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Larger than Life: James Rosenquist (1933–2017)

For me, things have to be life-size or larger. I believe it is possible to bring something so close that you can see through it, so it comes to you right off the wall. I like to bring things into unexpected immediacy—as if someone thrust something right next to your face—a beer bottle or his […]

Hollis Frampton, untitled from the series James Rosenquist, 1963, black-and-white photograph, Collection Walker Art Center

Hollis Frampton, untitled from the series James Rosenquist, 1963, black-and-white photograph, Collection Walker Art Center

For me, things have to be life-size or larger. I believe it is possible to bring something so close that you can see through it, so it comes to you right off the wall. I like to bring things into unexpected immediacy—as if someone thrust something right next to your face—a beer bottle or his shirt cuff—and said, “How do you like it?”

—James Rosenquist, 1965

James Rosenquist, a key figure in the Pop art movement, passed away on March 31, 2017 at age 83. Rosenquist was known for his large-scale, vivid, and colorful paintings that combined and cropped imagery that reflected the excesses of postwar consumer America—movie stars, automobiles, domestic objects, and food items.

Like his peer, Ed Ruscha, who brought the techniques of layout, illustration, and lettering with him into painting, or Andy Warhol, who was a successful commercial illustrator in New York in the 1950s, Rosenquist similarly incorporated commercial techniques into his artistic practice. The artist was deeply influenced by his time working as a sign and billboard painter in the 1950s, translating the size, format, and mass-recognized imagery of billboards onto his canvases. Asserting larger-than-life images, Rosenquist transgressed categories and pushed the boundaries that defined what art could be and how it could be experienced.

Minnesota billboard

James Rosenquist with his mother and an early creation from his sign-painting days in Minnesota, 1954

Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and lived in various cities in Minnesota and Ohio in his early childhood until his family settled in Minneapolis in 1944. In junior high school, Rosenquist studied art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and in 1952 he enrolled in the studio art program at the University of Minnesota. During the summer break of 1953 Rosenquist worked for a contractor painting gas station signs, storage tanks, and grain silos, before he left college to pursue his artistic career in New York in 1955. In order to support himself in the big city, where he was studying at the Art Students League, Rosenquist painted billboards in 1957 to 1960—advertisements for movies, liquor, and soft drinks—and was briefly employed by Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation, painting some of the largest billboards in the world.


James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964-65, oil on canvas with aluminum, Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York

Rosenquist began his early artistic career in Minneapolis, and over the course of his life presented his work at the Walker Art Center on numerous occasions. While his early work was primarily rooted in Abstract Expressionism—evident in his 1957 painting, Passing Before the Horizon that was included in the 1958 Biennial: Paintings, Prints, Sculpture at the Walker Art Center—in 1960 he began to work with existing commercial imagery, and soon adopted his signature billboard-inspired, mural-scaled paintings. In 1964 Rosenquist started making the painting for which he is perhaps best know, the monumental F-111. At an astounding 86 feet in length, with panels that occupy multiple successive walls, the painting’s central subject is an F-111 bomber plane, which was being developed at the time for use in the Vietnam War. The plane collides with visual imagery ranging from food to consumer items to war references, drawing links between the Vietnam War, consumerism, the media, and advertising.

Rosenquist 1971.8

James Rosenquist, Area Code, 1970, oil on canvas, Mylar, Collection Walker Art Center

After F-111 Rosenquist created a series of five large-scale paintings with winged, Mylar side panels that enabled the paintings to take up three-dimensional space. The Mylar panels serve to extend each painting by reflecting it, refuting the finality of its outer edges. As early as 1963, Rosenquist was concerned with “purging myself of devices that would put boundaries on my pictures.” One of these works—a 1970 painting in the Walker permanent collection, Area Code—presents fragmented images of a bird’s wings and telephone wires sharply severed, perhaps indicating the artist’s interest in mass media and communication.

Where the Water Goes

James Rosenquist, Where the Water Goes from the series Welcome to the Water Planet, 1989, colored, pressed paper pulp, lithography collage, Collection Walker Art Center

Rosenquist was also an accomplished printmaker. Resistant to the medium at first because of the difficulty of translating the splintered compositions of his paintings into print form, Rosenquist eventually began working with Kenneth Tyler, of the renowned Tyler Graphics Ltd., who introduced him to paper pulp—a medium that offered a surface similar to that of painting. Rosenquist explained to Tyler that he wanted to make prints as big as paintings, and to work in a spontaneous manner akin to painting, and Tyler responded, “OK, I’ll make the biggest pieces of handmade paper you’ve ever seen.” Together the pair made some of the most boundary-pushing prints of Rosenquist’s career. A repository of the archives of Tyler Graphics, the Walker holds many of Rosenquist’s works on paper, including his most ambitious prints from the series Welcome to the Water Planet (1989–1990). Made at an unprecedented scale—so large that the Walker had to build new drawers to accommodate their size—the prints were inspired by the vegetation of Florida, where Rosenquist had a studio. The works were scaled-up versions of smaller collages, featuring a splicing technique that meshed foreground with disparate background imagery. The series reflected the artist’s disquiet with what was happening to the earth.

EX1993jr_ins James Rosenquist:Time Dust, The Complete Graphics 1962-1992 Mar 7- May 9, 1993 disc location: 161.ex_b

Installation view of James Rosenquist: Time Dust|The Complete Graphics, Walker Art Center, 1993

Rosenquist continued to experiment with printmaking techniques, and in 1993 the Walker hosted a retrospective of his editions, James Rosenquist: Time Dust|The Complete Graphics, organized by the University Art Museum at California State University. The survey of more than 100 prints examined the artist’s graphic production from his groundbreaking Pop images to the mural-sized handmade paper and lithographic collage prints. Rosenquist was a prolific image maker, undeterred even after his Florida studio burned in 2009. He was described as having a child’s energy, and he liked to move around and dance. “Let’s boogey” was one of his favorite expressions, meaning “Let’s go.” To Rosenquist, who worked ever since he could remember, movement implied work. Rosenquist was a devotee of the ever-moving, the infinite, the larger-than-life. And while the scale of his work brought immediacy to the subject, he stated, “The reason for bigness isn’t largeness. It’s to be engulfed by peripheral vision; it questions the self and questions self-consciousness.”

Aesthetic Portals: A Postcommodity Primer

“Aesthetic portals” are central to the work of Postcommodity, the indigenous arts collective of Raven Chacon, Crístobal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—doorways that open between walled national borders, that puncture this moment to reveal our continent’s precolonial history and traditions, that transport viewers into a probable future of environmental destruction, that cleanse visitors in sound, or that connect physical and spiritual planes. […]

Postcommodity: Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist

Postcommodity: Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist

“Aesthetic portals” are central to the work of Postcommodity, the indigenous arts collective of Raven Chacon, Crístobal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—doorways that open between walled national borders, that puncture this moment to reveal our continent’s precolonial history and traditions, that transport viewers into a probable future of environmental destruction, that cleanse visitors in sound, or that connect physical and spiritual planes.

In the coming month, the interdisciplinary collective’s “indigenous lens” will be featured in several prestigious exhibitions, including the 2017 Whitney Biennial (opening March 17), documenta 14 (opening in Athens April 8 and in Kassel on June 10), and at Art In General, where their commissioned installation Coyotaje will debut March 24. In preparation for these engagements—as well as their arrival in Minneapolis this weekend—we offer a primer on several Postcommodity works that address the theme of portals.

To meet the artists and pick up a free copy of their just-published essay, “2043: No Es Un Sueño,” commissioned as part of the Walker’s ongoing Artist Op-Eds series, join us Saturday, March 11 at 6 pm for an op-ed launch and artist talk—the first time we’ve activated this long-running series with a live event. (Free pamphlets are available to the first 75 attendees.) The event is presented in collaboration with Minneapolis’s Bockley Gallery, which opens the exhibition Postcommodity on Friday, March 10.


Do You Remember When? (2009/2012)

Do You Remember When? – 2009. Site-specific intervention and mixedmedia installation (cut concrete, exposed earth, light, sound). Photos Above: Installation view, Arizona State University Art Museum, Ceramics Research Center, Tempe, AZ.

Installation view, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, 2009. All photos courtesy the artists, unless otherwise noted

This mixed-media installation creates a passage between worlds. A slab of gallery floor, cut out and placed on a pedestal—“a trophy celebrating Indigenous intervention in opposition to a Western scientific worldview”—leaves a doorway to the exposed earth, and to spiritualities and cultures tied to it, below. Site-specific audio provides a “psychosocial soundtrack”: at Arizona State University in 2009, it included a closed-circuit audio broadcast of a Pee Posh social dance song performed by the collective; at the 18th Biennale of Sydney, it featured “songs and animal calls performed by members of local communities that are part of the aboriginal peoples of Sydney.” In each instance, a microphone was suspended over the square of soil, “positioning viewers as listeners to a feedback loop of Indigenous voices in dialogue with the exposed earth” (as Mark Watson put it in his 2015 Third Text essay, “Centring the Indigenous”). The work, the collective writes, “shifts the sustainability from a focus dominated by Western science to a balanced approach inclusive of Indigenous knowledge systems.”


