A nondescript building, previously a furniture showroom, is home to one of the most unusual and ambitious art collections in metro Atlanta.
The 27,000-square-foot wareHOUSE is a private museum showcasing 450 drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs and video art acquired by John and Sue Wieland during the past 35 years.
The wareHOUSE encompasses a wide swath of disparate artists and practices. It’s a place where conceptual artist Vito Acconci keeps company with folk visionary Howard Finster, where global star Ai Weiwei meets unknown Ferdinand Cooper, where works by graffitist Jean-Michel Basquiat, minimalist Ann Truitt and surrealist Louise Bourgeois hang side by side.
Yet what sounds like an omnivorous acquisitor’s jumble is actually unusually coherent. The reason: it was built, shall we say, on the theme of the house.
An apt motif for the founder of John Wieland Homes, the house turned out to be a wonderfully elastic framework for a collection. It is open to infinite formal and stylistic variations, from Robert Bechtle‘s hypperreal painting and Katharina Fritsch’s abstracted fairy tale (left) to Felix Gonzalez-Torres‘ jigsaw puzzle in a plastic bag.
Because it is so familiar and richly metaphoric, the house is a potent vehicle for just about any topic or emotion an artist might want to address. Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, for example, carved Marble Door from a real one he found after a neighborhood was bulldozed as a comment on his country’s rapacious development. Martha Rosler made potent anti-war statements by inserting photos of the Vietnam War into pages of posh shelter magazines in her series Bringing the War Home.
Photographer Mitch Epstein’s American Power series questions the power of big business, the government and nature. In the photo above, the plant, a menacing shadow, looms over a scene of innocent domesticity.
A poignant real-life embodiment of refuge and vulnerability, Ferdinand Cooper’s one-room shack stands in the gallery, replete with all the implements and decorations the psychologically damaged World War II veteran created during the 50 years he called it home.
Says John Wieland, “Who knew that by limiting your interest a great freedom was discovered?”
The motif has not only provided a big tent, as it were, but also has taken the collection in unexpected directions. Although there are plenty of iconic works such as Ansel Adams’ 1941 photo Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, there are also many that are atypical of an artist’s oeuvre.
“Often the work we buy is the exception,” Wieland says. “We think we have found the only Cindy Sherman photograph to have a house, and it is one of the [highly esteemed and valued] original film stills!”
The anomalous pieces can be illuminating. Rebecca Dimling Cochran, curator of the Wieland’s collection since 2004, cites Robert Gober’s Half Stone House (1979–1980).
“This early work made me understand the context of his oeuvre so much better,” she says. “So many of his later works are domestic objects taken out of the house: sinks, cribs, children’s shoes, even wallpaper.”
The establishment of the wareHOUSE in 2010 initiated a new era for collection. “Previously, as works were acquired, they were hung to decorate the hallways and individual offices within the corporate headquarters [of John Wieland Homes], so they were often placed according to their size and available locations,” Cochran says. [Disclosure: Cochran has written for ArtsATL in the past.]
“When we moved the work to the warehouse, we were able to look at the collection as a whole and discovered interesting relationships between the pieces in terms of subject matter, style, date, medium and art-historical lineage.”
Cochran’s thoughtful installation articulates these relationships. She has, for example, hung photos by influential German artists Bernhard and Hilla Becher with some of their equally influential students, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff, and organized individual galleries dedicated to themes such as suburbia, or artists the Wielands have collected in depth, among them James Casebere and Gregory Crewdson.
New themes continue to bubble up. One gallery, just hung, is devoted to iconic architecture. It includes Vik Muniz’s Schröder House (a modernist landmark designed in 1924 by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld) limned in chocolate syrup; photos of Levittown, the archetypal postwar suburb of mass-produced houses; a collage by Scott Ingram, one of a number of Georgia artists in the collection, based on the famous Case Study modern homes, which architects, in reaction to the Levittown formula, hoped would demonstrate that affordable housing could also be well designed.
Casting a glance at Brian Tolle’s The Forgotten, a 32-inch-tall deflated house made out of an Army tent, a wry Wieland comments, “There could also be a category of recession art.”
That’s certainly one way to think about Adam Cvijanovic’s multipaneled painting Love Poem (10 Minutes After the End of Gravity), which spreads across the four sides of the gallery. It depicts ranch homes, storefronts, motel signs, cars, snack foods, a lone teddy bear and other accoutrements of ordinary lives uprooted and forcibly sucked into the sunny blue sky.
Like so many of these works, it is a viewer’s Rorschach. What an adult might read as the detritus of dashed American Dreams could be a young video gamer’s giddy apocalyptic fantasy.
The gallery purpose-built to house Love Poem is one of three new spaces carved out of the storage area to accommodate the growing collection. “I buy to hang,” Wieland says. “Eventually the [35,000-square-foot] building will be 100 percent art.”
Wieland, 77, takes joy in guiding visitors through the museum, perhaps especially artists represented in the collection. They often reveal things about the works neither he nor Cochran knew. For instance, when Thomas Struth visited while in Atlanta for a talk at the High Museum, he commented that Ruff’s Haus # 11 was the first ever digitally manipulated photograph made in Europe.
Cochran regularly trolls auction houses, fairs and galleries for art to add to the collection, but she also receives unsolicited offers from dealers who know what the Wielands are looking for. They recently purchased two pieces by Olafur Eliasson, made available by his gallerist, who had toured the museum while in town on business for another client, Sarah Sze.
“My job is to sift through the possibilities and present the ones I think will be a good addition to the collection based on criteria we have established,” Cochran says. “If it is someone we already collect, is it better than what we already own? Does the artist have a proven track record? Is the work in good condition? What relationship does it have to the other works in the collection? Is it in a medium we want to expand in the collection (like painting and video)?
“And most importantly, do John and Sue like it? The thing about a private collection is that it presents the vision of a collector. Just because the artist is popular or it is of a house does not necessarily mean it will fit their vision. Then we discuss it, but the final decision is always John’s.”
The wareHOUSE is a busy place. It makes loans to other museums. It conducts research on the collection, lately with the help of SCAD students. The Wielands host dinners and events there. Cochran leads tours for art students, collectors and museum groups.
It is not, however, open to the general public. The warehouse is only available to groups or individuals involved in art or homebuilding, by invitation or advance reservation.
“I’d be satisfied if 20 years from now it’s still a private art space accessible to the profession — academics and artists,” Wieland says, who hopes to endow it and make it self-sustaining like the Margulies Collection in Miami.
“I have no aspiration for it to be public,” he says. “The pleasure for me is in building the collection.”
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