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Portrait of Yayoi Kusama

10 Surprising Facts About Yayoi Kusama

There are eleven days left to see Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at Seattle Art Museum and by now, you’ve probably seen an infinite number of images of her artwork in your Instagram and Facebook feeds. Hopefully you’ve seen the exhibition in person as well! If not, learn more about Yayoi Kusama below and plan to line up at SAM for day-of timed tickets between now and September 10 to experience infinity through the immersive art of this icon, rebel, and visionary.

  1. Yayoi Kusama arrived in Seattle in 1957 with two kimonos and 200 paintings. This is the first city Kusama visited when she moved to the US.
  2. Kusama was pen pals with Georgia O’Keeffe, Richard Nixon, and the President of France.
  3. She partnered with Louis Vuitton to design a clothing line in 2012.
  4. Narcissus Garden, a rogue performance piece by Kusama, was installed outside of the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966 with the support of one of the curators, however she was asked to leave the premises.
  5. She was making Pop art before Andy Warhol.
  6. Assemblage artist and filmmaker, Joseph Cornell and Kusama had an intimate friendship that prompted his mother to dump a bucket of water on them once when she caught them kissing.
  7. The quintessential polymath, Kusama has published numerous literary works.
  8.  A firm believer in love forever, Kusama performed a gay marriage way before gay marriage was legal.
  9. In 2016, she was ranked as the most expensive living female artist on aggregate.
  10. Yayoi Kusama has been producing art work for more than six decades.
Image: Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo, 2016, Courtesy of the artist, © YAYOI KUSAMA, Photo: Tomoaki Makino.
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SAM Staff Reads: Kusama’s Doing Nothing

As Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors continues through September 10, SAM staff is discovering new dimensions to this infinite artist through Kusama’s writing. Violet Obsession, published in 1998 by Wandering Mind Books pairs her poetry with images from Kusama’s Happenings and performative activations of her artworks. Like the threads through the many media this versatile artist has worked in, the themes in Kusama’s poetry continue to extend the driving force behind her creations. They also bring new insights into the personal life, rather than the persona, of Yayoi Kusama. SAM Staff, like the rest of the world, is fascinated by this iconic and impressive woman, and reading her poetry in Violet Obsession has prompted some reflection on the artwork currently installed in our galleries, as well as on our own lives and perspectives.

Hear from Wendy Saffel, a dancer, marketing pro, and killer copy editor, on the demure progressions of time in “Doing Nothing.”

DOING NOTHING

the trees dropped all their colored leaves
the earth is hidden ’neath fallen leaves
time has come ’round to the autumn season
I sit among all the fallen leaves
having become an old gray-haired woman
just     stacking up days, doing nothing
all I’ve done, all I do     is reluctantly
grow old

the wind took all the fallen leaves
carried them off to the ends of the cosmos
empty landscapes wherever you look
here and there     crushed bits of rubbish
I go off that way, ramble back this way
falling apart with no rhyme or reason     trembling
just idly tagging along as the seasons advance

(1983)

– Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama is a sextuple threat. She’s a painter, sculptor, film maker, performance artist, installation artist, and, as SAM staff are exploring about her right now, a writer. Reading Kusama’s poems from the collection Violet Obsession is a thought-provoking dive, deep into the artist’s despair. Unrequited love. Depression. Germaphobia. Fear of sex. Sleeplessness. More. The images she weaves are visceral. The language is shocking. The impact—indelible.

But this poem, one of the shortest and quietest of the collection, this is the one that has me thinking curious thoughts and scouring the internet to understand the woman behind SAM’s Infinity Mirrors exhibition. Here, Kusama’s despair is around having grown old, being a gray-haired woman doing nothing, falling apart, and idly tagging along. When I reached the end of the poem and saw that she wrote it in 1983, I thought “whaaaaaaat?” That was 34 years ago! She was a mere 54 at the time!

In the 34 years since, she has been named “World’s Most Popular Artist” multiple times by organizations looking at annual figures for the most-visited exhibitions in the world. She was named to Time magazine’s list of The 100 Most Influential People, has earned lifetime achievement awards, film and literary awards, and . . . oh I could go on about what I found in my hours of internet searching, but suffice it to say that Yayoi Kusama has had a brilliant career in the decades since she expressed feeling old and worthless. Granted, her career seemed to have had a revival in the 1980s, right about the time she wrote this poem, so of course, how could she have seen this all coming. Now at 88, she is still a prolific artist, having created all the massive, eye-popping paintings and sculptures in our exhibition’s first gallery in just the last two years.

