All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after Delivering His “I Have a Dream” Speech

This black and white photograph, taken by photojournalist Dan Budnik in 1963, is one of a series that Budnik had hoped to publish in a Life magazine photo-essay. His subject is none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., photographed minutes after delivering a speech that would forever be defined by four indelible words: “I have a dream.”

The image is unrelenting is its focus, framing Dr. King’s face so that he takes up over half of the composition. King, glancing down and to the side, bears a calm demeanor—stoic and pensive. Surely he would have been surrounded by a large group of friends and colleagues, or even a crowd of fellow activists, but Budnik denies us any context in which to situate King. Without the title of the photograph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after Delivering His “I Have a Dream” Speech, August, 1963, we would have no way to know that this image portrays him after one of the most important speeches in American history.

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is arguably his most famous, but in the spirit of honoring his legacy and rhetorical dynamism, I share below an excerpt from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, given one year after this photograph was taken, in 1964.  King’s continued call for racial equity, social justice, and religious tolerance—delivered with unfettered optimism—is, I believe, an urgent and important message for our present time:

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “ought-ness” that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today’s motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. . . .

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after Delivering His “I Have a Dream” Speech, August 1963, 1963, Dan Budnik, gelatin silver photograph, 11 x 14 in., Gift of Getty Images, 2000.34 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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Object of the Week: Hat

Winter in Seattle calls for warm hats, often beanies, which are worn for necessity more than anything else. In Kuba culture, hats are important visual indicators of social position and wealth. Composed of woven cloth, cowrie shells, beads, leather, and feathers, this cap is richly ornamented—its form, bright colors, and patterning all speaking to the status of its wearer.

Topped with four coral-colored feathers, this hat is a striking example of Kuba beadwork and appliqué; in addition, its materials carry symbolic significance. Prior to the colonial presence in Africa, cowrie shells and beads were used as currency. Further, white and blue colors are considered positive attributes, associated with purity, prominence, and leadership. The additional shells at the base of the hat move when worn, making a gentle sound meant to attract the attention of passers-by. Together, these details and materials point to the importance of communicating power and prestige within the Kuba community.

The Kuba Kingdom, established in the 17th century, is in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Known for its artistic production (see here for the wide variety of Kuba works in SAM’s collection), Kuba society is comprised of about 18 distinct subgroups with their own internal political structures and hierarchies. This is where hats such as this one come into play. A marker of status, these hats signal the wearer’s identity. The hats vary in form—the more elaborate the hat, the more powerful the person. Importantly, these caps are worn by men and women alike, received at different stages in life, corresponding with personal growth.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

Hat, Kuba, cloth, cowrie shells, beads, metal, and leather, 4 1/2 in., diam.: 7 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.859
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Object of the Week: Untitled (Louisiana)

A pioneer of color photography (sometimes even referred to as “the godfather” of color photography), William Eggleston is, for many, synonymous with photographs that evocatively capture the mundane, trivial, and everyday. In the 1960s and 70s, at a time when color photography was largely associated with commercial advertising, Eggleston managed to elevate it into a fine-art form.

Born and raised in Tennessee, Eggleston largely focused his attention on the rural South but has traveled across the United States documenting post-war American life and culture. His compositions are unmistakable—they embody a slowness and stillness that, despite the certainty suggested by their documentary quality, grows more complex and complicated over time. Landscapes, buildings, signage, trash, restaurants, the contents of a freezer or oven—all is fair game for Eggleston. Peter Schjeldahl once wrote that to view Eggleston’s work was to be “pummeled by eccentric beauty, and to wonder about it.”[1]

Untitled (Louisiana) is an exemplary work in this regard. Its geometry, framing, lavish color, light, and shadow are quintessential Eggleston. Taken from the neutral vantage point of a restaurant tabletop, the image focuses our gaze on an unlikely cast of characters: a few scattered menus, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and a Winston cigarette lighter. Other details we might also overlook, like the poor paint job or stack of napkins in the background, are hard to ignore. Contrary to the relative emptiness of the photograph, there is an overwhelming amount of visual information to absorb.

In today’s rich media landscape, such moments of stillness are increasingly hard to find. And while our smartphones have turned us all into amateur photographers, sharing everyday observations and experiences on social media, how many of us really sit with an image we find scrolling through our feeds, taking the time to dissect and analyze the story being shared—to wonder about it?