My Blood Is in the Water (2010)

My Blood is in the Water – 2010. Mixed-media installation, sculpture with sound. (mule deer taxidermy, wood poles, water, amplifier, drum). Dimensions variable: Structure: 15’ height, 10’x10’ base; taxidermy 70” long; drum 36” tall, 22” diameter. Detail of Pueblo drum, Installation View, and Detail of Mule Deer.
“The history of art is largely deaf,” Postcommodity’s Kade L. Twist told Bill Kelley, Jr. in a 2015 Afterall interview. “Sound is the glue that holds us together.” In My Blood is in the Water, the sound is both a pulse and a drumbeat, created by blood dripping from the carcass of a mule deer onto an amplified Pueblo drum. Created in commemoration of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary, the piece served as “an ephemeral time-keeping instrument relaying the history and intonation of this land.”

Here’s how Lucy Lippard characterized the work:

One of Postcommodity’s most impressive fusions of “traditional” imagery and political message is P’oe iwe naví ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood Is in the Water, 2010), commemorating the city of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary. A buck mule deer’s carcass, hung upside down, donates its dripping blood to create sounds on an amplified drum below, “memorialising the mule deer as a spiritual mediator of the landscape and [paying] tribute to the traditional means by which indigenous people put food on the table” without destroying whole species. The striking image of the deer—simultaneously beautiful and tragic—is intended to turn around “the dominant culture’s process of commoditisation, demand/supply and convenience.”


Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (2011)

Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (Mechelen) – 2011. Interactive four channel video and sound installation. Duration: Infinite. Photo Above: Installation view, Contour: 5th Biennial of Moving Image, Mechelen, BE.

Installation view, Contour: 5th Biennial of Moving Image, Mechelen, Belgium

This immersive multi-channel installation greets viewers with pastoral scenery—fields and mountains, pristine waters, a child picking flowers—but such soothing imagery is jarringly (and noisily) ripped away, replaced by visions from an apocalyptic future where pollution and other forms of environmental degradation rule the day. Postcommodity writes:

While engaging the seemingly meditative video installation and walking about the gallery space, audience members will inevitably step on one of eight detonation triggers embedded in the floor, setting off a concussive sonic explosion shaped by a generative physics model of real-world IED explosions—particularly IEDs that utilize found consumer objects and electronics. The audience-triggered explosions are comprised of fragments of sampled music ranging the iconic pop of Burt Bacharach, Beach Boys, and Beatles to the heavy metal of Slayer, Metallica, and Black Sabbath and punk rock of the Ramones, Bad Brains, and Stiff Little Fingers. In all, hundreds of samples are randomly utilized as sonic shrapnel. The result is an exaggerated moment in which audiences are enveloped by the physical properties of an Afghanistan hot spot and simultaneously assaulted by the sonic artifacts of Western colonialism in which members of the audience share the sudden and disorientating experience of having their collective musical memories envelop them and flash before their eyes.


Gallup Motel Butchering (2011)

Gallup Motel Butchering - 2011. Multi-channel video. Duration: 9:05. Video Stills.

A tourist hotel in the traditional homelands of the Navajo people becomes the site for an act that, only due to its setting, might seem violent or out of place. Shot from various angles with high-definition cameras, this four-channel video shows in gritty detail a Navajo woman butchering a sheep for a family feast. The woman is a former runner-up in the Miss Navajo pageant, but the year she competed, sheep butchering—a role reserved for women in Navajo culture—wasn’t a requirement. With no prior experience slaughtering sheep, she butchered the animal on camera—awkwardly, and in the awkward setting of the hotel bathroom. The work reveals “how a traditional act of cultural self-determination can appear violent and disorientating within the context of a ‘non-place’ and pose a poetic, metaphorical transgression against the assumptions of the Western imagination.” Like a rip in the space-time continuum, the work illuminates twin realities coexisting in this Gallup, New Mexico motel.


Pollination (2015)

Pollination - 2015. Immersive Installation. Peepshow architecture, viewing booths with sound, large scale terrarium, terrarium heat/light lamps, electronic arcade coin slot shutters, tokens, plants, mirrors, razor wire, monarch butterflys, odors, cleaning supplies, Kleenex, trash cans, paper towels and hand sanitizer. Installation Views, Postcommodity: SouthwestNET., Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, Arizona. Photos: Sean Deckert / Calnicean Projects

Photo: Sean Deckert, Calnicean Projects

Installed at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, this immersive installation recasts the doorway as a peepshow window. Visitors enter one of eight doors, insert a token in a slot, and get a glimpse of a garden of earthly delights: a lush world of butterflies, plants, and floral scents—rendered surreal by artificial lighting. “Playing on the idea of the peep show and the fetishized female form—which throughout art history and literature has been implicitly and explicitly linked to the garden—Postcommodity comments on fantasy, objectification, and the male gaze,” writes Hyperallergic’s Erin Joyce. “Yet by presenting an actual garden, the piece also speaks to the powerlessness of nature in the face of mankind’s domination and abuses. The incorporation of the ‘pay-to-play’ model, meanwhile, brings in capitalism’s role in the devastation of the natural world, global market systems, land development, and the exploitation of natural resources, all of which suggest Western colonial endeavors in what is thought to be a postcolonial world. Though the piece only requires the viewer to insert her token to participate—a small gesture—it implicates her as she sees her reflection in the garden room’s mirrors.”


People of Good Will  (2014–2015)

People of Good Will – 2014 - 2015. Heritage Hall, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Heritage Hall, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

“We are very critical of social practice art in general—it’s a colonial model, very paramilitary, to parachute artists into a community for two weeks and then leave the community holding the bag,” Crístobal Martinez told Crystal Migwans last year. But when Postcommodity was asked to be part of a two-year project in Guelph, Ontario, the collective signed on. Reimagining city development through a “ceremonial filter,” the group collaborated with the Guelph Black Heritage Society on the renovation and revitalization of Heritage Hall, a church built in 1880 by fugitive slaves who arrived in Guelph via the Underground Railroad. In addition to contributing funds and manpower to the renovation, Postcommodity helped program events by immigrants and artists of color within the space, and when they left, they left behind capacity-building tactics as well as practical tools, including a PA system for use in future events. The aim, says Martinez: fostering “self-determination in the arts.”


Repellent Fence, 2015

Postcommodity’s most ambitious project, Repellent Fence (2015), was also the genesis of the collective’s formation. It began in 2007 with a simple premise: intervening, somehow, on the US/Mexico border. The initial idea was to “create a monument of futility that mocks the concept of borders, particularly, their fortification, militarization and marginalization of peoples and cultures within the contested space of their geographic location.” They continue, “Our hope was to facilitate public dialogue that specifically addressed the human and cultural violence instigated and perpetuated by borders as geopolitical implements that uproot cultures from their traditional homelands, and divide indigenous peoples and communities from each other.”

In the ensuing eight years, the group embarked on a project to work with community members in the border cities of Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Arizona, as well as with the US Border Patrol and the Mexican government, in creating a land art work that refused to touch the ground: Repellent Fence‘s visible manifestation was comprised of 26 giant “scare-eye” balloons that for four days formed a two-mile line bisecting the US/Mexico border. The balloons’ “open-eye” motif—an indigenous symbol appropriated and printed on commercial bird deterrents used by gardeners and farmers—seemed to echo the border’s constant state of ominous surveillance, but the ten-foot orbs ended up reinforcing a different message. Members of the two communities—who began programming events, including a binational art walk, around the project—came to see Repellent Fence as a tool for healing, as a “suture, reconnecting two bodies of land that had been divided… a monument to inter-connectedness,” Twist says.


The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking(2017)

Product shots of the LRAD 500X, which its maker says unparalleled long-range communication and scalable non-lethal, non-kinetic Escalation of Force

Product shots of the LRAD 500X, a long-range acoustic device advertised as offering “unparalleled long-range communication and scalable non-lethal, non-kinetic Escalation of Force.”

Just announced, Postcommodity’s contribution to documenta 14 in Athens will consist of a “long-form, two-channel hyper-directional opera projected upon the ancient ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceum.” The work’s physical manifestation will be limited to two LRADs—commercially available long-range acoustic devices, or “sound cannons,” typically used in military or law-enforcement contexts, including against water protectors at Standing Rock—mounted on rooftops around the edge of the site. Visitors navigating ruins of the school where Aristotle gave his major lectures will experience a hyper-directional sonic call-and-response. The artists explain:

The Lyceum, situated between the Athens War Museum, Hellenic Armed Forces Officer’s Club, and Athens Conservatory of music, offers a rich environment for engaging oral tradition [and] contemporary and ancient history, as well as a sense of embodied learning. Each day, the installation will perform multiple movements of music spanning the hours in which the Lyceum is open to the public, continuing as a cycle throughout the duration of the exhibition.

By activating a contemporary variant of Aristotle’s peripatetic learning on the ancient site, Postcommodity will focus its shared indigenous lens to dialogue with Aristotle, as well as implicate audiences as part of an international dialogue on global market systems in relationship to walking and movement upon lands.