I yearn to sit down and talk with her and hear what perspective she has on all of it now. Is she satisfied? Or does she still feel worthless? What drives her still into her ninth decade? I bet some of this is answered in 2011’s Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, which is now going to the top of my nightstand reading stack.

Oh, if only I can do as much nothing as her in my remaining years.

– Wendy Saffel, Marketing Manager

Source: Kusama, Yayoi. Violet Obsession. Translated by Hisako Ifshin and Ralph F. McCarthy with Leza Lowitz. Edited by Alexandra Munro. Berkeley, CA: Wandering Mind Books, 1998.
Illustration: Natali Wiseman.
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Crepin

The Ins and Outs of Acquisitions: A Newly Discovered French Masterpiece

Adding a piece to a museum collection is an involved process. In the case of Shipwreck Off the Coast of Alaska, a painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin, the first interaction was on a trip to London when Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European and Sculpture got an email from Christie’s auction house in London about a private sale of a uniquely important painting.

Museum curators continually consider art for the museum’s collection. They assess intellectual and historical importance of artworks, ownership, relevance to the larger collection, as well as condition, potential costs for conservation, framing, display, and storage. SAM’s collection includes approximately 25,000 objects, with 36 new artworks acquired so far in 2017.

To acquire a work of art, the curator has to first convince the director and then the Committee on Collections (COC), an advisory group of board members and community arts leaders, who, in turn, make recommendations to the Executive Committee of the Board, which has the final vote.

To give you a peek into the acquisition process, below is the curatorial argument for this newly acquired painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin.

This painting represents a shipwreck of two launches from the famous French Enlightenment-era expedition led by Count Jean-François de La Pérouse, which reached Alaska in July 1786. The ships were getting ready to leave Lituya Bay when two boats were caught up in violent tidal currents and one boat capsized. The second vessel may have tried to rescue the sailors but itself went under. This painting was commissioned by the family of two brother officers who were killed in this event, and it was enthusiastically reviewed when it was displayed at the 1806 Salon. It has been in the family since that time.

La Pérouse’s expedition into the Pacific Northwest followed celebrated efforts by Spanish and British explorers in the previous decade. Scientific inquiry was a primary motivation, but the explorers were also seeking political advantage for their governments. On July 2, 1786 the expedition arrived at a previously uncharted bay on the Alaskan coast. La Pérouse named it Port des Français, but we know it today as Lituya Bay. After successfully navigating the rocky entrance to the bay, the crews set up camp, planning to stay for a month to explore the bay and glaciers on the mainland at the northeast end of the bay. They concluded their investigations sooner than planned and made ready to leave on July 13. Two boats were sent ahead to sound the channel near the perilous entrance to the bay so that they could chart the depth; one officer miscalculated the distance from the rocks and found his boat engulfed by a sudden high tide. Both boats capsized, and twenty-one men were lost in ten minutes.

The painting closely follows La Pérouse’s own narrative of the disaster and draws on images by the professional artists who illustrated the Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse. The two endangered boats teeter in the foreground amid boulders and high waves as a third tries vainly to reach them. The two mother ships emerge from behind Observatory Island (after the tragedy, La Pérouse redubbed this Cenotaph Island). The urgent efforts of the sailors caught up in the roiling waves are set against the majestic backdrop of the Fairweather mountain range. At the right, gesturing from a rock, are two members of the Tlingit tribe, witnesses to the event, who searched in vain for survivors, according to La Pérouse. The interaction with the French and the story of the shipwreck would remain part of the Tlingit oral tradition.

Crépin captures the men’s desperate actions as conditions suddenly changed. The two La Borde brothers, in the boat at right, offer a line to their doomed comrades just before they too are swept under. The terrible drama is all in the foreground, at eye level. Beyond the turbulent waves in the pass the bay is calm, the mountains of the Fairweather range are impassively still, and the sky is clear and blue.

Born in Paris, Louis-Philippe Crépin was a specialist in marine painting who had trained under celebrated artists Claude-Joseph Vernet and Hubert Robert. His interest in marine subjects kindled by Vernet, Crépin made his debut at the Salon of 1796 with a painting of the port of Brest. His primary patron throughout his long career would be the Naval Ministry of the government. Many of his works are in the National Maritime Museum in Paris, while others are in provincial museums throughout France. This work would likely be the first painting by Crépin in an American museum.