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Peter Schjeldahl, “Local Color: William Eggleston at the Whitney,” New Yorker, November 17, 2008, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/17/local-color-peter-schjeldahl.
Image: Untitled (Louisiana), 1980, William Eggleston, dye transfer print, 16 1/16 x 19 7/8 in., Pacific Northwest Bell, the Photography Council, the Polaroid Foundation, Mark Abrahamson, and the National Endowment for the Arts, 83.55 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.
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Object of the Week: Winter Landscape on the Banks of the Seine

“An artist should express his feeling with the harmony or idea of color which he possesses naturally. He should not copy the walls, or objects on a table, but he should, above all, express a vision of color, the harmony of which corresponds to his feeling.”[1] – Henri Matisse

During the rise of modernism, which occurred between the late 19th century to the early 20th century,[2] artists began to move away from representation towards abstraction, and they changed the types of painting that were traditionally accepted in the Western world. At this time, artists started to return to the basic natures of paintings such as colors, lines, shapes, and textures, rather than words and representations in order to communicate and interact with their audience.

Winter Landscape on the Banks of the Seine, which Matisse began in 1904 and finished in 1905, contains quick vibrant dabs of color pigments against the dreary grey and stark white background of the canvas. Matisse did not literally paint a winter setting along Paris’ River Seine. He painted the emotions that this setting produced within him. By arranging cool and warm tones on a two-dimensional canvas, Matisse was able to successfully convey the feeling of gentleness and serenity within his work. He left behind these emotions for Seattle Art Museum visitors to explore and perceive.

Widely recognized as one of the most important and innovative colorists during the post-impressionism movement, Henri Matisse focused on creating harmonious, unified, and balanced arrangements of colors on two-dimensional canvases to evoke emotions within his audience. Though Henri Matisse’s mother was a painter, he did not have a direct path into the world of art. He began to study law in Paris and even though he considered it to be tedious and uninteresting, he still passed the bar exam in 1888. He reluctantly started to practice law after he graduated because his father arranged a job for him in a law office. His career path was altered, however, when he received art supplies from his mother in 1889. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,”[3] Matisse stated.

Happy birthday to Henri Matisse (December 31, 1869–November 3, 1954)! Thank you for your legacy and contribution to the world of art.

– Trang Tran, SAM’s Emerging Arts Leader Intern

[1] Jack D. Flam, Matisse On Art (New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 1973), 51.
[2] “What is Modern Art?” Museum of Modern Art, accessed 20 Dec 2018, https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/what-is-modern-art/
[3] “The Personal Life of Henri Matisse,” Henri Matisse, accessed 23 Oct 2018, http://www.henri-matisse.net/biography.html.
Image: Winter Landscape on the Banks of the Seine, ca. 1904-05, Henri Matisse, oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 15 3/4 in., Gift of Norman Davis, 91.88
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Object of the Week:Study for Nude for Balzac F.

For those familiar with the French writer Honoré de Balzac, and the iconic monument produced by Auguste Rodin in his honor, it might be hard to reconcile this study in SAM’s collection as a related work. Indeed, the bronze sculpture, headless and unclothed, leaning backward as if a Greek god seems—at first glance—to be a far cry from the finished piece, in which Balzac dons a monk’s habit with long, disheveled hair.

Rodin was commissioned to execute a monument of the late Balzac in 1891, much to the chagrin of certain members of the Société des Gens de Lettres (who may or may not have been informed by Emile Zola of the meeting to select the artist for the monument).[1] Still, Rodin took the appointment in stride, writing that, “I have always been interested in this great literary figure, and have often studied him, not only in his works but in his native province.”[2] As a method actor assumes a role in its entirety, so too did Rodin embark on an intense study of all Balzacian iconography and literature before he began his work. According to French journalist and art critic Gustave Geffroy, “Rodin had read and reread not only all the works of Balzac, but also all that has been written about Balzac.”[3]

The subject occupied Rodin’s time for several years, and he produced study after study—nearing fifty in total. Around 1895, he grew dissatisfied with his direction, feeling the sculptures were either too derivative of other portraits or were too realistic. In fact, this study, created circa 1896, “marks an important stage in the development of Rodin’s thoughts about the monument. All ideas of verisimilitude have evidently been abandoned in favor of the creation of a figure that symbolizes the nature of Balzac’s genius.”[4]

By August of 1896, the final accouterments for the piece would be decided, as chronicled by a French journalist:

