becoming interested in art relatively late in life, Titus Kaphar quickly built
an impressive career by blurring the line between art and activism. Through his
use of paint, tar, sculpting, and a wide range of other techniques, Kaphar uses
his work to recontextualize and reimagine the way we look at history. This
includes literal instances of altering history by crumpling, shredding, and
reforming well-known images.
With his 2008 painting Uncle Thomas, Kaphar uses his gift for portraiture to shift an age-old archetype. The term “Uncle Tom,” named after the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has long been used to promote a picture of blackness that centers on obedience and servitude. In this work from SAM’s collection, Kaphar takes inspiration from his real-life uncle Thomas to display his updated perception of the name. By placing his uncle—a well-respected, land-owning black man—at the center of Uncle Thomas, Kaphar exchanges an image of servitude and oppression for one of strength, dignity, and authority. During Black History Month especially, Kaphar’s art represents an important example of empowerment and support within one’s own community.
This work is less experimental than other pieces Kaphar has created in more recent years, but its bold confrontation of history is representative of the artist’s larger body of work. Kaphar’s willingness to challenge complicated historical narratives directly through images has driven him to work with Time magazine and receive several accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018. Through his unique approach, Kaphar is altering the way many view our nation’s past while shining a light on the unheard voices and forgotten faces of history.
With a heavy heart, we share the news of the passing of Virginia Wright, a pillar of the SAM family. Virginia and her late husband Bagley played pivotal roles in the development, vibrancy, and accomplishments of the Seattle Art Museum for more than half a century. Beyond being generous contributors, the Wrights’ greatest impact on SAM is seen in the art of the collection and in the art shown. Virginia was among a very small group of people who, in the 1960s, pushed SAM to create its first modern and contemporary art program. Virginia and Bagley also contributed to the purchase of many important acquisitions over the years. Above all else, the Wrights amassed one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in the world (over 200 works), all purchased with SAM in mind as the collection’s eventual home. When the bulk of it came to SAM in 2014, forming the backbone of its modern and contemporary collection, SAM was transformed from a great institution into a truly remarkable one.
Earlier this month,
Virginia said, “When I think about the future of the Wright Collection at SAM, I
put my trust in the artists. I trust that future generations will value their
work, that SAM will continue to provide meaningful access to it, and that the
conversations that their work has inspired will continue.” We are honored by
her faith in Seattle’s museum and, because of her support over the last 60
years, we are confident that we can live up to the legacy she established.
Born in Seattle and raised
in British Columbia, Virginia went East for college and majored in art history.
Out of college, she worked for Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan and began
collecting art. Mark Rothko’s abstract painting Number 10 (1952) was one
of her early, daring purchases and it is now part of SAM’s collection.
Virginia has been a SAM
member since 1951. She began docent training in 1957 and led her first public
tour in 1959. In 1959, the Wrights made their first-ever gift to SAM’s
collection: Room with White Table (1953) by William Ward Corley. That
year they also provided funding for SAM to acquire Winter’s Leaves of the
Winter of 1944 (at the time titled Leaves Before Autumn Wind) by
In 1964, she and a group of friends persuaded then-director Richard Fuller to let her start the Contemporary Art Council (CAC), a group of collectors at the museum. For the next decade, it functioned as the museum’s first modern art department. The CAC sponsored lectures and supported the first exhibitions of Op art and conceptual art in Seattle. It also brought the popular Andy Warhol Portraits exhibition to Seattle in 1976, among many other important exhibitions. Her role in bringing great art to the Seattle Art Museum also involved the curation of two solo exhibitions for Morris Louis (in 1967) and William Ivey (in 1975).
Virginia joined SAM’s board in 1960, making 2020 her 60th anniversary with the Seattle Art Museum. She temporarily stepped away in 1972 when her husband Bagley joined the Board and rejoined in 1982. She served as President of the Board from 1987–90. Virginia was President of SAM’s Board of Trustees from 1986–1992, years that coincided with the construction and opening of the downtown Robert Venturi building in 1991—the museum’s first major transformation since its opening in 1933 and a major shift in Seattle’s cultural life to downtown First Avenue (with the Symphony soon following).
