All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Spear Thrower

In his bronze sculpture of a Spear Thrower, Paul Manship depicts an athlete in motion. The sculpture has balance and equilibrium as the figure reaches back and prepares to hurl his spear forward. He’s pictured at the moment just before the energy is transferred, with his full weight on the back leg, where the muscles bunch and bulge with exertion. If he’s hurting from the effort, his face doesn’t show it; his look is one of resolve and otherworldly gracefulness. His spear creates a strong horizontal line that is carried across the sculpture by the figure’s fully extended left arm. His features are ripped and generalized; he is an ideal form and not an individual one. With this sculpture Manship celebrated ideas like human strength and achievement, and the beauty of the athlete’s body.

Important links between works of visual art exist everywhere, and part of what SAM and other art museums can do for us is point out this vast web of interconnectedness. Its intricacy and complexity mean that there is always more to discover. For instance, Paul Manship, an American born in Minnesota, was inspired by Indian art, as well as archaic Greek art and the Italian Renaissance that renewed appreciation for classical Greek ideas and developed them further.

In the form of Spear Thrower Manship made a direct reference to this Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Done in what’s called the “severe style” around 460 BCE, it is a true landmark in the history of art, and remains one of the best-known examples of Early Classical Greek sculpture. It was to this school of art-making, and to this particular work, that Manship looked when he cast the Spear Thrower in 1921.

Interesting comparisons, if less apparent ones, exist even in SAM’s own collection. Have a look at our Black-Figure Amphora displayed on the fourth floor, amid other works from the ancient Mediterranean. Revelers stride across the scene in dynamic poses that have them twisting and contorting their bodies in displays of balance and gracefulness. Each figure stands on a single foot, supported by a powerful, muscular leg. Clean, sinuous lines mark the contours of the figures. All these traits surface visibly in Manship’s work of 2,300 years later.

We’d be doing Manship a disservice, though, if we understood him as only looking backwards. In SAM’s Spear Thrower, as in Manship’s famous Prometheus fountain at Rockefeller Center, he innovated a combination of classical, idealized bodies and a distinctly Modern, streamlined aesthetic that secured him a prominent place in the web of art history.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Spear Thrower, 1921, Paul Manship (American, born St. Paul, Minnesota, 1885; died New York City, 1966), bronze, 20 x 31 1/2 x 7 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, General Acquisition Fund and the American Art Acquisition Fund, 2008.2. Black-Figure Amphora, (Two Handled Vessel) with Donysiac Revels, ca. 525 – 500 B.C. Greek, Attica, ceramic, 17 1/16 x 10 5/8 in., diam.: 28 cm, Norman and Amelia Davis Classical Collection, 63.119.

Object of the Week: Amulet with mummified monkey

Each of us carries with us a lens, or lenses, through which we view the world, and that lens colors and shapes our perception of, and response to, all the sights, sounds, and smells we encounter. It’s no different when we’re viewing art. Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions. Art historians produce scholarship that discusses a certain object, maker, or concept—but the questions they ask in the process reveal as much about the perspective of the scholar as they do about the object or artist under discussion. Likewise, it’s fascinating to tour through the galleries and eavesdrop on the unfiltered musings of museumgoers to the variety of art we have on display at SAM. Those comments say something about the art and the speaker.

One object that’s commented on less frequently than I’d wish is this diminutive wood Amulet with mummified monkey—a piece that acts, for me, as an ever-present reminder of Dr. Fuller and his collecting principles, so neatly reflected in this ancient, tiny figurative sculpture. Dr. Fuller, who held a Ph.D. in geology and maintained scholarly pursuits in that field throughout his tenure leading SAM (1933–1973), collected many small, old, and odd things. Disinterested in value, he instead sought out rarity. His guiding question was: Does it have a unique character—an “essential factor”? That question drove him to acquire items like this mystifying Amulet, about which little was known when Dr. Fuller purchased it from J. Khawam & Cie, Cairo, for $240 in 1955.

