All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle

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. 

In this graphic work, a woman holds a dripping rope or do-rag[1] 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, Walker explains:

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.[2]

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.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate


[1] Julia Szabo, “Kara Walker’s Shock Art,” The New York Times, March 23, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/23/magazine/kara-walker-s-shock-art.html
[2] Kara Walker, “Art Talk with Kara Walker,” interview by Paulette Beete, National Endowment for the Arts, February 1, 2012, https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2012/art-talk-kara-walker
[3] “Kara Walker,” ArtNet, accessed February 12, 2020, http://www.artnet.com/artists/kara-walker/
I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, 1995-96, Kara Walker, lithograph, 39 1/2 x 35 in., Print Acquisition Fund and gift of P. Raaze Garrison, 99.61 1995-96 © Kara Walker
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Object of the Week: Wounded Eagle No. 10

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

Wounded Eagle No. 10, 1963, James Washington, Jr., granite, 8 x 10 5/8 x 13 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.159 © James W. Washington
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Object of the Week: Hester Diamond Tribute

What lasts

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

Images: Sacco (Sack), 1955, Alberto Burri, burlap, cardboard, muslin, and paint, 35 1/2 x 28 1/4 in., Gift of Hester Diamond in memory of Alberto Burri, 95.134 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Leda and the Swan and Her Children, ca. 1540, Vincent Sellaer, oil on wood panel, 43 1/2 x 35 1/16 in., Gift of Hester Diamond in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2004.31. Photograph ©️ Carla van de Puttelaer, 2019.
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Object of the Week: Rat water dropper

Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.

Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.

Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119
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Muse/News: Catch these hands at SAM, rice cookers at On The Boards, and celebrating the king of love

SAM News

Final week! Flesh and Blood: Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum closes Sunday, January 26.

Last week, we shared the deep dive into the exhibition by T.s. Flock for Vanguard Seattle; this week he’s back with a close look at the show’s notable hands.

Seattle Magazine’s Ariel Shearer has a new blog series for those new in town, exploring the city; this week, she visits Flesh and Blood and talks all things Artemisia.

“It’s an image I’ve seen hundreds of times—as misandrist memes across the internet, a patch on the back of my partner’s denim jacket, to list a few iterations—but witnessing Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes in person at the Seattle Art Museum last weekend still sparked a visceral reaction.”

Local News

Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel reports on the “badass” PNW artists who received prestigious Creative Capital grants, including J Mase III and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi.

The Seattle Times’ Yasmeen Wafai has a great round-up of activities to check out for Lunar New Year and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations.

The Stranger’s Rich Smith previews Cuckoo, Jaha Koo’s upcoming performance piece at On The Boards, which connects rice cookers, loneliness, and the global economy.

“To him, the preprogrammed voice trapped in a mass-market workhorse metaphorically resonated with the life of the average Korean millennial. The ironic sadness of being comforted by a product of a system that creates the discomfort in the first place seemed ripe for dramatic inquiry.”

Inter/National News

Stephanie Wolf for NPR’s Weekend Edition visited the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition of Monet paintings for a behind-the-scenes look at how they actually got there. Seattle Art Museum lent a work to the exhibition.

Artnet’s Sarah Cascone reports that the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has acquired the Separate Cinema Archive, a collection “documenting African-American cinema history from 1904 to the present day.”

Nancy Kenney of the Art Newspaper previews Jacob Lawrence: The Struggle Series, which is now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum. The exhibition’s national tour brings the works to SAM in 2021.

“In an election year in which the country is bitterly divided between those for and against President Donald Trump, and over who is welcome to immigrate and become a citizen, it seems likely to resonate.”

And Finally

Recorded live on April 7, 1968.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Jen Au
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Object of the Week: Confrontation at the Bridge

This 1975 screenprint by Jacob Lawrence was commissioned on the occasion of the United States’ bicentennial. The prompt: to create a print that reflects an aspect of American history since 1776. Lawrence, one of 33 artists to contribute to the portfolio An American Portrait, 1776-1976, chose to depict the infamous incident in Alabama known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, hundreds of unarmed protesters—led by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis—organized a 54-mile march from Selma to the state’s capitol, Montgomery, advocating for the voting rights of African Americans. As demonstrators began their route out of Selma, they were met by a barrage of state troopers at Edmund Pettus Bridge. With orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace “to use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march,” the state troopers attacked the activists—resulting in the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson—using clubs and tear gas. Though the march dissipated due to this senseless violence, two days later the protesters safely reached Montgomery (thanks to court-ordered protection) and numbered nearly 25,000.

