COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When retail mogul Leslie Wexner peers at one of the Picassos, Dubuffets or Giacomettis in the personal art collection he and his wife Abigail have amassed over the years, he feels a range of emotions that often include gratitude, defeat and exhilaration.
“I find it inspiring in a way — that tangible creativity you find in painting or performance,” says the philanthropist and chairman of L Brands, the company behind Victoria’s Secret, Limited and Henri Bendel.
Art lovers will get an opportunity to experience their own emotional responses to the Wexners’ rarely seen collection beginning Sunday, when 60 of their paintings and sculptures spanning the 19th through 21st centuries go on public display. “Transfigurations” runs through Dec. 31 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, on the campus of Ohio State University.
The exhibit marks the 25th anniversary of the center, named for Wexner’s father, and is curated by Robert Storr, a former senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art who is now dean of the Yale University School of Art.
After acquiring works of mid-20th century New York abstract expressionists, particularly Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, Wexner gravitated toward the many periods of Pablo Picasso, the cubist and surrealist sculptor Alberto Giacometti and the often childlike abstractions of Jean Dubuffet. A dancer of Edgar Degas and several Susan Rothenbergs are also among works on display.
“It was never intended to be a collection,” Abigail Wexner says. “Emotional appeal or admiration for the quality of the picture was what we responded to the most.” Her husband adds, “It began with, ‘I like this drawing.'”
With the show, the Wexner Family Collection joins a recent trend from New York to Los Angeles of turning private collections into their own exhibits, says Inge Reist, director of the Frick Collection’s Center for the History of Collecting in New York.
The collections of the Clark Brothers and literary pioneer Gertrude Stein were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006 and 2012, respectively. The Meyerhoff Collection was displayed at the National Gallery in Washington in 2009. Philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad and the family of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton have built new art museums in Los Angeles and Bentonville, Arkansas, respectively, to house their collections.
Picasso expert Elizabeth Cowling says the Wexners’ collection will give spectators and scholars a rare opportunity to view many important pieces that haven’t been seen publicly in decades, if ever.
“It’s very exciting to think that these pictures are coming out in the open,” says Cowling, a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She cites Picasso’s “Seated Nude Woman” of 1959 and his “Mother and Child on the Shore” of 1902, as examples.
Among other rarities on display is “Nude in a Black Armchair,” which Picasso painted in 1932. His granddaughter, art historian Diana Widmaier Picasso, says it’s one of her personal favorites, depicting her grandmother Marie-Thérèse Walter.
“I had seen it at a Christy’s auction maybe about 10 or 15 years ago and loved it, but I didn’t know where it had gone,” she tells The Associated Press. “I didn’t expect to see it ever again.” Wexner bought it for a reported $45.1 million in 1999.
Widmaier Picasso says “Transfigurations” is a special opportunity to see the Wexners’ art because the couple is so private and Leslie Wexner didn’t start collecting art to put it on public display.
“He really did it for himself and for his family … together with his wife,” she says. “So it’s wonderful for the public to have this opportunity.”
Leslie Wexner says of all the works in the show, he’s most drawn to Picasso’s 1905 “Boy in Blue,” a stark portrait on a plain background. “I see a strength, a kind of determination in his expression,” he says.
His wife says Dog, one of a small group of animal sculptures Giacometti created in 1951, is her probably favorite because of its extraordinary attitude, but adds that picking just one “is like choosing between your children.”
Leslie Wexner says he so loved the sculpture that he bought it on the spot, had it wrapped in towels and whisked it off in a New York taxi.
The businessman says putting the works on view for the public is fitting: “We really feel that we’re just custodians, guardians of these pieces for a time. Humanity is really the owner.”