All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Triplicate vase

Some things never go out of style, but some words do. Take, for example, fuddle (verb) ca. 16th century: 1. confuse or stupefy (someone), especially with alcohol; 2. a state of confusion or intoxication. Fuddle, related to a more common and modern derivative, befuddle (which dates to 1873), was once so in vogue that it was incorporated into drinkware terminology: the fuddling cup.

This Triplicate vase, also known in England as a fuddling cup, is really three mugs in one. Joined together by slip prior to the kiln, these three uniform mugs are connected internally so that liquid can flow from one to another as emptied and imbibed. The cups’ intertwined handles add further illusion to the nature of their fabrication.

The German porcelain factory Höchst, which produced this delicate piece, was founded in 1750 by the Elector of Mayence, near Mainz, just outside of Frankfurt. The lightly colored floral design is representative of the manufactory’s early painting style (not to mention the eighteenth-century European predilection for botanical motifs), which helps dates the fabrication of this piece circa 1755.1

In England, such vessels were usually associated with taverns, and considered “‘joke’ drinking pots.”2 The modest size of each individual vessel would deceive the uninitiated drinker, who was encouraged to finish the contents of a single mug, when in reality they would be consuming the alcohol in all three; the result would be confusion from the practical joke as well as from the volume of their alcohol consumption. Confusion and intoxication are inextricable when fuddling cups are involved, no matter how delicate and unassuming they may appear.

–Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

1 Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates, Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2000), 235.
2 “Fuddling Cup,” V&A Collection, accessed November 7, 2018, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O21042/fuddling-cup-unknown/.
Image: Triplicate vase, ca. 1755, German, Höchst, hard paste porcelain, 4 1/2 in. height, 19 1/2 in. girth, 2 1/16 in. diameter, Gift of Martha and Henry Isaacson, 69.175.
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Object of the Week: Chukwu Okoro Masks

“This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that.” – Emeka Ogboh

Remember when Disguise: Masks and Global African Art was on view in 2015? We’re bringing you a flashback to Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh discussing masks by Chukwu Okoro in SAM’s collection, why he chose them as one of his favorite things in the museum, and their significance in regards to the soundscapes he created for Disguise. Currently, these masks can be viewed in our African art galleries as part of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy where three Empathics have surrounded themselves with works from our African art collection as a way to help visitors awaken their own empathy. The Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation and ask you to consider the other artwork around you. Come see what we mean.

Image: Installation view Chukwu Okoro Masks at Seattle Art Museum, 2016, photo: Natali Wiseman.

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Object of the Week: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture

Though this 1957 photograph is by Imogen Cunningham, its subject is Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013). For decades Asawa has been little known beyond the West Coast, and is all too belatedly finding herself rewritten into the history of American art. Rather than concentrate on photographer Cunningham, this post focuses on Asawa, her diaphanous wire sculptures, and her complex identity as a Japanese-American woman artist.

Cunningham’s photograph is a quiet yet evocative image: Asawa sits with her face occluded by the semi-transparent curvature of one of her hanging wire sculptures. She’s surrounded by her four children, ranging from toddler to six years old. Each, including Asawa, is engaged in and absorbed by his or her own activity: reading, playing, observing, drinking, and making. The iconic photograph has often been read in gendered terms, focusing on Asawa’s demonstrated domesticity, femininity, and passivity. Like too many women artists, Asawa has been positioned primarily as a wife and mother—identities that override her identity as an artist, which can and should include these other identities. As curator Helen Molesworth discusses in her recent paper delivered last month at the Smithsonian, “Ruth Asawa: ‘San Francisco Housewife and Mother’,” this image has additional import, positioning art making as a social activity, and Asawa, therefore, as a citizen above all else.