It had few facts to recommend it, but it was a curious piece that provoked questions for Dr. Fuller and would do the same for others. Shortly after acquiring the Amulet, Dr. Fuller received this letter from William K. Simpson, a research associate at the American Research Center in Cairo:

Simpson’s desire to research and publish the Amulet with mummified monkey encouraged Dr. Fuller to seek out expert opinions from fields that were tangentially related to the piece, aiming to solve some of the quandaries it presented. Outside experts brought to the Amulet their own questions. Professor Bror L. Grondal of the College of Forestry at the University of Washington examined the piece in 1956 to determine what kind of wood composes it:

Meanwhile, Robert T. Hatt, a mammalogist at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan, had been researching ancient and contemporary animals of the Near East. In his letter of June 25, 1956, Hatt shared with Dr. Fuller his thoughts and questions regarding what species of monkey (or ape) might be represented in the Amulet:

Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions—but to make our contribution, we have to actually ask them. Your curiosity could spark mine or someone else’s, and whether or not we ever arrived at fixed answers, the summation of our questions reveals infinitely more than one viewpoint ever could.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Amulet with mummified monkey, ca. 2920-2649 B.C., Egyptian, Early Dynastic period, wood, 3 3/16 x 11/16 x 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.136, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Dark Figures with Green

Two historical moments, remembered well, can bring us to a fuller appreciation of Lester Johnson’s Dark Figures with Green.

When you next come to Seattle Art Museum and stand in front of Johnson’s ominous painting, if you situate yourself in the right spot, you can catch a glimpse of Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change (1947) in your peripheral view. Maybe the connection will be immediately clear to you, or maybe not, but Johnson’s way of aggressively scratching out figures in a dark and contained palette grew out of the expressive freedom pioneered by Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist school. Lester Johnson’s paintings of the 1950s and ‘60s picked up that mode of creating and took it in a different direction. Johnson was about economy: working to create an impact with limited means. Dark Figures with Green looms over us and says “Look what can I do with only this.” Black. Brown. Green. Three figures. Rough. Heavy.

In February of 1966, the influential art critic Harold Rosenberg put eloquent words to what Lester Johnson was doing:

To respond to Lester Johnson’s work is to respond to painting, rather than to technical minutiae, or to art history, to the social environment, to a tickle of the optical nerve. With painting undergoing an annual revolution of de-definition (Is it theatre? the display business? an illustrated lecture? science fiction?) to paint amounts to imposing arbitrary restrictions on painting. An artist who is satisfied to apply pigment to a flat surface is likely to appear slow and intellectually unadventurous . . . .

Johnson has chosen to build his art upon Action Painting through tightening its procedures. An heir of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Hofmann, Guston, he emphasizes an essential principle of their work continually obscured by the clichés of art journalism: that an action is not a letting go, a surrender to instantaneity, except as a ruse. Painting that is an action is a struggle against limits, those within the artist himself, those which he finds in the situation of art, those which he deliberately sets up on the canvas. Mere stroking and slopping of paint resulted in tiresome caricatures of Action Painting that marked its phase of mass acceptance.

Johnson has had the insight to go in a direction opposite to looseness. Distrusting the easy effect obtainable through color, texture, and non-representational shapes, he followed a course analogous to that of de Kooning in his ‘women’ paintings and of Guston in the compositions of the past four years, both of whom brought into play as a counterforce to spontaneity the more or less felt presence of objects and the human figure.1

Johnson was a painter exploring what he could achieve by putting more restrictions on himself than most would do, because adding those restrictions clarified and highlighted his creativity in solving the problem. He was a painter, part of a school of abstract artists, who took away color, texture, and abstract forms from his own toolbox. The things he’s able to accomplish with what’s left—just the figure and a few tones—are impressive. Imagine a great right-handed pitcher like Felix Hernandez announcing he’s decided to start throwing with his left arm, just to see how well he could do—or if Russell Wilson held a presser to tell everyone that he’s done running when he plays quarterback; it’s only standing still from here on out. It’s kind of like that. Rosenberg describes Lester Johnson’s achievement this way: “[He] divined that the freedom of the artist is best served by establishing the boundaries that will most effectively challenge his capacity to act.”2

In September and October of 1983 Dark Figures with Green hung in a timely exhibition of Lester Johnson’s early work at New York City’s Zabriskie Gallery. The show, Lester Johnson: The Early Paintings 1957-1967, was a hit. Johnson’s pithy, powerful statements brought him a posthumous moment. SAM curator Bruce Guenther was there to select Dark Figures with Green from among the pictures. Zabriskie Gallery wrote to Guenther on November 17 about the frenzy of interest in Johnson’s work from other parties:

Bring some folks with you to see Seattle’s Lester Johnson, so you can impress them with the story of the Abstract Expressionist who refused abstraction, and the museum who plucked one of his paintings out of New York when the Met and the Whitney were climbing over one another to get a hold of one.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Harold Rosenberg, “Lester Johnson: The Image as Counterforce,” Art News 64 (February, 1966): 10, 48-49, 64-65.
2 Rosenberg, “The Image as Counterforce.”
Image: Dark Figures with Green, 1967, Lester Johnson (American, 1919-2010), oil on canvas, 73 x 48 3/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 84.1, © Lester Johnson.

