Blogs Centerpoints

Nam June Paik at the Walker: A History of Experimentation

Last summer, I initiated the conservation of Anti-Gravity Study, a two-channel, 25-monitor video artwork by Nam June Paik, whose tapes are part of the Walker Archives’ documentation collection. While working on this project, I also discovered the rich history that Paik has with the Walker, and the following is an account of this research as well […]

Paik installing Fish Flies on Sky (1976), another artwork in which monitors were mounted to a gallery's ceiling. Photograph: Paik Estate 

Paik installing Fish Flies (1976). Photograph: Peter Moore Estate

Last summer, I initiated the conservation of Anti-Gravity Study, a two-channel, 25-monitor video artwork by Nam June Paik, whose tapes are part of the Walker Archives’ documentation collection. While working on this project, I also discovered the rich history that Paik has with the Walker, and the following is an account of this research as well as the ongoing conservation of Anti-Gravity Study. 

An artist who continually reinvented every medium with which he engaged, Nam June Paik is perhaps best known for recognizing video’s creative potential and elevating it to artistic status. Born in Seoul in 1932, Paik began his career as a musician, creating experimental compositions while also realizing new sounds with classical instruments. He pursued these experiments in Germany, where he collaborated with composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage and met George Maciunas, who would later invite Paik to join Fluxus when he moved to New York City in 1964.

In the late 1950s, Paik expressed increased interest in the theoretical and conceptual properties of video and a desire to further expand his technical knowledge and skill of the medium. During this time, he carried out his own experiments with video technology, especially in regards to using magnets to alter the polarity of the cathode ray tube inside televisions. Paik also made connections with members of the scientific community to merge the disciplines of art and technology through the works he produced.

In 1963, Paik met engineers Hideo Uchida and Shuya Abe, and it was this partnership that led to the creation of the Paik/Abe Synthesizer, a revolutionary device that allowed artists to manipulate closed-circuit video broadcasts and pre-recorded footage themselves as opposed to having to rely on technicians. The objectives of the synthesizer are echoed throughout Paik’s entire oeuvre and artistic process as he strived to challenge conceptions of the medium and the role technology increasingly played in everyday life: “the key point of today is how to strike the best balance in the interface of the man/machine, or hardware/software. It has been a basic philosophy behind the design of video synthesizer” [source].

The art world soon took notice of Paik’s experimentation with video. In 1965, the New School for Social research organized Paik’s first solo show, Nam June Paik: Cybernetics followed by the Bonino Gallery’s Paik exhibition—Electronic Art—the same year.

Martin Friedman, the Walker’s director from 1961 to 1990, heard about Paik while collaborating with the Howard Wise Gallery on the exhibition Light/Motion/Space. In a letter from Wise to Friedman, Wise describes Paik as follows, “40-ish, Korean, produces patterns in TV tubes by use of magnets. Hand operated. He is Charlotte Moorman‘s partner, or perhaps assistant.” Friedman was intrigued and eager to include Paik in the exhibition. He even expressed interest in inviting both Paik and Moorman to perform at the Walker.

Cover of Lights in Orbit catalogue.

Cover of Lights in Orbit catalogue

Light/Motion/Space featured artworks by artists who were experimenting with light as an artistic medium, and included 65 artworks. Thirty-five of the works were on loan from Howard Wise and shown in the earlier Lights in Orbit (1967), and artworks by eight additional artists were added to Light/Motion/Space. This exhibition also proved to be an excellent platform to introduce Paik’s video artworks to Midwest audiences, since it featured a group of international artists, all of whom pushed the boundaries of their respective medium.

Light/Motion/Space featured Paik’s Electronic Blues (1966) and Electronic Waltz (1967). These two color, single-channel videos were part of Paik’s “dancing patterns” artworks that he created during the mid-1960s using magnets to manipulate a video’s image. One of the most iconic of these was Magnet TV, which is also an early example of Paik’s “prepared televisions” and his first video sculptures. With these artworks, Paik deconstructed the television while adding a participatory element to the medium, since viewers could influence the television’s image by moving its magnet.

Cover of Light/Motion/Space catalogue.

Cover of Light/Motion/Space catalogue

In Paik Video, art historian Edith Decker-Phillips explains the creative and technical process behind these artworks:

“The power of attraction of the magnet hinders the electronic beam from filling up the rectangle surface of the TV screen. The field of lines is drawn up and builds veil-like patterns within the gravitational field of the magnet. If the magnet stays in this fixed position, the picture remains stable. There are only minor variations created by fluctuations in the electrical power supply. By moving the magnet, forms can be endlessly varied.” 

Using light as an artistic medium within Light/Motion/Space. UNTITLED (1966) by Ben Berns.

Using light as an artistic medium within Light/Motion/Space. UNTITLED (1966) by Ben Berns.

Electronic Blues (1966) displayed television news coverage of politicians, including future American president Richard Nixon. The magnet attached to the monitor impacted its electronic signals, causing the broadcast video to become distorted and creating what Friedman aptly referred to as Nixon’s “malleable physiognomy.” In this case, however, the magnet proved detrimental to the artwork—and exhibition—by causing the television to implode and smoke to fill the gallery. The exhibition briefly closed after this incident.

Friedman immediately phoned Paik about this problem, and an apologetic Paik arrived from New York on the afternoon of the same day to replace the monitor’s cathode ray tube and fix a short circuit. Unfortunately, the work continued to malfunction and was not featured in the exhibition when it later toured to the Milwaukee Art Center. Paik also did not see any use in replacing it with one of the other, yet older, color televisions in his equipment library:

“Easiest solution for all and probably the only one possibility is to forget about my color TV work in Milwaukee, but it might hurt me in the long range, if the rumour spreads in this small art world that my work is fragile.”

Richard Nixon's "malleable physiognomy" on view in Electronic Blues.

Richard Nixon’s “malleable physiognomy” on view in Electronic Blues

In more recent years, time-based media conservators have assumed the challenge of restoring and preserving Paik’s works for future generations of viewers. Paik, however, was already acutely aware of the technical challenges his works posed in 1967.

Paik also referred to the mishap at the Walker in a letter and follow up phone call to Friedman while in the midst of applying for a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Friedman recalls the exchange (which he shared in his May 2007 Art in America article, “Nam June on the Mississippi”):

‘“Please don’t expose me!’ [Paik] implored. The call was followed by a two-page letter describing his intention to establish the ‘world’s first studio for electronic video art’ at the State University in Stoney Brook. It concluded with an urgent request. Paik entreated, ‘Don’t forget to add that as far as you know, I am neither a Hippie nor a Beatnik. I am pretty SQUARE [emphasis Paik’s].’”

Whereas magnets attached to the monitor’s picture tube also manipulated the imagery of Electronic Waltz, this artwork didn’t carry the same radical weight as Electronic Blues with its malleable politicians. Exhibited on a television encased in a wooden frame, Electronic Waltz instead captivated viewers with its gyrating Möbius band that changed color as it moved against a black background.