In 1999, SAM mounted an
exhibition of the Wright Collection (The Virginia and Bagley Wright
Collection of Modern Art, March 4–May 9, 1999). The Wrights’ entire art
collection—the largest single collection of modern and contemporary art in the
region—has been gradually donated (and the balance of the collection promised)
to the Seattle Art Museum. A significant portion of the collection came to the
museum in 2014 when the Wrights’ private exhibition space closed.
When the Seattle Art Museum opened the Olympic Sculpture Park in 2007, many works from the Wrights’ collection were installed there, including Mark di Suvero’s Bunyon’s Chess (1965) and Schubert Sonata (1992), as well as works by Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Smith, Anthony Caro, and Roxy Paine.
SAM’s ongoing exhibition Big Picture: Art After 1945draws from the Wrights’ transformative gift of over 100 works and is a reminder of their incredible generosity.
Virginia was an active board member up to the end of her life, regularly attending meetings and advising the museum in many important endeavors. About SAM Virginia said, “It’s always been the main arena. I never wanted to break off and start a museum. I wanted to push the museum we already had into being more responsive to contemporary art.” And SAM would like to acknowledge that she did just that, leaving an undeniable mark on the cultural landscape of the entire Pacific Northwest.
As Amada Cruz, SAM’s
Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, says, “Even having only been in
Seattle for a short time, it’s clear that Virginia Wright’s impact on the city
and on SAM is beyond measure. Her legacy, and that of her late husband Bagley,
is seen in both the very walls and on the walls of the downtown museum, and it
fills the Olympic Sculpture Park’s landscapes. I’m honored to have been able to
know her and of her hopes for SAM’s continued future.”
“And given Seattle’s complicated history of changing attitudes
toward immigrants and visitors from the rest of the Pacific Rim, Foong [Ping,
curator of Asian art] notes, ‘It’s very meaningful to have an Asian art museum
in this city.’”
This week’s edition of Real Change features the Asian Art Museum, with this story
from Kelly Knickerbocker.
“With the renovated
building came an opportunity to start completely from scratch,” Foong said.
“People kept asking, ‘Did you just go on holiday when the museum closed?’ It’s
quite the opposite.”
The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig often takes a look at what’s “Currently
she is on Faig Ahmed’s Oiling, which is now on view in Be/longing:
Contemporary Asian Art.
The New York Times’
Elizabeth A. Harris reports on repercussions from the coronavirus hitting
the art world.
Artnet’s Katie White from
the frontlines of “bro-ramics”; apparently, Hollywood dudes are
really into making ceramics? Of course, it’s a medium that has been dominated
by women for centuries.
“The popularity may
wax and wane, but I don’t think we’ll return to anything like the material biases
that existed in the late 20th century…and Seth Rogen will turn to underwater
In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s collection throughout the month of February.
Kara Walker’s particular mode of engaging with our attention spans—her visual and conceptual provocations—have often caused furor, first from the generation above her, now not infrequently from the generation below. For when it comes to the ruins of history, Walker neither simply represents nor reclaims. Instead she eroticizes, aestheticizes, fetishizes, and dramatizes.
– Zadie Smith, What Do We Want History to Do to Us?, The New York Review of Books, February 2020
With a prolific and controversial career spanning decades, Kara Walker is perhaps best known for her use of cut-paper installations that give visual form to the histories of racism, violence, and subjugation in the antebellum South. Walker’s unsettling images mine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stereotypes and ideologies and consider the legacies of slavery today.
