The way that exhibitions originate often plays a determining role in their final execution, and the kernels of inspiration are frequently the most enduring. The idea for Benches & Binoculars began about a year ago with a photograph from an early moment in Walker history. It shows a domestic interior with objects—including a dense array of paintings—stacked floor to ceiling in a salon display style that evokes the history museums of old Europe, with their velvet banquettes and dimly lit interiors. The parlorlike room in this photograph, however, belonged to T. B. Walker, who founded the Walker Art Galleries in 1927 to share with the public his own eclectic variety of ancient objects as well as modern art.
If that archival gallery photograph was the first source of inspiration for this exhibition, the Walker’s present-day art-storage rooms were the second. In these spaces, artworks are organized for safety and security, with large retractable screens holding an array of objects—related and unrelated—in a climate-controlled environment. At once highly organized and a visual jumble, works from all moments of the institution’s history are nestled side by side. On the same screen, for example, one may find images of three remarkable hands, or two male self-portraits, or a cacophony of reds. Perhaps these works have absolutely nothing to do with one another, made by artists who would never have crossed paths. But they live together in any case, awaiting the discovery of some subtlety that will become the context of their shared renewal.
The Walker is one of a few places where autonomous works and programs, with different audiences and disparate histories, coexist and frequently overlap. While these congruencies often are planned, they are just as often serendipitous, like the screen of hands. The mix of live performing arts events, film and video screenings, and gallery exhibitions, in addition to various educational programs, sets up a plethora of opportunities to coordinate and diverge in a way that keeps the offerings at the Walker fresh and unpredictable. We sought to create this quality in Benches & Binoculars: a little bit of synchronicity, a little bit of aesthetic friction, and, well, a lot of modern and contemporary paintings.
The salon-style presentation of some 75 works is markedly different from the minimalist aesthetic at many modern and contemporary art museums today, and the resulting density is perhaps the exhibition’s most dramatic feature. Works by Georgia O’Keeffe, David Hockney, Marsden Hartley, and Jasper Johns are arranged in no particular order and in no obvious hierarchy, other than the knowledge that the overall arrangement must include at least three blue horses (Franz Marc) and an office at night (Edward Hopper). For visitors desiring a closer look at paintings situated some distance from the gallery floor, we provide viewing binoculars and a place to sit.
Many works in Benches & Binoculars have not been seen in the galleries for decades, and a number of surprises (as well as a few old friends) make their 21st-century debuts here. Some paintings have served as centerpieces of key monographic exhibitions, and are locally as well as internationally renowned. Others are more modest in appearance, subject to the tides of changing tastes and practices. All were, at one time, contemporary.
Over the course of the exhibition’s nine-month run, programs and activities will offer opportunities to investigate ideas at play within the galleries, opening new avenues of understanding about the relationships between artworks, and delving into the ways in which personal impressions assign kinships and distinctions among pieces on view. As in Event Horizon, change is also inevitable in Benches & Binoculars. When new works appear in the space and others return to the vaults, repeat visits will be important, and probably necessary. And yet even with a single visit, browsing provides its own kind of pleasure and freedom—as well as a distinctive view of the Walker’s history—just as it did in T. B. Walker’s day.
—Darsie Alexander, Chief Curator