Object of the Week: Figure of a Man Dancing

The next time you’ve got an itch to dance, why not come and get a Precolumbian spark from SAM’s Teotihuacán Figure of a man dancing? Standing upright, he strides forward on his left foot, both arms bent at the elbows, with his left arm swinging forward, like he’s in an exaggerated march. It’s a dynamic pose that immediately tells us he’s in motion. Do you not wonder what comes next? Maybe he’s doing an early version of the twist, or struttin’, or putting down a move something like this.

When you look closely at this small ceramic figure, you’ll see a difference in the way the head has been rendered, compared to the rest of the body. The head is detailed, marked by contoured eyebrows, incised eyes, a prominent nose with flared nostrils, and protruding oval lips. Conversely, the arms, legs, hands, and feet are softly rounded and simple in form. Scholarship has shown us that the artist formed the body by hand—making the shape of the arms, torso, and legs very general—but formed the head by pressing clay into a delicate mold.1 This creates a contrast between the suggestive form of the body and the refined detail that appears in the face. The accentuation of the facial features communicates their importance, while the simplified forms of the body seem to be blurred by the vigorous movement of the figure.

Somewhat like classical marble statuary from the Golden Age of Greece, this Teotihuacán figure points back to the high point of an influential, art-centered civilization. Teotihuacán reached its pinnacle of achievement around 350-600 CE, a time when the city spanned nine square miles, and the population reached 200,000.2 We art nerds really geek out about this era because not only had Teotihuacán become a large-scale, international metropolis, but its civilization seems to have supported artists and encouraged their work. The city’s builders constructed massive temples and palaces, painters decorated halls with frescoes depicting the underworld, and artisans innovated new ways to adorn bodies and buildings, shaping fine stones and marine objects into beautiful decoration.3 Many of us are well versed in the ways European cultures have looked back to ancient Greece as a cultural example; similarly, the art and architecture of Teotihuacán became an important influence on the cultures that followed it in Middle America.

SAM’s Figure of a man dancing fits neatly into this picture, too, as one of many anthropomorphic figurines produced in Teotihuacán when the city was thriving. We can learn several things from the artist’s choice of subject. That the figure dances leaves us with a positive impression of a lively existence in Teotihuacán. Second, that this culture provided an environment where folks could use time and resources to produce dancing figurines reflects the value this city placed on its artistic production.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Before Cortes: Sculpture of Middle America, exhibition catalogue, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by New York Graphic Society, 1970; cat. 120.
2 Rubén Cabrera Castro, “The Metropolis of Teotihuacán,” in Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, exhibition catalogue, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Boston: Little, Brown, 1990; 89.
3 Castro, “The Metropolis of Teotihuacán,” 89.
Image: Figure of a man dancing, ca. 400-650, Mexican, Teotihuacán, ceramic, 4 1/16 x 3 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 65.25, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Church Interior

Emanuel de Witte earned recognition as one of the great architectural painters of the 17th century. The years of De Witte’s life and career encompass the height of the genre for which he is known: the church interior. In SAM’s Church Interior a mood, and a moment, unfolds. Gentle light falls over the scene, entering the church through the windows directly across from us, and from windows that we know are above and behind us. The details of the painting, especially the architectural decoration and the faces of the figures, reveal a soft and painterly touch. Had De Witte rendered the scene with hard lines and the crisp details of a hyper-realistic style, the impression created by the picture would be entirely different.

Scholarship and x-rays of the painting have revealed that the figure group at the lower right of Church Interior originally included a showy fifth figure. De Witte often repeated figures and figure groups in different paintings, as if building a visual library of motifs, and then selecting the best one for his needs in a particular painting. The figure group in SAM’s painting recurs in a De Witte painting of a Protestant Baroque Church in the collection of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, France—only in that picture, a well-heeled man of arms occupies the space in the foreground that is vacant in SAM’s painting. Originally De Witte placed this figure in SAM’s Church Interior too, painting over him at a later stage in the process, and opening up the scene by doing so.

Knowing that a large, eye-catching figure once occupied the open space in Church Interior has changed the way I look at the painting. De Witte’s choice to exclude the jaunty figure in SAM’s painting seems studied and very purposeful. The still and peaceful mood of the church is enhanced by the open space, and we, as the viewer, are invited into the picture, with a clear pathway for entering the moment. Here, the subtraction of one dominating detail creates equality among the other details of the painting. The eye dances across the picture, picking them out like notes on a musical score.

