Review: ‘Among Friends’ at the Walker Art Center

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened show at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1984. Photo by Pierre Ware. Courtesy the Walker Art Center

This week in New York marked the publication of the tenth issue of the buzzy magazine The Drift, which features a symposium on the death of the avant garde. The term avant garde, of course, originates from a real position in the French military that would scout new terrain for the rest of the troops, and not for the first time, the occasion made me think about what it might be like to live back when visual artists sought to use their work to reshape their medium and the world at large.

A recently opened show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, “Among Friends: The Generosity of Judy and Ken Dayton,” takes us back to this time. The show features twenty-five paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints gifted over the course of the couple’s long relationship with the institution, including works by Sam Gilliam, Philip Guston, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Louise Nevelson, Martin Puryear, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol.

The standouts here are the Twomblies—four pieces done in oil and crayon in 1984. These are on paper but significant, and rather large and moody. Like the best works by the artist, the layers intertwine in a way such that the timeline is hard to establish. Are these new emotions, or might they stretch back to antiquity? Twombly’s famous blackboard paintings preceded these by some ten years, but they feel in conversation with them. If those were about mutability, to some degree, these feel like they’re about the dread that follows you around forever, mistakes that you can’t take back. These are presented in conversation with Gilliam’s Lattice works from 1982, lithographs that feature similarly overlapping vibes and color palettes that aren’t so different, but for some reason feel looser.

Kelly is also well represented here. It’s not hard to picture Red Yellow Blue III blowing some minds when it was created in 1966, with its airtight balance of colors and durable square canvases. Black Relief With White (1991) is a great contrast, with the black canvas tumbling off the white one. I have to shout out the Judd wall piece from 1970 as well. Sometimes those rounded and ribbed guys feel approachable but the burnished look is almost comically masculine. Better move from that to the bespoke chaos of the sizable Nevelson, Sky Cathedral Presence (1951-1964).

Ken Dayton’s company would go on to form the modern-day Target corporation, so it’s clear he was ahead of his time on several fronts. His family’s generosity was much vaster than you see in this show. Between 1969 and 2022, the Daytons gave the museum significant financial gifts and over 550 works, among them nearly 200 original Johns prints, the largest collection of the artist’s prints in the country. All of their gifts represented the cutting edge of art, and the Datyons’ commitment to sharing them with Minnesotans is to be admired. How can the avant garde affect the change it seeks if it’s all amassed in one place?

“Among Friends: The Generosity of Judy and Ken Dayton” is on view at the Walker Art Center through July of 2024.

One Fine Show: ‘Among Friends’ at the Walker Art Center


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