This painting transcends the standard conventions of marine painting. It stands alone within the artist’s oeuvre, achieving a peak of clarity, drama, and pathos that are typical of more highly valued history painting. The prestige of the La Pérouse expedition, the spectacular American landscape, and the portraits of the Laborde brothers make this one of  Crépin’s most outstanding works. In his review of the 1806 Salon, Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Chaussard singled out the painting: “But the most beautiful painting by M. Crépin, and the one which most attracted the attention of art lovers and artists, was the Shipwreck of the Dinghies of M. de la Peyrouse. It is in this tragic event that he has deployed all his genius and all the resources of his art. The scene is represented with a touching simplicity, and yet with an energy which inspires at once terror and pity. There are no superfluous figures or accessories: all dramatic interest is in the truth of the action. . . . In sum, this painting promises that he is the rightful successor to Vernet, and that no other country has produced a rival to match this celebrated man.”

In addition to the painting’s superb quality, it has never been on the market, remaining in the family that commissioned it for over 200 years. This undoubtedly has contributed to its excellent state of preservation. The Empire frame, an impressive part of its visual impact, is from the same period as the painting.

Like the curators of the Salon, Ishikawa saw something exceptional in this work that lent itself to SAM’s focus. “It offers an insight into the European perspective of the Northwest as an uncharted area that hadn’t been recorded—the wonder and exoticism. Count Jean-François de La Pérouse who led the expedition to Lituya Bay, which at the time he named the Bay of the French, though it was clear by the trading skills of the Tlingit that this expedition was not the first to find this bay.” Ishikawa continues to point out that, “Crépin is not a famous artist but this is a painting that transcends its genre. It’s an impressive and successful example of human drama.” See this painting installed in Extreme Nature: Two Landscape Paintings from the Age of Enlightenment, opening December 23. Accompanied by the return of  Volaire’s much admired Eruption of Mount Vesuvius with Ponte della Maddalena in the Distance, painted around the same time as the Crépin and last seen hanging at SAM this spring in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, this installation will instill a very human awe and fear in the face of nature’s power.

Image: Shipwreck Off the Coast of Alaska, 1806, Louis-Philippe Crepin, French, 1772-1851, oil on canvas, 40 15/16 × 58 11/16 in., Seattle Art Museum, European Art Acquisition Fund; Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund; by exchange Gift of Mrs. Lew V. Day in memory of her husband; Gift of Arthur F. Ederer; H. Neil Meitzler, Issaquah, Washington; Col. Philip L. Thurber Memorial; Gift of Mrs. Donald E. Frederick; The late Mr. Arrigo M. Young and Mrs. Young in memory of their son, Lieut. (j.g.) Lawrence H. Young; Phillips Morrison Memorial; Gift of Mrs. Oswald Brown, in memory of her parents Simeon and Fannie B. Leland; Gift of Miss Grace G. Denny in memory of her sister Miss Coral M. Denny; Gift of friends in memory of Frank Molitor; Purchased from funds contributed in memory of Henry H. Judson; Purchased from the bequest of Charles M. Clark; Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr.; Norman and Amelia Davis Collection; Norman Davis Collection; Mrs. Cebert Baillargeon, in memory of her husband, 2017.15.
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Object of the Week Special Edition: The Western Mystery

This blog series is designed to focus on art works on SAM’s collection but this week we’re bringing you a special feature on Spencer Finch: The Western Mystery. This nebulous formation of suspended glass panes is currently installed at the Olympic Sculpture Park in the PACCAR Pavilion and will be on view through March 3, 2019. So, while not actually an artwork owned by SAM, this piece will be hanging above the heads of visitors to the sculpture park for years to come. Find out more about the artist and this mesmerizing art work from Carrie Dedon, Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art.

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SAM Staff Reads: Kusama’s Turbulent Garden

Yayoi Kusama’s visual art output is prolific, but did you know that she was also a writer? Beyond penning her autobiography, Infinity Net, in 2002 she is also the author of Hustler’s Grotto (1992), a collection of three novellas written between 1983 and 1992, and various books of poetry. Stay tuned to this blog series for a focus on Violet Obsession (1998), a collection of Kusama’s poems paired with images of her performative work including her Happenings and her activations of her Infinity Mirror Rooms. We’ve invited SAM staff to spend some time with Kusama’s poems and select a piece that speaks to them. We’ll be sharing selections from Violet Obsession alongside the musings and inspirations of SAM Staff. The exhibition, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors is on view at SAM through September 10.

SAM’s Copywriter and Content Strategist, and an author in her own right, Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, gets things started with with her thoughts on one of the more light-hearted poems in the collection.