As a child, Asawa would draw and make art while in a World War II internment camp with her Japanese parents. She was not an outside or self-taught artist though, for she attended Black Mountain College and studied for three years and two summers (1946–49) with Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller, among others. For Asawa, “Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do. And then you put a label on it afterwards. I think that’s the nice thing about what Black Mountain did for its students. It was like they gave you permission to do anything you wanted to do. And then if it didn’t fit they’d make a category for you. But I think Black Mountain helped make something with weaving and with printmaking, and it gave people the freedom to make something of each category.”¹

Black Mountain was a transformative place and time for Asawa, creatively as well as socially: incorporated into Black Mountain’s utopian environment was an attitude that expanded what art can do for society. Therefore, to be an artist is to be a citizen—engaging actively in the world and making choices alongside others.² Though Cunningham’s photograph captures Asawa in her home, surrounded by her four (of six) children, central to the visual narrative is her artwork, which is inextricable from her role as an artist, wife, mother, and citizen.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in. (26.4 x 26.4 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43
¹Ruth Asawa, “Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002 June 21-July 5,” interview by Mark Johnson and Paul Karlstrom, Archives of American Art, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ruth-asawa-and-albert-lanier-12222#transcript.
²Helen Molesworth, “Ruth Asawa: ‘San Francisco Housewife and Mother’,” filmed September 12, 2018 at Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., video, 1:07:05, https://americanart.si.edu/videos/clarice-smith-distinguished-lecture-series-scholar-helen-molesworth-154476.
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Object of the Week: A Tango Against Time

The scene is a disturbing one: a woman’s silhouette, engulfed in flames, is set against a backdrop of further destruction—homes, pools, lawn chairs, and other debris are also mired in the far-reaching blaze. Painted by Hollis Sigler in 1983, A Tango Against Time is just one example of the artist’s intensely psychological and often autobiographical style.

Receiving her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later teaching at Columbia College in Chicago, Sigler was no doubt influenced by the Chicago Imagists, a group of artists whose figurative and folk-influenced work impacted her then-developing visual language. Hardly derivative, there is a certain way in which Sigler’s graphic style can be contextualized within the legacy of Imagists like Roger Brown and Philip Hanson.

However, Sigler’s faux-naïve mode of painting was purely her own and, after 1976, had political motivations as well. That is, her shift away from abstract expressionism and photorealism was a way for the artist to “disengage from what she viewed as a male-dominated academic tradition.”[1] Her evolution as an artist was thus inextricable from her feminist views.

In 1985, two years after the completion of A Tango Against Time, Sigler was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her struggle with cancer ended up informing her work for the next decade and a half. During this period her paintings took on pointed responses to the devastating illness and the psychological complexities of fighting what would eventually become a terminal disease for the artist. Much of this later work is formally similar to A Tango Against Time—with proscenium-like staging, vibrant colors, and surrealist undertones—but instead of human subjects, the paintings’ dramas focus on things. The absence of human figures heightens the roles that the various objects play, acting as metaphors for Sigler’s deeply personal narratives.

In this context, the presence of a female subject—soon to disappear from Sigler’s paintings—and the chaos surrounding her in A Tango Against Time takes on additional poignancy, foreshadowing the challenging personal and artistic changes that were to come. See this painting in person at SAM, it’s currently on view in On the Edge.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Images: A Tango Against Time, 1983, Hollis Sigler, oil on canvas, 47 7/8 × 59 3/4 in., Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 84.142 © Hollis Sigler. The Young and Self Conscious, 1991, Roger Brown, oil on canvas. St. Anthony Pleasure Park, July 1968, Philip Hanson, etching in black, hand-colored in watercolor, on off-white wove paper. Renewed Hope of Recovery Fill Her Thoughts Every Day, 1998, Hollis Sigler, oil, pastel on paper with painted frame.
[1] Holland Cotter, “Hollis Sigler, 53, Painter Whose Theme Was Her Illness,” The New York Times, April 3, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/03/arts/hollis-sigler-53-painter-whose-theme-was-her-illness.html.
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Object of the Week: #10

As part of the For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative put on by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, we’re contextualizing works in SAM’s collection within today’s political atmosphere. The program is inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

For this week’s post, we’re focusing on freedom from fear by looking at Frederic Edwin Church’s A Country Home painted in 1854, just seven years before the American Civil War. The painting illustrates an idyllic landscape, lush with vegetation and a tranquil pond. The mood is calm and serene with the sun casting a warm, comforting glow. Church, a member of the Hudson River School, paints the American landscape as a modern-day Eden. The artist’s view of his time and place is one of optimism, hope, and contentment.

