Having lived in Minnesota until I went to college, I have always known that the Walker Art Center was a good museum; it’s easily accessible from anywhere in the Twin Cities and throughout my life I have been on numerous field trips there. However, it was only after beginning my professional art career that I came to appreciate the Walker as a great museum, with one of the best contemporary art collections in the country and with an especially good collection of conceptual and minimalist art.
The Walker's exhibition “Statements” takes full advantage of its deep holdings, focusing on the work of Donald Judd, Joseph Beuys and Dan Flavin. The initial, and necessary, conceit is that these artists are “contemporaries of thought rather than form,” according to the exhibition text. This explains the aesthetic rupture when one first looks at a room devoted to Donald Judd then moves to a gallery packed with Beuys’ work, archives and ephemera, and then back into a room with Dan Flavin’s spare work. While it is hard to ignore the obvious similarities between Judd and Flavin (economical, industrial), this is really an examination of three major paths sculpture would take in the late twentieth century as exemplified by the artists on view.
The initial gallery is devoted to the work of Donald Judd. Several untitled works are sensitively installed in the gallery, making sure each piece has enough room for presentation without feeling isolated. The gallery is dominated however by a very large piece consisting of six deep-blue, anodized, aluminum cubes that process across the middle of the room effectively dividing the space. My first feeling was that these were paying homage to Tony Smith and his groundbreaking Die (1962/1968), though the heights are different (Judd’s work stands at four feet, Smith’s at six feet). While the basic shape may be an homage to Smith, Judd immediately makes the form his own using the highly refined aluminum and recessed opposing sides of the cubes that face the viewer the length of the series. The effect is an optical illusion that makes the aluminum look as though it were blue Plexiglas at some angles, another favorite industrial material of Judd’s.
Donald Judd, untitled, 1971. Anodized aluminum. 48 x 48 x 48 in. each of 6 boxes, 48 x 108 x 48 in. overall installed. Collection Walker Art Center,Gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, 1971.
The high production factor and use of industrial materials by Donald Judd further opened the doors for artists to embrace non-traditional, even purely industrial, production practices. In a sense, these are early precursors to Anish Kapoor’s aluminum pieces and Jeff Koons’ production intensive work.
From Judd’s cerebral and refined pieces, the visitor walks into galleries containing the work of Joseph Beuys. In a viewing gallery, one may watch the video documenting I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) as Beuys is picked up from the airport by an ambulance, sirens blaring, and whisked to a gallery where he would live with a coyote for three days. Unexpectedly, this reminded me of Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (1976) as in a similar sequence, the band is whisked from a New York airport and escorted by siren-blaring police to Madison Square Garden, where they rocked America. Though from most descriptions, Beuys seemed to be quite the rockstar himself.
The industrial and refined sensibility of Judd is countered here by Beuys’ entropic and more natural sensibility. The shift initially is disorientating if only because of the sheer mass of work that Beuys is represented by. There are numerous vitrines filled with small sculptures and ephemera alike, and as one may guess, felt is a recurring material here. Lining the walls are works on paper and catching my eye towards the end of the gallery was an actual long stemmed rose in a vase.
Joseph Beuys, ohne die Rose tun wir’s nicht (We Won’t Do It without the Rose), 1972. Offset lithograph on paper, ink, 31-3/4 x 22-1/4 in. Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992. © 1972 Estate of Joseph Beuys / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The rose in the vase makes up a work from 1973, Rose for Direct Democracy. Accompanying the flower is an image of the actual installation and use, ohne die Rose tun wir’s nicht (We Won’t Do It without the Rose), 1972. In this lithograph we see Beuys facing, from across a table, an anonymous visitor with their back turned to the camera. Beuys appears in earnest discussion with his temporary pupil and between them is the rose. These two works came out of his participation in documenta 5 in 1972 in which he would engage passersby in conversations about direct democracy and other subjects. Essential in this was the rose, a romantic gesture for his idealistic conversations. The continuous replacement of the rose more than three decades later indicates to me the generosity of Beuys’ practice. His ideas are not static, nor even really his, he intends them to go on in time, to degrade, be replaced and be practiced by others.
From the packed galleries of Beuys, we move to the final exhibition space, which is devoted to the work of Dan Flavin. The work of Flavin has always made more sense to me when I learned that he was raised and schooled Roman Catholic and briefly attended seminary with the intention of becoming a priest. Of course, he denied his art references religion or even the past.
Dan Flavin, untitled (to dear, durable Sol from Stephen, Sonja and Dan) two, 1966/1969. Cool white, daylight fluorescent tubes, fixtures. 96 x 96 x 8 in. overall. Collection Walker Art Center. Gift of Northern States Power Company, 1969
Glowing like an icon, one finds the work untitled (to dear, durable Sol from Stephen, Sonja and Dan) two (1966/1969) which is a square placed in the angle of a corner, spreading the light out along the floor and the walls. The title refers the close relationship that Flavin had with Sol LeWitt and his family. They mutually admired each other’s work and would trade pieces. Formally, the work is essentially another tribute to LeWitt’s beloved, gloriously neutral cube. It’s also worth noting that this object was donated by the local power utility, now that is funding innovation!
Flavin uses industrial materials as Judd does, but where Judd’s are highly produced, Flavin's are readymade. The lights and fixtures are all easily available, which has led many an art student to DIY a Flavin.
Ultimately “Statements” was a nice shift from exhibiting relations between artists to exposing historical implications. The viewer is then more responsible for finding the contemporary connections to the art on display, which is where the rest of the Walker's exhibitions ideally would come in. This historical approach is usually seen at encyclopedic museums, the Walker is good place for the formula to be applied to late twentieth century art.
--Abraham Ritchie, ArtSlant: Chicago City Editor
(top image: Dan Flavin, untitled, 1963. Ultraviolet, blue fluorescent tubes and fixtures. 8 x 96 x 4 in. Collection Walker Art Center. Gift of Mrs. Harold Field, 1986.)
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