Les Wexner introduces Annie Liebovitz, 2013. Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons

Wex on Wex

Visit the Wexner Center on any given day and you’re likely to encounter something you’ve never seen before. It’s a hive of creativity, a “laboratory,” as the institution’s benefactor Leslie H. Wexner prefers to call it, for both the Ohio State University and the city of Columbus at large.

Much like the priceless pieces of art Mr. Wexner has been collecting since the early ’70s, the center is “one of a kind.” Just within the last 12 months – with exhibits showcasing modern Brazilian art to the warped comics of Daniel Clowes – the space has proven to be a beacon for contemporary art not just in the Midwest, but globally.

So how does the Wex choose to celebrate 25 years? How do they plan to top heralded shows of the past, which have included Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and Julie Taymor? Well, beyond the many performances, concerts, and screenings planned this season (see our Fall Arts Guide), they’ve gone full circle and asked Mr. Wexner and wife Abigail for a public view of the master works they’ve accumulated over the years.

Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection is just that: a detailed survey of modern art’s 20th century turning point culled completely from a collection which has, up until now, only hung from the walls of the Wexners’ New Albany estate. Curated by Robert Storr, current dean of art at Yale and a former curator at the MOMA, the exhibit will focus intently on Mr. Wexner’s love of three artists in particular – Picasso, Giacometti, and Dubuffet – but will also feature a smattering of other heavy-hitters from the 20th century, with the likes of Edgar Degas and Willem De Kooning. It’s truly unlike anything the Wex has been a part of before.

I recently got to speak with the Wexners about how they’ve amassed such an unparalleled collection and why it’s taken until now for them to share it with the world.

I recently read an interview in the Wall Street Journal where you recall the early ’70s and discovering that people lived with “significant” works of art. So I’m curious to know how the two of you decide what goes where? Do you have space in your home allotted just for viewing or do you purchase pieces with a particular place in mind?

Abigail Wexner: Never. Part of that is, if a piece is acquired, having to think about where it will go, but I think that would be a funny way to approach it – buying something to fill a particular space.

Leslie H. Wexner: There are collectors who have hundreds of objects – massive collections in warehouses and they really just like to collect. There are different styles of collecting. Our style is that we like to live with it and see the things. These are pieces that start discussions. Once a year, we walk the house and decide if we should move something here or there. For us, collecting is very personal.

When you first started collecting, it sounds like you were interested in the New York school of abstraction, with Rothko and Kline, and then some cubism and surrealism. How did you come to focus on the three artists – Picasso, Dubuffet, and Giacometti – who are prominent in this exhibition?

LHW: It began purely by accident. During the time I was interested in abstract expressionism and the New York school, going to shows and visiting dealers. I was at a Chicago art fair and saw a Picasso drawing. It didn’t fit into what I was collecting; it wasn’t what I was looking for, but it haunted me. Three days later, I went back to look at it and there was something about it that forced me to buy it. Before long, I had two Picassos, and it started to make more sense in my mind. I became really interested in just these two pieces, while I was bored with 10 others that I had. I guess there’s an open-mindedness to collecting. You have to go with the flow…your tastes change. It was the same with Giacometti.

What prompted your decision to show your collection at the Wexner Center? Have you loaned out parts of your collection in the past?

AW: We’ve done a lot of loaning of individuals pieces over the years to collections around the world, but we’ve never really thought about the collection as a whole. I don’t think Les ever really thought of it as an important collection because it happened over time. That was never the goal. We never set out to create an important collection. It just kind of happened. There was a certain modesty about seeing this as something that people would be interested to see, or go out of their way to see. That changed in recent years. I was the one pushing that this would be worthwhile and a great thing for the university, not just for its access to the students but also a larger community. I had to convince Les to do it, but once we brought in some outside experts to tell us that this collection was unparalleled, we knew it was very much worth sharing. It was never out of selfishness that we haven’t shared this until now, it was more not believing it was a lot to see.

Are there any contemporary artists that you’re particularly fond of these days?

AW: Susan Rothenberg’s work, her “Horses” in particular, are part of the collection. I love her work and love that series.

Can we ever find you at Gallery Hop purchasing any local art?

AW: No, not usually.

This is all part of the Wexner Center’s 25th Anniversary. How do you think the Wexner has evolved and progressed since the museum first opened?

LHW: When it first opened, I don’t think the center had an idea of what it wanted to be. Initially it was just a facility. The notion of showcasing contemporary artists, which they do well, the notion of an international advisory board, with initiatives that show collaboration with places like South America and Africa, none of that was part of the original ambition. Now though it has viewers and participants from all over the world. When I think of the arts center I think of creativity, openness, energy, and democracy. It’s a model for every other college and university.

Transfigurations: Modern Masters from Wexner Family Collection opens September 21st. Visit www.wexarts.org for more information.

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