In the exhibition’s Kassel manifestation, Postcommodity will create a related work, Blind/Curtain, at the entrance of the Neue Galerie, as the collective’s “indigenous gift and blessing to the visitors of documenta 14.” This sonic curtain, the trio writes, will “act as a threshold for audiences to cleanse themselves of the outside world, and prepare their hearts, minds and spirits for engaging the transformative experience of documenta 14.” A doorway itself, they note that Blind/Curtain will be “a physical and conceptual threshold for demarcating outside and inside, and acknowledging and reifying the spaces and artworks of documenta 14, as well as the spaces and contexts between.

Simultaneously, Blind/Curtain is aware of itself as a node of power—it is a determiner of space—a border. It is a membrane constructed of pink noise and submerged poems. Blind/Curtain is a human dilemma that contains secrets, provides access, creates the illusion of privacy (prevents access), provokes surveillance, and embodies love.”

Memories of Martin Friedman

As director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, Martin Friedman—who passed away May 9 at age 90—oversaw the construction of a new Walker building, spearheaded the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and put the center on the map internationally for its astute curatorial vision, multidisciplinary focus, and artist-centric values. Following up […]

Martin Friedman a Polaroid that Chuck took of Martin for the jacket of his “Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait” book.

A Polaroid Chuck Close took of Martin Friedman for the jacket of Friedman’s book Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait (Harry N. Abrams, 2005). Submitted by the artist.

As director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, Martin Friedman—who passed away May 9 at age 90—oversaw the construction of a new Walker building, spearheaded the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and put the center on the map internationally for its astute curatorial vision, multidisciplinary focus, and artist-centric values. Following up curator Joan Rothfuss’s reflection on Friedman’s life and legacy, we’re commemorating his passing by inviting friends, family, and colleagues to share their memories of the man who indelibly shaped the Walker. This post will be updated as new reflections come in; if you’d like to contribute a reflection, please email us.

Tom Arndt, photographer, Walker Art Center (1975–1981)

The six years I worked at the Walker Art Center changed my life.

The first time I went to Europe was with Martin and Mickey. Mickey took me to England where I photographed four projects by the British architect James Sterling. The photographs I made comprised an exhibition of his work at the Walker. Martin and Mickey were so good to me on that trip. They took me to plays in London and got me a personal tour of an exhibition of Fabergé eggs at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was an amazing experience for me. I co-curated an exhibition on Minnesota press photography with Mickey. It was a great success.

Martin introduced me to George Segal. “Tom,” he said, “I’m going to create a friendship for you.” He did, and George Segal became my good friend. I still have letters from him.

There are so many other moments when they both were so supportive to me. They were there for me when I had a personal crisis in my life. When my parents died, I received wonderful personal notes of condolence from both Martin and Mickey. In 1981, Martin told me it was time for me to go and pursue my own work. I left the Walker that year, and for my going-away party we had a Hawaiian luau (I wore a lot of Hawaian shirts in those days). The guys on the exhibition crew made some palm trees, and everyone wore Hawaiian shirts, including Martin and Mickey. It was very special for me.

I learned from Martin and Mickey what a special calling it is to be an artist. They taught me to expect the best from myself and strive for the perfection of my ideas. I have gone on to have a good artistic life. I recently emailed Martin telling him that I now have galleries in New York and Paris and that I owe so much to him and Mickey for instilling in me, and so many others, a rigorous method of inquiry and the expectation of the best for ourselves.

I miss Martin and Mickey so much. I know there are so many great artists and curators that have worked with them over the years. I am so grateful to them both for making my life so profoundly better.

All my love and respect to you Martin, to you and Mickey.

On the Walker terraces with Vincent Price, 1984

On the Walker terraces with Vincent Price, 1984. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Bruce Atwater, Honorary Trustee, Walker Art Center, and former president of the board

Those who knew Martin best have commented on how he combined scholarship with showmanship, intense support for loyal staff with demanding perfectionism, and expansive vision with fiscal reality.

Martin’s capacity for real friendship was another unique and very important defining characteristic. He became a real friend to so many in the art world: artists, gallery people, collectors, other museum directors, young people just becoming interested in art, and many others.

Martin’s main friendship criteria were probably a strong interest in the arts, an appreciation of the comedy in human affairs (and, of course, of Martin’s wonderful wit), and an easy compatibility.

Our friendship really deepened when I happened to be president of the Walker board during the lead up to Martin’s retirement after so many years at the helm. All who knew him well were very concerned that this might be a traumatic period as Martin wrestled with what he would do and where he and Mickey would live after the Walker. I had several warnings about how difficult this was likely to be for all concerned.

Fortunately, Mike Winton and Tom Crosby, both of whom were very close to Martin, had been quietly thinking about this, talking with Martin, and had all three put together a plan for the Friedmans to move to NYC.

Martin and I could talk very openly about the potential emotional issues of retiring as I was thinking about the same issue. Martin handled his “retirement” in a totally admirable way. He went on to be a major force in the art world for more than twenty years based in New York.

So, here is to my dear friend Martin!! You were the best!

Berger Fountain installed at Loring Park, Minneapolis Minnesota, circa 1975. Controversy surrounding placement of the Berger Fountain in 1973 in the Armory Gardens prompted director Martin Friedman to begin plans with the city of Minneapolis for the establishment of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Berger Fountain installed in Loring Park, Minneapolis, c. 1975. Controversy surrounding the fountain’s placement in 1973 in the Armory Gardens prompted director Martin Friedman to begin plans with the city of Minneapolis for the establishment of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Katharine DeShaw, director of development, Walker Art Center (1991–1999)

There is tale that the idea to create a Minneapolis Sculpture Garden came to Martin after the City of Minneapolis asked him to place a “dandelion fountain” in a field in front of the Walker. He was horrified—loathed the piece and did not like anyone dictating his artistic choices. That fountain is now located on the distant edge of Loring Park, far away from the brilliant garden that Martin ultimately built.

Kathleen Fluegel, director of development, Walker Art Center (1989–1991)

Martin’s passing brings back a rush of memories, such as the day after Kathy Halbreich was in town for the announcement that she was to be Martin’s successor, and he was going over a proposal with me in excruciating detail. At one point he looked across his desk at me and growled, “I’m still the director!”

I replied, “I know you are Martin, and I’m glad you are.”

He growled back, “You. Are. Not.”

At which I laughed and said, “You’re right!”

To his credit, he laughed, too.

1967 Martin and Mickey Friedman with Hubert Humphrey at Walker Art Center

Mickey and Martin Friedman with Hubert Humphrey at the Walker, 1967. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Emily Galusha, program officer, Bush Foundation (1971–1979); Board treasurer and chair, then executive director, Northern Clay Center (1991–2012)

Fifteen years ago, I was interviewing someone I very much wanted to hire as the exhibitions director at Northern Clay Center when he asked me who my role model was as an arts organization director. With no hesitation, I said Martin Friedman. His vision for the Walker as a national and international leader in its field; his almost limitless curiosity about contemporary art, as well as the culture in which it is made; his ability to bounce back and forth between relentless attention to the details that go toward perfection and the larger ends toward which the enterprise was moving; his unbending commitment to quality in all things—whether the art being presented, its presentation, the words written about it; and, finally, his wit and sense of humor: all provided characteristics to emulate. My response apparently hit a sympathetic chord, and my candidate said yes.

I first met Martin in 1971, after I joined the staff of the Bush Foundation. My colleagues and most of the board were firmly embedded in St. Paul, so the Walker was, and was in, terra incognita; I got to be the lucky explorer for the organization. After the foundation approved a couple of grants to the performing arts program, Martin approached us for support for exhibitions. Martin’s vision, and his ability to realize that vision, produced an outsized impact of those grants on the Walker, the region, and contemporary art. His exhibitions were not just about objects, but about ideas expressed through objects.

Not long after the foundation began supporting the Walker’s exhibitions, Bush approved the Bush Artists Fellowships. The foundation’s executive director, Humphrey Doermann, was deeply skeptical about much of contemporary art, based on an almost complete lack of exposure. However, he did respect what Martin was accomplishing with the Walker. I arranged, with Martin’s help and participation, a lunch seminar for Humphrey, which also included curators Graham Beal and Lisa Lyons. In a wonderful three hours, they walked Humphrey through the development of contemporary art, using examples from the Walker’s collection, with no hint of artspeak or condescension. While Humphrey didn’t leave as a convert, he at least lost some degree of cynicism and took with him respect for their scholarship and passion. I was deeply grateful—and it was a lot of fun for me.

Martin Friedman with current Walker director Olga Viso and former director Kathy Halbreich, 2011

Martin Friedman with current Walker director Olga Viso and former director Kathy Halbreich, 2011

Kathy Halbreich, director, Walker Art Center (1991–2007); Associate Director and Laurenz Foundation Curator, Museum of Modern Art (2008–present)

Martin was universally recognized as an inspired, synthetic, and progressive leader; under his stewardship, the Walker became a magnet for all of us everywhere who cared about artists, performers, filmmakers, and designers of all stripes. He created a museum that was more than willing to share the risk of making new work with creative practitioners from around the globe: it, along with supporting artists early in their careers, was a mandate. I visited the Walker way before I became director in 1991; once, I came because Martin agreed to host a survey of Elizabeth Murray’s paintings and drawings I had organized with Sue Graze from the Dallas Museum. Despite his success and status, Martin also was willing to take a risk on younger curators, and many of the very best were trained by him. It meant a lot to receive his blessing, as we all knew his standards were exacting and pure. I never forgot the thrill of seeing that exhibition at the Walker.

