All posts in “Object of the Week”

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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Object of the Week: Cedar Bark Mat

While this Haida cedar bark mat from ca. 1900 reads like a painting—mounted and viewed two-dimensionally—its function was primarily utilitarian. This mat, meticulously woven from cedar bark, and others like it would serve a multitude of purposes: such mats could be found on walls or in doorways to prevent cold drafts and rain, or used as room dividers. Other times they might be used when foraging and drying berries, or for comfort when digging clams and cleaning fish. On more special occasions, these mats would be presented as potlatch gifts or as ceremonial ground cover.

A number of things can be fashioned from cedar—its bark is especially versatile, processed and turned into what is in essence a thread. Cedar tree people appear throughout Haida oral tradition, and cedar bark, essential to everyday life, is known as “every woman’s elder sister.” Like an older sister, cedar bark deserves respect and helps its younger sister by providing material for clothing, baskets, and other important items. The mat itself, with its overlapping bands and geometric gridding, was also woven by a Haida woman. (The painting on the mat was likely added by another—male—Haida artist.)

Yaqui poet Richard Walker wrote a poem, The Cedar Tree (excerpted below), which celebrates the importance of the cedar tree for First Nations and Northwest Coast peoples, and the wide-ranging activities and traditions that are passed on from one generation to the next as a result:

And what else do we know, but that

This tree continued the life,

growing to great heights,

providing shelter for birds and

other animals,

providing bark fiber for clothing,

and for fishing nets,

providing bark fiber for baskets

in which to collect berries or cook shellfish,

fine woven baskets that are passed from

mother to daughter, and from grandmother

to granddaughter?

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Cedar bark mat, ca. 1900, Haida, painted cedar bark mat mounted on burlap and panel board, 70 x 35 in., Gift of R. Bruce and Mary-Louise Colwell, 2019.3.7
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Object of the Week: Salomé with Head of John the Baptist

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, an art and design movement known as Art Deco grew in popularity. First originating in France as Arts Décoratifs, it was characterized by its use of rich materials and amalgamation of different artistic styles, including Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Persian influences. Art Deco quickly gained influence, and shaped everything from architecture to car designs, with artists and designers working to achieve a sleek elegance that was distinctly modern. One artist who worked within the style was Boris Lovet-Lorski. Born in Lithuania in 1894, Lovet-Lorski gravitated towards the highly stylized and flattened aesthetic of the Art Deco movement, and throughout the 1920s and 30s he showcased his skills through allegorical female nudes sculpted in bronze.

Lovet-Lorski often found inspiration in antiquity and mythology, and Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist in SAM’s collection is no exception. Designed around 1930, the piece draws from the story of Salomé’s “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Salomé was the daughter of Herod II, prince of Judaea, and Herodias. Sometime after Salomé’s birth, Herodias chose to divorce Herod II and marry Herod Antipas (Herod II’s half-brother), a decision opposed by John the Baptist, who was imprisoned for his criticism. For Antipas’ birthday, he asked for his new step-daughter, Salomé, to perform a dance for him. Antipas was so taken with her skill and beauty that he agreed to grant her any wish. Fueled by her mother’s continuing anger towards John the Baptist for criticizing her divorce from Herod II and subsequent marriage to Antipas, Salomé asked for John the Baptist’s head, delivered to her on a platter.

In Lovet-Lorski’s work, Salomé is portrayed in the middle of her dance, erotic in her slinky half-split. As is often the case, Salomé takes on the role of a femme fatale, a seductive woman using her wiles for her own gain. This is emphasized by the Art Deco sleekness of the sculpture, as she hangs her head over the half-shown face of John the Baptist.

Hayley Makinster, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist, ca. 1930, Boris Lovet-Lorski, bronze on self base, 15 1/2 x 28 1/2 x 10 1/2 in., Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr., 34.145 © Boris Lovet-Lorski
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Object of the Week: Bulul

Hailing from the Philippines, bulul figures are perhaps the most common and well-known of Ifugao sculptural traditions. An isolated and landlocked province surrounded by rugged and precipitous terrain, Ifugao and its people long resisted Spanish colonization, which left much of their culture, religion, and artistic traditions intact.

For the Ifugao people, known for their elaborate terrace farms and complex irrigation systems, rice is a cornerstone of daily life. Representing a rice deity, bulul are highly stylized and carved from a single piece of wood. Standing bulul figures are often depicted with hands resting on their knees, slightly bent, while the arms of seated bulul figures are typically folded. Most often carved in male and female pairs, figures could also be androgynous.