TURBULENT GARDEN (AT THE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL)

it’s a breeding ground of stray cats here
parent cats have mated with their children to produce children
brothers have mated with sisters to produce children
and now the place is teeming with cats
when beams of the crescent moon fell upon the garden
the cats ate that moon
stars adhered one by one to the garden
the cats played with the stars
it’s a garden of cats
where no one dies and the numbers only multiply

it’s an exceedingly strange
cat way of calculating
all the leaves from the treetops       fell upon the cats
when the lonely winter comes
the shadows of cats just keep on increasing
they’re playing with one another
in the deathless garden
the rotting tails of fish accumulate
left over rice too is put aside
things human beings have contributed

they’re all disfigured cats
some with only half a tail
some with an ear torn off
some lame
not one complete cat in the lot

No one appears to have died
it’s even more turbulent on windy days
“meow, meow”—they run around
busy f***ing
they leap about
I’m glad I’m not a cat
I wasn’t born a cat
because I’m not really fond of all that f***ing

(1983)

– Yayoi Kusama

For me, the first appeal of this poem is the repetition. Kusama’s concerns with reproduction ad infinitum are clearly linked with breeding in this poem in a way that a work like Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field only implies. But in this poem, as in her visual work, what she reproduces is imagery, not just words (though the refrain of “cats” does reverberate throughout). Disfigured cats nibbling on a sliver of moon or batting around stars, never dying and endlessly multiplying are the fish tails and rice (rather than meat and potatoes) of the poem. But, it’s the turn that occurs at the end, when Kusama interjects in the first person, that lifts the poem above a landscape of feral felines into a psychological setting, all too fitting given the subtitle of the poem. We are taken directly into Kusama’s self proclaimed issues with sex at the end of this poem in a straightforward way. In her autobiography she talks at length about her fear of the phallus as the impetus to creating the soft sculptures that have appeared often in her work: in frames on wall, on furniture and boats, and in her Infinity Mirror Room. In contrast to the sheer volume of this motif in her visual work, her quick mention of being glad she’s not a cat allows the poem to be a playful menagerie in some undying garden, only lightly touched by human influence.

I think immediately of Turtle, my childhood cat. For weeks my brother almost had me convinced that she was a robot, until I saw her give birth. My father found her on a construction site in Manhattan on his walk home from work. She must have already been pregnant when he brought her into our tiny apartment. A few weeks later my parents pulled me out of elementary school in the middle of the day to come witness the birth of two kittens. Turtle caused another kind of issue at school: inquiries as to if everything was OK at home in response to the large and numerous scratches on my arms. Turtle didn’t take to domesticity and ran away within the year. We eventually gave her kittens to a neighbor. Turtle might not have liked being a mother, but she taught me how to climb trees.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Copywriter & Content Strategist

Source: Kusama, Yayoi. Violet Obsession. Translated by Hisako Ifshin and Ralph F. McCarthy with Leza Lowitz. Edited by Alexandra Munro. Berkeley, CA: Wandering Mind Books, 1998.
Illustration: Natali Wiseman.

 

 

 

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Kusama with Zoë Dusanne at her solo exhibition at the Dusanne Gallery, Seattle, December 1957.

Kusama’s Full Circle

“My constant battle with art began when I was still a child. But my destiny was decided when I made up my mind to leave Japan and journey to America.”

–Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama declared her official purpose on her visa application to the United States in 1957 as exhibiting art in Seattle. Few people remember that this internationally renowned artist’s first exhibition in the US was a solo show at the Zoë Dusanne Gallery. It included a group of roughly 20 watercolors and pastels selected from the 200 works that Kusama brought with her to America on this first trip. Kusama began her international career here in Seattle, where her celebrated work now returns with in the dazzling new exhibition, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at SAM through Spetember 10.

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors spans 65 years of the artist’s career, from the era of Kusama’s early pastels to recent works making their North American debut. The exhibition features five of her immersive, multi-reflective Infinity Mirror Rooms, including the recently completed All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016). Interspersed among the Infinity Mirror Rooms from which the exhibition draws its title, are paintings and sculptures which Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, describes as, “the backbone of Kusama’s artistic practice.” Manchanda further explains, “This exhibition is a unique opportunity to see the life work of a true visionary. Taken together, Kusama’s drawings, paintings, sculptures, and infinity rooms add up to a Gesamtkunstwerk [total art work]. Her web-like structures are equally reminiscent of microscopic cell formations or macroscopic visions of outer space. I recommend looking closely at these works. They are the key to understanding the infinity rooms.”