The television used for this artwork was gifted to Paik by Jasper Johns sometime during the early 1960s. In a conversation with Walker Visual Arts Curator Joan Rothfuss in 2002, Johns revealed that the previous owners of the house he purchased on Riverside Drive in New York in 1963 left the set behind. Having recently met Paik, Johns was familiar with his experimental use of video technology and growing interest in color television, which was still a relatively new invention at this time and one that Paik had recently began incorporating into his video artworks. Johns later regretted offering the television to Paik: upon further inspection, he discovered that its dials could calibrate the television solely to one color—red, green, or blue. He found this to be a marvelous feature, but didn’t know Paik well enough to rescind his offer. Johns’ generosity, however, was the Walker’s gain since it allowed the museum to become one of the first American art institutions to usher Paik’s foray into the possibilities color television technology provided the medium of video.

Martin Friedman and Hubert Humphrey, 38th Vice President of the United States, viewing Electronic Waltz.

Martin Friedman and Vice President Hubert Humphrey viewing Electronic Waltz

In 1975, Friedman invited Paik back to the Walker to discuss creating an entirely new video artwork for The River: Images of the Mississippi. According to Friedman, the focus of the exhibition was “on how that ‘father of waters’ had been perceived not only by explorers and the first settlers along its banks but also painters and early photographers who wended their way along its 2,500 mile course.” Friedman saw Paik’s TV Sea at in January 1975 at the Bonino Gallery, and was eager to see how Paik would use video to depict the mighty river.

This issue of Design Quarterly was the catalogue for the exhibition.

An issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the exhibition

A merging of the natural with the scientific was a recurring motif throughout Paik’s oeuvre, particularly during the 1970s. TV Garden (1974–78), one of these seminal works, featured color television sets of various sizes installed on a gallery’s floor among live plants. All of the monitors played Paik’s earlier collaboration with John J. Godfrey, Global Groove (1973), which merged art, performance, and technology. In Fish Flies on Sky (1975), monitors of various sizes were mounted to a gallery’s ceiling and played a video of goldfish swimming.

TV Sea installed at the Guggenheim. This artwork is also part of the museum's collection.

TV Sea installed at the Guggenheim. This artwork is also part of the museum’s collection. Photo: Guggenheim Museum

In the resulting Anti-Gravity Study, Paik articulated the ethos of The River exhibition while simultaneously building on this visual language of nature and technology.

Bob Harris, a filmmaker who Paik worked with this project, helped create the footage for Anti-Gravity Study. In summer 1976, Harris traveled from the Minneapolis to New Orleans along the Mississippi River capturing his journey on 8mm, color film, and focusing his lens on wildlife, riverboats and barges, the St. Louis Arch, and fish swimming in ponds at the St. Louis Zoo. Paik later transferred this footage to video and skillfully edited two channels for Anti-Gravity Study using the Paik/Abe Synthesizer.

anti_gravity_1 anti_gravity_2 anti_gravity_3

Within The River, Anti-Gravity Study was displayed on 20 color and five black-and-white CRT monitors that were on loan from General Electric solely for the exhibition. A custom bracket was constructed to mount them 10 feet high to Gallery Four’s ceiling.

In the exhibition’s brochure, Anti-Gravity Study is described not as a video artwork but as a video environment. This description is particularly apt since Anti-Gravity was exhibited within its own black box, where visitors could lie down and become ensconced in an accelerated version of Harris’ voyage down the Mississippi. Anti-Gravity was also the last of the exhibition’s 274 artworks and installed in a section called 20th Century Images along with the only other moving image artwork, Louis Hock’s 16mm, color multi-projection film, Mississippi Rolls. 

Paik worked with Charles Helm, then the Walker’s audio-visual producer and technical director for performing arts, to install the monitors, which were each calibrated to a different color and mounted at various angles. Using the Walker Archives’ resources, including photographs, exhibition records, and a building diagram of Gallery Four, Helm, Walker Archivist Jill Vuchetich, and I were able to better ascertain how and where the monitors were mounted.

A video environment within the Walker's Gallery 4.

Anti-Gravity Study, a video environment within the Walker’s Gallery Four

The floor of the gallery was carpeted and viewers could stand, sit on the stairs, or lie down. And since the monitors were each mounted at different angles, a visitor’s experience of this artwork was influenced by their location within the space. If sitting at the top of the galley’s stairs, for example, visitors would likely have only seen the different colors of the monitors beaming down onto the floor, instead to the footage itself that would be seen by lying directly underneath the monitors. The absorbing atmosphere of this artwork encouraged visitors to pause and perhaps even stay awhile after they came to the end of The River.

Anti-Gravity currently exists only as the 3/4-inch tapes that were used to exhibit the work in 1976. This placed great emphasis on stabilizing these tapes, as well as on the importance of exhibition documentation.

Due to the deterioration that had taken place over time, I didn’t want to risk playing the 3/4-inch tapes myself. I instead worked with DuArt Restoration in New York City, which cleaned the tapes, baked, and transferred them onto an archival videotape master and digital file. And despite not having the same video environment as 1976 viewers, being one of the first people to view this footage in forty years was truly an incredible experience:

Anti-Gravity Study was accompanied by a version of Paul Robeson singing ‘Ol Man River, whose lyrics describe the flowing Mississippi contrasted against the hardships of African Americans laborers. Within the context of this artwork and exhibition, the song was slowed down to half its speed, creating a droning effect that could be interpreted as expressing these workers’ exhaustion as they worked along the river. An additional soundtrack of crickets and other insect sounds was added to this song, but played back in real time.

Besides undertaking efforts to stabilize and transfer the videotapes, recreating the soundtrack was an additional factor. This part of the project is ongoing, but a short clip of its progress can be heard below:

Whereas Anti-Gravity Study demonstrated the Walker’s commitment to exhibiting media artworks and collaborating with Paik, none of Paik’s artworks had yet been acquired by the museum. Friedman thought it was time to rectify this absence, and in 1987, he approached Paik about acquiring one of his artworks for the permanent collection. Paik instead suggested combining the earlier Electronic Waltz and footage from Anti-Gravity Study alongside new material. The result was 66-76-89 (1989), a four-channel video sculpture displayed on 32 monitors of various sizes that combined two earlier artworks shown within Walker exhibitions and showcased Paik’s mastery of video imaging effects and Chroma key technology. These effects are both commonly found throughout his entire oeuvre, and especially in artworks from the mid-1970s onward.

66-78-89

66-78-89

After 1990, the Walker acquired other seminal Paik artworks, including TV Bra for Living Sculpture and TV Cello. Paik’s single channel works, including Global Groove and Merce by Merce by Paik (1975), are also represented in the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. 66-76-89 is currently on view as part of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. TV Cello was recently on view as part of Art Expanded: 1958–1978.

The conservation of Anti-Gravity Study is ongoing. For questions regarding this artwork or to provide information on its history, please contact Caylin Smith.

“A Startling Development for an Art Museum”: WCCO Broadcasts the Walker’s Opening Night, January 4, 1940

Sculpture demonstration with Jean Severson and WCCO radio personalities, Clelland Card and Florence Lehman, opening night, January 4, 1940.
Walker Art Center lobby, opening night, January 4, 1940

Walker Art Center lobby, opening night, January 4, 1940

It was a chilly night 75 years ago on January 4, but that didn’t stop 3,000 visitors from coming to celebrate the opening of the Walker Art Center. But even if the weather did stop Minneapolis residents, they could’ve tuned into WCCO from 9 to 10 pm for a live radio broadcast of the festivities. Equipped with portable microphones, announcers Florence Lehman and Clellan Card roamed the building from galleries to basement interviewing staff and guests along the way. Here’s an excerpt from the radio transcript to give you a sense of opening night.