Martin always set the pace for artistic and administrative innovation. Believing museums were civic entities rather than privileged enclaves and publicly supporting artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe when their art became political fodder for the right, he never ran from controversy. Martin was an intrepid leader, almost singularly so in the late 1980s when the culture wars sent a shudder through the field. I am sure there were things that kept him up at night, but he always appeared to be confidant, a characteristic that made him unusually persuasive. I suspect these qualities, as well as his superb eye, drew people to him and to the Walker. It never has been easy to elicit support for contemporary art, but Martin was a wizard; the Walker’s endowment was unique among contemporary museums, providing a foundation for all sorts of experimentation. Martin was brilliant at all aspects of being a director, but perhaps his most crucial talent was in developing a board that was as engaged with new ideas and as welcoming to new people as he was. Many of those trustees became his dear friends and the most devoted patrons of the museum during his tenure and beyond. As Judy Dayton often repeated, “It was a joy to support dear Walker.”

Many people told me that it was foolish to try to follow Martin, and in some ways it was taxing to follow a legend. But, in all the important ways, Martin and Mickey cared about—loved—the Walker so deeply that they left behind an immensely stable, elastic, and forward-looking institution. This made it possible for those of us who followed to be inventive and ambitious, to break some rules, and to dream big. I felt very lucky when I became director of the Walker. That sense of opportunity and good fortune only grew stronger during the 16 years I spent there, happily working with a staff and board in a community that were unparalleled, special. The Walker was a place where good governance was practiced every day and a director had unusual support. I came to realize that Martin’s profound commitment to creative people, in tandem with his belief that museums truly mattered, made everything past, present, and future possible. His work will not be forgotten because it has informed all museums of contemporary art. So many of Martin’s original ideas ultimately became accepted as routine practice. For example, when people wonder why the presence of performance in museums has suddenly become ubiquitous, I remind them that the Walker created a department of performing arts in 1970.

I always will be very grateful to Martin for cultivating the museum field so that people such as myself wanted to be part of it and could find a place to grow within it.

Ann Hatch, Walker family member; she has served on the Walker Art Center board since 1975

I was quite young when I started attending the big annual Walker family meetings at the museum. Jade Mountain was in full view then, but there was so much more to take in. At one meeting we were introduced to the new directorial candidate who was up for vote by the board and family. That young confident individual was Martin. I had gone to museums all my short life, but I’d never thought our family had started such a world-class institution, and I didn’t think about the people directing or the leadership it took to make an institution great. Mostly I wanted to stay away from the smelly guards.

Martin’s presentation was inspiring: he spoke of the TB Walker legacy, the collection, and how he intended to make a world-class institution in Minneapolis. That introduction made me realize what I was invited to be a part of at the Walker, as a world class museum, going forward.  Martin never stopped.

Whenever I went back for board meetings, he always took time to show me around and remind me in a passionate way of the importance of the legacy and my potential role in its future. That made a huge impression on me. Martin always sent me catalogues with personal notes. He encouraged me to read and see work. I loved the Walker shows and was so proud of the Walker for being the best museum for artists imaginable.

I went on several trustee tours where we met great artists in a very personal and meaningful way. Isamu Noguchi, and all the artists we saw, really respected Martin. I realized the relationships needed to build an institution. It is highly personal, taking great integrity and vision. Martin saw the big picture and had acute attention to detail.

When I started Capp Street Project in 1983, I asked Martin for his opinion of the program. His vote of enthusiasm was empowering. He wanted to know all about who was coming to be in residence and suggested artists and advisors. I was very grateful to Martin and his vision, dedication and unwavering enthusiasm for the arts.

I’m glad I knew both Martin and Mickey.

Mickey and Martin Friedman with Merce Cunningham, 1990

Mickey and Martin Friedman with Merce Cunningham, 1990

John Killacky, curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center (1988–1996); executive director, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts (2010–present)

Four loving memories of Martin

First day hired: He showed me a map of the US with pins in it showing where former staff members were working. “Someday you’ll be a pin on this wall.”

Favorite Martin memo to all staff: “There was a dead fly in the stairwell this morning.”

Shiva: Hearing Isamu Noguchi had died, I sat in the darkened gallery, joined by Martin.

Lunchtime: January 1990 interdisciplinary Cultural Infidels festival opened with Karen Finley. Martin and Mickey attended the performance, as did the vice squad. The next day Martin asked me to lunch off-site. I thought I was fired. His comment: “I think that woman needs therapy.”

1978 Martin Friedman withj Noguchi in Walker gallery

Martin Friedman with Isamu Noguchi, 1978

Jonathan Lippincott, author of Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s

I only had the opportunity of speaking with Martin Friedman twice over the years, but his writing and his work as a curator were inspiring to me in writing my book, and in many projects since. His catalogs captured the excitement and innovation of their times, and his deep interest in artists’ motivations and ideas comes through in his essays and interviews. Of particular interest for me, in thinking about sculpture, were 14 Sculptors: The Industrial Edge, a survey exhibition that took place in 1969, and Oldenburg: Six Themes, a show delving into six recurring images in the work of Claes Oldenburg, from 1975. The former explores the major directions that sculptors were pursuing at the time, within the larger realm of industrially fabricated sculpture. The latter looks at the work of one artist in depth, considering the whole body of work and the threads of interconnection among these works. In both catalogs, Friedman’s clear critical eye and genuine interest and affection for the artwork offer a model of how to think and write about art.

Kirk McCall, exhibition technician/carpenter/draftsperson, Walker Art Center (1987–present)

We were installing the exhibition Foirades/Fizzles in 1988. I had only been at the Walker for a year or so and had felt the power and decisiveness of this small giant of a man who really deeply cared about every single aspect of the art, the artist, and its presentation. He would come in a day before an exhibition opened and always change a work (or 10) around. We called it “One-Hour Martinizing.” I remember Martin having a hard time figuring out a particular room layout. It was days going back and forth—switch, switch, switch. We’d just leave it to come back and get fresh eyes the next day. The next morning I went in and switched them the way I thought they should go to settle my own curiosity. Martin came in and looked puzzled. I felt really nervous and honestly afraid for my job. He looked up at me and didn’t say anything but winked and smiled and said, “This could work.” I knew he knew I had rearranged them, and from then on he trusted me with a question or two once and a while. It made me feel on top of the world, sincerely validated and encouraged. I knew I was in the right place and have called it home ever since.

Martin and Mickey Friedman (at right) dance at the closing party, just before the old Walker building was demolished, 1969

Martin and Mickey Friedman (at right) dance at the closing party, just before the old Walker building was demolished, 1969

Peter Murphy, media specialist, Walker Art Center (1972–present)

When I first started working at the Walker I would cheerfully take on any task assigned, filling in anywhere there was a need. On snow days I came in at 5 am to shovel snow, and later I would be painting galleries or doing building maintenance or donning the guard uniform of the time. My first encounter with Martin Friedman was when he abruptly led a contingency of us guards down to Receiving in the basement where items from the Native American show were accumulating. He gave us an impromptu lecture on what was about to emerge into the galleries. That day I was so struck by:

a. how egalitarian he was to include us nobodies,
b. how unbelievably intelligent and engaging he was (his narrative was engrossing!), and
c. how contagious his enthusiasm was. He wanted to share it with us, for this place, and what he was doing here.

Pretty good first impression! It fostered a lasting loyalty. He wanted everyone to participate and believe.

In those times—in the tailwinds of the Sixties—when the classes met full-circle (at wild, Breakfast at Tiffany’s–like parties and events), there were more intersections among all types of groups. Martin would scoop up all us hangers-on—anyone present at the end of the event, his “entourage”—and we would end up at his house. While the positions I held were not prestigious, I must have been at Martin’s at least four times. (It was there I was honored to meet and shake hands with none other than Robert Rauschenberg!) It didn’t matter who you were. He was always very direct and seemed to expect that you would rise to his level of conversation.

His expectations were high and sometimes awkward. If he walked by you and saw some refuse on the floor, he would tell you clean it up. You might think: that’s not my job, but it was clear, it is now. We should care about our own pride in the place, not just protect his. Some of his demands could be puzzlingly cryptic. I remember when I was a projectionist, Martin running into the booth saying, “We need more air!” I was perplexed as to what I was expected to do. I laughed to myself as I pictured blowing more air in—whew! whew!!

Still, I always felt we were in good hands with Martin and Mickey. You could feel the acceleration of the place in those times. He made us proud to be part of it.

Claes Oldenburg and Martin Friedman supervise the installation of Geometric Mouse – Scale A, Yellow and Blue at the Walker Art Center, 1974, for the Oldenburg retrospective Six Themes. Photographs by Roxanne Everett. © Roxanne Everett/Lippincott's LLC.