By leaving space in the foreground De Witte also opened up the possibility for a subtle, silent dialogue on which, as a dog lover, I’m especially keen. The furry friends at the lower left and lower right corners of the picture seem to be gazing across the scene at one another, uniting the scene in a charming, unconventional way. Elsewhere, glances among the figures, as well as the play of light and shadow, connect the scene through an artful arrangement of harmonious patterns and tones. De Witte leaves us with a poetic and unified picture.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Church Interior, ca. 1670, Emanuel de Witte (Dutch, 1617-1692), oil on wood, 18 7/8 x 16 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.176, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Martin Luther King

Inspired by American craft and folk art traditions, Ross Palmer Beecher honors her roots in Americana with her choices of materials and content. Throughout the oeuvre of this Seattle-based artist (who happens to be represented by the SAM Gallery), you’ll find license plates, signage, costume jewelry, and all kinds of nondescript junk. She artfully arranges these materials into meaningful mixed media works that are labors of love, feats of craftsmanship, and political commentaries. Palmer Beecher’s work remarks in interesting ways on whom and what is worth commemorating. In past works, she has memorialized historical figures such as John F. Kennedy, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

But Martin Luther King, Jr. is the reason why many of us will be on holiday Monday, and the way he dedicated his life to advocating for people of color; his refusal to settle for anything less than people treating one another with dignity and fairness; his strength and resilience in the face of violent assaults, both state-sanctioned and illicit; his determined commitment to turn back hate with love in non-violent protests; and his message of hope are all reasons why he was worth Palmer Beecher’s commemoration, and why we should remember him.

Palmer Beecher produced SAM’s portrait, Martin Luther King, from wire-stitched and hammered metal, paint, wood, costume jewelry, chandelier remnants, and a commemorative postage stamp. The stamp, one that celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation, peeks out from in between the face’s flashy gold lips.

The resulting image of Martin Luther King exists in a creative space that melds the decorative and the industrial. There is a roughness to the piece’s manufacture that manifests the artist’s handiwork in painting, pounding, arranging, soldering, and wiring the components together. At the same time, the piece reveals a delicate and sensitive vision. The artist has taken care to vary the colors and textures of her materials, and her power to see how these found objects might fit together to form something significant is remarkable.

Palmer Beecher is an artist who believes that art should say stuff. She’s thoughtful, an activist, and that shows up in her work. Her visionary ability to use found objects in surprising ways—arranging rubbish to give form to something admirable—points to the idea of potential. Things, no matter what they are, might be arranged meaningfully, usefully, in a way that teaches or inspires. People, no matter what they look like, or where they come from, might be the forces to teach and inspire, and to help others find meaning.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Martin Luther King, 2003, Ross Palmer Beecher (American, born 1957), mixed media, 21 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 3 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Mark Tobey Estate Fund, 2003.62, © Ross Palmer Beecher.
Scenes of life around the capital

Object of the Week: Scenes of Life in and around the Capital

SAM’s six-panel screen picturing Scenes of Life in and around the Capital serves to celebrate the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto, giving a flattering impression of the city as one that is full of jovial activity. Gold leaf, in the form of clouds, covers a large area of the screen and lends to Kyoto an air of royalty and prosperity. As a compositional element, the clouds divide this very large panel into bite-sized vignettes. When your eye scans across the panel, and up and down, it encounters figures sitting, running, parading, and celebrating in scenes alternately private and public. Both rural and urban citizens have a place here, as life in the city blends seamlessly with the surrounding countryside, and the city’s attractions are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. What your eye won’t find in its flyover of Japan’s ancient capital is any element that disagrees with the established order and the abiding image of prosperity. The humdrum of day-to-day life, the majority of which involves work, doesn’t fit into the picture. Neither does illness, disease, or death much affect this heavenly realm.

The screen has interesting things to say about how we see, and how we aim to be seen. As I look at the screen, I’m reminded of spinning around and above Seattle during a special brunch in the Space Needle’s SkyCity restaurant (an experience I hope everyone has a chance to enjoy). To look over a city with great energy, lots happening, and an incredible geographic diversity brought, for me, feelings of joy and pride. Surely Kyoto’s citizens in the Edo period appreciated everything their city offered—its rich culture and vibrant lifestyle—in a similar way. It’s also worth noting how, from the top of the Space Needle, or standing in front of this screen, we take up the perspective of a passive observer. We watch others go about their lives without being seen ourselves and, with no fear of being caught watching, we’re encouraged to watch even more closely.

