Art at the Center Exhibition View — Image via walkerart.org

Art at the Center

Walker Art Center

Unlike most art museums, the Walker Art Center does not have any galleries where works from its permanent collection are exhibited indefinitely. While certain pieces are almost always on display, their context changes frequently. For the next two years, however, the exhibition Art at the Center, developed in connection with the 75th anniversary of the Walker’s refoundation as a contemporary art center, will allow visitors to view many of the collection’s “greatest hits” in one place. It’s an opportunity not to be missed before some of these pieces are once again hidden from view.

Die grossen blauen Pferde — Franz Marc, 1911 — Image via walkerart.orgArt at the Center begins in Gallery 4 with a selection dominated by modernist paintings and sculptures from the 1910s through the 1950s. Although this section features works by big names like Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mark Rothko, some of the highlights are the pieces by slightly lesser-known painters, including German Expressionist works by Lyonel Feininger (Barfüsserkirche II, 1926) and Franz Marc (Die grossen blauen Pferde, 1911, pictured at right); Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s dynamic Synchromy in Green and Orange (1916); Rufino Tamayo’s eclectic and emotional Wounded Beast (1953); and especially Zao Wou-Ki’s haunting Montagne Déchirée (1955-56), which incorporates traditional Chinese calligraphy into a landscape of moody colors and abstract forms.

Prayer — Siah Armajani, 1962 — Image via walkerart.orgGallery 5 is primarily devoted to works acquired by the Walker during the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which the museum championed many up-and-coming artists. A secondary thread running through several of the works in this gallery is optical illusion — or if not illusion per se, art that reveals itself differently upon close examination than from a distance. Examples range from Bridget Riley’s eyestrain-inducing op-art piece Suspension (1964) to Chuck Close’s deceptively photographic painting Big Self Portrait (1967-68) to Robert Irwin’s gently undulating untitled (1963-65), composed entirely of pink and green halftone dots on a white background. And then there is the most intriguing example of the trend: Siah Armajani’s Prayer (1962, pictured at left), which appears to be an abstract painting in shades of gray until you realize that it is made up of interweaving lines of Sufi poetry.

Untitled — Cindy Sherman, 1981 — Image via walkerart.orgGallery 6, featuring pieces from the 1980s through today, focuses heavily on works that engage with contemporary political and social issues such as the AIDS epidemic and the “culture wars” of the 1990s, as well as broader themes such as racism and sexism. Although this gallery features the exhibition’s most recent works, in some ways it feels the most dated. Maybe that’s because we’re still too close to the events and discourses that inspired these pieces, and most likely with time some of them will emerge as masterpieces. Certainly, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled (1981, from the Centerfolds series, pictured at right) has achieved iconic status, and perhaps Goshka Macuga’s Lost Forty (2011) a giant photography-derived tapestry superimposing historical figures and Tea Party protestors on an old-growth forest scene — will one day be viewed the same way.

In any case, Art at the Center proves to be an intriguing journey through 75 years of collecting and more than 100 years of modern and contemporary art, and it will definitely be worth walking through more than once or twice over the next two years. Also worth a visit is the supplemental collection of more recent acquisitions that will be on display in the Burnet Gallery through July 5.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.