Artist-instructors in the Walker Art School, 1940

Artist-instructors in the Walker Art School, 1940

Clelland Card: Here we are in the Walker Art Center, a scene of one of the most interesting ideas in the nation. There are a large amount of visitors present. This is a startling development for an art museum. It tells an absorbing and thrilling story. We must throw away our old ideas of what an art center is like. It is no longer something you would rather stay away from. This is different. As you walk in you see brightly colored walls and ceilings. Would never dream an art school could look like this. 1940 art comes in bright colors. We all dislike the mausoleum atmosphere of the old museums. Here there is action, fun, and enjoyment. People are busy doing things with their hands; that is part of the art center purpose.

Now let’s talk to the man who runs this place, Mr. Dan Defenbacher. Am I in an art center or a manual training center?

Mr. Defenbacher: A museum in the modern manner. The term implies a museum which breaks with tradition. We break with tradition by placing the same stress on present-day art as we do on the past art.

Walker Art Center opening night.  Left to right: Colonel F.C. Harrington, WPA; Daniel Defenbacher, Walker Art Center Director; Clement Haupers, WPA

Walker Art Center opening night. Left to right: Colonel F.C. Harrington, WPA; Daniel Defenbacher, Walker Art Center Director; Clement Haupers, WPA

Florence Lehman: Now we are in the sculpture studio. This is Jean Severson. What are you making?

Jean Severson: A portrait sketch of the model in front of me.

Lehman: What goes into the sketch?

Severson: There’s an armature under here.

Lehman: What’s an armature?

Severson: An armature is the foundation of the model. It holds the clay. Some are made of wood, others of wire. There is wire in this sketch.

Lehman: Can anyone work in here?

Severson: Yes. Everything is free; anyone can come here.

Sculpture demonstration with Jean Severson and WCCO radio personalities, Clelland Card and Florence Lehman, opening night, January 4, 1940.

Sculpture demonstration with Jean Severson and WCCO radio personalities Clelland Card and Florence Lehman, opening night, January 4, 1940.

Clelland Card: This is the most restful trip I have made in an art gallery. There’s no gallery fatigue here, no squinting of eyes. All exhibits are made attractive with captions, easy to look at. By reading the captions one gets the whole story of the pictures in everyday language, everyday terms. It is hard to believe these walls were before a uniform drab white. They have been done over in very pleasing colors.

Old formal display cases gone. Cases are made of painted wood extending from top to floor with only opening for object or objects displayed. For example, here is a black vase shown against a turquoise wall. Vases having designs are shown against background lighted just right. The brief description I am giving doesn’t do justice to this. You must come and see for yourself.

"The Tea Ceremony," display case for the T.B. Walker collection, 1940

“The Tea Ceremony,” display case for the T.B. Walker collection, 1940

Card (interviewing Hon. Gov. Harold Stassen): How do you like the art center?

Stassen: I am enjoying it very much. I find it very stimulating. It’s very thrilling. Judging from the turnout, bringing this number of people out on a cold evening speaks well for Minneapolis. The art center is full of people.

Card: What significance do you feel the art center has on our locality?

Stassen: This is a splendid forward step in broader appreciation of art. Pleased to see a step of this kind taking place in Minneapolis.

Card (interviewing Sydney Stolte, State Works Progress Administration [WPA] Administrator): Do you feel that without WPA this new art center would not have been possible?

Stolte: Not entirely so. Many factors must qualify to make a WPA project. The Minnesota Arts Council, to whom our community should give great credit, is a large factor. An art project is a big project. Many people are not aware of the many talents of our own artists. The Art Project was set up to help artists badly hit by the depression.

Left to Right: S.L. Stolte, WPA,  Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen,  and D.S. Defenbacher, director, Walker Art Center opening night, January 4, 1940

Left to Right: S.L. Stolte, WPA, Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen, and D.S. Defenbacher, director, Walker Art Center opening night, January 4, 1940, standing in front of an exhibit panel for “Time Off,” organized by the Walker Art Center and Life magazine.

Lehman (interviewing lithograph printer Morris Olstad): Do you print on pieces of paper?

Olstad: A drawing is made on stone or zinc plate, etched and then printed. The coated transfer paper on which the drawing is made is placed between damp blotters and run through the press under pressure.

Lehman: How do you know how much pressure to use?

Olstad: Have to use your own imagination, must get just enough.

Lehman: Must have to work at it a long time to know just the right amount of pressure to use. How long have you done this kind of work?

Olstad: Thirty.

Lehman: I guess that is long enough.

Printing demonstration, Walker Art Center, 1940

Printing demonstration, Walker Art Center, 1940

Walker Art Center opening January 4, 1940

Walker Art Center membership desk, opening night, January 4, 1940.

Card: We certainly have enjoyed our visit here. We hope all of you will have the chance to come down here soon and have a good time, see the beautiful things here.  (Signs off)

 

 

Eric Sutherland and the Lost Art of the Darkroom

(3 darkroom photos) Eric Sutherland took these photos of his darkroom in the basement of the original 1927 Walker building so that a precise replica of the workspace could be created in the 1971 Barnes Building.  The same sinks and cabinetry were used until the photography department converted to digital technology in 2003.

In today’s digital world it can be hard to remember that photography once relied on cameras, chemicals, and a darkroom. For many decades the magic of an image did not just occur with the snapping of the shutter, but also in the darkroom where the manipulation of exposure could produce dramatic effects.  The Walker Art Center darkroom was the domain for many exceptional museum photographers in the last century.  But photographer Eric Sutherland had a special attachment to the Walker’s darkroom.

Sutherland was the Walker’s staff photographer from 1953 to 1978, shooting some of the center’s most iconic images, including Marcel Duchamp’s portrait, Christo’s Balloon Ascension (1966), and Dan Flavin’s corridor of lightUntitled (1971), featured on the cover of the  November/December issue of Walker magazine. In these photographs Sutherland captures the spirit of the moment with his meticulous attention to detail and his command of darkroom technique. This is particularly evident in the series of photographs that he shot of Duchamp. Duchamp with Bicycle Wheel (1913) captures the artist in what appears to be a spontaneous moment, with martini in hand and an impish grin. By contrast, the rarely seen image of Duchamp with his readymade Why Not Sneeze (1921), taken at the same event as the Bicycle Wheel shot, creates shadows that makes Duchamp look sinister.

Contact sheet for opening of Marcel Duchamp exhibition, October 19,1965

Contact sheet for the opening of Marcel Duchamp’s Walker exhibition, October 19, 1965. Left with director Martin Friedman; middle with Why Not Sneeze (1921); right with Bicycle Wheel (1913)

But in the darkroom Sutherland had precise control over the look of his final prints. Through the use of an enlarger he would project the negative onto chemically sensitive paper, process the paper through a series of chemical baths, then hang it to dry. He might make several prints before arriving at the exact effect he is looking for. Some areas of the negative would require more or less light to create the desired result. Sutherland created detailed “dodge” and “burn” tools in order to manipulate the amount of exposure certain areas of the paper received.

In addition to his darkroom wizardry, Sutherland kept copious records. His scribbled notes are legendary, rigorously jotting down film types, exposure times, chemical temperatures, and personal evaluation on negative sleeves, film boxes and contact prints. His thorough documentation preserves his method and and process and provides insight into how a photograph was once made.