As Louis Guzzo pointed out in a 1957 Seattle Times feature on Kusama’s Dusanne Gallery show, “Several of the smaller works are beautiful, but one must study them closely to realize the intricacies of their microscopic worlds.” Kusama asserts all of her work is part of a whole, a whole that we are all a part of in Kusama’s concept of the infinite.

In 1959, two years after her Seattle gallery exhibition, the prolific artist and writer Donald Judd wrote of a Kusama show in New York: “Sidney Tillim writing in Arts, predicted that the show would prove the sensation of the season. It did prove to be so and has remained one of the few important shows of the last two years.” Judd’s remarks could have been written last week, as Kusama’s work remains as sensational today as it was in 1959.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Copywriter/Content Strategist

Image: Kusama with Zoë Dusanne at her solo exhibition at the Dusanne Gallery, Seattle, December 1957.
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Personal Landscapes

What’s your personal landscape? Watch our video series, Personal Landscapes, to hear from creatives, scientists, and an athlete on what draws their eye in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The exhibition features 39 historically significant European and American landscape paintings from the past 400 years. From Brueghel’s allegorical series of the five senses painted in the 15th century to David Hockney’s The Grand Canyon, completed in 1998, there’s something for everyone in Seeing Nature. See it yourself before it closes, May 23! Get $5 off between now and closing by using the code SEE$5OFF at check out.

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Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Impressionism

Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather

One of Paul Allen’s favorite periods is obviously French Impressionism, and he has some exquisite examples. In Seeing Nature there are five paintings by Claude Monet. Monet had such a long life that he underwent a long evolution based on seeing and communicating his subjective experience to the viewer.

Monet was constantly trying to forget what he knew and what his mind told him—such as that if a stone building is brown it should be depicted as brown. He wanted to forget logic and just paint what he saw. In Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, London was beset by terrible pollution and it created a very foggy atmosphere. For Monet, those atmospheric effects made for a series of beautiful paintings where you can subtly perceive the fact that there’s a bridge before you with smoke stacks beyond. The brushstrokes depicting sunlight coming through the arches of the bridge have more substance than the bridge itself. He was interested in the changing color effects of different times and days so he painted the Waterloo Bridge at different times of day.

Landscape on île Saint-Martin, Claude Monet, 1881.

Landscape on île Saint-Martin

Earlier in his career, Monet didn’t have the luxury of going far afield to paint. It took him years to be able to make a living. Landscape on île Saint-Martin and The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather are from the early 1880s when he was still years away from becoming successful. He painted where he was living with his family. During one summer, Monet was on a little island just north of Paris and painted it in all of its summertime glory with this beautiful field of poppies. There is a little fisherman’s cabin that used to be a watchtower right on the Normandy coast, an area of his childhood that he would return to many times over the years. These paintings reward looking close up, but they also reward standing back and taking in the whole—he’s thinking about both perspectives at the same time.

The Fisherman's House, Overcast Weather, Claude Monet, 1882.

The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather

Claude Monet painted Venice fairly late in his career. It’s important to mention The Palazzo da Mula in conjunction with View in Venice–The Grand Canal by Edouard Manet. Manet was such an inspiration for Monet. Though he never called himself an Impressionist, Manet was absolutely fundamental to the movement. It’s interesting that both artists went to Venice—Manet painting in 1874 and Monet in 1908. By this time there is a historical body of work that artists have created about Venice. There are conventions about what Venetian paintings look like and both of these artists are interested in breaking those conventions.

The Palazzo da Mula, Claude Monet, 1908.

The Palazzo da Mula

Manet’s painting is particularly radical. He is right on the water. It’s as though he’s painting in a boat. All of the grand views, the many beautiful buildings that intersect with the sky and water, are not his main subject. The dome, which was originally much bigger—there’s a pentiment that shows through a little bit now—he suppresses it. He doesn’t want that to be the main event. He’s instead much more interested in the mooring poles that are part of the navigational system of all the boat traffic in Venice.

View in Venice–The Grand Canal, Edouard Manet, 1874.

View in Venice–The Grand Canal

When you see just the prow of the gondola come into the picture, it reminds you that photography has become part of the visual vocabulary by this time. A view can be cut off like a snapshot and a form can end abruptly. It’s not composed in that traditional way, it almost looks like a found view although he obviously worked at it. To me, this painting is an antidote to the kind of more melancholy mysterious aspect of Venice, which is so much a part of its literary reputation. This is more about a bustling city full of movement. It’s full of vigor and sparkling light in the middle of the day.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

See these and other Impressionist artworks in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, on view at SAM through May 23.

