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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.

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.

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.

From the Archives: Pictures of Joan

To many, Joan Mondale was known for her political and artistic pursuits: the wife of Vice President (and later Ambassador) Walter Mondale, she was dubbed “Joan of Art” for her tireless advocacy for the arts. But here at the Walker, Mondale — who passed away February 2, 2014 at age 83 — was a colleague, […]

To many, Joan Mondale was known for her political and artistic pursuits: the wife of Vice President (and later Ambassador) Walter Mondale, she was dubbed “Joan of Art” for her tireless advocacy for the arts. But here at the Walker, Mondale — who passed away February 2, 2014 at age 83 — was a colleague, collaborator, and friend. She served on the Walker board on and off from the late 1980s until 2007 and was an avid fan of the Walker’s library. Archivist Jill Vuchetich remembers Mondale’s ties to the Walker through three items from her files.

Letter from Joan Mondale to Rosemary Furtak, March 23, 2010. Walker Art Center Library

Letter from Joan Mondale to Rosemary Furtak, March 23, 2010. Walker Art Center Library

Joan Mondale and Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak had a long friendly relationship over the years. They both shared a love of art books. Joan would frequently donate books from her personal library to the Walker, many focused on Japanese arts and ceramics, a reflection of her own interests and her years spent in Japan. Rosemary and Joan would communicate about the books and life, and every year Rosemary would receive the Mondale Family Christmas card with a personal note from Joan. Over the years our library received more than 400 art books from Joan.

Joan and Walter Mondale with US senator, Amy Klobuchar, at the Walker Art Center Gala Reopening, April 15, 2005. Walker Art Center Archives.

Joan and Walter Mondale with US senator, Amy Klobuchar, at the Walker Art Center Gala Reopening, April 15, 2005. Walker Art Center Archives.

Joan was also an active board member at the Walker Art Center serving on the acquisitions, government relations, and the annual fund committees. Her years of service spanned three directors, each one touched by Joan’s tireless campaigning for the arts. Executive Director Olga Viso noted, “Joan was such a vibrant, inspiring force whose leadership and advocacy in the arts is unparalleled.” Former Director Kathy Halbreich commented, “She was a loyal supporter of Walker; she came to events with Fritz, signed hundreds of solicitation letters and understood how crucial it was for the institution to take risks in order to stay contemporary.” And Martin Friedman, Walker’s former director for thirty years told the Star Tribune that “in her own quiet way, she did more for the arts than anybody and any administration.” Joan will be missed but her legacy in the arts carries on.

Joan and Walter Mondale on the campaign trail at the Walker Art Center with director, Martin Friedman, 1976.  Walker Art Center Archives.

Joan and Walter Mondale on the campaign trail at the Walker Art Center with director, Martin Friedman, 1976. Walker Art Center Archives.

 

From the Archives: The Walker Curator Who Sparked a Red-Baiting Scandal

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy is a new touring exhibition that sheds light on what one scholar called “one of the most infamous examples of red-baitingand censorship in the pre-McCarthy era United States”—and on the Walker’s first curator, J. Leroy Davidson, who was at the center of it all.

From the Archives: Vintage Makeover Ideas for a Downtown Thoroughfare

“Hennepin facelift a tough problem.” That 1970 headline from the Minneapolis Star still has relevance today, as a new vision takes shape to revitalize the city’s legendary Hennepin Avenue—or more precisely, its two-mile segment downtown, running between the Mississippi River and the Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Back in April, I wrote about Plan-It Hennepin, […]

Hennepin Avenue in 1973. Photo: The National Archives

“Hennepin facelift a tough problem.” That 1970 headline from the Minneapolis Star still has relevance today, as a new vision takes shape to revitalize the city’s legendary Hennepin Avenue—or more precisely, its two-mile segment downtown, running between the Mississippi River and the Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Back in April, I wrote about Plan-It Hennepin, an initiative in which the Walker has partnered with Hennepin Theatre Trust, Artspace, and the City of Minneapolis; after a year gathering research and community input, the group’s draft plan for a Hennepin Cultural District has just been released for further public comment.

As a fixture on Hennepin from its earliest days, the Walker, not surprisingly, has historically had an interest in its vitality; what follows are outtakes from its coverage of some of those efforts in Design Quarterly, a magazine it published from 1954 to 1991.

