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Exhibit goes from the Wexner living room to the Wexner Center

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Pablo Picasso Femme assie dans un jardin (Woman seated in a garden), 1938. Oil on canvas. Credit: Courtesy of the Wexner Family.

The home of L Brands chairman and chief executive Leslie Wexner and his wife, Abigail, is usually adorned with eminent artworks by Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, but those pieces — along with much of the Wexners’ personal art collection — have found new dwelling, if only temporarily, at Ohio State’s Wexner Center for the Arts.

About 60 works of art from the Wexners’ private collection have voyaged to the galleries of the Wexner Center for their first public debut in an exhibition that opens Sunday. The collection is centered on works of Picasso, Dubuffet and Giacometti, with about 15 works coming from each, but art by Susan Rothenberg, Willem de Kooning and Edgar Degas also play an important role in constituting the collection.

The exhibit, titled “Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection,” lasts through Dec. 31 and is one of the ways that the Wexner Center — named after Leslie Wexner’s father, Harry — is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“It’s a very interesting collection in many ways,” said Lisa Florman, chair of the Department of History of Art, and the instructor of a one-time class that will be studying the Wexner family collection in detail. “I still think Picasso’s works are the most spectacular in the show, but there are ways in which the other artists’ works are going to be a revelation to people.”

Guest curator of the exhibit Robert Storr, professor and dean of the Yale University School of Art and previous senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, comes to the exhibit with a deep and important background in art history, said Jennifer Wray, marketing and media assistant at the Wexner Center.

The works in the collection, which range in date from 1898-99 to the 1950s but mainly focus on post-war European art, each explore a common concept: the figure. Anybody who wanted to be considered a significant artist after 1945 in the United States was doing abstract works, but that wasn’t the case in Europe, Florman said.

“Abstract paintings were still being made, but there were also really significant artists like Picasso, Giacometti and Dubuffet who were insistent that modern art could be representational and figurative. The tradition of the human figure lived on longer in Europe,” Florman said.

The earliest piece in the exhibit is a charcoal sketch informally titled “Spanish Village Scene” and was created by Picasso when he was a mere 17 years of age.

“One of the things I always have to get my students to wrap their heads around is how extraordinarily talented he was from a very early age,” Florman said. “We tend to think of artists’ style or technique developing over time, but Picasso is a little different in that he could be working in two unrelated styles almost simultaneously.”

Hanging on a wall all to itself, Picasso’s “Nude in a Black Armchair” is what many would consider to be the most prized and renowned work in the exhibit. Picasso put paint to canvas to create this striking vision in 1932, and 67 years later, Leslie Wexner purchased it for $45.1 million, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

“It truly is a showstopper,” Florman said. “And there are a number of works from the collection I would put in the same category, but the collectors are courageous in that they didn’t simply choose the easiest, prettiest works they could have. There are some really challenging and difficult-to-look-at paintings in there, and it’s admirable.”

Leslie Wexner initially began his collection in the 1970s by acquiring works by a variety of artists, but some years later, he became captivated by Picasso’s work while observing it at an art fair, according to The Wall Street Journal. This changed the trajectory to his approach to collecting art, and the results can be seen in the exhibit.

Students in Florman’s class, History 5001: Transfigurations of (and in) Twentieth-Century Art, are getting the chance to spend a few times a week in the galleries with this rarely seen art and will eventually present a seminar in December on what they’ve learned.

Florman didn’t have plans to teach this semester, but when she found out that works of this caliber would be available to her students, she said she couldn’t pass up the rare opportunity.

It was essential to the Wexners that, in addition to the Columbus community at large, students of all ages get a chance to understand and interact with the artwork, said Shelly Casto, the director of education at the Wexner Center.

In order to meet these needs in an era where arts budgets are cut first in schools, the Wexner Center has taken the initiative to provide free busing for any K-12 school that wants to visit the exhibit, along with providing a plethora of educational components, Wray said.

One gallery in the exhibit has been transformed via touch-screen interfaces that people can interact with and pull up images of works both in the show and elsewhere to do some comparing, contrasting and exploring. Other multimedia components include a continuous loop of video interviews with artists and architects discussing the ongoing influence of these artists and with the Wexners themselves, Wray said.

There are also a number of events occurring in conjunction with the exhibit throughout the next three months, including film screenings and talks with distinguished artists, critics and art historians — the most notable being T.J. Clark and Joshua Wolf Shenk.

Picasso’s granddaughter, Diana Widmaier-Picasso, will be coming from Europe for the opening celebration in addition to having her writing featured in the exhibit’s comprehensive catalog, alongside essays of Storr and Florman.

“Widmaier-Picasso is an eminent art scholar in her own right,” Wray said. “She’s dedicated a lot of her work to analyzing and preserving her grandfather’s artistic legacy.”

Gallery admission is $8 for the general public, $6 for OSU faculty, staff or anyone 65 and older, and free for any college student with an ID or those under the age of 18. Each ticket has a set time and can be reserved online, after which the holder can enter the galleries for as long as they wish.

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