Claes Oldenburg and Martin Friedman supervise the installation of Geometric Mouse – Scale A, Yellow and Blue at the Walker Art Center, 1974, for the Oldenburg retrospective Six Themes. Photo: Roxanne Everett. © Roxanne Everett/Lippincott’s LLC.

Claes Oldenburg, artist

I remember meeting Martin on the terrace of the newly finished Barnes building, where we installed a yellow and blue twelve-foot high Geometric Mouse to keep an eye on its twin at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Later, when the Seventies set in, Martin and I spent days in cafes along Sunset Boulevard developing my interpretation of ordinary objects, such as a giant ashtray and three-way plug, into the exhibition Six Themes.

In 1988 came the placement in the sculpture garden, laid out by Martin, of the 50-foot-long shining spoon to which Coosje had added the red cherry that glistens with running water as spray from its stem emits rainbows.

Martin caused things to happen, and I consider his presence essential to the art of our time.

Installation of the Geometric Mouse – Scale A, Yellow and Blue at the Walker Art Center, 1974. PHOTO: Roxanne Everett. © Roxanne Everett/Lippincott's LLC

Installation of the Claes Oldenburg’s Geometric Mouse – Scale A, Yellow and Blue at the Walker Art Center, 1974. Photo: Roxanne Everett. © Roxanne Everett/Lippincott’s LLC

David Ryan, curator of Design, Minneapolis Institute of Art (1999–2009); librarian and assistant coordinator, Performing Arts, Walker Art Center (1965–1968)

I had the exceptional good fortune to begin a 40-year museum career with Martin Friedman at the Walker Art Center in 1965. It was the beginning of a bond that lasted until his death. As with so many colleagues, his influence as a lifelong mentor is unshakeable.

At the beginning of Walter Mondale’s tenure as vice president, his wife, Joan, asked Martin to come to the VP mansion to see what he could do to lay out preselected art works in the home’s public spaces. She and her husband were the first couple to inhabit the residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory, and it was Joan’s wish to turn the home into a showcase for American art. 

By this time she had traveled extensively, attending museum exhibitions, dedicating new works of art, and otherwise directing national attention on artists. During her tenure as “Second Lady” of the United States, President Carter named her honorary chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. 

Prior to visiting Washington, Martin asked me to assist him in working out logistics at the Mondale’s residence as we had worked together on many past museum installations. At that time, I was assistant director of the Museum Program at the National Endowment for the Arts. 

We began early one bright morning in the spring of 1977, soon after the Mondales had moved in. Aside from their lovable dog following us about, no one was home. Without losing a step, Martin begin moving art works and furnishings around, bustling about without hesitation. 

“Let’s move that over there.” “And this one over here.” “Good.” “Hmm.” “No, no.” “Not there” “Over here.” “How about this one?” “What do you think?” “Not too bad.” “I think if we move that stuffed chair out of the way—how homely can it be?” “Now then, we’re getting somewhere.” “And, that chest of drawers! That has to go!” 

“Uh, Martin,” I said. “This is the vice president’s home. Perhaps, we should slow down a bit and give some thought as to what the Mondales might want in the way of a comfortable atmosphere. It’s their living quarters!” “Hmm, yes, well, we’ll just make a few subtle changes.” 

Not much later, Martin was asking the VP staff to take furniture downstairs to storage and bring up other pieces in exchange, furniture that better complemented the art. This went on for quite an extended period. Eventually, we enjoyed a quiet lunch served by the staff while surveying a thoroughly redecorated vice president’s living space from top to bottom. 

The immediate reaction from Fritz and Joan upon first coming coming through their door is not on public record, but they certainly took pride in extending a welcome mat to all thereafter. Joan’s wish was fulfilled. Overnight, their home had indeed become a showcase for art.

One instance, one episode of a perfectionist at work. A lesson learned—a true perfectionist knows few bounds. I am immensely grateful for that invaluable lesson and many, many more at the hands of Martin Friedman over the years, forever indebted our paths crossed early on.

Martin Friedman gives a tour to Vice President Walter Mondale, 1976

Martin Friedman gives a tour to Vice President Walter Mondale, 1976

John Walsh, director emeritus, J. Paul Getty Museum

Martin was the museum director I admired the most. He was a dear friend, too, but I hardly ever saw him at the Walker. I did see him often at the Getty Museum in the 1980s and 1990s, where I was its thoroughly inexperienced director and needed all the help I could get. So we put him on an advisory committee of luminaries. We convened them once a year to review our plans for creating a brand-new museum, which we’d started to do, and for devising programs for the public, which lay a few years in the future. The best moment for Martin came when the new Getty was under construction and over budget. At its meeting the advisory committee learned that the Trustees were thinking about charging admission after the opening. It was only fair, the argument went, and besides, most museums charge, and people expect to pay. We had never conceived of doing that. The endowment was somewhere close to $6 billion. Admission to the Getty had always been free. When the issue arose at the meeting, Martin asked a few practical questions but mostly leaned back and listened to the discussion. After a half hour or so, he said to the head of the Getty Trust, “I think you people have a death wish.” Not much was said after that. The issue of an admission charge was never raised again.  

Penny Winton, longtime Walker Art Center supporter: her husband, Mike Winton, was a Walker Trustee who served as president of the board

Mike and I had known Martin ever since he was appointed director, about the time Mike joined the board. We knew how perfect Martin was for the job. We knew how miserable he could make staff and crews feel. (Picture Mickey at Wuollet’s bakery the minute it opened the morning after a Martin number, filling a box of mea culpas to assuage the wounded.) We knew his strengths and his weaknesses. We knew how loyal Justin Smith [a Walker family member and longtime trustee] was to Martin through some awkward times early on. We knew how amazing he was. We became very close to Martin and Mickey up to Mike’s last day and now to Martin’s.

The strongest glue that kept us close was Martin’s ever active sense of humor. He was at his most basic self a droll man, exceedingly droll. He loved telling funny stories even when he was the butt of them. There was the  bespoke gentleman from South America Martin was certain would end up a major contributor, and of course he’d be happy to show him around. The gent asked if the Walker had any Flegers, because he was such a Fleger fan and always looked for Flegers at every museum he visited. Eventually, Martin figured out he was taking about F. (Fernand) Leger and excused himself for  a meeting he had forgotten. He was a tease. At a board meeting a staff member was pouring coffee for the members around the table, “No, no, no, not for Winton. He’ll just roll hand grenades across the floor!” He was mischievous. Not too long ago, he and Mickey and I went to see a show on the art of Islam at the Met. Mickey quickly disappeared for a moment of peace, and I trotted after Martin. Now rather deaf, he was practically shouting, “Now where is that vase. I must show you this beautiful vase. You will love it and I am going to give it to you for Christmas,” as he leaned over its vitrine with an eighth of an inch to spare, while I watched guards racing toward us.

His love of the human comedy was constant.

Istanbul Dispatch: Ceren Erdem on the Gezi Uprising and Beyond

We have taken a giant step, and this is only the beginning. It was May 31, 2013, the day before I arrived in Istanbul, when I could finally reach my brother on the phone. It was a brief conversation. “I’m fine,” he said. “This is not the city that you used to know. There is […]

Facade of Atatürk Cultural Center covered by protestors. Photo: Ali Kazma

Facade of Atatürk Cultural Center covered with banners by protestors. Photo: Ali Kazma

We have taken a giant step, and this is only the beginning.

It was May 31, 2013, the day before I arrived in Istanbul, when I could finally reach my brother on the phone. It was a brief conversation. “I’m fine,” he said. “This is not the city that you used to know. There is no need to talk now; you’ll see it.” In an attempt to write about the early summer days in Istanbul, I began to draft this text admitting that I may fail, for I feel the necessity for a new vocabulary to refer to the qualities of the ongoing uprising and resistance of the people of Turkey, and I fear I will be barred with the limits of any language. It is equally hard to make judgments on such a thing as it’s happening. Hence, for the sake of clarity and simplicity, I find it useful to present the causes and a subjective summary of the resistance that stemmed from Gezi Park and spread across Turkey.

Background: Why have the people of Turkey — a favored ally of the US, a growing economic power, and a regional leader-wanna-be — demonstrated civil unrest? Behind all the glory of the international reputation, the governance of PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become more oppressive in their third go-round. Faking close friendships with the liberals and empathy with the oppressed were not strategies with longevity. New laws have been implemented that restrict a woman’s ability to choose a Caesarean section (they’re only allowed in cases where they’re necessary to save the life of the mother or child) and that govern when alcohol can be purchased and how it can be advertised. Many journalists, writers, and professors critical of the government have been arrested and silenced. And in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey, profitable lands have been turned into huge construction sites where international companies, mainly from the Gulf, partnered with local ones that are affiliated with the PM or other ministers. In December 2012, the people of Roboski, a Kurdish village, were bombarded “by mistake,” killing 35. In May 2013, two bombs exploded in a Reyhanli district on Syrian border of Turkey. At least 57 people died. In both cases, no one has been held responsible. Not all, but a few reasons of our “disorder.”

