Walker Art Center founder T.B. Walker was an eclectic type whose art purchases ranged from bucolic French landscapes to religious themes and Old Masters. Eclecticism still reigns at his namesake museum, but virtually all of his art has been sold off or given to other institutions to make way for more contemporary work.

Still, a virtually life-size portrait of Walker (1840-1928) looks oddly at ease among a rollicking selection of paintings from the museum's collection, newly hung in an audaciously modern yet staunchly traditional show, "Benches & Binoculars," opening Saturday and running through Aug. 15. A second show, "Event Horizon," up through the summer of 2012, highlights film, video, photography and performances.

The exhibits are the first redo of the collection since the center expanded in 2005.

"The idea was to bring together all these different histories and ideas, stack them up and see how they look in the present tense," said chief curator Darsie Alexander, who came to the Walker a year ago from the Baltimore Museum of Art. She organized the shows with curator Elizabeth Carpenter. Many of the paintings have not been shown for more than 20 years; some recent acquisitions are appearing for the first time, and several old favorites have been dusted off and repositioned, notably Franz Marc's "The Large Blue Horses" and Edward Hopper's "Office at Night."

"Benches" gets its modern bona fides by deconstructing the collection's history and refusing to offer any narrative interpretation of how or why the 96 paintings relate to one another. Simultaneously it stakes a claim on tradition by hanging pictures floor-to-ceiling in a disorganized jumble, much the way Walker himself might have encountered new art while strolling through the "salons" held annually in 19th-century Paris. Archival photos of Walker's home and original galleries show pictures similarly stacked on his walls.

All of the "Benches" paintings have been acquired since 1940, although some were done earlier, including Carl Boeckman's sympathetic 1915 portrait of Walker that centers the north wall.

With 22-foot-tall walls, the double-height gallery is the Walker's largest, and the curators have made dramatic use of its airy space. Purple carpet covers both the floor and a half-dozen benches and stools that were designed and built by the museum's crew. Binoculars and wall maps are available.

On the north wall are 68 mostly figurative paintings dating from 1911 to 2005; on the south are 28 primarily abstract and geometric works done between 1916 and 2005. The almost identical dates undercut the commonplace notion that 20th-century art history was a long, steady march from representation to abstraction. Nope. Try as you might to label decades by shifts in style, subject, concept or color, all such narratives begin to fall apart under scrutiny. Or so it appears.

Frank Stella's glorious 25-foot-long "Damascus Gate Stretch Variation" of 1968 would seem to have signaled the triumph of abstraction with its lyrical interweaving of pastel arcs on a shaped canvas. But a decade later, Jim Dine was right back in his face, asserting the continued relevance of traditional themes in "My Studio # One," a moody 19-foot still life of bottles and vases with a skull, a boot and a mask as emblems of mortality. The paintings don't exactly glare at one another across the gallery, but the conceptual smack-down is obvious.

Free association encouraged

What makes "Benches" endlessly fascinating is the abundant opportunity for free association.

At first bewildering, the juxtaposition of like and unlike images quickly proves intriguing as odd and unexpected affinities reveal themselves. Sometimes the links are as simple as the color similarities in Jasper John's enigmatic 1990 "Green Angel" and Fernand Leger's 1941 biomorphic "Divers on a Black Background," both done in remarkably similar off-key primary tones. Or a series of odalisques will suggest the country's changing sexual mores: Yasuo Kuniyoshi's modestly clad "nude" of 1929 near Carol Blanchard's soigné 1950 sophisticate not far from Tom Wesselmann's bawdy blond Popster flaunting her ample charms in 1962.

Then gestures catch the eye. Across decades, social class and race lines, all communicate with the flick of a hand -- Jack Levine's somber 1939 neighborhood doctor, George Tooker's weary 1955 city dwellers, Alice Neel's 1967 society dame and John Currin's nervous anorexic on a bad date in 2000.

Scale shifts are unpredictable, too. Commonly associated with big paintings, Andy Warhol shows up in a little (16- by 13-inch) red self-portrait, with a skull superimposed above his head. Chuck Close's 9-foot-tall "Self-Portrait" looks a lot smaller when it's hung next to the ceiling. And occasionally the curators tip their hat to a favorite artist. While most artists are represented by only one image, Marsden Hartley gets six, and rightly so.

The abstractions on the south wall are much bigger on average than the figurative pieces, as if the artists had twisted architecture's minimalist credo into a maximal assertion: "Less Content Demands More Canvas." The fallacy of that thinking is apparent in Helen Frankenthaler's "Alloy," an unnecessarily inflated 10-foot swash of pastel hues that would be just as pretty, and more convincing, on a note card. By comparison, Franz Kline's "The Chair" seems monumental at a mere 20 inches square.

Some of the most remarkable abstractions rely on nuances that are difficult to discern at binocular distance: the myriad shades of black in Ad Reinhardt's 1960 canvas and Bridget Riley's moire effects in "Suspension." But some could be overlooked even at eye level: Don't miss the astonishing trompe l'oeil masking tape that Sylvia Plimack Mangold painted in "Carbon Night."

On one hand "Benches" is a generous and democratic show that invites visitors to pick up binoculars, think for themselves and have fun. On the other, it is edgy to the point of insult because the salon-style hanging revives a technique that was decorative and dismissive, treating paintings as mere wallpaper.

For all its amplitude, "Benches" showcases a mere 18 percent of the Walker's painting collection. The index of the missing includes pieces by Picasso, Francis Bacon, Joan Mitchell, Chris Ofili, Ed Ruscha, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Jennifer Bartlett and Minnesota's own Frank Gaard and Jerry Ott among many others. When and whether the Walker will seize an opportunity to show them is an open question. For now, grab those binocs and enjoy.

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431