Negative, sleeve and "burning" tool used to increase exposure in a particular area when printing while limiting the exposure of light to the remainder of the paper.  The image is one featured in Design Quarterly # 81, devoted to the newly completed Barnes Building (1971) and its gallery and work spaces within.

Negative, sleeve, and “burning” tool used to increase exposure in a particular area when printing while limiting the exposure of light to the remainder of the paper. The image is featured in Design Quarterly No. 81, devoted to the newly completed Barnes building (1971).

Barnes building office suite, 1971 for Design Quarterly # 81, 1971

Barnes building office suite, 1971, for Design Quarterly No. 81, 1971

In 1968, when the Walker Art Center was preparing for a new building by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, Sutherland turned his camera on his own darkroom. He took detailed photographs of the layout of his operation so that it could be recreated in the new building exactly as it was in the old building.darkroom_002 darkroom_001

(3 darkroom photos) Eric Sutherland took these photos of his darkroom in the basement of the original 1927 Walker building so that a precise replica of the workspace could be created in the 1971 Barnes Building.  The same sinks and cabinetry were used until the photography department converted to digital technology in 2003.

Sutherland documented his darkroom in the basement of the 1927 Walker building so that a precise replica of the workspace could be created in the 1971 building. The same sinks and cabinetry were used until the photography department converted to digital technology in 2003.

It was an eerie experience to stand in the darkroom in the Barnes building and look at the photographs that inspired it: the two spaces were nearly identical, just as Sutherland planned. Today the photos remain an interesting and haunting set of images that detail a process that is no longer practiced and document a space that is no longer a darkroom. Thanks to these images and Sutherland’s notations we have a comprehensive and preserved record of how photographs were created in the 20th Century.

Circa 1976 staff gathering on terrace, Eric Sutherland far left.

Staff gathering on the Walker terrace, circa 1976. Sutherland, waving, at left.

Chance Encounters in the Library

The following is the first in a series From the Rosemary Furtak Collection, which will take a closer look at artists’ books from the collection as they relate to current exhibitions and happenings at the Walker Art Center. Commonly known as An Anthology of Chance Operations . . . the full title of this book sprawls across […]

The following is the first in a series From the Rosemary Furtak Collection, which will take a closer look at artists’ books from the collection as they relate to current exhibitions and happenings at the Walker Art Center.

An Anthology of Chance Operations . . . edited by La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, Second Edition 1970. Courtesy Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

An Anthology of Chance Operations . . . edited by La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, Second Edition 1970. Courtesy Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Commonly known as An Anthology of Chance Operations . . . the full title of this book sprawls across its first five pages: An anthology of chance operations concept art anti-art indeterminacy improvisation meaningless work natural disasters plans of action stories diagrams music poetry essays dance constructions mathematics compositions. It was first published in 1963, edited by La Monte Young and Mac Low and designed by George Maciunas. As the first collaborative publication from these artists, it played an integral role in the formation of Fluxus. The colorful pages present chance operations from a multitude of artists, including Dick Higgins, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, and George Brecht, among many others. A true artists’ book, Maciunas worked closely with the artists to present their contributions in forms that reflected the artists’ ideas.

Detail from An Anthology of Chance Operations . . .

Detail from An Anthology of Chance Operations . . .

For example, this contribution by Dieter Roth presents his tool for creating chance poems. Placed over a page of text, this loose piece of paper with punched out holes – a “poetry machine” – reveals a new chance poem. While the poem captured below might read like nonsense, imagine a dozen of these poems assembled together. Or a hundred. It starts to take on a new substance.

Detail from An Anthology of Chance Operations . . .

Detail from An Anthology of Chance Operations . . .

As identified by Fluxus artist and theorist Ken Friedman, chance is a key Fluxus idea. As a technique, it enables artists to break from routine. Friedman explains that as something created by chance is put into a new form, it is no longer random but evolutionary[1]. This spirit of creating change and new activity is central to Fluxus.

A few weeks ago, the Art Lab at the Walker Art Center hosted the first of a series of free Fluxus Club events designed by artist Margaret Pezalla-Granlund. Fluxus Club invites visitors to participate in an ongoing Happening installation of scores, announcements, rules, poetry and more. Visitors are encouraged to explore the galleries of Art Expanded, 1958-1978 for inspiration. They are also invited to view books and resources in the library, which will be open to the public during Fluxus Club sessions.

For the first installment of Fluxus Club, we selected several Fluxus materials and resources for visitors to page through for inspiration. In addition to Fluxus selections, visitors are welcome to browse the stacks for other material of interest. In a library, serendipity can play an important role in bringing people and books together. Sometimes the best discoveries happen by chance.

Fluxus Club participants in the library. Photo by Erin Smith for Walker Art Center.

Fluxus Club participants in the library. Photo by Erin Smith for Walker Art Center.

Footnote

[1] Ken Friedman, “Fluxus and Company” in The Fluxus Reader, ed. Ken Friedman. (West Sussex: Academy Editions, 1998), 248-9.

In 1976, a Dystopian River and Inflatable “Plumes of Fire”

American muralist Terry Schoonhoven was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to create his mural No River Wall Painting for the 1976 exhibition The River: Images of the Mississippi. It loomed large—24 by 35 feet—and foreboding in the Walker’s outer lobby, depicting the riverfront as dystopian industrial district, going to rack and ruin in mounding […]

ex1976r_ins_012sm

Trevor Schoonhoven, No River Wall Painting, 1976

American muralist Terry Schoonhoven was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to create his mural No River Wall Painting for the 1976 exhibition The River: Images of the Mississippi. It loomed large—24 by 35 feet—and foreboding in the Walker’s outer lobby, depicting the riverfront as dystopian industrial district, going to rack and ruin in mounding decay, a parched riverbed supporting barges going nowhere and tipped oil drums lodged in the scorched silt. Meanwhile, just off in the distance, gleaming new city buildings emerge—reaching up and away from the riverfront and the industry of the past.

It must have been an eerie experience gazing upon this almost-life size view of the “Mighty Mississippi” looking so miserable. Schoonhoven and The Fine Arts Squad, which he co-founded, had a knack for creating fantasy environments which enticed the viewer with their potential reality. The riverbed depicted here is a scene from a dark dream but one that must have resonated at the time, as environmental concerns were fueling a rapidly growing ecology movement in the 1970s.

ex1976r_schoonhoven-sketch_01sm

Schoonhoven sketch

In this preliminary sketch, also included in the exhibition, Schoonhoven includes these notes: “Dry river view. Sky cool and metallic. Looks like it’s imported from another planet. Mississippi river bed cracked, features similar to area around Badwater in Death Valley. Evidence of drifting land, sand flats. Clear brilliant light. The Los Angeles river would feel right at home here.”

ex1976r_schoonhoven-sketch_02

Schoonhoven preliminary sketch

ex1976r_mural_002sm

Terry Schoonhoven working on No River Wall Painting in the Walker lobby, 1976

Another highlight of The River exhibition, albeit brief, was Otto Piene’s Black Stacks Helium Sculpture. It was commissioned by the Walker and installed on October 30, 1976, at the Northern States Power (NSP) South East Steam Plant (located at S.E. Main Street and 6th Avenue).

1976 Helium Stacks install_002sm

Otto Piene

Otto Piene, then director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on hand for the installation of this work of “Sky Art,” a term he coined in 1969 and which allowed him to use landscape and cities themselves as the focal point of his work.