Gravestones in Gezi Park in memory of Medeni Yıldırım, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük and police officer Mustafa Sarı. Found image.

Gravestones in Gezi Park in memory of Medeni Yıldırım, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük and police officer Mustafa Sarı. Found image.

Facts: For a year and a half, Taksim Platform, a civil initiative comprised of a diverse group of people who live, work, or pass by Istanbul’s Taksim district, gathered to monitor and create awareness about the major urban planning project for Taksim Square. It goes without saying that this ugly, little square is the heart of Istanbul of modern times. The project includes building bulky tunnels on the wide avenues that lead to the square for the sake of directing the vehicle traffic underground and therefore “pedestrianizing” the square. PM Erdoğan also wants to take over the square’s Gezi Park in order to build a giant shopping mall/hotel/residence in the form of a replica of the Artillery Barrack that stood there until 1940. Further, he wants to replace the Ataturk Cultural Center with a new baroque-style opera building.

Taksim has some value as a symbol: Nearly all political demonstrations and marches end up at Taksim Square. It is packed in any given time of the day. The project, as seen on the official animation video prepared by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, shaves off the pavement for the sake of building these subterranean tunnels, a move that would limit pedestrian traffic to the square and basically butcher the prospect of any demonstrations. More importantly, Gezi Park is the only green area in Istanbul’s center, and it serves as the emergency evacuation zone for a city that has been built on an active fault line. In the light of these facts, Taksim Platform’s major task is to stop the project through legal means and create a platform to ensure that such projects should be planned in conversation with both area residents and urban planners. However, despite a court ruling suspending construction on the tunnels, the PM was determined to realize his dream project. Bulldozers went in to Gezi Park and illegally started uprooting the trees. That’s why people ran to Gezi Park to reclaim the public space, to protect their trees and their right to choose the way they want to live their lives.

Bulldozer taken over by protestors later became one of the symbols of the resistance. Photo: Ceren Erdem

Bulldozer taken over by protestors later became one of the symbols of the resistance. Photo: Ceren Erdem

By the time I arrived in Istanbul and got close to Taksim Square, I knew what my brother’s words on the phone meant. After searching for a way to get there, I first found myself in a hot zone. The police were constantly bombarding demonstrators with tear gas while some protestors were trying to build a high, strong barricade to stop them. Every single piece of material that could be added to the barricade was carried hand-in-hand by a human chain, the same way all the other barricades had been built. People were injured; doctors, like everyone else, were running around to bring medicine, to carry the injured into a mosque that had opened its doors to operate as infirmary. Later, Erdoğan dared to declare that people had disrespectfully walked into that mosque with their shoes on and drank alcohol, demonstrating he couldn’t understand why an imam preferred to help innocent, peaceful people over being loyal to the PM.

Some of the makeshift barricades. Photo: Ceren Erdem

Some of the makeshift barricades. Photo: Ceren Erdem

The same night, a smart group of people managed to operate a bulldozer and chased the police with it for some time. It was a heroic moment for all of us. Walking to Gezi Park, I came across the self-made barricades surrounding the area. Inside its borders was an autonomous zone. Feeling like I was moving within a movie studio, I tried to perceive every detail I saw and adapt to this new reality.

When I reached the park I thought, and I still do, it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. At a time when you had been feeling most hopeless about your country, this awakening was shocking and thrilling, to say the least.

View from Gezi Park. Photo: Onur Engin

View from Gezi Park. Photo: Onur Engin

Having suffered from military coups and oppressive regimes, our parents raised us to be as apolitical as possible. I am sorry — no, actually, pleased — to say that it didn’t work. However, people are politicized in a new way now, beyond the mainstream definitions of left, right, religion, etc. Based on demands for freedom and human rights, the uprisings managed to bring many diverse groups together in the park, groups that might otherwise feel uncomfortable standing side by side. Women have always been in the forefront. Many LGBTQ people were not there only for the resistance, but also to face their prejudices 1. Anti-capitalist Muslims revealed the difference between being religious and utilizing religion for political ends, while environmentalists brought in their knowledge and injected their awareness. Nationalist Turkish groups could not stand but set up their tents close to Kurdish groups. Football ultras2 brought in their endurance and joy, and the hacker group Redhack (@TheRedHack) has built up the virtual castle of the resistance. Everyone but everyone brought in endless love.

A restauran's daily menu: 1. Advanced Democracy, 2. Pepper Spray, 3. Agent Orange. Alternative Menu: More Freedom. Found image.

A restauran’s daily menu: 1. Advanced Democracy, 2. Pepper Spray, 3. Agent Orange. Alternative Menu: More Freedom. Found image.

We shared our food, built up our library, and seeded our new garden. We slept, cooked, and cleaned together. We were tear-gassed together. Local media, with only a few exceptions, either avoided the protest or preferred to show it as a menace to society. However, while Erdoğan turned the police into his own army, their disproportionate violence was met with disproportionate intelligence. Resistance took different forms, from reading books to the police to playing guitar in front of water cannons. Stencils and spraypainted texts of humorous political satire filled the walls. As people insisted on being peaceful and unarmed, facing with this unknown format of protests, the police, acting on Erdoğan’s behalf, got more violent. The stronger they attacked, the stronger our connections became.

Yet, in the end, we are all flesh and bone. While nearly 7,500 people have been hospitalized due to plastic bullets, pressurized water, tear gas, and aimed tear gas canisters, five protestors lost their lives.3 The policeman who killed Ethem Sarisülük with a bullet in his head was released with claims of self-defense. The final attack to the park on June 15 ferociously evacuated everyone, including children and the elderly. Immediately after that, public assemblies started to gather every night in parks across Istanbul and in other cities. Until July 7, Gezi Park was closed to the public but occupied by the police. Meanwhile, a court released its final decision on the Gezi park project — in favor of stopping it. Finally, when the mayor decided to open the public park to public, it only lasted for a few hours and resulted with 37 protestors being taken in police custody, including the members of Taksim Solidarity4. Was this a trap? We don’t know. Since May 27, approximately 4,000 people have been taken into custody (official numbers by human rights organizations and the Ministry of Internal Affairs vary from 3,366 to 4,900), some randomly on the streets, some from their homes. Seventy-eight have been arrested. Gezi Park is open to public use, for now, and public assemblies continue with hot discussions on democracy, new strategies, tolerance, and coexistence.

Standing Man. Photo: Burak Su

Standing Man. Photo: Burak Su

Where does art stand in this picture?

To my mind, there is no need to attain a special role or expect one from the art community in the matter of emergencies. Artists, curators, writers, and overall producers of the contemporary art scene have been actively involved in the process from the very beginning. We have taken the advantage of one our strengths and our international networks, to spread our voice around the world. We have also observed that we are surrounded with highly creative people. In the most depressing moments, a massive collection of humor was produced. They gave us moments of laughter. When the police took over the park in mid-June, we all learned to simply stand up against injustice from The Standing Man (duran adam), Erdem Gunduz, a performance artist who stood still on sealed-off Taksim Square for hours and initiated a new form of passive resistance. Yet, I believe it is extremely hard for any art project to beat the “earth fast-breaking” organized by anti-capitalist Muslims on the pedestrianized Istiklal Avenue leading to Taksim Square, where people of Gezi Park, regardless of their beliefs, set up a 700-meter-long communal dinner to celebrate the first meal of Ramadan.

Ads on billboards replaced by some creative people.

Ads on billboards replaced by some creative people.

On the other hand, the Istanbul Biennial will take place around the corner beginning September 14. Fulya Erdemci, the curator of the coming up edition, had announced her focus will be the notion of public space as a political forum. Who would have guessed that Turkey would witness the biggest civil uprising in its history, and public space would extensively be politically engaged in an unprecedented way? If art is to trigger questions, feelings, or social change, Gezi Park has certainly achieved it all and challenged our past and future experiences.

We are thinking anew. And it is only the beginning, our struggle continues.

Two views of the "earth fast-breaking" meal. Photos: Found image (left); Camila Rocha (right)

Two views of the “earth fast-breaking” meal. Photos: Found image (left); Camila Rocha (right)

Ceren Erdem is a curator and writer based in New York and Istanbul. Born in Gaziantep, Turkey, she has lived in New York since 2010. For more images from Gezi Park, visit #occupygezi

1 Gay Pride Istanbul has been taking place each year since 2003 on the last week of June. As a part of the resistance, this year’s march was supported largely by Gezi protestors and attended by around 100,000 people.

2 The fans of three major football teams of Istanbul, Besitas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, have united under the name “Istanbul United.” Istanbul United, the movie, is seeking donations for its completion.

3 Medeni Yıldırım (18), Ali İsmail Korkmaz (19), Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (20), Abdullah Cömert (22),  Ethem Sarısülük (26) lost their lives during the protests.