This lithographic print in SAM’s collection, I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, is a relatively modest work compared to larger installations and sculptures since realized by Walker. However, the print is an early work, dating to 1995-96—one year after receiving her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and two years before receiving the MacArthur “Genius” award at just 27 years old. Walker has since gone on to produce major sculptural works, such as Fons Americanus(2019-20) in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby(2014) sited in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory.
graphic work, a woman holds a dripping rope or do-rag before a
monkey—a recurring figure in Walker’s work and, together with the title, often
read as an allusion to the scientific racism used to justify the enslavement of
African women, men, and children. Regarding her use of the silhouette figure,
The silhouette technique announced itself to me as I was researching the cultural identity of early America. In many ways as a form it succeeded in being both a minimal reduction and a means to cover a lot of territory. With the technique one is talking both about the shadow as a form by making a paper cut, but also shadow as the subconscious in psychology. I surprised myself, actually, when I began working [by] how well it…seemed to exemplify the experience of women and blacks as second class citizens. This was a craft form that was (and is) everywhere, but rarely attains a high status. Silhouette cutting, for me, was my rebellion against high art and painting, and to me a way of undermining the patriarchal tendency in Western art.
Producing work that has received praise and criticism in equal parts, Walker is a provocative and challenging contemporary figure who offers a challenging portrait of American history. Probing the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and power, Walker intends to make work where, as she describes, “viewer[s]…get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.”
– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate
Seattle Asian Art Museum is officially reopen! Thank you to the thousands
of people who streamed through the reimagined galleries at the free
housewarming event last weekend. The museum starts regular hours on Wednesday,
“I felt freed, well, just to look”: Stefan Milne examines Boundless at the Asian Art Museum and The American War at ARTS at King Street Station, which both “explore how we see Asia.”
Seattle Refined shot a recent episode from the museum, including a fantastic segment
with SAM curators Foong Ping and Xiaojin Wu (starts at :40).
“Your eyes and mind
enter them easily and roam through the different layers of brushwork and narrative
suggestion. There’s an unexpected optimism to all this. The paintings also
dwell in silence, slow us down and hypnotize.”
In honor of Black History Month, Object of the
Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s permanent
collection throughout the month of February.
“I wait until intuition moves me, and then I begin.”
– James Washington, Jr.
Though born and raised in Mississippi, James Washington, Jr. is proudly remembered as a seminal Northwest artist and member of the Northwest School. Close to other notable artists from the region, like George Tsutakawa, Mark Tobey, and Morris Graves, Washington shared an affinity for the natural world. Surely informed by his upbringing—his father was a Baptist minister—Washington’s work also possessed spiritual elements, further connecting him to his cohort of Northwest artists. In Washington’s words, “art is a holy land where initiates seek to reveal the spirituality of matter.”
Before moving to Seattle in 1944, Washington taught as a WPA artist in Mississippi. Upon his arrival in the Pacific Northwest, he worked in the Bremerton Naval Yard as an electrician. Then a painter, he was soon introduced to Mark Tobey, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. As Washington continued to navigate Seattle’s arts community, he also traveled and, in 1951, visited the famed social realist painters Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros in Mexico. Although this meeting was the impetus for the trip, it was another experience altogether that altered Washington’s artistic trajectory: when visiting the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán, he was drawn to a piece of volcanic rock which he couldn’t leave behind—this stone would be the first of many sculptures Washington would carve, and the reason for his move away from painting.
Wounded Eagle No. 10 (1963) is just one of seven stone sculptures by Washington in SAM’s collection. It is a tender and sorrowful image, rendered delicately by the artist despite its granite medium. And while Washington would carve a variety of animals and humans, birds were a recurring subject—the eagle, in particular, for its symbolism of salvation and ascension. Guided by a self-described ‘spiritual force’ intrinsic to his geologic materials, Washington would alter his stones only slightly, preferring instead to let their natural form, shape, and coloration determine the subject matter. Moved by intuition, he considered himself a conduit through which art would reveal itself.
– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate
The Seattle Asian
Art Museum reopens to the public this weekend with a free two-day celebration.