The entire installation process of the four 300-foot-long red helium-filled balloons was estimated at three to five hours. The streamers, three feet in diameter, were to be pumped up every two days for as long as they would last, an expected two weeks.

1976 Helium Stacks install_001

Lisa Lyons, a Walker assistant curator at the time, recalls a meeting with then-Walker director Martin Friedman and officials at NSP about using the stacks: “After looking at Otto’s preliminary drawings, they were concerned that the big red balloons issuing from the top of the disused stacks would call to mind smoke and pollution. But ultimately, they signed on, and the piece was installed without a hitch, until, that is, someone took aim at it.”

Originally scheduled to be on view through November 13, vandals shot three of the four streamers full of holes within the first days of the installation. The work was not reinstalled.

ex1976tr_col_strib_sm

Article from the Minneapolis Tribune, November 1, 1976

“An inflatable sculpture that was installed Saturday on the smokestacks of a power plant had been shot full of holes by vandals by Sunday afternoon, according to Walker Art Center spokespersons,” read a news story in the Minneapolis paper. “Of the original four 300-foot-long, red helium-filled balloons only one was floating yesterday from the stacks of the NSP Co. steam plant at Main St. and 16th Ave SE. The work by Otto Piene had been commissioned by the Walker Art Center in conjunction with its exhibit called The River: Images of the Mississippi.”

ex1976r_op_003sm

Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene

ex1976r_op_001sm

Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene

ex1976r_op_002sm

Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene

Martin Friedman, Walker director from 1961 to 1990, described them as abstract plumes of fire.

Opening day cake for the 1976 exhibition, The River: Images of the Mississippi

The exhibition ran from October 3, 1976 to June 9, 1977. And of course, there was a cake for the opening.

mississippi_001sm

An issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the exhibition

Mickey Friedman wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue:

“River imagery is explored in this exhibition as it exists in painting, prints, photography, maps and, indirectly, as it occurs in planning and architecture. Though architecture does not immediately reflect an image of a river, the character and course of the waterway affects the forms and functions of architecture related to it and conversely, future river imagery may be the consequence of architectural proposals made today.”

Her opening paragraph foretold the future. Schoonhoven’s noir-ish view of the riverfront gratefully did not come to pass. Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge today offers a cityscape that took decades to form and was indeed the consequence of conversations and proposals that had begun in the 1970s and ’80s. Instead of warning people away from its banks with mounds of aggregate and earth-moving machines, the river now invites exploration, into its present amenities as well as its stories from the past, and is the “next frontier” in Minneapolis’ nationally known parks system.

2014 Mill District from Stone Arch_crop

Riverfront 2014 photo by Barb Economon

For more moments from the Walker’s 75 years as a public art center, visit our Walker@75 page.

Ghost Building: Walker Galleries 1927

T.B. Walker on the Grand Staircase, 1027
Richard Haas, Walker Art Galleries Circa ‘27, 1978-1979

Richard Haas, Walker Art Galleries Circa ‘27, 1978-1979

In Pathé Newsreel footage from 1927, we see T.B. Walker opening the Walker Galleries. He opens the giant forbidding doors, pushing past lion-headed doorknockers, and we get a brief glimpse of his personal collection of art and artifacts as the camera goes through the galleries. Later, in 1979, artist Richard Haas took the image of the exterior of the 1927 building and another photograph of T.B. Walker standing on the sweeping staircase, known as the grand staircase, to create his trompe l’oeil work Walker Art Galleries Circa ‘27, now on view in the exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. The ghostly image of T.B. Walker reminds us that before the brick-and-aluminum facility we know today there was another home for the Walker Art Center.

T.B. Walker on the Grand Staircase, 1927

T.B. Walker on the Grand Staircase, 1927

The Walker Galleries—sited in a building by architects Long and Thorshov of Minneapolis—existed from 1927 to 1969. The Moorish-style structure stood where the brick building by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes stands now. The grand staircase was the central focal point of the building, and over the years it was a backdrop for showcasing artwork, people, and events. It is the most enduring image of the old structure we have today. But what was beyond that staircase?

"Colonial Cubism" by Stuart Davis on the Grand Staircase, 1957

Stuart Davis’s Colonial Cubism (1954) on the Grand Staircase, 1957

Walker Art Center floorplan, 1940

Walker Art Center floorplan, 1940

Upon entering the building’s first floor, visitors were greeted by the grand staircase. To the left was the information desk and book corner and to the right, the coatroom. From the lobby one entered the galleries from either right or left. The galleries were a series of connected rectangle-shaped rooms.

Information desk with Book Corner 1956

Information Desk with Book Corner, circa 1956

The galleries continued on the second floor, lit by skylights that lined the ceiling.

Balcony level, Stuart Davis exhibiitions, 1957

Balcony level, Stuart Davis exhibition, 1957

Upper level galleries, Stuart Davis exhibition, 1957

Upper level galleries, Stuart Davis exhibition, 1957

A surprising feature of the building was its horseshoe shape that surrounded an open courtyard. The courtyard was used for concerts such as the very popular Doc Evans Jazz Band in the 1950s. At times the court was also used for sculpture classes or exhibitions.  In the 1960s it was known as the Sculpture Court.

Doc Evans Jazz Band, Court Yard Concerts, 1958

Doc Evans Jazz Band, Court Yard Concerts, 1958

Sculpture Class with Evelyn Raymond, circa 1941

Sculpture Class with Evelyn Raymond, circa 1941

The Walker Art School was on the basement level. Founded in 1940 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the art school was operational until 1950, hosting art classes for children and adults in a variety of subjects including drawing, painting, sculpture, design, and fashion. Dozens of local artists taught at the school, led by the charismatic director, Mac Le Sueur. Other instructors included Evelyn Raymond, Arthur Kerrick, and Stanford Fenelle, all successful artists of the time. Although not a degree program, credit from the Walker Art School could be transferred to the University of Minnesota. The art school was very popular and served hundreds of people regularly in the classrooms.

High School class with Mac LeSueur, 1941

High School class with Mac LeSueur, 1941

When the terra cotta features on the Long and Thorshov building began to crack—raising fears that decorative pieces might fall and injure visitors—the Moorish-style facade was replaced with a Moderne look in 1944. In addition to being safer for the public, the sleek new look designed by Magney, Tusslar and Setter, Architects, reflected the spirit of the progressive contemporary programming offered at the Walker Art Center in the mid 1940s.

Walker Art Center 1965

Walker Art Cente,r 1965

By the 1960s the old Walker Galleries building was in desperate need of repair. One side of the building had reportedly sunk, causing a crack through the center of the building. After examining the condition of the structure, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes was hired to design a new building. He created seven schemes before settling on the current brick facade that sits on Vineland and Hennepin. The old Long and Thorshov building was torn down in 1969, but before the wrecking ball began swinging, the Walker held a grand goodbye party along with a solo exhibition by Barry Le Va. The Le Va installation was not open to the public as the Walker Art Center had already moved the collections off-site. The building itself had been condemned in preparation for demolition so virtually no one saw Le Va’s show that has since become legend. It was a fitting end to a grand building.

Barry Le Va installation, February, 1969

Barry Le Va installation, February, 1969

Demolition day, March 7,1969

Demolition day, March 7,1969. Louise McCannel with Mike Winton, foreground.