One or two months ago, M. Rodin finished a maquette which gives him the satisfaction he searched for so untiringly. Balzac will be represented standing, in a strong, simple posture, his legs slightly apart, his arms crossed. He will be dressed in a sort of long robe without a belt, which will fall down to his feet.[5]

By developing the Balzac’s body and head separately but simultaneously, Rodin prioritized the idea of Balzac over achieving a physical likeness. Indeed, Balzac’s creative vitality, power, and energy are conveyed in both the study as well as the finished piece. Lucky for us, the study is currently on view in France: Inside and Out in the European galleries on the Fourth Floor.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Study of Nude for Balzac F., ca. 1896, Auguste Rodin, bronze with black patina, 36 x 15 x 12 1/4 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hedreen in memory of Anthony Callison and the Modern Art Purchase Fund, 89.181.
[1] John L. Tancock, The Sculpture of August Rodin (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976), 428.
[2] Excerpt from a letter dates July 3, 1891, quoted in L’Echo de Paris, Paris, August 29, 1896.
[3] “L’Imaginaire,” Le Figaro, Paris, August 29, 1893, 1.
[4] Tancock, 440.
[5] Le Temps, Paris, August 19, 1896.
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Object of the Week: White Night

Cloud cover in the Pacific Northwest makes stargazing difficult at times, but that didn’t stop Mark Tobey from painting White Night in 1942.

Featuring the artist’s signature “white writing” treatment—a dense and abstract calligraphic mode of painting—White Night manages to evoke a sense of spirituality while also conjuring the night sky. After the artist’s conversion to the Baha’i Faith in 1918 and subsequent study of Zen painting in Kyoto, Japan, Tobey would indeed, throughout his long career, explore the relationship between the spiritual and the abstract in art. In the words of the artist, “I believe that painting should come through the avenues of meditation rather than the canals of action.”

It is a difficult endeavor to paint something felt rather than known. Yet somehow Tobey is able to capture the awesome power and energy of the night sky. Of course, the sky we see today is very different from what Tobey would be giving representation to in 1942. The first satellite was launched into space fifteen years later, ushering in a new era of space exploration and forever altering our relationship with the cosmos. In this context, White Night becomes a rather prescient painting—somehow predicting the invisible activity that would soon populate the night sky, and the images of space such satellites would capture.

The Geminid meteor shower is tonight, and while we might not be able to experience it through the winter clouds, we can still look up and recall this painting’s dynamic and mysterious energy.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: White Night, 1942, Mark Tobey, tempera on paperboard mounted on composition board, 22 1/4 x 14 in., Gift of Mrs. Berthe Poncy Jacobson, 62.78 © Mark Tobey / Seattle Art Museum
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Object of the week: Box with the Sound of Its Own Making

Honoring the life and legacy of Robert Morris, who passed away last Wednesday, this week’s Object of the Week highlights his iconic 1961 piece, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making.

A founder of Minimalism, Morris’s 1966 series of essays Notes on Sculpture cemented his reputation as a pioneering sculptor as well as a critical thinker. Among his many contributions to contemporary art of the 1960s and 70s (and beyond) was the prioritization of the relationship between viewer, artwork, and environment. Such hallmarks of Minimalism as repetition, scale, and an absence of expressive content were key elements in many of his works, forcing viewers to consider the spatial arrangement and scale of the sculptures themselves. In the words of New York Times art writer Ken Johnson, “Because the [minimalist] sculptures lacked the complex internal relationships of traditional composition, the viewer would focus on the object’s relationship to the architecture of the room and its effect on his or her perceptual experience of space, light and shape.”[1]

Rebelling against the notion of an artwork as something precious or finely crafted, Morris often worked with simple, everyday materials like plywood, felt, and mirrors. Throughout his decades-long career, Morris worked in a wide array of modes that explored the experiential nature of art and sculptural possibilities of space, ranging from labyrinths and performance to earthworks and environments with sound systems.

