A man's bony back appears to be on fire, lit with intensity. His spinal cord protrudes through the raw, red skin, and tufts of hair peek out from under his arms and between his legs.

Minneapolis art collector Erwin Kelen swooped up this 1910 drawing, "Der Akt (Nude)" by Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele, in 1974 at an auction in Los Angeles. His desire to own a work by Schiele, a protégé of Gustav Klimt, was as intense as the piece itself.

"I went to every exhibition and read every book and catalog about him that I could find," Kelen explains. "It was an obsession."

The Walker Art Center pays tribute to that obsession in "The Expressionist Figure," an exhibition opening Sunday built around the 79 drawings that Kelen and his wife, Miriam, collected over nearly six decades.

The Kelens have donated these works to the Walker — the largest gift of drawings the center has ever received.

"The Walker to me is like family," Kelen said in a phone interview this week.

Although he is also involved with the Minneapolis Institute of Art, working regularly with its drawing curators, the Kelens chose to give these works to the Walker — while stipulating that Mia can borrow them for any show.

"I go way back with the Walker," he said.

A venture capitalist, Erwin Kelen first got involved with the art center in 1965. Twelve years later he was appointed to its board of directors, serving as chairman, VP and president over the years while forging a close friendship with longtime director Martin Friedman.

The Kelens' gift rounds out the Walker's collection, adding a new Jasper Johns, two Andy Warhols, three drawings by Marlene Dumas and two by William Kentridge.

"[The Walker] can't go back and buy a 1962 Warhol or a Jasper Johns drawing," said guest curator Joan Rothfuss, who organized the show. "It's out of our reach — we depend on gifts." (Over the past five years, the Walker has averaged about 65 gifts per year.)

The Kelens also established an acquisition fund in 1989 that has enabled the Walker to buy 123 drawings over the years. Nine of those are part of "The Expressionist Figure," along with 15 works from the museum's own collection. The show runs through April 19.

Learning as he bought

When Kelen met his future wife in 1961, art was Miriam's thing.

He was an electrical engineer from Hungary who narrowly survived both the Nazi invasion and the Communist regime, escaping to Austria in 1956 and immigrating to the United States. He ended up in Minneapolis, where the University of Minnesota offered him a chance to finish his degree.

Miriam was a native Minneapolitan who had studied art history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

"She was very knowledgeable and I knew nothing about it," he said. "Over the years, the balance changed."

Wed in 1962, the couple frequented Twin Cities galleries and museums; their first purchase, a watercolor by Augsburg College art professor Philip J. Thompson, came from a now-defunct gallery on Lake Street.

Rothfuss, who has known the Kelens for two decades, has hung this exquisite collection on the gray- and dark-walnut-painted walls of the Burnet Gallery, in the Walker's Herzog & de Meuron addition.

"The figure is a constant in art," said Rothfuss, "and I think for audiences it is great to see a range of handmade works on the walls — historical works as well as contemporary."

Social commentary drawings like George Grosz's "The Ruhr Is Safe" (1922), of a common man walking away while French and German military officers shake hands in the background, mix with subtly graceful drawings of the figure, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's undated ink-on-paper drawing "Zwei Mädchen Auskleidend (Two Girls Undressing)."

Erwin Kelen is most drawn to emotional works that one can see and react to, rather than intellectual art, which requires historical context and a bit more research to appreciate. One such example is "Name No Names," a 2005 drawing by South African-born, Amsterdam-based artist Dumas that shows a blond Marilyn Monroe being cornered by three shadowy men. In 1956, Monroe's then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller, was cited for contempt of Congress when he refused to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of writers he met at Communist meetings years before. Behind the scenes, Monroe offered support despite threats against her own career.

Dumas, very much a feminist, was struck by this story, so she made art about it. But the historical and intellectual components of this piece aren't why Kelen loves it.

"I have had many friends look at it, who never heard of the artist, never heard of the [HUAC] hearings, but seeing the three dark menacing congressmen closing in on the vulnerable 'dumb blonde' is such an emotional piece, you don't have to know anything about it to react to it," he said.

Every drawing is its own world, and for 55 years these works hung in the Kelens' home. Still, Erwin insists that he's just a "minor act." Besides, he explained, "it's not mine anymore."