2,508 Square Feet: Photomurals of the Walker’s 75th Anniversary

2,508. That’s the answer to Walker curator Andrew Blauvelt’s question about the total square footage of the nine murals and one artwork currently hanging in Walker galleries for our WALKER@75 anniversary celebration. That’s 2,508 square feet of imagery that I, as the Walker’s image specialist, produced or did the Photoshop compositing on: • 1280 s.f. […]

selfie_station_install_01_W

Jeremy Stauffer of Nameless Signs Co. installs one of the seven murals in the Selfie Station, which is one view through Sunday in Medtronic Gallery. Photo: Greg Beckel, ©Walker Art Center

2,508. That’s the answer to Walker curator Andrew Blauvelt’s question about the total square footage of the nine murals and one artwork currently hanging in Walker galleries for our WALKER@75 anniversary celebration. That’s 2,508 square feet of imagery that I, as the Walker’s image specialist, produced or did the Photoshop compositing on:

• 1280 s.f. for the seven Selfie Station murals in Medtronic Gallery,

• 678 s.f. for Goshka Macuga’s Lost Forty, installed in the just-opened exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections,

• 183 s.f. for a mural from a 1904 photo of the interior of T.B. Walker’s home, also part of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, and

• 367 s.f. for a mural of a 1962 photo of Allan Kaprow’s The Happening which took place in the Lehmann Mushroom Caves in St. Paul. This is part of the exhibition, Art Expanded, 1958–1978.

The nine murals took about 40 hours to print at Thomas Reprographics. Luckily, most of these images were not made with a digital camera. This enabled us to scan film or photographic enlargements at a high resolution, giving us larger files than most digital cameras are capable of. This came with a cost, however. The dust, scratches, fingerprints, stains, etc. took countless hours to remove. Scanning was done by Walker Visual Resources Specialist, Barbara Economon.

Be sure to visit the Selfie Station in the next four days. Those seven murals will be removed on Monday.

1940_Spring_Dance_rpsu_W

Spring Dance Festival at the Walker, 1940. Photo: ©Walker Art Center Archives

This first dance event held at the newly formed Walker Art Center featured the Modern Dance Group; choreographer Gertrude Lippincott, a champion of modern dance, stands next to the base of the stairs. Lippincott and Nancy Hauser were key to the creation of a vibrant dance community in the Twin Cities in the 1940s, and Walker director Daniel Defenbacher was eager to present events such as this Spring Dance Festival. He had recently been hired to run the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-funded regional art center, so supporting public art programs was part of his mission. The mural at the top of the staircase is Red River Ox Cart Drovers by Lucia Wiley, completed as part of the WPA Federal Art Project.

1965_ONCE_Group_rpsu_W

The ONCE Group’s Kittyhawk (An Antigravity Piece), Here2 Festival at the Walker, 1965. Photo: ©Walker Art Center Archives

Before there was “performance art,” there was the ONCE Group, and director Martin Friedman invited them to the Walker to perform Kittyhawk (An Antigravity Piece). The Minneapolis Tribune reviewer described it as a “dull hoax,” an evening that included two men attaching a woman to a screen with masking tape; a blindfolded young woman walking a plank between two high ladders; two men rolling four bowling balls into a sack before a young woman got in also; an announcer giving the audience endless instructions on folding a piece of paper, and so on. Friedman recalled, “Their performances were highly physical, verging on perilous circuslike antics. This was an early event in my directorship and a scary one, I might add, since these young composers, playwrights, and musicians took chances. It was not that I hadn’t seen daredevil events before, but this was the first time I was responsible for them, all in the name of art.”

1971 wns_flavin_02_rpsu_W

Installation view of Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Elizabeth and Richard Koshalek) at the Walker, 1971. Photo: ©Walker Art Center Archives

Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Elizabeth and Richard Koshalek)—a tunnel filled with multicolored lights that bisected the gallery—was created for the exhibition that inaugurated the Walker’s new building in May 1971. Designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, the museum’s seven white-cube galleries were conceived specifically for the new kinds of works being made in the the late 1960s and early 1970s—art that had no place in typical galleries. The show, titled Works for New Spaces, marked a critical moment in the Walker’s history and, arguably, in the broader art world. Curated by director Martin Friedman, Works for New Spaces featured 22 works, 21 of which were special commissions, with artists making the work partly or wholly on-site. That practice is commonplace now, but this was the first time it had been done, at least on such a wide scale.

1984 David Byrne_neg_rpsu_W

David Byrne at the Walker, 1984. Photo: ©Walker Art Center Archives

While on-site in April 1984 for the world premiere of Robert Wilson’s The Knee Plays (for which he wrote the score), David Byrne made this promo for the Walker’s Center Book Shop. That same year, he appeared with director Jonathan Demme at the Minneapolis premiere of Stop Making Sense at the Terrace Theater in Minneapolis. This concert movie featuring the Talking Heads live on stage was hailed by Leonard Maltin as “one of the greatest rock movies ever made.” Byrne returned to the Walker many times over the decades, including his appearance as the featured act at Rock the Garden 2004.

1984 Keith Haring_concourse_rpsu_W

Keith Haring with his mural at the Walker, 1984. Photo: ©Walker Art Center Archives

The image was both confounding and comical: a multi-armed creature with a computer for a head. The year was 1984, the site was the Walker Art Center’s Concourse, the hallway between the museum and the Guthrie Theater, and the artist—then the toast of New York’s graffiti and gallery scene—was Keith Haring.

Thirty years ago, from March 12 through 16, Haring was an artist-in-residence at the Walker, where he created the giant mural. Now existing only through photographic and video documentation, the orange and green wall piece was created to commemorate the completion of the Walker’s then-new underground education center, and remained on view through December 1985. In addition to Haring, artists including Skip Blumberg, Richard Lerman, David Moss, Mark Coleman, Susan Keiser, Donald Lipski, Chris Osgood, Debra Frasier, Jacques d’Amboise, and Isaac Bashevis Singer were invited to participate in the festivities.

1995_new_art_london_bro_7_rp_W

Cover of a brochure for “Brilliant!” New Art from London at the Walker, 1995. ©Walker Art Center Archives

This 1995 Walker exhibition featured work from rising stars in the British art world such as Liam Gillick, Dinos and Jake Chapman, Angus Fairhurst, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Gillian Wearing, and Sarah Lucas. Thirty years earlier, the Walker had mounted a show called London: The New Scene, which also presented work from the UK’s best and brightest artists, including Peter Blake, David Hockney, Allen Jones, Phillip King, and Bridget Riley.

pa2008ffs-tbc0705m_029_rpsucrop_W

Trisha Brown, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building at the Walker, 2008. Photo: Gene Pittman, ©Walker Art Center

Trisha Brown’s simple yet spectacular 1970 equipment piece was reconstructed at the Walker in the summer of 2008, with the performer standing on the roof of the Walker’s brick building facing the green space. He leaned forward until he reached a seemingly death-defying 90-degree angle to the building, then calmly walked down its side, absolutely parallel to the ground.

