COLUMBUS – Any time you can bask in the presence of 19 superb works by Pablo Picasso within 111 miles of Fountain Square, you should do it. To say nothing of 19 generally better pieces by Alberto Giacometti, 14 very nice works by Jean Dubuffet and an excellent sculpture of a 14-year-old female ballet dancer by Edgar Degas.
Time is ticking. New Year’s Eve will be the final chance to see Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection, at the Wexner Center for the Arts on Ohio State University’s main campus. Tickets are $8, with free admission with student IDs, and senior discounts. The collection can’t be seen elsewhere.
Consider it a really nice gift to the general public within a world-renowned arts center from billionaire chairman and founder of the Limited Brands, Leslie H. Wexner, and his wife, Abigail. This month (November) marked the 25th anniversary of when doors first opened at the $43 million Wexner Center, itself an architectural landmark.
To celebrate, the Wexners are giving the first public viewing to the Picasso-centric collection they live with their super-biggie-sized $45.1 million mansion in the Columbus suburb of New Albany.
Let’s imagine for a moment having to decorate an abode with an estimated 64,000 square feet of space. To wrap our heads around that size, the Wexner home is 80 percent bigger than the Akron-area home of basketball superstar LeBron James’ much-written-about house. Even the 280,000-square-foot Cincinnati Art Museum has 78,000 square feet of total exhibition space, just 22 percent more than the Wexner’s total square footage.
So the Wexners decided to fill their place with work from some of the world’s greatest modern artists. And they had the guts to do so with three kids in the house.
Les Wexner amassed his estimated $6.9 billion fortune through retail stores such as the Limited, Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch. In the 1980s he dedicated the Wexner Center – now sometimes coyly called the Wex – to his father, Harry Wexner, a Russian refugee who arrived in America dirt poor, had faced anti-Semitism and who was able to read and speak English but couldn’t write.
As son to the owner of a small shop, Les Wexner mentioned in a video that plays repeatedly inside the exhibit, “I didn’t know that people had art. It just never occurred to me. Museums had art.”
Now, too, do the Wexners. And they’re sharing it through Dec. 31 (the exhibition opened Sept. 21).
In that same video of a seated Les and Abigail Wexner discussing their collection. The pair chuckled while recalling the time “a sophisticated, Manhattan kind of lady,” as Les Wexner described her, visited them and their art.
“She walked into the house, and walked into the room, and literally, her jaw dropped,” Abigail said. “And finally, she just looked around, and she just said, ‘I had no idea, in Columbus, Ohio….”
Yeah, it’s that kind of collection. Anything with dozens of Picassos, Giacomettis, Dubuffets and a sprinkling of others by Degas, Willem de Kooning and Susan Rothenberg is bound to be that kind of collection.
As is the case with a spectacular Monet or Van Gogh painting, with some of these works – particularly ones like Picasso’s large and lavish Nude in a Black Armchair, Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and Giacometti’s Diego in the Studio – no photograph you will see can do them justice.
Those are three works that by themselves make the trip up I-71 and back worth it. Ohio and the Midwest owe the Wexners thanks for sharing their collection. But here’s hoping that when the Wexner Center celebrates its 35th or 45th anniversary, the collection will be yet stronger, with some jaw-droppers.
The exhibition is a pretty good job for a man who, despite his tremendous style flair in leading fashion-industry retailers, said that once while redecorating he decided: “I’d like to have real art.”
“I think the first painting I bought was too big for the wall, so I shortened it,” Mr. Wexner, who couldn’t recall the artist whose work was trimmed, said in the exhibition video. To his credit, “It looked very nice. No one ever noticed that it had been altered.”
Approached by a former OSU president decades ago, Wexner decided to contribute money to his alma mater and dedicate an arts center – not the business school or a library – in the name his father.
Years ago, Wexner noticed a distinctive Picasso drawing of a woman at an art fair in Chicago. He asked an expert whether it was, as he suspected, a high-quality work. The expert confirmed it was, and Wexner asked him the price. Hearing the estimate, Les asked the art adviser: “Would you buy it for me?”
That launched his Picasso collection, and apparently was Picasso’s simple-yet-dramatic, graphite-on-paper, Woman in Hat Holding a Missal, another of the collection’s top works. In passing through the galleries from the one containing most of the Picassos onward to the others, one can see how he began collecting Giacometti and Dubuffet because of how they complement, and counter-point, Picasso’s work.
After viewing this collection an art expert once told them theirs was the most remarkable Picasso collection … in the world.
“My reaction was, ‘I don’t believe ‘em. I was being patronized.’” He also asked his wife: “Were they bullshitting us?”