1982 “Design Quarterly” magazine cover featuring Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown’s plan for Hennepin.

In 1879, T.B. Walker founded the first public gallery west of the Mississippi, putting works from his vast art collection on view to the public in select rooms of his mansion at Eighth and Hennepin. He also owned a building at 719 Hennepin that housed studios for the Minneapolis Art School. More than 20 years later, the lumber magnate sounded off against the contested development of Gateway Park along downtown Hennepin’s northern blocks—perhaps the earliest effort to revive an area in need, as many saw it, of a cleanup. As Joanna Baymiller noted in “History of an Avenue,” published in 1982 in Design Quarterly No. 117, Walker explained his views in a pamphlet: instead of creating a more attractive view, he declared that “the park will make one pertaining more to bleakness, surrounded by secondary architecture which, under the circumstances, never will be reconstructed or rebuilt into important structures.”

Walker was both passionate and prescient: Even if bleakness and secondary architecture didn’t come with Gateway Park, they did accompany its demolition in the mid-60s as part of “urban renewal” efforts.

Ideas from “Ground-Breaking Mind-Stretchers”

In April, 1970, not long after the blight was cleared, a two-day public forum convened in downtown Minneapolis to brainstorm ways to help out the down-on-its-luck thoroughfare. Organized by the Walker, the Minneapolis Planning and Development Department, and the Minneapolis Downtown Council, “Hennepin: The Future of an Avenue” brought together a host of visiting designers, architects, sculptors, and artists—or “ground-breaking mind-stretchers,” as Minneapolis Star columnist Daniel M. Upham  wryly described them, “untrammeled by the need to hang around to see how it all comes out.”

Upham, author of the column accompanying that “facelift” headline, was one of several journalists covering the standing-room-only events for Minneapolis’ two daily papers; later that year a selection of news clips and photos was compiled for a special section in Design Quarterly No. 78/79 (an issue otherwise devoted to “conceptual architecture,” conceptualism then being sufficiently new to require quotes).

opening page from Design Quarterly’s special section on Hennepin Avenue, 1970

Philip Johnson, architect of the IDS Center then under construction a block away on Nicollet Mall, recommended that “Hennepin fill its teeth” (i.e. its empty blocks) with prefab buildings that could feature “stores, exhibit halls, shooting galleries or whatever draws a crowd,” reported the Minneapolis Star’s Barbara Flanagan. (She could have been referencing the Rifle Sport arcade, which in the later ’70s became the legendary Rifle Sport Gallery on Block E, a small slice of Hennepin both loved and hated for its notorious seediness.) Johnson also reportedly proposed that the historic Butler Building become a teen center, with rock bands on each floor. Never mind that the Butler actually stands a block west of Hennepin, on First Avenue. Also, it was unlikely that Johnson knew that just a block from the Butler, The Depot—a bus station-turned-nightclub later to be named First Avenue—had just opened a few weeks earlier. Nevertheless, his idea was ahead of its time in the worst way, presaging the string of ill-conceived entertainment/mall developments—Mississippi Live in particular comes to mind—that downtown would get saddled with in the coming decades.

A “video park” proposal from landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg was forward-thinking, both artistically and in terms of the growth of public surveillance: “Take a parking lot next to the blank wall of a big building. Mount TV cameras in trailers to photograph passers-by and throw their images on the wall, which becomes a giant TV screen. Interspersed with the passing scene would be the regular pickup of news programs—such as the moon shot (or a baseball game)—anything that draws a crowd.” (Freidberg went on to design the 1975 Peavey Plaza, another Nicollet Mall landmark that is currently the subject of a battle between preservationists and the city.)

Another architect who recently made news with his retirement, Robert Venturi in 1970 hadn’t yet co-authored the controversial classic, Learning from Las Vegas. But its ideas were very much in evidence with Venturi’s audacious claim that Hennepin is “almost all right now.” He nixed benches as too European—reportedly telling the forum crowd “Here if you sit on a bench you’re a bum”—but recommended bigger signs. Columnist Flanagan, however, took issue with his recommendation to “discover the ordinary”: “I have and that’s why I think Hennepin needs work,” she wrote. “It’s too ordinary for an entertainment street.”