It’s this aspect of looking that contemporary artist Tabaimo has pointed to in her exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi. In the show, Scenes of Life in and around the Capital relates meaningfully to Tabaimo’s video work Haunted House, seen nearby. Haunted House mimics the movement of an eye scanning a long row of houses, while our view is limited to a small circle, as if we are viewing these scenes through a telescope. In Haunted House and in SAM’s screen, stories present themselves one at a time, providing the viewer a steady stream of entertainment.

Tabaimo’s installation of the screen encourages us to take pause and ask: How do we see each other? From what perspective? With what agendas? From there, we might also ask how and why we present ourselves to the world, and whether that image carries pretension much like the screen’s gilded view of ancient imperial Kyoto.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: Scenes of Life in and around the Capital, second half 17th century, Japanese (Edo period, 1603-1868), ink, color, and gold on paper, 67 7/8 x 149 3/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from Mildred and Bryant Dunn and the Floyd A. Naramore Memorial Purchase Fund, 75.38.1. Haunted House (detail), 2003, Tabaimo, video installation, © Tabaimo / Courtesy of Gallery Koyanagi, Photo: Patrick Gries.

Object of the Week: Split

Roxy Paine’s polished stainless steel tree Split rises fifty feet high above SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park, brazenly confronting its natural surroundings with its own manmade-ness.

In many ways, Split embodies contrast. Smooth and reflective, it rejects the rough texture and earthy brown color of tree bark. There is an immediately recognizable contrast between its machine-age manufacturing and the organic growth process of trees, a juxtaposition heightened by the earth on which Split is installed. Within the work itself, Paine has built up the sculpture in such a way that its two main limbs diverge, heading in opposite directions, as if visualizing some internal conflict in the tree, like two camps of its cells decided their differences were irreconcilable and they roughly parted ways. Nearby, in Neukom Vivarium, a nurse log gives birth to life in varied forms while the log itself decays—a celebration of natural regenerative processes that have been occurring for a long time. In Split, we see something quite different, as the artist confronts us with our views and actions related to art, nature, and beauty, in a relatively new world of industrial production.

Yet Split shares with its woody neighbors a common tree-ness. Its form tells us straight away that it represents a tree. Though made, not grown, it, too, had to be planted.

The act of planting a tree holds a special significance. It is a generative act, one that makes a positive contribution to the landscape in the form of an oxygen-producing, eye-pleasing, life-giving organism. One factor that makes it special is the longevity of the reward. Planting a tree requires the investment of a certain amount of time and labor, but we have a sense that it’s well worth it because trees last (longer than us, often). The lifespan of the tree, and the richness of the reward for planting it, overwhelms any cost. Good vibes attend the planting of a tree because we have a sense that what we’re doing will benefit so many folks beyond ourselves. Here’s another rewarding quality to planting a tree: our investment multiplies. We can’t exactly watch it happen, but with patience, over time, we can mark a tree’s growth. The payoff continually increases. This is the ecological equivalent to putting away savings.

In 2017 SAM will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Olympic Sculpture Park, itself a remarkable contribution to Seattle, and home to important works like Split. Moving from one year to the next always provides a chance to reflect on transitions and trajectories, and after this turbulent year, that seems especially the case. As we turn over a collective new leaf at SAM, in our city, in our country, and in our world, my hope is that we remember the value of planting, of making positive additions, each of us in our own unique way.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Split, 2003, Roxy Paine (American, b. 1966), polished stainless steel, height: 50 ft. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2016.17.3, © Roxy Paine, Photos: Benjamin Benschneider.

Object of the Week: Pojagi (wrapping cloth), Sango po (food covering)

In Korea, gifts and food dishes might come wrapped in decorative cloths called pojagi. This tradition shows respect for the receiver of the gift as well as for the gift itself—and I wish my gift-wrapping game were this good!

SAM’s Korean Pojagi (wrapping cloth), Sango po (food covering), dating to the late 19th century, bears intricate designs stitched into bands of luminous color, all neatly organized. The rectangular pieces of fabric act like nesting blocks of diminishing size, each fitting perfectly inside the last as our eye moves toward the center of this carefully crafted textile. The little tab at the middle of the cloth would have been used to lift it off of a tray.

The five colors present in the Pojagi—blue, red, yellow, black, and white—corresponded to five blessings: longevity, wealth, success, health, and luck. Whatever your gift wrapping looks like this holiday season . . .

May all these blessings and more be yours! Happy holidays from SAM!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Pojagi (wrapping cloth), Sango po (food covering), late 19th century, Korean (Choson Dynasty, 1392-1910), Ramie gauze: patched and stitched, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, Asian Art Acquisition Fund and the Korean Art Purchase Fund, 96.21