Unless you consider that the word remarkable can cut many ways, the answer probably is yes. That said, the Picassos are technically all very well done. Many are superb. With some, you wonder whether the artist was in the mode of knocking them out one after another.
This would be beside the point if Les Wexner weren’t citing unnamed art experts calling the collection among the best Picasso groupings in the world, but since it’s been mentioned, the overall Picasso collection seems very safe. It touches many bases but doesn’t overwhelm. Give me, for example, something more edgy, like his Woman with a Crow (1904) from his Blue Period that has hung spectacularly at the Toledo Museum of Art.
To put the collection in Ohio State football terms – and this is being said lovingly by an OSU grad and a Buckeye football fan – the Wexner collection probably is among the top private art collections in the Midwest, particularly given the range of Picasso’s periods represented. But just as the Southeastern Conference has been the bane of Big Ten football in recent years, the Wexners may have to step up their game to compete worldwide with greater New York region, Texas, recently monied art gatherers in the PAC-12 territories and of course, astute art stalkers across Europe and Asia.
Let’s say the collection seems a lot safer than the architecture of the Wexner Center that temporarily houses it. More on that later.
The Wexner collection also is impressive given that the Picassos include works in a range of media and an impressive array of the artist’s styles (including three sculptures, of an arm, a bust of a jester and a very Picasso-esque centaur). On the other hand, one wonders: when money is really no object, and you can hire art experts to make recommendations to you, how difficult is it really to build such a collection?
While the Wexners describe themselves as intellectually curious about many things, “(We’re) not curious to benchmark our paintings versus somebody else’s,” he said. “It just doesn’t matter.”
Part of the reason is: “We’re perfectly content to select things that we want to live with,” he said. “I really like mine. I hope they like theirs.”
Guest curator of the exhibition was Robert Storr, professor and dean of the Yale University School of Art and a former senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Storr said, “Those who take the opportunity to view and absorb this exhibition will count themselves incredibly lucky to have looked over the shoulder of such avid collectors.”
Storr in the exhibition video said it had been many years since he had last visited the Wexners’ artworks before seeing it again recently. One thing that’s always interesting when examining a collection over time is to see what remains, what has been shed, and which pieces have been added.
That makes the future all the more interesting, if Central Ohio will sometime again be able to peek at the collection. Perhaps at that future date some periods may disappear in favor of greater excellence. Then again, it’s the Wexners’ collection they live with, and if they’re happy with it, who can blame them?
Some of the finest pieces in the collection are (in the English versions of their names), the multi-media sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Edgar Degas, which was cast in 1922; Picasso’s painting, Nude in a Black Armchair (1932); Picasso’s vibrant oil on canvas, Portrait of Dora Maar (1939); his Woman Seated in a Garden (1938); Picasso’s bronze sculpture bust called Jester (1905, cast before 1939); several sculptures and a dramatic painting by Giacometti; and various works by Dubuffet.
Picasso’s works range from 1898 to 1959 – from when he was 16 to 78. Impressively, they seem to include most major phases in his career and take in several media. Many are abstract, some cartoony, others are more realistic. Of course there’s some of his groundbreaking cubism. The collection’s works range from edgy to contemplative to vibrant.
In addition to the show-stealing Degas sculpture, there also are a painting and drawing by Willem de Kooning, for a total of 60 works.
The Wexner Center itself has drawn tremendous reviews, and some negative ones, through the years. It was designed by “starchitect” Peter Eisenmann and a local professional, the late Richard Trott.
The deconstructivist building, with a large exterior metalwork intended to represent scaffolding and unusual angles that give a disorienting sensation, was Eisenmann’s first major public structure. He later designed the Greater Columbus Convention Center near the downtown and University of Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for Design and Art (housing the DAAP program).
The Wexner Center helped launch a huge appetite for modern buildings on Ohio campuses, particularly at OSU. In the Wexner’s case, Eisenmann made use of the fact that Ohio State’s campus is 12.25 degrees off line from the rest of Columbus’ street grid. Many angles inside and outside the building include that 12.25-degree variance, with few 90-degree angles to be seen. The whimsical building also includes a stairway to nowhere and a column placed in the middle of a major staircase.
What would Harry Wexner think about all this?
“He would just think it was so funny that a building has his name on it,” his visibly proud son said. “He would just be pleased as punch.”
What does Les Wexner think about this show and this arts center?
“We’re not a cow town,” he said in the video. “I like to think people discover America when they come to Columbus, and I think this is part of it. I think also, reputationally, it helps the university, and hopefully it raises a lot of money for the arts center.”
Well done, Les. We look forward to seeing your next moves.