Box with the Sound of Its Own Making is an exemplary work in this regard. The piece is, cheekily, exactly what the title suggests: a seemingly ordinary box with a soundtrack of its own construction—three and a half hours of sawing, sanding, and hammering. Morris deftly does away with the mystery of artistic creation, pulling back the curtain to reveal a document of the physical labor necessary to create the work itself. What might otherwise be interpreted as precious, mute, and opaque is, in fact, a dynamic, narrative sculpture that highlights duration, process, and provisionality. See this piece at SAM, on view in Big Picture: Art after 1945.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Ken Johnson, ‘Robert Morris, 87, Dies; Founding Minimalist Sculptor With Manifold Passions,” The New York Times, November 29, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/29/obituaries/robert-morris-dead.html.
Image: Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, Robert Morris, wood, internal speaker, wooden cube: 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 in., overall: 46 x 9 3/4 x 9 3/4in.; TRT 3.5 hours, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 82.190 © Estate of Robert Morris
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Object of the Week: Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel

Among their many achievements, Mochica (also known as Moche) society is well-known for their innovations in and mastery of ceramics. Celebrated for their figurative vessels—often resembling animals, plants, deities, and even adult activities—Mochica ceramicists produced a variety of exquisite forms whose painted and sculpted surfaces reflect the vibrant life, religion, and culture of the Mochica people.

Mochica stirrup spout vessels, in particular, would take on complex and figurative scenes. Named for their resemblance to stirrups, such vessels are identifiable due to their wide body, which connects to an elegant circular hollow handle. Though unsure of exactly what was stored in these vessels (until recently it was believed that their purpose was mainly funerary), it is likely that they contained beverages like corn beer (chicha). Equal parts beautiful and versatile, stirrup spout vessels were also functional: in the high elevation deserts of Peru, the narrow spout would prevent the evaporation of the vessels’ liquid contents.

In this Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel on view in the exhibition Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art, an anthropomorphic figure stands surrounded by six peaks topped with snail shells, which also share anthropomorphic features. Holding a staff, the stoic figure—Ai-Apec, the chief deity of the Mochica—dons a patterned tunic and pendant earrings in the form of feline heads, as well as a helmet with two more feline figures.

Generally, Mochica vessels are slip-painted and bichrome, with red decoration on a white or cream background. However, this Ai-Apec vessel is much darker—a type of ceramic known as blackware; the dark color is achieved through a firing process that removes oxygen from the kiln, causing iron compounds in the clay to turn black. Not only does this piece represent a mythical continuity between the Mochica and later Chavín and Chimú cultures, but it represents an artistic continuity as well—such blackware ceramics were also made by the Chavín and Chimú.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel, ca. AD 200-500, Mochica, blackware ceramic, 10 × 8 1/2 × 8 in., Gift in honor of Assen Nicolov, 2018.3.2

 

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Object of the Week: Royal Incubator

Widely regarded as one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century, David Smith once described his early sculptures of the 1940s and 50s, like Royal Incubator, as “drawings in space.” Smith, a welder, often used wrought and soldered metals such as steel, bronze, and silver, arranged in a highly visual and pictorial arrangement. As explained by art historian Richard J. Williams, “[these sculptures] were really only legible as three-dimensional pictures, albeit abstract ones.”[1]

Smith’s early work prioritized the act of viewing from a fixed perspective, and while experiencing his pieces in space—and in the round—is important, Royal Incubator’s legibility as a single plane, much like the Cubist paintings of Picasso, is tantamount. In addition to finding influence in Cubism, the dream-like imagery in such early works evidences the heavy influence Surrealism had on Smith. However, thanks to its location installed in Big Picture: Art after 1945, now on view in SAM’s Modern and Contemporary Galleries, Royal Incubator’s association with Abstract Expressionism is also made clear. In many ways, it can be seen as a three-dimensional equivalent to the active, monumental, and gestural paintings by Pollock, Krasner, and Gorky nearby.

Born and raised in Indiana, Smith first worked as a welder and riveter at the Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend. Later, during World War II, Smith worked for the American Locomotive Company, working to fabricate trains and M7 destroyer tanks. These experiences proved formative, advancing his welding skills and relationship with metalwork. Smith’s early works bring together the real, often in the form of found metal scraps, with the imagined, resulting in a unique and at times deeply autobiographical visual style. For example, in Royal Incubator, metal spigots become birds of flight in a dream-like composition that defies clear interpretation.

Delta Air Lines, the Official Airline of the Seattle Art Museum, is a generous sponsor of Big Picture. Their support makes it possible to share this incredible post-war collection with our community.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Richard J. Williams, After Modern Sculpture: Art in the United States and Europe, 1965-70 (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000), 23.
Image: Royal Incubator, 1949, David Smith, steel, bronze and silver, 37 x 38 3/8 x 9 7/8 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2016.17.5 © Estate of David Smith
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