4 Taksim Solidarity is comprised of 124 NGOs, chambers, and other civil initiatives.

Congratulations, Mr. Vo

It was great to see that Danh Vo was named the winner of the 2012 Hugo Boss Prize 2012 on November 1. The short list included some very strong artists, including the wonderful Trisha Donnelly, who was an important part of our 2009 exhibition The Quick and the Dead and whose work is in the Walker’s permanent collection. Having said that, […]

It was great to see that Danh Vo was named the winner of the 2012 Hugo Boss Prize 2012 on November 1. The short list included some very strong artists, including the wonderful Trisha Donnelly, who was an important part of our 2009 exhibition The Quick and the Dead and whose work is in the Walker’s permanent collection. Having said that, I’m a bit biased on this one as I’m working with Danh on 9 Artists, a group show that opens here in the fall of 2013. His work is also one of the most recent additions to the Walker collection: Last summer his Tombstone for Phùng Vo (2010) was installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where it remains on view today. It’s a beautiful and complex work that we will likely be talking about more during next summer’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden 25th Anniversary celebrations.

For more on Vo, watch my conversation with him or read an article on his ambitious project We the People–a life-size cast of the Statue of Liberty, presented in unassembled fragments–currently on display at The Art Institute of Chicago and University of Chicago.

Remembering Rosemary Furtak, Champion of Artists’ Books

On July 8, we lost a dear friend when Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak passed away. Dedicating 29 years to the Walker Art Center, Rosemary was a leader in her field, building our library into one of the primary repositories for contemporary art research in the country. She knew that as an institution powered by the […]

Rosemary Furtak in the Walker Library, 2006. Photo: Gene Pittman

On July 8, we lost a dear friend when Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak passed away. Dedicating 29 years to the Walker Art Center, Rosemary was a leader in her field, building our library into one of the primary repositories for contemporary art research in the country. She knew that as an institution powered by the work of living artists, the library too must be a living, breathing organism, one that deepened not only our understanding of the artists in the Walker’s collection, but also in the world at large. Under her care, the library demonstrated that contemporary art was fast-paced and exciting. She made sure the right exhibition catalogues, periodicals, and offbeat ephemera were brought in to provide crucial context to the work of the many artists, performers, and filmmakers shown here. Her view was that a library of this nature must be both a repository and a space for active exploration.

Rosemary had many passions: edgy fashion, the Minnesota Twins, the hills of northern Italy, and concerts at Orchestra Hall, where she was an usher for years. But her greatest love was the field of artists’ books—volumes conceived as original works of art rather than reproductions or mass-produced publications. The art form took hold in the mid-1960s as many artists began to embrace the book as a uniquely democratic vehicle for presenting visual information, and has today grown into a vibrant area of artistic production. When it came to artists’ books, Rosemary was omnivorous, whether she was seeking out key historical examples, befriending rare book dealers here and abroad, or acquiring publications by talented young artists from the Twin Cities. In this arena Rosemary was a trailblazer, a distinction she wore with pride on her well-tailored sleeve.

Rosemary Furtak, 1986 Photo: Glenn Halvorson

Rosemary began her tenure at the Walker as librarian in 1983. Upon her arrival, the library owned 20,000 volumes, and only a handful of books made by artists, many of which had been inadvertently rubber-stamped and stored with exhibition catalogues and artist monographs. Seeing its potential value to the Walker’s collection, Rosemary proceeded to “rescue” this material and devote a special section to it. Her efforts were recognized by artist Sol LeWitt, who, while here installing his wall drawing Four Geometric Figures in a Room (1984; currently on view on the Walker’s 8th floor), paid a visit to the library and perused its holdings. He proceeded to hand Rosemary a check for $500, instructing her to officially launch a collection of books by artists. At the time, the sum went a long way and gave root to this now significant trove: today, the Walker’s library and permanent collections have grown to include more than 2,000 examples. All told, the library’s holdings doubled under her watch.

A selection of books made by artists from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

Rosemary created a unique community. Those who worked with her throughout the years came to know her as a friend, indispensable colleague, and mentor. The many artists, students, and book enthusiasts who visited her domain encountered a person whose passion for her work was contagious, and whose capacity for sharing her enthusiasms seemingly boundless. Though the Walker’s library occupies a quiet corner of the building, she made it a nerve center, often buzzing with curators, researchers, and tour guides. Always accommodating, Rosemary delighted in assisting visitors with their research, more often than not pointing them toward resources only available at the Walker, including her meticulously assembled artist files filled with clippings, uncatalogued ephemera, and sometimes unclassifiable oddities.

Books by Lawrence Weiner from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Each year, alongside her general acquisitions to the library, Rosemary earmarked funds to be used on artists’ books, making an effort to have representation of all artists in the Walker’s collection who had made books as part of their practice. In this way, important volumes were acquired in depth by LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, Richard Tuttle, Dieter Roth, Lawrence Weiner, and others for whom books were a central activity beginning in the 1960s. She also began to collect publications by local and regional artists, emerging artists expanding notions of the book’s aesthetic possibilities, and to fill in historical gaps in the collection by Surrealists, Futurists, and others, such as Marcel Duchamp, essential to the development of contemporary art.

Beyond her acquisitive zeal, however, it was Rosemary’s desire for sharing the collection that was the most inspiring aspect of a visit to Walker’s library. Rosemary was always at the ready to provide the essential piece of information you never knew you needed. She was more than happy to pull out her most recent treasures, sometimes unsolicited. From innocuous storage boxes on the shelves came books lavishly illustrated with original etchings and lithographs, shaped books, books without words, books that pop up to become sculpture, books that unfold or unfurl to astounding lengths, and books made from unconventional and often seductive materials. We curators were instructed to never throw mail away, but to send it to the library, in case something merited safekeeping. Rosemary collected important ephemera, correspondence from artists and galleries, rare exhibition catalogues, and multiples. Occasionally, one might open a storage box and find in it not only an artist’s book, but also its sales prospectus, a clipping of a review, or a letter from the artist.

Books by Richard Tuttle from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

The Walker’s curators have frequently drawn upon the library’s collection for works to include in exhibitions, such as Duchamp’s Leg (1997), which examined the ripple effect of Duchamp and his legacy throughout contemporary art, or Edward Ruscha: Editions (1999), a show that took the library’s complete collection of the artists’ books as a point of departure for a full retrospective and catalogue raisonné of this material. In 2007, I had the pleasure of working with Rosemary as a co-curator on Text/Messages: Books by Artists, which marked the first time that the material had been featured as such in an exhibition. The show was as much a celebration of Rosemary and her work as it was of the extraordinary collection she assembled.

In her field, Rosemary was a quiet but formidable force. Her advocacy made her a model for other art librarians grappling with ever-shifting definitions of what a book can be. She was a strong proponent for intermuseum exchange programs, whereby institutions with increasingly limited resources can continue to grow their libraries through the trading of catalogues and other publications. She was involved with the book arts community locally, lecturing about artists who make books and teaching classes to students who visited the Walker’s library. During the period when the Walker was closed for expansion, Rosemary curated an engaging satellite exhibition of artist’s books at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, which featured highlights from the Walker’s holdings.

On the occasion of her retirement earlier this year, and as a tribute to her enduring contributions here, the Walker named her hidden cache the Rosemary Furtak Collection. This institution and the community at large owe much to Rosemary’s keen and adventurous eye, generous spirit, and scholarly care. She will be greatly missed as her legacy continues to inspire those who seek to open a book’s cover, encounter the truly unexpected, and realize they have found art.

Books by Dieter Roth from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

Sit-Specific Art: Darsie Alexander on Franz West’s Sittable Sculptures

Franz West, The Ego and the Id, 2008 “The failings of the body were never lost on Franz,” Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander wrote in late July in remembrance of Vienna-based artist Franz West, who passed away July 25. “He devoted much of his career to thinking about the oddities and wonder of the physical […]

Franz West, The Ego and the Id, 2008

“The failings of the body were never lost on Franz,” Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander wrote in late July in remembrance of Vienna-based artist Franz West, who passed away July 25. “He devoted much of his career to thinking about the oddities and wonder of the physical realm. How people walk, interact, make love, snore in public, and do other intimately human and occasionally embarrassing things was a theme in much of his art.”

How we use our bodies — particularly how and where we sit — was a key interest for West, and one of the motivating ideas behind Sitzwuste, the Walker’s trio of metal sculptural benches, which Alexander has called West’s “ode to the human ass.” Alexander, who curated a 2008 West retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, discussed West’s life and art with Modern Art Notes‘ Tyler Green on this week’s MAN Podcast. (more…)

“The Quiet Revolutionary”: Honoring Librarian Rosemary Furtak

A beloved member of the Walker family and the book arts community, Rosemary Furtak, the Walker’s librarian for 29 years, passed away Sunday, July 8, 2012, at age 69.

Rosemary Furtak, 1986

A beloved member of the Walker family and the book arts community, Rosemary Furtak passed away Sunday, July 8, 2012, at age 69. She was a great colleague and friend, and one who will be sorely missed.

Last week we celebrated a beloved colleague, Rosemary Furtak, who retired recently after a 29-year career at the Walker. Countless curators, scholars, writers, artists, designers, and others—both inside and outside the art center—have a special fondness for the Walker Library, which houses more than 35,000 publications in a wonderfully hushed, secluded underground space. This is thanks largely to Rosemary and the infectious enthusiasm she brought to her profession as a librarian–and, more to the point, to her role in establishing and building the library’s collection of some 1,600 artist’s books.