As horrible as these events were, what took place on March 7—publicized nationally and internationally—helped galvanize public opinion and finally mobilize Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson five months later.

In Lawrence’s screenprint, the troopers’ brutal actions are represented through the presence of a vicious, snarling dog. To its right, we see African American men and women of various ages clustered together, their political solidarity conveyed through their visual unity. A tumultuous sky surrounds them, whose jagged cloud forms find likeness in the choppy waters below.

This horrible event would leave an indelible mark on our nation’s history and is remembered today for the courage shown by the thousands of activists who marched for a more equitable world. When articulating his choice to depict this important moment, Lawrence recalled: “I thought [the Selma-to-Montgomery march] was part of the history of the country, part of the history of our progress; not of just the black progress, but of the progress of the people.”

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, Jacob Lawrence, serigraph; ink on paper, 19 1/2 x 25 15/16 in., Anonymous gift in honor of Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight, 92.10 © Jacob Lawrence
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Object of the Week: The Important an Unimportant

Since John Baldessari’s death last week, there has been a commensurate stream of articles recounting his outsized influence as a pioneering artist and educator, with a prolific career spanning decades.

With beginnings as a painter, Baldessari, like many artists of the 1960s and 70s, eventually gravitated toward conceptual art and the pre-eminence of ideas over objects. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Baldessari imbued his conceptual art practice with humor and wit, employing “a sort of Dada irony and sometimes colorful Pop Art splashes . . . to rescue conceptual art from what he saw as its high-minded self-seriousness.”[1]

Baldessari’s enduring interests included the relationship between text and image—which often meant pitting them against one another to challenge their assumed accuracy—and the appropriation of images from photography and film. His 1999 painting, The Important an Unimportant (from the Tetrad Series), in SAM’s collection is an exemplar work in this regard, a combination of digital printing, hand lettering, and acrylic paint on canvas.

The composition, made up of quadrants, juxtaposes square images—a glass with red daisies, a woman’s finger pointing down, and two skeleton hands playing an organ—with a textual element that reads, “the important an unimportant.” If these sequences appear heterogeneous and somewhat anachronistic, it is because they are. For example, the excerpt in the upper right is lifted from Goya’s 1797 painting The Duchess of Alba, painted while the duchess mourned her husband’s death. In the lower left, a still from Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 silent film, The Wedding March, is a not-so-subtle harbinger of the fate which befalls the romance and aristocratic aspirations of the film’s protagonist lovers. The text in the lower right, even, is an excerpt from Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), “for whom nullity was a muse.”[2]

Taken together, these citations enrich our understanding of Baldessari’s wide range of influences. And whether we know the exact origins of his chosen references or not, the appropriated images and texts are here imbued with new meaning. We are invited—and, importantly, required—to participate as viewers to consider their relationship to one another and the history of visual representation more broadly.

A serial creator, Baldessari always adhered to his now-famous maxim to “not make any more boring art.” A simple enough credo, such a motivation directly impacts us as viewers, who are on the receiving end—simultaneously empowered and challenged by his work. Perhaps best articulated by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, “[Baldessari’s] work amuses, unsettles, questions and makes you look twice and think thrice; laugh out loud; and in general gain a sharpened awareness of the overlapping processes of art making, art viewing, and art thinking.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: The Important an Unimportant, 1999, John Baldessari, digital printing, hand lettering, and acrylic paint on canvas, 94 x 94 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2014.25.6 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate
[1] Jori Finkel, “John Baldessari, Who Gave Conceptual Art a Dose of Wit, Is Dead at 88,” The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/05/arts/john-baldessari-dead.html.
[2] Adam Kirsch, “Fernando Pessoa’s Disappearing Act,” The New Yorker, Aug. 28, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/04/fernando-pessoas-disappearing-act.
[3] Roberta Smith, “Tweaking Tradition, Even in Its Temple,” The New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/22/arts/design/22baldessari.html.
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Object of the Week: Rosary Bead

This 16th-century Flemish rosary bead or “prayer nut,” not even two inches in diameter, is a virtuosic display of wood and ivory carving. Floral patterns encircled by delicate ivory bands adorn each hemisphere. These swirling petals draw the beholder in for a closer look, which turns out to be worthwhile: the bead’s subtle hinge and clasp lead to hidden depths.