This performance was part of The Year of Trisha, a program of events honoring a career spanning more than 40 years, presented by the Walker Art Center, Northrop Dance Season, and the University of Minnesota Dance Program from April through August 2008. Highlights included an exhibition of Brown’s drawing, installations, and performance pieces at the Walker; reconstructions of several early site-specific performance works on the Walker campus; lectures, classes, workshops, and an evening of dance at Northrop.

macuga_lost_40_W

Goshka Macuga’s Lost Forty on view in the exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, 2014. Photo: Greg Beckel, ©Walker Art Center

Measuring 48 feet wide by 14 feet high, Macuga’s woven tapestry is based on a photo composite I created, using figures from the Walker Archives superimposed onto photographer Cameron Wittig’s image of the Lost Forty, a plot of land in northern Minnesota accidentally left uncut during the state’s lumber boom. Read more on the production of this tapestry here.

walker_time_cap_W

Mural behind Jade Mountain in one of the time capsules in the exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, 2014. Photo: Greg Beckel, ©Walker Art Center

Now part of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ collection, the Chinese jade carving Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavillion (1784) was initially acquired by Walker founder T.B. Walker and exhibited in his gallery on Hennepin Avenue. Making a temporary return to the Walker for Art at the Center, the 640-pound piece is presented in the galleries in front of a photomural created using an 8 X 10 glass plate in Walker’s Archives. Jade Mountain is visible on a table in the background of the photo.

ex2014ae_ins_Gal2_006_W

Mural of image made of Allan Kaprow’s The Happening, 1962. On view in the exhibition Art Expanded, 1958–1978, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman, ©Walker Art Center

A photo mural documenting Allan Kaprow’s 1962 happening in St. Paul’s Lehmann Mushroom Caves—the subject of a Pioneer Press story last week—was  shot by Pioneer Press photographer Spence Holstadt. The 35mm negatives are now owned by the Minnesota Historical Society. Eric Mortenson, with the Collections Management Department at the Minnesota History Center, was kind enough to escort the negatives to the Walker so that we could scan to our specs, in preparation for the work’s inclusion in Art Expanded.

Jade Mountain Returns

October 3 marked a homecoming, albeit temporary, for a beloved work of art: long part of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ collection, Jade Mountain was installed in the galleries for the October 16 opening of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. Its history with the Walker goes back more than 100 years […]

yuyutytyutyuuyt

Walker and MIA art handlers install Jade Mountain in Art at the Center

October 3 marked a homecoming, albeit temporary, for a beloved work of art: long part of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ collection, Jade Mountain was installed in the galleries for the October 16 opening of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. Its history with the Walker goes back more than 100 years to the museum’s founder, Thomas Barlow Walker.

Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavillion (1784), carved from light green jade in Qing Dynasty China, chronicles members of an ancient literary society as they celebrate the Spring Purification Festival alongside a stream in Shaoxing. As curators explained on the joint Walker/MIA website ArtsConnectEd: “The scholars engaged in a drinking contest: Wine cups were floated down a small winding creek as the men sat along its banks; whenever a cup stopped, the man closest to the cup was required to empty it and write a poem. In the end, 26 of the participants composed 37 poems. Wang Xizhi was asked to write an introduction to the collection of these poems.” That poem, transcribed by Emperor Ch’ein-lung, appears on Jade Mountain.

The work, the largest jade carving outside of China, was brought to the United States by Herbert Squiers, who served as Secretary of the U. S. Delegation in Peking (Beijing) until 1901. Squiers donated much of his collection of Chinese jade and porcelain to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but after his death in 1912 the remainder was put up for auction. T.B. Walker’s top bid of $4,000 brought the work to Minneapolis. Included in a “time capsule” within Art at the Center, Jade Mountain is presented in front of a photographic reproduction of Walker’s mansion, where the the 640-pound sculpture is visible on a table. The work was part of Walker’s collection through his death in 1928, his gallery’s reopening as a public art center in 1940, and throughout much of the Walker Art Center’s modern history. In 1976 Jade Mountain went on long-term loan to the MIA, and over the ensuing decade negotiations led to the permanent transfer of its ownership to the MIA. The MIA generously agreed to lend this spectacular piece for Art at the Center in commemoration of the Walker’s 75th anniversary as a public art center. It will remain on view here until March 29, 2015.

 

Christo Takes Flight: Balloon Ascension, 1966

ex1966es_ins_006
ex1966es_ins_006

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966. All photos: Eric Sutherland

In 1966 Christo came to Minneapolis to participate in the exhibition Eight Sculptors: The Ambiguous Image at the Walker Art Center.  Taking advantage of Christo’s visit, area colleges arranged for Christo to teach and participate in student art activities while he was here.  For a project at Minneapolis College of Art (MCAD) Christo worked with students to create  14,130 Cubic Feet Empaquetage (1966)—also known as Balloon Ascension. The students filled a weather balloon with 2,804 party balloons. The package was lifted 20 feet into the air by helicopter where it hovered for 30 minutes before descending to the ground. The original plan was that the helicopter would lift the balloon from MCAD to the Walker, but because of the complexity of lifting the balloon no one knew what would actually happen until the helicopter attempted the lift.  Although it never completed the intended route it was still an impressive sight.

Covering the project, a partnership between MCAD and the Walker’s Contemporary Arts Group, the Minneapolis Tribune ran a story headlined “A Monument to Nothingness.” “The balloon is  merely a container holding nothing just like the package will eventually hold many containers holding nothing and if one of the containers breaks the nothing still remains,” wrote Mike Steele. “It boggles the mind.”

For more moments from the Walker’s 75 years as a public art center, visit our Walker@75 page.

ex1966es_ins_037

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

ex1966es_ins_033

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

ex1966es_ins_009

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

ex1966es_ins_015

Christo, “Balloon Ascension,” Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

ex1966es_ins_013

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

ex1966es_ins_038

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

ex1966es_ins_002

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

ex1966es_ins_029

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

ex1966es_ins_036

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

christo_mcad_001_e

Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966

 

Shall We Take It? The Walker’s Founding Question

Dan Defenbacher, center, with Walker Art Center staff, circa 1940
1940s-citizens

Minnesota Arts Council/Walker Art Center brochure, 1939

The Walker was founded on a question. “Shall we take it?” In 1939 the citizens of Minneapolis were offered an opportunity to start a federally funded art center. The answer? Yes. A resounding yes.

But how exactly did this offer come about? And what did it mean?

In 1935 a young architect and industrial designer left his architecture firm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to become the state director of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project for North Carolina. That young man, Daniel S. Defenbacher, launched the Community Art Center program. His vision was to open the art world to every American citizen, and Defenbacher saw the community art center as a gathering place for learning, culture and amusement, a destination, a town square with a mission to support all the arts. As he expressed it:

Art springs from human need and its values must be based upon human values. The museum therefore must measure its vitality in terms of service to the human need in its community. It must integrate art with the experience of living.

His experiment in North Carolina was a tremendous success and the Community Art Center program quickly became a national movement that spread across the country with Defenbacher at the helm. Between 1935 and 1939, Defenbacher established more than 70 art centers. The Walker Art Center would be his last and the largest.

dsdandstaff_5

Dan Defenbacher (front, right) and Walker Art Center staff with Franz Marc’s The Large Blue Horses (1911) featured in the background, circa 1950

Dan Defenbacher, center, with Walker Art Center staff and local architects, July 12, 1940

Defenbacher, center, with Walker Art Center staff and local architects, July 12, 1940

Defenbacher spent most of his time traveling around the country personally overseeing the creation and operation of the art centers. According to his employment records he spent two to three days a month in Washington, DC, with Thomas Parker, the assistant director of the Federal Art Project, while the remainder of his time was spent traveling across the country looking at communities. In order for a community to be considered for an art center, a sponsor, such as an arts council or committee, would contact their WPA State Director. In turn, the WPA State Director would recommend communities to Defenbacher for consideration. After a site visit, Defenbacher would require that the local committee launch a fundraising campaign. He would estimate the total amount necessary to start an art center and then require the committee to raise 25 percent. He did this so that the community would embrace the concept and feel ownership in the center. After the funds were raised, the WPA would contribute the remaining 75 percent. The WPA contribution mostly paid for salarie, with a small amount allocated for general operation. It was up to the community to pay for maintenance costs, renovations, equipment and transportation.

