It’s been a while since I wrote about the Walker Art Center—so, over Thanksgiving weekend, while recovering from an overdose of tryptophan, I paid a visit . . . and discovered, quite happily, that everything about the place has changed, most of it for the better. Which is good, because the permanent exhibits were getting stale, winter is approaching, and there hasn’t been much to chew on at our favorite contemporary art museum since the The Quick and the Dead stopped melting minds back in September.
Floor to ceiling, end to end, the Walker is a completely different museum than it was just a couple of months ago. Haegue Yang’s entertaining Artist-in-Residence Project resides in the Medtronic gallery upstairs, Dan Graham: Beyond consumes galleries 4-6, and Event Horizon —the beginning of the Walker’s three-year project to present the entirety of its permanent collection—occupies galleries 1-3. This includes Benches & Binoculars , a brilliant salon-style presentation of 96 paintings that, were they given the Walker’s usual ratio of white space to art, would have required about 40 acres of drywall to hang.
I began my visit with Dan Graham: Beyond , a recent import from the Whitney that has earned high praise in the art press for being the first retrospective of Graham’s work on U.S. soil. Graham is an artist’s artist, but his sensibility is easy to like. According to Artforum , he got the idea for the exhibit’s name from a Beyoncé poster—which is like saying you decided to go deer hunting because you like the way Sarah Palin holds a rifle. From this one can deduce that either Graham doesn’t care about looking cool, or he’s so cool it doesn’t matter.
Either way, one of the great things about Dan Graham is that he’s such a prolific prankster. Practically all of his art is a visual pun of one sort or another, and most of it on display at the Walker has to do with perceptions and reflections, or the tension between the observer and the observed. Walking into one of his many transparent glass pavilions is like walking into a three-dimensional representation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, in which the observer (you) changes the nature of observed (the curvy glass) by supplying the reflection in what amounts to a high-brow funhouse mirror. Four-year-olds are likely to “get it” faster than adults, because the point seems to be that it’s funny to watch people watch other people watching themselves—especially in reflective surfaces that make people look fat. One of these glass enclosures features a table with three tubes of lipstick under a useless, teensy fish-eye mirror. Go ahead, the exhibit seems to be taunting: just try to make yourself look beautiful in this ridiculous room.
I’m sure people have written all sorts of erudite treatises on the artistic import of Graham’s elaborately phenomenological constructions—the yin/yang, to/fro, I’m-rubber-you’re-glue, push-me-pull-you nature of it all— but the man can have just as much fun with a simple piece of paper. One innocuous but ingenious example is a piece of 8x11 typing paper that simply catalogues, in list form, the number of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks on that piece of paper, creating a document with its own circular logic. It strikes me as the kind of thing Graham does when he’s bored waiting in line at the ATM—a one-off, for fun, just for the hell of it.
Dan Graham: Beyond includes lots of other conceptual experiments, including rooms with projectors facing opposite directions showing photographers photographing each other; rooms with mirrored walls that stretch into infinity; and several amateur-looking black-and-white films of the sort that have become cliché in contemporary art exhibits. To wit: films that poorly made and boring must be art.
Next I checked out Event Horizon , which is the boldest, most refreshing thing the Walker has done with its permanent collection in a long time. The grand idea behind Event Horizon is to present the Walker’s entire permanent collection, including film, dance, music, and performance, in a rotating exhibit over the course of three years. Seeing the whole thing will be almost impossible, but that’s okay. What’s important is to recognize that Event Horizon is the sort of daring, lively experiment director Olga Viso was expected to bring to town when she was hired two years ago, and which is now being realized through the ambition and talent of the Walker’s new chief curator, Darsie Alexander.
Event Horizon is the kind of exhibit that demands repeated viewings, not only because it will be changing over time, but because there is so much to see that it’s difficult to digest it all in a single visit. There are the pieces you expect: Andy Warhol’s Sixteen Jackies , Kara Walker cutouts, etcetera—but whole new levels of weird are also being explored, from Ron Vawter’s (The Wooster Group) colorfully decadent stage set for his play, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, to Tetsumi Kudo’s Olympic Winner’s Platform , which features the severed head of Eugene Ionesco dangling from the gold-medal spot, and, at the bottom, Ionesco’s decomposing torso. I’m not sure what absurd sport Ionesco is supposed to have died from (curling, maybe?) but kudos to Kudo for kicking up the sicko factor in contemporary art; it makes all those dribble and smudgers look like hopeless wussies.
I would tell you more about Event Horizon , but I got side-tracked by a devastatingly addictive 36-minute film by Bruce Conner called Crossroads . Shown on a giant screen in its own curtained room, Crossroads consists mainly of slow-motion film of the first atomic bomb test in Bikini Atoll in 1946. Evidently, hundreds of government cameras recorded the explosion. Conner collected film from 27 different angles and set the images to dreamy synthesizer music, creating a haunting visual essay of sorts. As you sit and watch each explosion unfold in agonizingly slow-motion, you become hyper-aware of the destructive force unleashed by these weapons—but you also can’t deny that the resulting mushroom cloud is quite beautiful to watch, especially the central column of water, which spirals upward like the stem of a giant flower.
Watching Crossroads is disconcerting, to say the least: On one hand it’s aesthetically pleasing and secretly thrilling to watch the most explosive force mankind has ever unleashed; on the other hand, it’s repugnant to watch it and know that shortly thereafter, that same destructive force was used to kill thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you see nothing else at Event Horizon, see Crossroads —it will blow your mind—in the best of all possible ways.
Finally, the Walker has outdone itself with the exhibit it’s calling Benches and Binoculars . When you walk in, sure enough, there are benches with tiny binoculars on them—for viewing the paintings near the ceiling of a room packed floor to ceiling with masterworks from the Walker’s permanent collection.
It would be easy to spend a couple of hours in Benches and Binoculars alone. There are 96 paintings in all, including works by Jasper Johns, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, David Hockney, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Willem DeKooning, Mark Rothko, and dozens of others. It’s just a fabulously overwhelming extravaganza of art, made all the more tantalizing because the Walker never does this kind of thing. By which I mean, the Walker is rarely this much fun. The place has a long history of taking itself and its art too seriously, but now that the gallery spaces have been entirely transformed, Olga Viso’s reign as director is clearly hitting its stride. The Walker has never been more enjoyable, entertaining, and thought-provoking than it is now, in its current incarnation. Heck, you can even hang out in Haugue Yang’s Melancholy Red and bang on a set of drums all day if you want to—that’s what it’s there for. (You can't see the drums in the photo below, but they're behind that pillar on the left.)
If it’s been a while since you visited the Walker, it’s time to set aside an afternoon and go find out what Olga and company are up to behind those brushed aluminum walls. You may be surprised, dismayed, horrified, perplexed, enthralled, amused, or saddened—but one thing is for sure, you won’t be disappointed.
Dan Graham: Beyond r uns through Jan. 24, 2010 . Event Horizon r uns through Aug. 26, 2012 . Benches and Binoculars r uns through Aug. 15, 2010 .