Picassos among pieces going on public view in Ohio

AP News
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Posted: Sep 19, 2014 1:42 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When retail mogul Leslie Wexner peers at one of the Picassos, Dubuffets or Giacomettis in the personal art collection he and his wife Abigail are putting on public display for the first time this month, he feels a range of emotions that often include gratitude, defeat and exhilaration.

"I find it inspiring in a way — that tangible creativity you find in painting or performance," says the philanthropist and chairman of L Brands who built brands that include Victoria's Secret, Limited and Henri Bendel.

Other art lovers will get a rare opportunity to experience their own emotional responses to 60 paintings and sculptures, mostly from the 20th century, that the Wexners own. The art is being featured in an exhibit, "Transfigurations," that opens Sunday at the Wexner Center for the Arts, on the campus of Ohio State University.

The collection is being displayed to mark the 25th anniversary the center named for Wexner's father. The exhibit runs through Dec. 31.

After acquiring works of mid-20th century New York abstract expressionist artists, particularly Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, Wexner gravitated toward the many periods of Pablo Picasso, the cubist and surrealist sculptor Alberto Giacometti and the often childlike abstractions of Jean Dubuffet. He's also collected works by Edgar Degas and Susan Rothenberg.

"It was never intended to be a collection," Abigail Wexner says. "Emotional appeal or admiration for the quality of the picture was what we responded to the most." Her husband adds, "It began with, 'I like this drawing.'"

"Transfigurations" is curated by Robert Storr, a former senior curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art who is now dean of the Yale University School of Art.

The Wexner Family Collection joins a recent trend from New York to Los Angeles of turning private collections into their own exhibits, says Inge Reist, director of the Frick Collection's Center for the History of Collecting in New York.

The collections of the Clark Brothers and literary pioneer Gertrude Stein were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006 and 2012, respectively. The Meyerhoff Collection was displayed at the National Gallery in Washington in 2009. Philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad and the family of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton have built new art museums in Los Angeles and Bentonville, Arkansas, respectively to house their collections.

Picasso expert Elizabeth Cowling says the exhibit will give spectators and scholars a rare opportunity to view many important pieces that haven't been seen publicly in decades, if ever.

"It's very exciting to think that these pictures are coming out in the open," says Cowling, a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She cites Picasso's Seated nude woman of 1959 and his Mother and child on the shore of 1902, as examples.

Among other rarities is Nude in a Black Armchair, which Picasso painted in 1932. His granddaughter, art historian Diana Widmaier Picasso, says it's one of her personal favorites, because it depicts her grandmother, Marie-Thérèse Walter.

"I had seen it at a Christy's auction maybe about 10 or 15 years ago and loved it, but I didn't know where it had gone," she told The Associated Press. "I didn't expect to see it ever again." Wexner bought it for a reported $45.1 million in 1999.

Widmaier Picasso emphasized that, unlike some collectors whose art is made widely available to museums, the Wexners are private.

"Very few people — no one, has seen his collection," she says. "He really did it for himself and for his family, so together with his wife, so it's wonderful for the public to have this opportunity."

She says knowing of a painting through a printed image in a book can't compare to actually seeing it.

"That's what collectors learn: You have to see it," she says. "There's nothing that replaces the experience of the work and having that firsthand."

Les Wexner's favorite is Picasso's 1905 Boy in blue, a stark portrait on a plain background. "I see a strength, a kind of determination in his expression," he says.

For Abigail Wexner, it's Giacometti's dog, one of a small group of animal figures the sculptor created in 1951. "Just that attitude is extraordinary," she says.

The businessman says putting the works on view for the public is fitting: "We really feel that we're just custodians, guardians of these pieces for a time. Humanity is really the owner."