The figures are understood as fundamental in ensuring a good harvest, as well as guarding the season’s crop from thieves. They also represent the harmonious union of oppositional elements and the promise of good fortune. Every harvest, bulul would be brought out to share in the bounty of rice, chicken, pig, and rice wine. The rich, mottled patina of the bulul in SAM’s collection demonstrates its use in various rituals and ceremonies, which would include smoke and grease from food offerings.

Bulul can be venerated and passed down for generations, ultimately overseeing many harvest seasons, as well as a number of ceremonies celebrating the abundance and generosity of the earth.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Bulul, late 19th, early 20th century, Philippines, wood, 22 x 6 x 6in., Gift of Georgia Schwartz Sales, 2003.96
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Object of the Week: Foolish Extravagance

This etching by Francisco José Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), titled Foolish Extravagance, is part of series titled Los Disparates (The Follies) from 1815/16–1823/24. Completed by an artist who lived through the oppressive Spanish Inquisition, among other sociopolitical events, each print from the series variously address themes of foolishness, misrepresentation, abuse of power, and fear.

Disparates was published posthumously in 1864 by The Royal Academy of San Fernando, from the 18 (of 22) plates in their possession. When The Royal Academy first produced this edition, they did so under the title Los Proverbios, sending scholars on a quest to match the prints with their respective proverbs. Later proofs by the artist—with handwritten titles beginning with the word “disparates”—shifted their meaning: these images were not illustrative of proverbs, but rather of follies. In the time since, the series has evaded clear interpretation, and “any promise of clear symbolic meaning that these things might offer is empty.”[1]

In Foolish Extravagance, four bulls twist, jerk, and careen one on top of another, seemingly free-falling against an amorphous black background. Offering little information, this black void heightens the sense of disorientation and absurdity that the image conveys. Lacking any rationalism that would be signaled by a horizon line, or other compositional cues, this and other etchings from Los Disparates evidence an absence of reason and coherent meaning.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Foolish Extravagance, 1815, Francisco José Goya y Lucientes, aquatint and etching, 8 5/16 x 12 3/4 in., Manson F. Backus Memorial Collection, 35.133
[1] Douglas Cushing, “Beyond All Reason: Goya and his Disparates,” Blanton Museum of Art, February 23, 2015, https://blantonmuseum.org/2015/02/beyond-all-reason-goya-and-his-disparates-2/.
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Object of the Week: Two Totems with Man No. 56

Artist James Castle was born in Garden Valley, Idaho in 1899. The fifth of seven children, he was born deaf, and spent his whole life unable to speak, read, write, or sign. Castle started drawing at the age of six, leading to a lifetime of creativity with art serving as his own personal form of communication.

In 1931, Castle moved with his family to Boise, Idaho, where Castle remained until his death in 1977. There was much that was unconventional about the artist: largely self-taught, his primary drawing materials included soot from the family woodstove, mixed with his saliva, which he would apply to an upcycled piece of cardboard (e.g. a milk carton) with a found utensil, oftentimes a sharpened stick. His drawings were heavily influenced by the environment he lived in, and were sometimes a mix of highly realistic and abstract imagery. He also drew many scenes from the family’s previous homes, which are believed to be recreated from memory.

Though Castle was seemingly content to produce artworks for himself and his family, in 1951 his nephew shared some of the drawings with his art professors in Oregon, who immediately expressed interest. Thus began a new stage of Castle’s life, in which Castle’s work continuously garnered more attention, culminating in an exhibition of his works at the Boise Art Museum, the highest honor he achieved during his lifetime.

Today Castle is considered one of the most recognized self-taught artists. Two Totems with Man No. 56, in SAM’s collection, was produced using stove soot and saliva to make charcoal, which was then applied using a matchstick to a found salvaged piece of cardboard. As with many of the artist’s pieces, it has a knotted string hanger. A more abstract example of Castle’s oeuvre, the meaning behind the totems in Two Totems continues to evade scholars, although it is a motif Castle returned to often. Even so, with this and other works, we are able to gain valuable insight into how Castle viewed the world around him.

Hayley Makinster, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Two Totems with Man No. 56, 20th century, James Castle, stove soot drawn with matchstick on cardboard, 6 3/4 x 9 3/4 in., General Acquisition Fund, 74.33 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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