Anticipating the coming age of “interactive” public art, James Seawright proposed “an electronic sculpture that could be programmed to relate to the passersby or be rigged to respond to a dialed telephone number. Like fellow sculptor Tony Smith, he also pitched wider sidewalks and mid-block shopping squares. In splitting up Hennepin into five sections for “different kinds of celebrations,” architect Walter A. Netsch (designer of the Air Force Academy Chapel) gets props for the oddest idea. He would assign movies and light shows their own sections, with a third for “the tassel trade”; the remaining two might be devoted to tree plantings and—in a nod to one of the forum organizers—the Walker Art Center. He also thought banning cars from dusk to 5 am might help draw people.

Female Trouble

Speaking of the tassel trade, Art Seidenbaum, the forum’s moderator and a Los Angeles Times columnist, alluded to Hennepin’s long history with strip clubs and streetwalkers in summing up its plight: “Hennepin isn’t voluptuous enough to be seductive and it isn’t wrinkled enough to be replaced—just like a 45-year-old courtesan.” The Star’s Upham was thinking along similar lines: “The real problem of Hennepin … is to save it from blight without destroying its bawdy charm,” he wrote. “The factor which attracts the visiting stockmen, the boys in town for the sales meeting, and other free spenders? [sic] When the chips—or rather the shoulder-straps—are down, can a stripper really do her stuff if they air out the joint and sweep the floor?” Then there was Johnson’s pithy and au courant declaration, “What killed Hennepin was TV and the pill”; and Ms. Flanagan’s equally telling description of designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, the lone female guest at the forums, as “a little girl who designs big signs.” For the record, Solomon, a pioneer of Supergraphics, favored large, boldly colored swaths of paints as a low-cost temporary spruce-up for the avenue.

The second page of the 6-page section, with photos by Andrew Power

By 1982, Hennepin had gone further downhill, from aging courtesan to ailing spinster, if you will. In Design Quarterly 117 editor and former Walker design curator Mildred Friedman wrote about how the street “took on the air of a jilted lover” with the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s, existing “in this state of ambiguity for many years,” with “many empty storefronts; former movie palaces converted into evangelical centers or … dispensers of pornography; strip joints and stand-up bars.” Civically speaking, Hennepin was “always the bridesmaid”: a place “discussed in committees” but whose problems “never met with concerted action.”

Friedman also noted “positive changes,” however, in the form of a new Hennepin Avenue Urban Design Plan, to which that issue of DQ was devoted. Denise Scott Brown, writing on the plan created by her firm, Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown, made a playful reference to the inevitable “pressure … to exchange the red silk petticoat image of Hennepin Avenue for a gray flannel one.” Considering what her partner Venturi advocated for back in 1970, it probably surprised no one that the firm favored Hennepin as a good-time girl over any kind of reputable matron makeover. However, their plan’s central visual element—36 “reflector trees” arching over the street to create a dance of lights at nighttime, per the rendering above—met with controversy.

“Reflector Trees” sketch from Design Quarterly No. 117

The “trees” were actually to have a “fan-like silhouette,” one “carefully disciplined so as not to suggest overhanging branches,” a muddled-yet-dazzling gesture meant to give the street a “unique character” and “help provide an attractive environment”—even though Scott Brown acknowledged that “entertainment will never be the predominant use on Hennepin again.” In that same issue of Design Quarterly, “An Opposing View” of the plan, written by a special committee of the Minneapolis Arts Commission, took issue with the trees’ “overwhelming scale.” More significantly, the committee suggested that this single, showy design element would bear too much “responsibility for attracting the essence of an entertainment district, that is the business activities.”

Hennepin Avenue, 1985 (BRW Architects, image courtesy Hennepin County Library’s Minneapolis Photo Collection)

Those reflector trees never did debut, and six years later Hennepin’s Block E was finally razed. Even sitting as a parking lot for more than 10 years, it remained a flashpoint for the persistent woes along the avenue. The mall that eventually filled the space and is now left for dead is but one reason why the “Hennepin facelift a tough problem” headline still applies today.