Note: This text is taken from an audio recording of a staff tour of the exhibition led by SAM curators.
Images: Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, 1904, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 39 1/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Landscape on île Saint-Martin, 1881, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 28 13/16 x 23 5/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather, 1882, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 22 3/4 x 28 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Palazzo da Mula, 1908, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 26 1/6 x 36 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. View in Venice–The Grand Canal, 1874, Edouard Manet, French, 1832-1883, oil on canvas, 22 9/16 x 18 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
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Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: The Grand Canyon

The first time I saw Cosmic Cities, I found it hard to believe that the Arthur Wesley Dow who I was familiar with could paint so large and boldly. This is what the Grand Canyon did for him. Dow was famous as a teacher at Columbia Teachers College. He developed a course of composition study based on Japanese prints, on filling the page or canvas through flat patterns and linear rhythms. This is what he taught to people like Georgia O’Keeffe, a new modern way of looking. In his own practice, he created beautiful little wood cut prints and tiny paintings done in the landscape around his Massachusetts home. But when he went west it changed him completely.

When Arthur Wesley Dow got to the Grand Canyon, he said it compelled him to think about pictures in three different ways. One was color, because the sedimentary rock, sand, and shell shimmered, changing colors all day long and giving a glittery quality to the atmosphere and the surfaces. He said the immersive experience of the Grand Canyon made him think differently about the structures of pictures—he loved that disorienting quality, the feeling that we have no footing, that we might tumble into the scene. He also said he saw nature’s innate architecture. In Cosmic Cities, this strange architecture looks like it could have come from some ancient builders, but it is the product of nature itself. This painting was commented on by critiques as a great breakthrough for American painting at this time in 1912. Because of its large scale and its all-over, painterly color pattern, it doesn’t look like a Victorian-era painting—it looks like it could have been painted today.

Dow went to the Grand Canyon because he saw paintings like Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon, also in the Allen collection. Moran visited the Grand Canyon repeatedly. His trips were paid for by the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Hotel. The Santa Fe Railroad extended its tracks right up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and built the famous Fred Harvey Hotel there. It was a tourist destination for a long time before Theodore Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908. When you look out across the vast space, you see the horizon in the Moran painting, and so you get a sense of firm grounding, and of deep landscape. It’s a very different effect from Dow’s boundless, dizzying place.

–Patricia Junker, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

I don’t know how many of you have been to the Grand Canyon, but the drama of the Grand Canyon is just extraordinary. When you stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon you can hardly ever see straight down to the Colorado River because it is so deep. What you see is this texture of different planes that unfold in front of you. I have this idea that Dow painted the Grand Canyon at sunrise because once I got up at four in the morning to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon and the lavender tones start coming out. In David Hockney’s Grand Canyon, on the other hand, I see sunset colors because that’s when there are intense orange and yellows. You can’t believe how much purple there can be in a rock! Of course, Hockney exaggerates since these are not natural colors.

A British artist who spends a lot of time in Los Angeles and travels to the Grand Canyon, David Hockney did some work designing stage sets. I think that’s especially pronounced in his Grand Canyon. He uses these small squares of canvas corresponding to photographs he took at the Grand Canyon. Initially he planned a photographic series. He took all these photographs, taped them together, and then decided the photographic representation wasn’t successful. So he painted the Grand Canyon in three different versions. This one is called The Grand Canyon and conceptually, if you think of stage design, the purple form would be one slice that you roll onto stage and the yellow form could be another. There’s a way in which he was learning from his experience in stagecraft for the composition of this scene. The stroke of genius here, that tiny sliver of sky—which when you’re standing there, would instead feel enormous—puts so much pressure on the entire composition. It’s really an extraordinary painting.

–Catharina Manchanda, Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Bring your own experience of the Grand Canyon to Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection and compare it to three wildly divergent depictions of this natural wonder. Seeing Nature presents 39 exquisite, highly detailed paintings as a platform for visitors to consider their own experience with the world through sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste. On view through May 23, don’t miss it!

Images: Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona, 1912, Arthur Wesley Dow, American, 1857-1922, oil on canvas, 61 x 79 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909, Thomas Moran, American, born England, 1837–1926, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. David Hockney, British, b. 1937, The Grand Canyon, 1998, oil on canvas, 48 ½ x 14 ft. 1 in. overall, Paul G. Allen Family Collection, © David Hockney.
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