10,000 free tickets for the housewarming event have been claimed, but the
museum reopens with regular hours on Wednesday, February 12.
questions we’re asking for this reopening are, ‘Where is Asia? What is Asia?’”
says Xiaojin Wu, the curator of Japanese and Korean art at the museum. “We’re
showing how the borders are fluid throughout history.” –From The Art Newspaper
“When the Asian Art
Museum opens on Saturday, the architects hope that previous visitors will see
their museum in a new light. Says Amada Cruz, CEO and director of the Seattle
Art Museum, ‘We could not be more excited to open the doors of the museum and
welcome everyone back.’” –Elizabeth Fazzare, Architectural Digest
“With so much to
see and contemplate in the Seattle Asian Art Museum, there needed to be space
to let the mind wander into a void for a bit. The experience would not be
complete without it. The curators and architects all should be commended for
seeing through a new vision that will expand audience’s awareness of Asia, but
also remind them that the human pursuit of beauty and the sublime is, indeed,
timeless and boundless.” –T.s. Flock, Vanguard
“With works that
emphasized the immaterial, or the breakdown of matter, the exhibition begged
the question: how applicable is the term Material Art? It seems that at this
early stage, the label may conjure more questions than answers.”
This abstract composition is pieced together from fragments of ordinary things—corrugated cardboard, painted fabric, and wrinkled burlap. The surface is pierced, stained, and gouged, painfully reminiscent of scarred skin. It comes from a series called Sacchi (sacks), which use humble materials to create compositions that hover between painting and sculpture. Alberto Burri, who had been a doctor in the Italian army during World War II, started making art when he was a prisoner of war in Texas in 1943. As much as anything, the Sacchi seem to be about the temporary nature of materials, experiences, life—for many viewers in the 1950s, they seemed to express the suffering and darkness of the war years.
Burri created Sacco
in 1955 when he was staying in New York. He had become friends with Harold and
Hester Diamond, a young New York couple with an interest in art (Harold, a
schoolteacher, would go on to become a prominent art dealer). Harold’s brother
owned the Upper West Side building where Mark Rothko had his studio, and the
Diamonds, who lived upstairs, arranged for Burri to use the studio. He included
the sleeve of one of Harold Diamond’s discarded shirts in the lower right of
this work, and presented the work to the Diamonds at the end of his stay.
Decades later in 1995, Hester Diamond gave Sacco to the Seattle Art Museum in
memory of the artist, who had died that same year. Harold Diamond had passed
away in 1982, and Hester, with her second husband Ralph Kaminsky, had become a friend
of SAM and a supporter of the Seattle Opera, whose Ring cycle brought her to Seattle numerous times. Over the years
she gave three more works to SAM, all very different from the Burri.
One of them is this wonderfully strange family portrait of
Leda, Jupiter in the form of a swan, and their three children, hatched from
eggs—a work by the mid-16th century Flemish painter Vincent Sellaer. The
combination of appealing and unsettling visual qualities is typical of
Mannerism, a style which attracted Hester’s interest beginning in the early
1990s. Previously devoted to 20th-century art, she fell in love with the refined
technique, inventiveness, and beauty of 15th- and 16th-century European
painting and sculpture and shifted her collecting focus.
Hester Diamond was an enthusiastic and generous friend to
international art institutions, artists, curators, scholars, and gallerists.
The seriousness of her commitment to art was matched by her sense of humor and
love of adventure as she explored new fields. A lifelong New Yorker, Hester had
a close relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made significant
gifts to her hometown museum over the decades. SAM is fortunate that she also recognized
how works from her collection could make a difference here in Seattle.
Hester’s collecting interests could encompass a post-war collage roughly fashioned out of the ephemeral everyday, as well as a painting superbly crafted to last forever. Both are now valued works in our collection which future generations will be able to enjoy thanks to her generosity. Sadly, they outlast Hester herself, who died on January 23, 2020 at the age of 91. She will be greatly missed.
– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture
“The concept of
their endeavor . . . is simple: Put together one show a year with a kickass
lineup, pay the performers royally, preach the gospel that working artists
deserve a fair wage, have a damn good time and repeat.”
“After a long pause
a nine-year-old said: ‘Objects have rights.’ The phrase has stuck. It captures
both the need to conserve objects and to consider them as active participants
in the museum experience.”