 

As we compare Church’s work to Mark Rothko’s abstraction #10, painted in 1952, the differences couldn’t be greater. Rothko’s work was completed just 98 years after A Country Home, but during this period humanity witnessed two world wars (the second of which perhaps had the greatest impact on the views of artists). How much did their views of America change, as well as the times they lived in? After the horrors of World War II, how could one paint idyllic landscapes? Yet, even though freedom won the War, fear persevered—the ugly side of the human race was exposed. As a result, art turned abstract and humanity collectively wept.

So this brings us to today: even if divisiveness, racism, and hatred are overcome, what lasting effect will these times have on our art and how we view our time and place? If equality, respect, and compassion win politically, will we still be free from fear? Or is it too late and have we already exposed the darker sides of ourselves?

– Manish Engineer, SAM Chief Technology Officer

Images:
#10, 1952, Mark Rothko, oil on canvas, 81 3/4 x 42 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. (207.65 x 107.95 x 5.72 cm), Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 91.98, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. A Country Home, 1854, Frederic Edwin Church, oil on canvas, 32 x 51 in. (81.3 x 129.5 cm.), Gift of Anna Robeson Baker Carmichael, 65.80.
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Object of the Week: ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space

Want is the desire to possess or do, or the feeling of lack or being short of something desirable. As long as you’re wanting, you’re usually in a space of trying to gain something for yourself and yourself only. This is a result of individualized thinking, which is one of the pillars of the Western-American ideology. So what does freedom from want look and feel like? And what does it require of us to consider living free from want?

This possibility is explored by Saya Woolfalk, a New York-based artist who uses science fiction and fantasy to reimagine the world in multiple dimensions. With her multi-year projects No Place: A Ritual of the Empathics and ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space—the latter of which is on view in Lessons from the Institute of EmpathyWoolfalk creates a world of Empathics, a fictional race of women who are able to alter their genetic make-up and fuse with plants. With each body of work Woolfalk says, “I want a person to experience something that simultaneously makes them slightly uncomfortable about the potential of the world that I have created, but also gives them an excitement about a harmonious, multi-cultural society.”

While seemingly very different from human beings, the Empathics actually reflect our multicultural society in myriad ways. Through these beings, who have developed the ability to think collectively, we learn just how powerful the effects of empathy are when honed and used to empower a society in the direction of cultural evolution.

Freedom from want has the potential to take us to a place where this kind of evolution can be realized. In this free state, we are enabled to shift our focus from individual want to helping others gain what they require in order to experience the satisfaction of their needs. With the pressures of scarcity and fear eliminated, a new form of thinking emerges from a place of equity and equality.

Moving closer to freedom from want as a reality—as opposed to an out-of-reach ideal—challenges us to consider others instead of only the self. It challenges us to remove the ego—to listen and understand. It challenges what we consider necessary in order to live happy and successful lives. It challenges us to move beyond individualized, self-centered thinking and towards an elevated level of collective thinking, which is necessary for harmonious living and ultimately stimulates our capacity for acceptance, benefiting every global citizen.

– Adera Gandy, Visitor Services Officer

Image: Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Nathaniel Willson
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Object of the Week: Dream of the Language Wheel

Freedom of worship is one of the founding principles of American democracy. After all, the First Amendment forms our constitutional religious rights: it protects the free exercise and establishment of religion. In President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 State of the Union, delivered before the United States’ entry into World War II, he reminded the American people that the United States was committed to securing a future in which four essential human freedoms are upheld, the second of which is, in his words, the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.”

