American Friends

Minneapolis
04.19.05

Left: Philippe Vergne and Sylvia Chivaratanond. Middle: View of the Walker Art Center. Right: Richard Flood (left), Matthew Barney (middle), and Jacques Herzog (right). (Photos courtesy Walker Art Center.)


After stopping in New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, we arrive in Minneapolis. I'm traveling with curators Gunnar Kvaran and Hans-Ulrich Obrist to map “The Uncertain States of America,” a project that will result in a
show of emerging American artists in Oslo in the fall. We’ve collected dossiers from almost a thousand prospective contributors and have glimpsed an artistic landscape that we really hadn’t known anything about. Armed with lists of recommendations from friends across the nation, we continue our exploration in the galleries, studios, cafés and hotel lobbies of Minneapolis. We meet the energetic John Rasmussen, director of Midway Contemporary Art, a huge space currently showing a big group exhibition called “Post Notes”—lots of young artists, known and unknown, all working with the titular office supply. Arriving at the Walker Art Center just in time for the Saturday preview of their newly expanded building is like coming back to firm ground. This is American art as we know it.

The building’s new Herzog & de Meuron-designed wing—which includes three galleries, a theater, lounges, a “party room” and a Wolfgang Puck restaurant—is spectacular, as I knew it would be. Our taxi driver, who had never heard of the Walker, had also absurdly not noticed that this shiny Swiss space ship of a building had just landed. In the lobby, director Kathy Halbreich and curators Richard Flood, Douglas Fogle and Philippe Vergne greet us in the typically gracious Walker way. They are all, understandably, in a good mood. Philippe, equipped with a walking stick, looks particularly glamorous. (He claims he broke his leg, but we all think he just really likes that stick.)

Should museum architecture try to be visual art in and of itself, or should it try to be as neutral a backdrop as possible? Normally I would opt for the latter, but as we make our way through the building I find myself liking Herzog & de Meuron’s auteurist flourishes: the cut-out filigree on the entryways and doors, which is reiterated in the decorations of the almost rococo theater, and even the crystal chandeliers that I at first thought were artworks. I’m not sure whether I’ll feel the same way in twenty years if they’re still hanging there—but there’s no danger that I’ll get sick of the art itself. Why is it that the best and most relevant collection of recent American art is here in Minneapolis, and not in New York where the money and the critical intelligence are concentrated? According to Fogle, who leads our tour, the trick is to collect in depth. Of course, you then have to pick the right artists to concentrate on, and the Walker obviously has. We spend lots of time in the four galleries devoted to Matthew Barney, Sherrie Levine, Kara Walker, and Robert Gober—the last, with early work that seems to contain embryonic elements of everything Gober has done in the last twenty years, being particularly fabulous.

Outside the Gober space I bump into Johann König, the young dealer from Berlin who I first met here in Minneapolis many years ago, when he was a teenager touring the US with his father, Kasper. Back then, he smoked so much that he drove everyone crazy. Now, he says, he has quit, in deference to American attitudes. (His father hasn't.) I also see Venice Biennale director Maria de Corral, but other than that there aren’t many Europeans on hand. It does seem that almost all of New York has made it to Minneapolis, along with much of LA—I spy Tom Crow from the Getty, whose presence must have raised the average IQ a few points—and most certainly all the people in charge of the various galleries through which the works in the collection passed before ending up at the Walker. The comments I overheard indicated I wasn’t the only one impressed to find a critical mass of important, well-presented work in an ostensibly “out-of-the-way” location. The Walker must have a generous acquisition budget, but its great collection also undoubtedly owes something to the charm of the place and the people who run it. On my way out, the tired but beaming director sends me off with a bear hug. Would that ever happen at MoMA?

Daniel Birnbaum