Across the country Defenbacher spoke passionately about the potential of the art center system highlighting successful centers in his talks. One of his shining examples was Iowa’s Sioux City Art Center. “It had no gallery building, no art collection,” he wrote. “For quarters the owner of a business building donated the basement. For equipment the various trade unions donated labor, the merchants donated materials, and the citizens and civic organizations gave cash – in all, about $17,000. In six months over 56,000 people – well over one-half the entire population – visited and used the center.” With buy-in from the community, Defenbacher’s goal was that each art center would become self-supporting. WPA funding was year to year and, given the economic recovery in place, Defenbacher knew that that federal funding would only last a few years more.

Salem Art Center, Salem, Oregon circa 1938

Salem Art Center, Salem, Oregon circa 1938

In 1938, after three years on the road establishing art centers, Defenbacher was exhausted and looking for another opportunity, perhaps as a museum director. But he was also looking for one final site for the art center program. He wanted it to be outstanding, larger than any of the other art centers, something that would become the model for the modern museum. As fate would have it, at about this time Clement Haupers, WPA State Director of Minnesota, contacted him about an opportunity in Minneapolis.

1928-beaux-arts-facade

The Walker Art Gallery, 1927

Walker Galleries, circa 1915

Walker Art Galleries, circa 1915

Haupers wrote that the Minnesota Art Council (MAC) had identified a potential site in the T.B. Walker Gallery. MAC, founded by Ruth Lawrence, curator of the University Gallery (Weisman Art Museum), had formed a group of like-minded art lovers in 1938. The primary focus of MAC was on contemporary, living artists. At the time there was no gallery in the Twin Cities providing a place for Minnesota artists to exhibit their work. Lawrence contacted Bertha Walker, who in turn convinced her husband, Archie Walker, and the T.B. Walker Foundation to donate space in the Walker gallery to MAC for contemporary exhibitions. The result was the 1938 exhibition Living Minnesota Artists held in the Walker Art Gallery. Building on MAC’s success, the Council had the idea of approaching the WPA for funding to establish an art center. At this point, Lawrence, who remained on the MAC board, took a back seat on the council, as she had many other activities with the university, and felt she could not devote any more time to the project.   However, she was reassured that MAC would thrive under the leadership of Rolf Ueland. He was a successful attorney, violinist, craftsman, and art enthusiast.1 Once again in 1938 MAC contacted Archie and Bertha Walker for their support, and this time they convinced the T.B. Walker Foundation to turn over the entire Walker gallery to MAC. With an art council and a facility in place, Defenbacher came to visit on November 15, 1938, and what he found inspired him.

In a letter from that same day written by Louise Walker, daughter of Archie and Bertha, to her brother, Hudson, she recounts the very first visit of Debenbacher and Haupers to the Walker Art Gallery.

“Dear Duke,” she wrote, “I’m all steamed up so listen carefully. This afternoon, …, two men came barging in on the privacy of my basement room, but instead of the usual gawkers who wander in by mistake and curiosity, they turned out to be the men with whom Pa had a long talk yesterday. One was Clement Haupers. …. The other was Dan Deffenbach (sp), regional director or some such big shot in the Federal art project, and who runs and flies about the country organizing art centers. As soon as I realized that I didn’t have to watch and see that they wouldn’t abscond with a snuff bottle we began talking and walking about the building while D. marked down what there was in the way of collection and space. He was so enthusiastic at the material we have there that most of the time he wouldn’t even listen to what we were saying so hard was he planning to himself how he would arrange it all.”2

wac-brochure_002_g

Walker Art Center brochure, 1941

wac-brochure_003_g

Walker Art Center brochure, 1941

After the site visit, MAC successfully raised $5,500 from the community in order to receive the $35,000 from the WPA. The T.B. Walker Foundation donated the museum building and collection and paid the utilities and maintenance while the WPA paid the salaries. MAC oversaw all the operations and began looking for a director. Its members were impressed with Defenbacher’s efforts and offered him the position. In November 1939 Defenbacher officially resigned his post with the WPA and became the first Walker Art Center director. In a few short months, he had transformed the Walker Art Gallery from a nineteenth century salon-style museum to a dynamic twentieth century art center.

1944-WAC_1710-Lyndale

The Walker Art Center with its new moderne facade, 1944

Artist Stanford Fenelle and guest at Walker Art Center, 1940

Artist Stanford Fenelle and guest at Walker Art Center, 1940

wpa01-copy

Installation view, Answers to Questions, 1940

When the Walker Art Center opened on January 4, 1940 the 3,500 visitors saw colorful displays, innovative exhibition cases, and numerous graphics and explanatory panels. The guest of honor was Thomas Hart Benton, the outspoken Regionalist and WPA champion. The press coverage was impressive, including a live radio broadcast of the event on WCCO. There were artists demonstrating their work and WPA dignitaries on hand. After the opening, MAC  and the Walker staff began to work on the programming including special exhibitions, workshops, an art school for adults and children, dance recitals and film screenings. The next challenge would be to sustain the programming  beyond federal funding.

Warefforts

Banner outside of Walker Art Center for exhibition America Builds for Defense, 1941

Walker Art Center School Design Class

Walker Art School design class with Mac LeSueur (standing), 1947

1946eag-opening

Everyday Art Gallery, 1946

WPA funding would end entirely in December 1942. The United States was at war and the era of the New Deal was over. Many of the center’s staff either joined the armed forces or were drafted. Even though he was short-handed, Defenbacher remained as director. Under his leadership the exhibition and education programs continued to expand including Everyday Art Gallery, the first dedicated design space in a museum, and the influential Everyday Art Quarterly (later renamed Design Quarterly). Defenbacher stayed on at the Walker until 1950. His enthusiasm for start-up operations led him to the Fort Worth Art Center. Later he became president of the California College of Arts and Crafts. He also took up architecture again and was associated with architect Victor Gruen. Eventually he retired to Florida, where he passed away in 1986. Defenbacher was an energetic, talented organizer with a passion for art, and under his leadership the groundwork was laid for what the Walker Art Center would become. The question he posed 75 years ago, “Shall we take it?” continues to remind us that—like art itself—the Walker is a conversation that we continue to have, as artists, as audiences, and as a community.

wpa.poster-1-copy

Walker Art Center poster, 1940

Minnesota & the Nation 1941

Installation view, Minnesota and the Nation, 1941

Footnotes
1 Ueland would be president of MAC from 1938–1946 and later after MAC was dissolved in 1946 he became the first president of the Walker Art Center board of directors

2 Defenbacher’s first visit must have impressed Louise Walker very much. They worked together over the next several months preparing for the Walker Art Center opening and became more than just colleagues.  Later Dan and Louise were married and were a dynamic couple in the art world before they divorced in 1950.

Next