The jury’s still out on the fresh set of prescriptions for a Hennepin Cultural District, as envisioned by the Plan-It Hennepin initiative. But compared with the host of plans, proposals, and ideas from past decades, a couple factors could make a considerable difference going forward. One is that the District so far avoids any expensive investment in grand visual gestures like reflector trees. Another is the role of artists. In 1982, they were reduced to forming a “special committee” so they could object to a plan they had no role and no stake in. Plan-It Hennepin has included artists in the planning process from the start, thanks partly to a “Creative Placemaking” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Come to think of it, maybe the arts could play a role in creating a fresh, 21st-century female archetype for a transformed Hennepin—an update on its longstanding, troubled, lady-of-the-evening image. Proposals, anyone?

From the Archives: A tribute to Louise Walker McCannel (1915 – 2012)

Louise Walker McCannel, granddaughter of Walker founder Thomas Barlow Walker, played a critical role in the history of the Walker: both the private Walker Art Galleries and the public Walker Art Center. After graduating from Smith College in 1937, where she earned a degree in Fine Arts, Louise and her brother, Hudson, became the caretakers […]

Louise Walker McCannel, granddaughter of Walker founder Thomas Barlow Walker, played a critical role in the history of the Walker: both the private Walker Art Galleries and the public Walker Art Center. After graduating from Smith College in 1937, where she earned a degree in Fine Arts, Louise and her brother, Hudson, became the caretakers of the vast and varied art collection amassed by T.B. Walker. Louise was appointed director of the Walker Art Galleries and while Hudson left for New York in 1938, she stayed to help facilitate the Walker Art Galleries 1939 transition to the Walker Art Center. She worked at the new institution in many capacities: as director of the Children’s Gallery, editor of the Magazine of Art, and assistant curator.

Smith College yearbook photograph, 1937

As curator, she worked on the Walker’s extension program: educational outreach in the form of 36 small exhibitions that circulated throughout the state of Minnesota. These thematic shows—on jewelry, Chinese painting, and Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, and based on works in the T.B. Walker Collection—used portable panels for easy transport, a format that may seem old fashioned and quaint today, but was a very progressive form of outreach in 1940.

Louise Walker, far left, reviewing installation panels for the exhibition “Egypt, Greece, and Rome,” 1940.

 

“Egypt, Greece and Rome” exhibition panels in transport, 1940 (This photo and photo above: Rolphe Dauphin for Walker Art Center)

McCannel was instrumental in helping the Walker through its early years as an art center, and continued to serve on its board for more than 60 years. She was an active member from 1950 to 1997, and in 1998, after she became an honorary board member, continued to be a staunch supporter.

Louise, foreground, at a board meeting with Alma Walker and Justin Smith, 1950s (Photo: Eric Sutherland for Walker Art Center)

McCannel, in documentarian mode, films the 1969 demolition of the Walker Art Center building, which made way for the 1971 building designed by Edward Larabee Barnes. With her is longtime board member David M. Winton.

  McCannel’s work and her philanthropy extended far beyond the Walker, as well. In a story about her life in the Star Tribune, Walker director emeritus Martin Friedman, who worked with her over several decades, described her as “a fierce, no holds-barred liberal when it came to social causes. She was always on the side of the little guy. She had a great sense of community and was an enemy of anything that smacked of racism. She was really dedicated to making a better world.”

 Read the full Star Tribune story here, and McCannel’s obituary here

Louise Walker McCannel (This photo and photo above: Minneapolis Star Tribune)

 

 

 

 

Plant as Decorative Element in a Gallery

One aspect of my position as a photographer here at the Walker is to document the exhibitions. This has been an ongoing process dating back to the beginning of the Walker Art Center. While reviewing images of past exhibitions, I began to notice something now absent in the galleries, potted plants.  Up until the opening […]

One aspect of my position as a photographer here at the Walker is to document the exhibitions. This has been an ongoing process dating back to the beginning of the Walker Art Center. While reviewing images of past exhibitions, I began to notice something now absent in the galleries, potted plants.  Up until the opening of the Barnes building in 1971, potted plants were a staple in the galleries.  While there are few exhibition views containing patrons, the plants were always present.  In these images they seem to act as the stand-ins for the patrons, sometimes aloof and in the background or congregating around the radiator as if in discussion.  And then there are those that are really into the work, standing in front of a sculpture’s light, their shadows enveloping the work.

Due to a multitude of reasons, plants only reappear in the galleries if they are part of the artwork.  Many of the plants seem to have been around for many years and well taken care of by the staff.  Enjoy this look at Exhibition Photography and Plants from the Walker archives.