Opening the prayer nut reveals two impossibly small and detailed scenes from the life of Christ. The smaller side shows Saint Christopher bearing the young Jesus safely across the river, while the larger side bears an intimate scene of the Virgin and Child with Mary’s parents, Saint Anne and Saint Joaquim.

The sight of the intricate carvings alone is breathtaking, but these objects were wonderfully interactive as well. At the height of their popularity, most prayer nuts were worn on rosaries. These strings of beads were central to a multisensory experience of worship, where different beads loosely corresponded with recitations of ‘Aves’ and ‘Pater Nosters’, among other prayers. We can imagine the feeling of the prayer beads in hand, the sound of them clacking together in time with the holy words, combining into a trance-like meditation, in which the worshipper was meant to visualize and contemplate scenes from the Bible.[1] Those men and women lucky enough to have a beautiful prayer nut at the end of their rosary would open it carefully at the culmination of their prayers and be rewarded by an actual vision of these scenes.

However, we can’t only call these people lucky—they were also wealthy. Prayer nuts were symbols of status as much as faith, and church Reformers specifically criticized prayer nuts as empty claims to piety by the superrich.[2] This beautiful example in SAM’s collection would likely have been particularly precious, as it is made of sandalwood (an unusual choice) and ivory, both import goods from faraway continents.

I am continually in awe of the way objects like these, with a bit of context and empathy, can connect us to people we have not remembered in written archives. They never mean only one thing, and their stories will keep unfolding as long we care to look under the surface.

Linnea Hodge, Curatorial Division Coordinator


[1] Reindert Falkenburg, “Prayer Nuts: Feasting the Eyes of the Heart,” in Prayer Nuts, Private Devotion, and Early Modern Art Collecting, ed. Evelin Wetter and Frits Scholten (Abegg-Stiftung, 2017), 15-17.
[2] Falkenburg, “Prayer Nuts”, 13
Images: Rosary Bead, Miniature Religious Scenes, early 16th century, Flemish, sandalwood, pear wood, and ivory, 1 9/16 x 1 7/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.4, photo: Craig Boyko Art Gallery of Ontario, 2016

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Object of the Week: Solstice Echo

In the weeks leading up to the winter solstice, light—increasingly subsumed by darkness—feels like a precious resource. It can be easy to forget just how much we rely on daylight, and difficult to remember what life was like even six months ago. Luckily, Saturday brings with it the shortest day and longest night of the year, and longer and longer days thereafter.

For artist Edda Renouf, the solstice is a perfect subject given her interest in light, nature, and the passage of time. Known for her minimal and meditative compositions, Renouf’s paintings and works on paper often engage material qualities that are intrinsic to her given mediums. In Solstice Echo, for example, the weave of the paper is enhanced by the verticality of the composition’s emergent form, further dramatized by deep red and black oil pastel hues.

In the words of Renouf, whose work is often linked to post-minimalism and the work of Agnes Martin: “Materials speak to me and unexpected things happen. It is from a silent conversation between materials and imagination, from intuitive listening that the paintings and drawings are born.” Renouf’s quiet and meditative compositions reveal essential truths about painting and drawing through simple formal decisions.

In Solstice Echo, the oil pastel sits on the surface of the textured paper—calling attention to its two-dimensionality—but also highlights a depth and deeper material structure that belies the paper’s inherent flatness. Taken together with the work’s title, Solstice Echo is indeed a meditation on light and space, capturing the subtle tension between lightness and darkness.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Solstice Echo, 2004, Edda Renouf, oil pastel on paper, 9 1/2 x 8 1/4 in., The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, a joint initiative of the Trustees of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection and the National Gallery of Art, with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, 2008.29.31 ©Edda Renouf
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