Article by Steven Litt
The big fall show at the Wexner Center for the Arts on the art collection of billionaire retailer Leslie Wexner and his wife, Abigail, may sound like a mere exercise in vanity, an air kiss from a cultural institution to its principal benefactors.
Don’t be fooled. Leslie Wexner – dubbed the “richest man in Ohio” and ranked 222 on the Forbes 400 list this year, with an estimated net worth of $6.4 billion – has talents that go way beyond being chairman and CEO of L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret, Pink, Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel and other iconic labels.
Wexner is a serious, disciplined art collector with a keen eye and the means to indulge it. And he’s bought some truly fantastic things over the past 40 years that have now surfaced, however briefly, for public enjoyment.
Dominated by clusters of important works by Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, the Wexner show, guest-curated by Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art and former senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is outstanding.
Aside from works by the three big masters, the 60 works on display, on view collectively for the first time, include delectable items such as a bronze casting of Edgar Degas’ famous sculpture of a 14-year-old ballerina; a spectacular painting by the American Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning; plus a group of paintings of silhouetted horses by the American postmodernist, Susan Rothenberg, whose work evokes prehistoric cave art along with up-to-the-moment theories about the nature of painting as an art.
On view through Dec. 31, the exhibition celebrates the Wexner Center’s 25th anniversary as central Ohio’s main portal to contemporary creativity and as a cultural hub on the campus of The Ohio State University.
It’s a significant moment in the cultural life of the state.
Housed in a complicated, cranky, polemical building designed by architect Peter Eisenman, the Wexner Center arguably launched the contemporary tradition of considering art museums and galleries as works of art in their own right, and thereby anticipated Frank Gehry’s famous Guggenheim branch in Bilbao, Spain, completed in 1997.
With a long, telescoping, sky-lighted ramp for a spine, and walls with protruding and recessed panels that slice this way and that like those of a Cubist sculpture, the Wexner Center often seems to compete with the art on view.
But the building works well as a showplace for the Leslie and Abigail Wexner Collection, displayed primarily as a series of discrete mini-exhibitions on Picasso, Dubuffet and Giacometti, and the other artists whose works are on view.
Given its many strengths, the show has temporarily shifted the artistic center of gravity in Ohio toward the center of the state, at least as far as midcentury modern art is concerned.
The collections of any or all of Ohio’s big museums would be significantly enriched if they were lucky enough to receive just a portion of what’s on view now in Columbus.
The collection’s unknown future
And without question, by giving the public a peek at what they own, the Wexners will raise questions about what they intend to do with their holdings long term.
Will a great collection built in Ohio stay in Ohio? Will the collectors donate to the state’s major museums, leave their treasures to their children or sell to the highest bidders? Those questions are now out in the open.
The exhibition is therefore a case in which the Wexner Center has persuaded its main supporter and his wife – who have donated $75 million to the institution over the years, according to published reports — to raise the ante on what they’re willing to share and to tolerate in terms of speculation.
For most visitors, however, the show is simply an invitation to indulge and enjoy.
For newcomers to modern art, the show is an experience of a kind that would normally require travel to Chicago, New York or Europe.
For aficionados, the exhibition is a chance to dive more deeply into the work of Picasso, Dubuffet and Giacometti, given that many of the works on view haven’t been widely exhibited or published.
Among them is Picasso’s arguably seminal “Nu au fauteuil noir (Nude in a black armchair),” form 1932. The work is part of a series inspired by Marie-Therese Walter, the model and mistress who became part of Picasso’s life when she was 17, and while the artist was still married to his ballet dancer wife, Olga Khokhlova.
The painting depicts the gently abstracted curves of Marie-Therese’s recumbent body and silky hair with long, smooth, creamy strokes of paint. Each touch of the brush is laid down like a long and gentle caress across the swelling, accessible body of Picasso’s muse.
Judge the artist if you will, but if you engage with this painting, you are complicit in his ebullient celebration of youth, desire and carnal bliss.
Visions of love and the body
But that’s just one moment in the show’s Picasso gallery, which charts nearly the entire arc of the artist’s career, from his launch in Barcelona, Spain, in the late 1890s to his final decades in the south of France.
In addition to the 1932 painting, highlights include exquisite examples of Picasso’s Cubist, neoclassical and surrealist periods.
Apart from the Picassos – which constitute a virtual exhibition within the exhibition — the show provides an excellent overview of Dubuffet’s most innovative years, when his raw, primal, childlike paintings depicted postwar Paris with a knowing and humorous crudity and affection.
In contrast to Picasso’s sensuous evocation of the nude Marie-Therese, Dubuffet shocks the eye with his “Aubergine et lie de vin (Eggplant and wine dregs),” form 1950, which crudely portrays the body of a woman in scratchy, graffiti-style outlines, as if she had been “opened up and stretched out like a flayed skin,” as Storr wrote in the show’s catalog.
The unforgettable Giacometti bronzes, made between the 1940s and the 1960s, portray emaciated figures that seem to have survived a holocaust only to stride across desolate plains in a condition somewhere between torment and oblivion.
With their references to archaic Greek Kuroi statues, Giacometti’s figures connect the 20th century to ancient inspirations, much like Picasso’s neoclassical paintings of the 1920s, also beautifully represented in the Wexner exhibition.
The Wexner hopes that by looking back on classic modern masters, it can show how their work has shaped much of what has followed since.
The show also makes the point that all the artists in it have been resolutely committed to figurative imagery in an age dominated by abstraction and by conceptual or philosophically motivated art.
The magical sense of touch
Hence, the show’s title, “Transfigurations,” which takes inspiration from the central motivation behind the impulses that guided the Wexners’ collection.
Another major thread is that of the vitality Picasso, Dubuffet and Giacometti imparted to their works through their highly physical and tactile approach to making art.
The bridge between what the eye sees and what the hand feels – and how artists communicate that connection — is one of the show’s major themes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the show has a certain toughness and unease. It’s not a collection of pretty, ingratiating paintings and sculptures.
That’s true of a group of Picasso portraits of his lover, the photographer Dora Maar, whose face he mercilessly twists and rearranges. And it’s certainly true of the Dubuffets and the Giacomettis. This is not a La-Z-Boy selection of happy Impressionist landscapes.
All of this may say something about Leslie Wexner as a person, for in choosing the works on view, he has certainly created a kind of self-portrait.
What’s not in doubt is that at a time when opportunities to create the kind of collection on view at the Wexner Center are fading, because of scarcity and stratospheric art-market prices, the Wexners have done very, very well.
That they have decided to share their treasures is an occasion for gratitude and enjoyment, no matter where their collection ends up in the future.