This is a powerful and important message, especially today. And while there are many works in SAM’s collection that give visual form to the freedom of worship, there are also a number of works that represent the opposite narrative: religious freedoms being taken away. For example, there are a number of objects in our Native American galleries whose value and function during potlatches tell a different story of persecution, as such ceremonies were banned by in 1885. Unfortunately, there are too many stories like this told through our material and visual culture. So, when thinking about freedom of worship, we must also ask who is free to worship.

In the piece pictured here, Dream of the Language Wheel, Guy Anderson offers up a unifying religious message. A member of the Northwest School, Anderson was a peer of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves and known for his abstract “mystic” paintings that incorporated motifs ranging from Zen Buddhism to Hinduism to Native American cosmologies, among others. Formally, the painting exhibits a degree of visual tension due to its divided canvas with dark and light elements. Embedded within the upper half are symbols from Northwest Coast groups—such as a fish and raven, whose treatments reference the iconic formline style of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. In the lower half, we see early Christian symbols similarly contained within an abstract field.

While this work could be interpreted through a lens of cultural appropriation, Anderson’s blending of spiritual practices and cultures other than his own evinces the artist’s freedom of worship, developing a unique brand of spirituality which manifested itself artistically. It is also no accident that Anderson brings together Native American and early Christian iconography, given the long and fraught history between Native communities and Christian colonizers; however, the title of the work—Dream of the Language Wheel—holds, I think, an important key to the work’s meaning. A tool used to help find and translate words among different languages, a language wheel is meant to make things synonymous—that is, forge similarities. Perhaps Anderson believed that art was that thing, like a language wheel, that could unite us rather than divide us, showing us how we are more similar in our religious beliefs than we are different.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Dream of the Language Wheel, 1962, Guy Anderson, oil on canvas, 81 x 48 in., Gift of the Marshall and Helen Hatch Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.15.3 © Guy Anderson and Deryl Walls
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Painting Number 49, Berlin

Object of the Week: Painting Number 49, Berlin

This Object of the Week is inspired by SAM’s special tour series, part of “For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative,” which features programming held at arts institutions across the US to create civic dialogue about the 2018 midterm elections. Reflecting on artwork and exhibitions on view at SAM, staff members are presenting in-gallery tours that consider each of the four freedoms and connect to contemporary society.

“For Freedoms,” a collaborative project founded by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, is inspired by artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

This week’s post by SAM staff member Rachel Eggers explores freedom of speech in the work of Marsden Hartley.

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) was an innovative Modernist artist, incorporating elements of abstraction, Expressionism, Cubism, and Primitivism in his paintings. Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley is known for expressive visions of his home state, including landscapes and portraits of fisherman.

But Hartley was more than a regionalist. Perhaps his most intriguing body of work is his “German officer paintings,” created while living in Berlin from 1914 to 1915. SAM has one of these extraordinary paintings in its collection, and Painting Number 49, Berlin is now on view in tribute to the late arts patron and collector, Barney A. Ebsworth, who gifted it to the museum. The painting’s thick brushstrokes, vivacious primary colors, and mysterious abstracted symbolism reveal an artist enraptured and enrapturing, enticing the viewer with a deeply personal vision that melds the physical and spiritual—and, sometimes uncomfortably, the political.

Hartley arrived in Berlin in May 1913, though it felt to the artist like a homecoming. The imperial German capital was a hub of industrial innovation and social life; it also had a relatively liberal attitude toward homosexuality. He was delighted by the city’s grand military parades, with their ostentatious display of banners, flags, plumage, and men on white horses. In them, he saw a heroic ideal of Man.

He had befriended a Prussian officer named Karl von Freyburg, who may have been the love of his life. When von Freyburg died in battle at the age of 24, Hartley plunged into a deep grief—and eventually to the creation of this fascinating series of paintings.

