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Mary Abowd, Associate Editor
Dec 09, 2021
Who knew that deep in a storage vault at the Wexner Center are housed major works by artists Futura2000, Eva Hesse, Adrian Piper, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, and many others? It was an intriguing discovery for Wex Associate Curator of Exhibitions Daniel Marcus who—newly hired but working remotely in August 2020—tapped into the center’s collection from home. Aside from the big names he encountered, however, Marcus detected a strong narrative about how the works were collected. “As I poked around, I realized the collection had a real shape and coherence,” he says. “I could see an intelligence to it and knew there must be a story behind it.”
That story is eloquently told in the upcoming exhibition To Begin, Again: A Prehistory of the Wex, 1968–89, a rare look at dozens of 20th-century artworks collected by or presented at Ohio State during the 1970s and ‘80s. Inspired by the racial justice uprisings of 2020, the exhibition looks back at a similar era of upheaval and protest, beginning in the late 1960s, when artists, activists, and students demanded systemic change. Opening February 5, this remarkable show, curated by Marcus, zooms in on the years that immediately precede the founding of the Wexner Center—its “prehistory,” as he calls it—a moment that landed Ohio State prominently onto the contemporary art map. Below, Marcus shares some thoughts about his process, key moments and major players in this story, and points toward one of his favorite works in the show.
How did you come up with the historical timeframe for the exhibition?
With any kind of historical exhibition, you’re always thinking about the start date and end date and how you draw a circle around that period. I came to understand that the real history here is the two decades before the Wexner Center was founded [in 1989], the period that birthed the center. The circle I’ve drawn has to do with two things: the history of a contemporary art program at OSU—a program of exhibitions that brought artists to the university and Columbus, along with a collecting program—but also the history of protest that begins in the late 1960s. The start date for the show is 1968. It’s a meaningful date in part because it’s a flashpoint for organizing especially with Black student groups and their antiracist struggles. 1970 is a key year of trauma at the university; there was a student rebellion that year that begins in advance of the Kent State shootings [in May 1970]. After Kent State the entire statewide university system is shut down, and OSU closes its doors. These two histories are not the same at all, and one doesn’t neatly map the other, but they intersect and entangle in interesting ways.
Talk about the early days in the development of contemporary art at Ohio State.
In 1973 a professor in the art department named Bertram Katz organized the university’s first interdisciplinary arts symposium. You can think of it as a major professionalization event in the life of the art department because it invited people from all over the country, and even the world, to share their cutting-edge work. It was a big deal for the prehistory of the Wex, not least on account of its multidisciplinarity. It cemented the model of bringing different fields together to share, that cross-pollination is what produces new ideas.
What came out of that symposium?
There was an MFA student in attendance, Betty Collings, who eventually became the first director of the University Gallery of Fine Art [serving from 1975–80]—the institutional predecessor of the Wex. Collings meets the artist Robert Smithson, and they get to talking. Through her conversations with Smithson, she takes up the idea of interdisciplinarity—the idea that contemporary art, to truly be relevant, has to be in dialogue with other disciplines, it has to get out of the micro-universe of the artist’s studio.
That a young woman barely out of grad school ends up driving the direction of the contemporary art program at Ohio State really captures the spirit of the times.
I think there’s a recognition after 1970 that the university has to incorporate students into its culture much more directly and centrally. The fact that a recent MFA grad is hired, not just to manage the art gallery or help out art faculty but, instead, to create a program—I think it speaks to the moment. They could have hired a traditional museum director and tried to create a more traditional museum collection, but instead they permit Collings to bring in art that to many administrators did not look like or count as art at all.
What are some of the highlights of Collings’s directorship?
Collings launched an ambitious program of contemporary exhibitions, with projects featuring Chris Burden, Sam Gilliam, Jackie Ferrara, Joseph E. Yoakum, among others. She brought some of the most ambitious women directors, curators, and critics to campus to engage in dialogues—Alanna Heiss from PS1, the New Museum’s Marcia Tucker, gallerist Phyllis Kind from Chicago, Rosalind Krauss from the journal October…She found out about a National Endowment for the Arts program that funded museum acquisitions of work by living artists. It was a matching-funds program, and Collings got Ohio State to match those federal grants, then used that pot of money to collect works by Hesse, LeWitt, Stella, Smithson, and others—many of which will be featured in the exhibition. Collings was also involved with drafting the early “blueprint” for a new, comprehensive visual art center that eventually became the Wexner Center. I’ve come to think of her as the institution maker. She knew what a vital, active contemporary arts organization should look like, and she wanted to make that happen here.
How would you characterize the years after Collings's tenure, the 1980s?
The NEA program that Collings exploited to purchase contemporary art fell victim to the Reagan administration, so there’s not as deep a program of acquisition in the 1980s. But the gallery continues forward with its exhibition program under a new director, [photography professor] Jonathan Green, and finds its new focus around activist struggles. It takes on a strong political tone engaging activism on the campus around US imperialism in Central America, the Iranian revolution, gay and lesbian struggles. The women’s movement has a very strong presence, bringing focus to rape as a societal crisis. The gallery finds ways of intersecting with these struggles and providing a kind of platform for organizing. During these years we see exhibitions like RAPE, the first national touring show to address the politics of sexual violence; and AIDS: The Artists’ Response, which brought the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to Columbus in 1989…Everyone I’ve talked to says that Green was a rare kind of person in the art world who really believed in doing away with hierarchies. And that meant hierarchies in terms of staff, who gets to make decisions, and who has a seat at the table, but it also meant hierarchy in artistic media and genres. High art, low art, fine art, outsider art—those are all categories he wanted to undo and scramble.
These are two really important figures in the prehistory of the Wexner Center. And the Wex still seems to reflect some of the groundwork they laid.
I think that’s true. What I really want to emphasize about this show is it’s not a history of the Wexner Center. I’ve come to use this metaphor: It’s like lifting up the Wexner Center to see what’s underneath it. It sits on foundations that have very much inflected what it is and how it has operated. It seems to me that each of these directors deposited some kind of genetic material that persists.
Futura2000 creating Untitled (1984) for the exhibition Writing On The Wall: Works in Progress by New York City Graffiti Artists, Hoyt L. Sherman Gallery at Ohio State University, February 1–16, 1984. Image courtesy of The Ohio State University Archives.
I know this is a tough question, but what piece in the show strikes you the most?
There are some real finds in this exhibition, but one that stands out is this massive Futura2000 painting. It was really more like a live performance. The exhibition was titled, Writing on the Wall: Works in Progress by New York City Graffiti Artists, and people were told, “Come to the show on opening night, and you will see the works being made.” It’s just so special, so unlikely that this piece was even made in the first place, and that it was kept. This was 1984 in the state of Ohio. We’re not close to the downtown scene and Basquiat. I don’t really know of any other institutions at that time that were buying graffiti art.
Lastly, the title of the exhibition, To Begin, Again, what does it mean?
It’s a title that has to do with beginnings and origins and the question of where institutions come from and how they emerge genetically. It also has to do with change. The exhibition is really about what happens when there is a historical watershed that forces a kind of change in every pattern of activity and thought. The late ‘60s was that sort of moment. Institutions tend to respond to things that happen in the wider world. The creation of a contemporary art program is an attempt to begin again after the traumatic events of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.