In contrast to the minimalist installation style in the galleries of most contemporary arts organizations, the salon-style installation of “Benches & Binoculars” at the Walker Art Center refers to the 19th- and early 20th-century gallery practices that lumber magnate T.B. Walker emulated in displaying his personal collection. The result is an unconventional narrative of recent art history, and a testament to changing tastes over time. At the Twin Cities Daily Planet Jay Gabler reports that “Benches & Binoculars” is both novel and tremendously illuminating.” Installed in the tall yet cozy Perlman Gallery, the exhibit features paintings from the Walker’s collection (including, prominently, an oil portrait of founder T.B. Walker himself) hung salon-style, jammed up in close proximity to one another. One wall features predominantly figurative paintings, the opposing wall abstracts. The gallery is carpeted (!) in purple (!!) with matching couches designed by Andrew Blauvelt; per the exhibit’s title, binoculars are provided to peer at the higher pieces.
“You’ve probably never seen contemporary painting treated like this. The norm at museums of modern art, as it is elsewhere at the Walker, is to give a painting—especially a painting by a towering artist like Chuck Close, Frank Stella, or Mark Rothko—a wide berth of white wall space. (At a Thursday morning media preview, curator Elizabeth Carpenter noted that the Walker bought the massive Close self-portrait for just $1,200—paid in installments.)
“Seeing the work presented this way isn’t just novel, it’s tremendously illuminating. Not only do eras and artists get to intermingle, abstract art isn’t segregated from figurative art. In the windowless gallery, the eclectic warmth of the display feels like a giant hug by artists who typically are presented as ice cold. Too often, museums try to render art accessible by posting—unmissably, and distractingly, adjacent to the art—biographical text that’s supposed to make the artist someone you can relate to. Benches & Binoculars shows, in a manner that’s fun but doesn’t condescend to the work or to visitors, how the artists relate to each other. That’s much more meaningful than a cute story about, say, Franz Marc’s pet dogs.”
“Benches & Binoculars,” curated by Darsie Alexander and Elizabeth Carpenter. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. Through August 15, 2010.