneliness, as the human figures in each work occupy the same space, yet are decidedly disconnected and distant from one another.
In considering various interior spaces, we decided to feature several artists who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s at a moment when many saw the power within pictures and media culture to inform art in a newly critical way. Martha Rosler’s 1975 video Semiotics of the Kitchen and photo works by Carrie Mae Weems (Untitled, 1990) and Laurie Simmons (Woman/Purple Dress/Kitchen, 1978–1987) all present tableaux focused on images of the kitchen, acknowledging it as a center of the home, while also questioning its gendered associations. This section of the exhibition also includes several paintings depicting artists’ studios, filled with references to the artists’ work and influences. Roy Lichtenstein’s 1973 painting Artist’s Studio No. 1 (Look Mickey) (1973), for example, shows the artist’s reverence for traditional art historical genres. In this painting of the studio, we see a work space with a landscape on the wall, a still life on the floor, and Lichtensteins signature comic book imagery, a nod to the popular culture reference that is perhaps the Pop artist’s most lasting legacy. The studio space in David Hockney’s painting Hollywood Hills House (1981–1982), depicts a wall of collaged images that indicate the artist’s wide-ranging sensibilities, while on the floor are models of works in progress: a stage set the artist was designing at the time.
As we considered options for works to include in Self, the exhibition’s section on portraiture, we looked at examples in a broad range of media, from paintings to works on paper to video. We decided to gather many of the works we found into a salon-style array in the gallery, which pulls together disparate artistic practices and approaches to the notion of what a portrait can be. Some works, such as Alice Neel’s 1967 painting Charlotte Willard (a recent acquisition), or a delicate, untitled pencil drawing by Kehinde Wiley (who has garnered recent attention as the choice to portray 44th President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery), achieve both a likeness of a subject and a sense of the individual. Others use stand-in images to represent the idea of a person. Fiona Banner’s “wordscape” wall work, for example, presents the British artist’s own blow-by-blow account of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. As one reads the words printed in a run-on, nondescript typeface running across the wall, a portrait of Bob Dylan, the film’s subject, begins to emerge.
We wanted Everyday, the fourth section of the exhibition, to celebrate the ordinary by gathering works inspired by commonplace subject matter. When in 1917 Marcel Duchamp famously placed a found ceramic urinal in a gallery, signed it, and declared it art, the gesture had profound impact on the development of contemporary art. Everything was fair game as an artistic subject. Andy Warhol’s famous screenprints of Campbell’s soup cans, on view in the show, embrace this spirit of irreverence, as did the work of many of his Pop art peers in the 1960s. Sherrie Levine, who is known for appropriating the art of others, riffed beautifully on the Duchamp work in her 1991 piece Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P.), creating her own rendition of the infamous sculpture, casting the object in luxurious polished bronze. Similarly, Danh Vo, who is known for his installations in which he places found objects into new contexts, meticulously paints gold leaf over the lettering on a pair of cardboard packing cartons. By making the ordinary precious and unique, he reconsiders this castoff item as something to alter in ways that might give it new life and meaning.
Lee Kit’s video installation I can’t help falling in love (2012) presents an array of monitors showing “still lifes” of mundane objects—nail clippers, face cream, a disposable plastic lighter—which he pairs with a karaoke soundtrack and simple, poetic texts that quietly allude to broader narratives. Other artists in this section, like Katharina Fritsch or Claes Oldenburg, change scale or materials to transform the familiar. Both are also featured in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where the commonplace becomes a source of wonder with Fritsch’s brilliant blue rooster Hahn/Cock presiding over the garden’s new meadow, and Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s celebrated 1988 fountain sculpture Spoonbridge and Cherry serving as its much-loved centerpiece. Perhaps John Baldessari’s mantra, written in the artist’s hand over an early print made by the artist in 1971, sums up this ethos of artists embracing the everyday nicely: “I will not make any more boring art.”
In the final section of the exhibition, we chose to highlight abstraction, a great strength of the Walker’s collection. We were interested in impulses toward abstraction in painting and sculpture that cross generations. The broad swaths of color comprising Helen Frankenthaler’s 1967 canvas Alloy share space with the richly-layered gestures of Beauford Delaney. Martin Puryear’s wood sculpture To Transcend (1987) and a late-career work by Willem de Kooning, Untitled XII (1983) emphasize organic forms, while Agnes Martin, Jennifer Bartlett, and Jack Whitten show us a form of abstraction that is about control, pre-determined systems, and hiding the brush. In examples of abstract painting from a younger generation, we chose to include newer acquisitions by artists who explore methods of painting that consider the materiality not only of the paint, but of the painting itself—its canvas, support, and structure. Tauba Auerbach’s illusionistic surface that is both painted and woven from canvas strips; Dianna Molzan’s spattered, rolled and sculptural painting; and Caroline Kent’s universe of invented forms floating on a canvas pinned directly to the wall are all works that push at the traditional boundaries of painting, questioning how it can evolve into something unexpected.
It is this sense of finding something new within the familiar that we hope the exhibition reveals through its five themes. From a curatorial perspective, sifting through the collection from one subject to another yielded surprising relationships between artists and works. The show will also evolve: over the course of its run, some works will rotate in while others go on loan or back into storage (works on paper, for example, need limited light exposure). We hope this continued remixing of the collection offers both new and returning visitors fresh ways of exploring the art of our time, in the Walker’s galleries and beyond.