Turning 75 is a deal big enough to demand some serious gifts. So Walker Art Center did.

It was discreet, of course. No actual demands were made, but over the past three years top staff solicited art in honor of Walker’s 1940 rebranding as a contemporary art center. More than 120 supporters responded with 250-plus paintings, sculpture, drawings, videos and other art, a selection of it now handsomely displayed in “75 Gifts for 75 Years,” opening with a weekend-long celebration that includes free admission.

“Gifts” is something of a capstone moment for the center. For the first time in years, Walker’s own art occupies virtually the entire building. It looks good and makes sense as a snapshot of what’s “contemporary” — a term that has morphed over the decades from abstract painting to conceptual gestures and droll jokes, including a real Fiat truck that Austrian artist Erwin Wurm altered so its back end runs right up a wall.

On view through Aug. 2, “Gifts” includes fresh pieces by such Walker stalwarts as Robert Indiana (a huge “LOVE” sculpture destined for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden) and Chuck Close (a monumental 2015 self-portrait tapestry — yes, tapestry — in which he’s a lot better looking than in the famously gritty 1968 self-portrait now bannered on the building’s exterior).

There’s a charming 1961 David Hockney drawing of the artist exuberantly hugging a New York skyscraper on his first visit to the city, a beautiful Kara Walker silhouette and a haunting Kiki Smith etching of a lonely person gazing out a window at birds.

“There are artists like Chuck whose work the Walker supported very early on who have given back in major ways, and younger artists who we have shown before but whose work was not yet in the collection,” said curator Siri Engberg, who organized the display. “So this was not only an effort to fill gaps, but to widen our holdings, to bring depth and breadth to the collection.”

The search was subtle, the mating dance coy. Walker curators and director Olga Viso contacted collectors, including corporations and artists’ estates. They didn’t have a checklist of objects in mind, but when they visited they looked for “pieces that would make a transformative difference,” Engberg said.

Some donors promised whole collections to be given in the future; others gave single pieces now. Some just gave money to help buy works the center wouldn’t have been able to afford. The Walker even turned down some art because it didn’t fit the center’s aesthetic.

Local talent

Minnesota-based artists are well-represented. General Mills gave a fragile 1979 double-bridge sculpture by Siah Armajani, who became fascinated by vernacular American architecture after emigrating from Iran to attend Macalester College. The Walker owns much of his work, including the blue-and-yellow 1988 bridge linking the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Loring Park.

There’s an elegant Harriet Bart memorial to U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan, a David Rathman boxing-ring painting, a beautiful Ruben Nusz trompe l’oeil abstraction and photos by Alec Soth and Joann Verburg, among others.

There are surprises, especially from West Coast artists who deserve much more attention. In a witty bas-relief self-portrait, for example, Los Angeles-based Llyn Foulkes depicts himself as a boxer in an arty landscape with Mickey Mouse on a 3-D log.

Artists from the Walker’s past are freshened up, notably Isamu Noguchi, with a surreal, bone-like 1944 bronze and a gently undulating granite cube from 1962. Other mid-20th-century pieces include a gestural 1964 Joan Mitchell abstraction, an important 1956 pastel by Willem de Kooning and a flickering 1970 field of color by Beauford Delaney, a black artist not previously found in the Walker’s collection.

International names

Works by international talents appear, too, among them an intriguing mirror-box by Japanese sculptor Yayoi Kusama, a droll painting about guys and blondes by Marlene Dumas of South Africa, a lyrical 10-foot-long map painting by Guillermo Kuitca of Argentina and a 1998 cut-felt wall hanging by Venezuelan-born Arturo Herrera that simultaneously pays homage to Robert Morris’ draped felt sculptures from the 1970s and Jackson Pollock’s famous 1950s drip paintings.

The Walker is, of course, known for conceptual and performance art, styles that collide in a 1968 piece by Barry Le Va, a New Yorker who once taught at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. His “On Center, On Edge Shatter Scatter” piece, consisting of carefully shattered sheets of tempered glass, gets a whole little room to itself. The Walker owns Le Va’s instructions and has to buy new glass and then sledgehammer it each time it’s shown.

“There’s always the mystery of: How did it shatter? And why?” said Engberg.

Summing up three-quarters of a century of art in a few galleries is impossible, and the Walker has wisely dodged anything so grandiose. With a collection of just 13,000 pieces, half of them etchings, screen prints and other works-on-paper, it’s a highly specialized place that always has homed in on certain artists as representative of their eras and then stuck with them throughout their careers. “Gifts” smartly amplifies and contextualizes those talents, and offers a lot of good looking besides.

 

mary.abbe@startribune.com

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