The Wexner Center for the Arts is at the forefront of technology, always seeking out what is new, innovative and vital in contemporary art. But sometimes it’s fun to look back: how did the Wex become the Wex?
The Winter Exhibit at The Ohio State University Art Center, “To begin, once again: a prehistory of the Wex, 1968-89“, presents a variety of works collected by the University Gallery of Fine Art, predecessor of the avant-garde Wexner Center.
This exhibition is the largest to date of works in the university’s permanent collection and includes pieces by more than 70 artists, including Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, Adrian Piper and Frank Stella.
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Curated by Associate Curator of Exhibitions Daniel Marcus, the exhibition is presented in roughly chronological order, beginning with the lower level Gallery A with artwork and memorabilia from the 1960s and 1970s.
It was a period when the University Gallery was chaired by its Director of Fine Arts Betty Collings, an artist herself who navigated the gallery through the protests and turmoil of the late 1960s and 1970s. and began to acquire what became the foundation of the collection.
Featured are Sol LeWitt’s “Incomplete Open Cube” wall hanging; Incredibly long and detailed “Pascal’s Triangle Drawing No. 3 from Pyramid Series” by Agnes Denes; the early digital art of Charles Csuri of OSU, a pioneer of the genre; and an array of important correspondence, notes, calendar entries and more from the archives of Collings, an active artist now in her 80s.
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Moving up to the next gallery, viewers enter a bit of psychedelia, mid-1970s and 1980s works. main subject dressed in a blue polka dot robe and shower cap, assisted by a dog standing on his hind legs to offer him a checkered towel. .
Other important works in this section include the large-scale inflatable sculpture “Dance” (1975-76) by Betty Collings, resembling an enormous shiny white snake that appears to have swallowed equally enormous bulbs of garlic; and “Songhai” by Robert J. Stull, a colorful and abstract mixed-media sculpture honoring the Songhai Empire of Central Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Stull was a black studies professor and chairman of the art division that oversaw the gallery — and husband of artist Bettye Stull, a well-known Columbus curator.
In the 1980s Collings was replaced as director by Jonathan Green, who emphasized activism in the acquisition and presentation of art. The upper-level galleries offer a variety of works responding to current events and crises and, as a text panel indicates, expressing “the artists’ shared revulsion at the persistence of violence, racism and sexism in America”.
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Here viewers will find large-scale pieces by socially engaged artists; a 36-foot-long mural created on campus in 1984 by graffiti artist Futura2000 (now Futura); Frank Stella’s huge abstract wall sculpture “Puerto Rican Blue Pigeon” (1976); the “Area” wall sculpture by Eva Hesse (1968); hang fabric posters reminiscent of “RAPE,” the first nationwide touring show to address sexual violence; and Adrian Piper’s “Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems” (1980), a large interactive black cylinder with a soundtrack playing stereotypical commentary regarding white receptions of black art.
In 1989, the University Gallery presents its last official exhibition: “AIDS: The Artists’ Response”. In “To Begin, Again,” works from this exhibit are featured along with photographs of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt when it was brought to Ohio State and displayed at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
By then, the initial funds for the university’s new Center for Contemporary Art had been donated by Leslie H. Wexner and an architectural competition had been launched.
The Wexner Center for the Arts – with its bold Peter Eisenman design that is both futuristic and a reference to the state of Ohio’s past – opened in November 1989. Performance artist Spalding Gray has described it as a “spaceship that crashed in the prairie”.
This spaceship guided viewers to some of the most interesting and groundbreaking art of the day. It’s intriguing that “To Begin, Again,” which begins with the protests and activism of the 1960s, is set during the 2020s, a similar era of social unrest.
How interesting it will be to see how the Wex presents today’s art in a future retrospective exhibition.
In one look
“To Begin Again: A Prehistory of the Wex, 1968-89” continues through May 8 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. Gallery hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Admission: $9; $7 for seniors, faculty, and OSU staff; free for members, students, veterans and active military personnel and those under 18; free every Sunday and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursdays. Call 614-292-3535 or visit www.wexarts.org.
At 4 p.m. on March 2 at the Wexner Center, graffiti artist Futura will speak with fellow artist Zephyr about their work and their association with The Ohio State University.