It was for her work in both of those capacities that she received a Distinguished Service Award from the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS) at its 2012 conference, held last March in Toronto. “In the early 1980s, Rosemary was among the few art museum librarians who recognized a fundamental difference between artists’ books and others, and who segregated them into special collections areas that would eventually become known as ‘Artists’ Book Collections’,” noted Janice Lea Lurie, head librarian at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in presenting the award. “The idea that artists’ books are different, or as Rosemary stated, they are ‘books that refuse to behave like other books’, was a visionary step, as no well-defined precedents in the early 1980s existed for establishing artists’ book collections. Consequently, Rosemary was a pioneer in this area, which later became part of the “collection development” mainstream of the late 1980s and early ’90s.”

In their nomination letter, Lurie and a host of other ARLIS colleagues wrote of the ongoing impact of Rosemary’s “early and visionary leadership” not just in art museum librarianship, but also in the books arts community and “the strongly rooted ‘book-scene’ culture of the Twin Cities.” They cited her as both a “well-known local personality in the art, library, and book arts circles” and “a highly respected and beloved figure internationally”; and, finally, noting her “very quiet way” and “great modesty”—something that endeared her to so many—they proposed for her the title of “The Quiet Revolutionary.” More than 30 of Furtak’s fellow art librarians and other colleagues in book arts and museums supported the nomination.

Many of us at the Walker already miss Rosemary’s sharp insights and vast knowledge, not to mention her connoisseurship of chocolate and her sartorial flair (on any given day she could easily take the award for best-dressed Walker staffer). We will also sorely miss her miniature exhibitions of artists’ books, an ongoing series presented in a specially built display case right outside the library. Fortunately, all of these exhibitions dating back to 2005 have been documented in photos–click here to see the full collection on Flickr.

For more on Rosemary and the artists’ book collection – including 13 great examples of works—see this interview from 2008, conducted as she was co-curating the exhibition Text/Messages with Walker curator Siri Engberg; and her article, “Adventures in Collecting, originally published in Walker magazine.

Recent artist’s book display, organized by Rosemary Furtak





The Complex of National Identity at the 54th Biennale di Venezia

Of the Venice Biennale exhibitions I have attended throughout my years as a museum professional, the most recent installment fell especially flat. This was true of the main exhibition ILLUMInazioni, organized by veteran Swiss curator Bice Curiger, and the myriad national pavilions curated independently by participating countries and located in the Giardini and many off-site […]

Of the Venice Biennale exhibitions I have attended throughout my years as a museum professional, the most recent installment fell especially flat. This was true of the main exhibition ILLUMInazioni, organized by veteran Swiss curator Bice Curiger, and the myriad national pavilions curated independently by participating countries and located in the Giardini and many off-site venues throughout Venice.

Philippe Parreno’s slight and almost pathetic marquee of lights over the entrance to ILLUMInazioni seems to announce it all: a Biennale in malaise, full of deflated artistic gestures and impotency. The sense of “artistic stultification” — to appropriate language used in the Biennale’s exhibition guide to describe Maurizio Cattelan’s hundreds of taxidermy pigeons that line the ceiling and rafters of the Arsenale — was pervasive.

That said, Cattelan’s installation is one of the few highlights, along with other familiar works by many established artists, including Urs Fischer, Sigmar Polke, Rosemarie Trockel, Monica Bonvincini, and Christian Marclay. Marclay presented The Clock, the 24-hour epic film work that follows the appearance of time in thousands of sampled films, each clip corresponding to the real time of the audience viewing it. The work recently commanded lines around the block when it was exhibited in New York and London. In Venice, a visitor can sit comfortably on couches and be lost for hours uninterrupted in the orchestrated cacophony of Marclay’s edit. I was especially fortunate to arrive at precisely high noon.

Installation view of Maurizio Cattelan's "The Others"

On the journey home, I found myself continuing to contemplate the 2011 Biennale with curiosity and intrigue. Was my overall impression a generational one? Did my memory of past biennales that had more impact reflect a sense of nostalgia not relevant to the current moment? Still,what stood out for me were not those few signature works in the main exhibition but rather the general impression derived from my tour of the national pavilions, especially those situated in the Giardini. There I found successive examples of artists who reflected in their entries a decided ambivalence—even dismay—about what it means to represent one’s country in such a highly visible international arena.

This ambivalence displayed itself in a variety of ways, including anger, frustration, and an abiding sense of powerlessness, as well as marked restraint. In the Romanian Pavilion, a collective of intergenerational artists spray-painted statements of protest along the interior walls of the pavilion, and on the exterior scrawled lists of reasons for or against participating in the biennale, ranging from the grandiosely political (“Venice Biennale Is A Choking-On-Money Mercantilist Fossil”) to the banal and personal (“We Have Nothing to Wear To The Opening”). The Egyptian Pavilion commemorates the new media artist Ahmed Basiouny, considered a martyr of the revolution in Egypt as he was killed while demonstrating against the Mubarak  regime on January 28. The pavilion shows documentation of Basiouny’s 30 Days of Running in the Place, which the artist made in 2010, before anyone could have anticipated the revolution. He measured the sweat he produced while running on the spot and transformed that information into code visually represented on large screens — a kind of a metaphor for the power of motion and digital forces to activate movement and change. This footage is combined with video the artist himself shot of the early days of demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The national pavilions that I saw which best present artists who successfully navigated the complex terrain of the representation of nationhood are the U.S. and Poland. Both countries include new works by artists familiar to Walker audiences, including Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who represent the U.S. with a series of performative installations titled Gloria, and Yael Bartana, an Israeli/Dutch artist who represents Poland with a trilogy of films made between 2007 and 2011 titled …and Europe will be Stunned. At the Walker, Allora’s and Calzadilla’s was a part of the 2003 exhibition How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age (curated by Philippe Vergne with Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi), and the following year they undertook a micro-broadcasting project, Radio Revolt: One Person, One Watt; Yael Bartana was one of 16 artists included in 2007’s Brave New Worlds (another global survey curated by Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond).

The 60-ton overturned military tank of Allora and Calzadilla’s Track and Field is positioned dramaticallyin front of of the U.S. pavilion building. The sculpture is outfitted with a functional treadmill that a U.S. athlete periodically runs on, activating the tank’s treads and resulting in a clanging and screeching that dominates – superpower like — the Giardini. The strategy of ironic juxtaposition—between military prowess, money, and athleticism—carries through other works in Gloria. Among the most poignant is Half Mast/Full Mast, a video installation which captures well the Biennale’s mood of quiet disdain and resounding ambivalence about the political realities and policies impacting our world.

The boldest entry by far is Yael Bartana’s three-screen film installation. Her controversial entry marks the first time a non-Polish national has represented the country. Tackling the complex subject of Jewish identity in the post-World War II Europe and Poland, Bartana (of Polish descent and the grandchild of Holocaust victims) creates a disturbing filmic narrative that traces the rise and fall of the fictitious leader of the Jewish Resistance Movement in Poland, a political group that calls for the return of 3.3 million Jews to the land of its forefathers. Appropriating the symbols and rhetoric of different forms of national and political extremism, Bartana draws parallels between aspects of Zionist and Third Reich propaganda  and alludes to current tensions in the West Bank and throughout the Middle East.

These entries bring the complex structure of national representation at the Venice Biennale squarely into question. While the declaration of nationhood may have made sense at the inception of the Biennale di Venezia over 100 years ago, are such distinctions necessary, productive, or even relevant to artists now? Bice Curiger’s impulse to create “Para-Pavilions” — that is, temporary pavilions throughout the main exhibition, which were designed by artists to host the works of other artists of varying national origins and practice — provides an intriguing alternative to the tradition of national pavilions. It is my hope that in the future a new model such as this will be further developed to keep this massive international survey relevant as a barometer of the complex times in which we live, and artists’ responses to an aggressively dynamic world.

On the Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Co. collection

Last week the Walker announced its acquisition of a comprehensive collection of some 150 works from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: set pieces, costumes, painted drops, and props, created over several decades by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and John Cage, Cunningham’s longtime partner. As director Olga Viso notes, “The […]

Robert Rauschenberg created the "parachute" costumes and other set pieces for "Antic Meet," 1958 Cunningham work.

Last week the Walker announced its acquisition of a comprehensive collection of some 150 works from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: set pieces, costumes, painted drops, and props, created over several decades by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and John Cage, Cunningham’s longtime partner.

As director Olga Viso notes, “The acquisition of these works is groundbreaking for the Walker and for the museum field at large, affirming our longstanding commitment to bringing together diverse artistic practices to form a cross-disciplinary blend of programs. We enjoyed a lasting relationship with Cunningham beginning in the early 1960s and look forward to inspiring future generations with programs, exhibitions, and new scholarship devoted to his legacy of innovation and collaboration.”

Read all the details about the acquisition in our press room — as well as the excellent coverage at the New York Times, the Star Tribune, at Minnesota Public Radio, and elsewhere.

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