Painting Number 49, Berlin is exuberant, loose, and colorful—but, at its heart, it’s a memorial portrait rendered in abstracted symbols. At the center is the Iron Cross, the medal for bravery that von Freyburg was awarded. There’s an officer’s plumed helmet and epaulets; the number “24” refers to Karl’s age when he was killed. Across the bottom blooms a setting sun, radiating red: the color of martyrdom.

The painting bursts with uncomfortable—even heartbreaking—tensions between youth and death, the state and the individual, openness and restriction, color and darkness. Unable to express his sexuality and his love, Hartley turns to a network of symbols and signs. In his unimaginable grief, he merges the physical, the spiritual—and of course, the political—inventing a highly personal visual language.

–Rachel Eggers, Manager of Public Relations

Image: Painting Number 49, Berlin, 1914-15, Marsden Hartley, oil on canvas, 47 x 39 1/2 in., Partial and promised gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2001.1067.
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Object of the Week: Caterpillar Suit I

“True transformation occurs only when we can look at ourselves squarely and face our attachments and inner demons, free from the buzz of commercial distraction and false social realities. We have to retreat into our own cocoons and come face-to-face with who we are. We have to turn toward our own inner darkness. For only by abandoning its attachments and facing the darkness does the caterpillar’s body begin to spread out and its light, beautiful wings begin to form.”

– Julia Hill, The Legacy of Luna

As a child of immigrants, and an immigrant myself, I adopted the identity of being an “Other” and “Alien” from a fairly young age. My parents have depended on me to fill out official forms and documents since I was old enough to interpret 70% of the words on the page and Google the rest. Any time the question of citizenship came up, my hand would naturally gravitate towards the box next to the word “Other” as if it were second nature. I never really understood what it meant—I just knew it should be kept from my peers out of shame and fear of being different.

Walter Oltmann, through his sculpture Caterpillar Suit I, shares and explains his interest in the boundary between human beings and insects—referring to the latter as “[our] most extreme other.”[1] He explains that as “insects evoke notions of threat, especially when encountered in swarms,” we as human beings fail to identify with this “Other” and naturally recoil/feel repulsed by this exotic entity.[2] Thus, we create a divide between “us” and “them.”

In the current state of our country, the word “Other” seems to be thrown around more often than it has in the past. The media exposes us to “Other” and “Alien” in bold, red font, associated with terms and phrases such as “illegal,” “criminal,” and even “invading in swarms,” distancing the reader or viewer from this ominous other. It permits and trains the broader public to fabricate a certain image of these other beings, and subconsciously feel repulsed when they hear stories in the news framed around the politics of immigration. But how accurate are our expectations of this “other” entity, especially when they’ve been influenced by biased opinions of the media? Oltmann, in enlarging the scale of the normally miniscule caterpillar, purposefully forces his audience to “observe misunderstood insects closely” and “identify with the other” in hopes of shifting our perspective that’s usually fixated on their mechanical features and alien behavior and the threat they pose to us.[3]

Rather than turning to the immediate discomfort and repulsion that might follow a failure to identify with an “other,” or those different from ourselves, perhaps we can find inspiration through this Caterpillar Suit and practice shifting our perspective from distancing ourselves from otherness to understanding and accepting one another.

– Seohee Kim, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern

[1] Vargas, Cintia. “Interview with Walter Oltmann.” Cintia Vargas, 17 Apr. 2014, www.cintiareyes.com/interview-with-walter-oltman/
[2] “Walter Oltmann.” The Artists’ Press, www.artprintsa.com/Walter-Oltmann.html
[3] Leiman, Layla. “Walter Oltmann – In the Weave: 30 Years of Making Art.” Derriere, WordPress, 29 Jan. 2014, derriereartblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/walter-oltmann-in-the-weave-30-years-of-making-art/
Images: Installation view of Lessons from The Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photos: Natali Wiseman.
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