All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Sdláagwaal (horn ladle)

Sometimes, when I’m writing about remarkable artworks we have at SAM, I feel a bit like Levar Burton. SAM’s Sdláagwaal (horn ladle) is an incredible thing . . .

Sdláagwaal is displayed adjacent to a bold piece by living Native artist Robert Davidson. Standing in the galleries and seeing these pieces next to one another is like watching the traditional conversing with the new, visually. We can also imagine Davidson speaking his comments about the Sdláagwaal, recorded in a 1995 SAM catalogue:

This person had a sure understanding of space. Not just the graphics, but even beyond, the whole aesthetics of spoon. It’s almost like a swan. My first reaction was raven, but then you look at the long neck.

It is almost like a mandala, it becomes a concentration object. When I go fishing, the net is like that, a meditation point. We’re watching that net. We can watch for three, four, five hours, waiting for that fish to strike. Same with carving. You could work three, four, five days to get that line right, that undercut right. It’s almost like a meditation.1

Has anybody ever applied the term “aesthetics of spoon” with such awesome and apt grace (or been brilliant enough to apply it at all)? Davidson’s phrasing would never have come to me, but I understand immediately the qualities to which he refers. Every aspect of the Sdláagwaal bespeaks perfection. It has been carved with adze and knife from a mountain sheep horn, steamed so that the wide bowl of the ladle might be formed, and fashioned by someone with a clear mastery of the technique. With the precise lines that cover the ladle, the artist shows awe-inspiring precision. The formline designs on the bottom of the ladle fill the pictorial space with perfect balance and symmetry.

Another authority whose voice we should listen to regarding the Sdláagwaal is Bill Holm, a recognized scholar, longtime curator, and prolific author on Native American art in the Pacific Northwest. The gallery bracketed by the museum’s four great Arthur Shaughnessy house posts, also has a monitor playing several videos where we can learn from Bill Holm about the history and making of the posts. Back to the Sdláagwaal, of which Holm writes:

Among the artists of the Northwest Coast there were some who had complete mastery of the materials, techniques, and design system with which they worked. The maker of this horn ladle was one of those artists . . . . The formlines comprising the design are broad and simple, without extraneous elaboration. Their execution is flawless.2

To have people like Davidson and Holm, who really know their stuff, compliment the Sdláagwaal with such glowing words brings heaps of praises on its maker—who must have been quite an impressive individual, indeed.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Robert Davidson, quoted in The Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Native Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, and New York: Rizzoli, 1995; 118.
2 Bill Holm, Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1983; 84.
Image: Sdláagwaal (horn ladle), ca. 1860, Haida, mountain sheep horn, 14 ½ x 6 ¾ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 85.356.

 

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Object of the Week: Large Plate

A Harvard-educated scholar with impressive curatorial experience, Henry Trubner came to SAM in July, 1968 to lead its Chinese art department. Sometime later, Trubner selected this Chinese Yuan dynasty Large Plate to present to the museum as a gift in honor of the retiring Dr. Fuller, who celebrated his 75th birthday in 1973, the same year he stepped down after 40 years at the helm of SAM. As they say, the best laid plans . . .

The Large Plate, purchased from a notable Tokyo dealer, arrived at SAM in February of 1973. But Trubner then struggled to gather the funds to make the purchase. Delays and negotiations ensued. Dr. Fuller’s June 1 birthday came and went, though not without art aplenty. It wasn’t until May of 1974 that Trubner and SAM could complete the acquisition of the Large Plate that had been in Seattle for some 15 months.1

From Trubner’s description of the piece in a 1983 publication, we see that much of his interest was related to its look: the swirling decorative pattern and rich red hue.

The museum’s tray shows alternating layers of thin red and thick black lacquer, with a fourth black or highly polished dark brown layer on top. The decoration consists of a cloud scroll pattern (ruyi) on the interior, around a central quatrefoil medallion. The same cloud scroll pattern is repeated on the underside of the cavetto. The base is lacquered a deep blackish brown within a low foot rim. This significant example of Yuan lacquer was acquired from Jean-Pierre Dubosc, noted collector and connoisseur of Chinese and Japanese lacquer.2

We can also confidently say that Trubner chose the Large Plate partly for the relationship it would establish with the many lacquer pieces that Dr. Fuller had collected in the early years of the museum, like this very sculptural snuff bottle. Trubner’s strategic vision for growing the collection was a new thing. Dr. Fuller, as director and his own chief curator, had added to the collection by pursuing what caught his eye, happy to be led by instinct and impulse. While visiting a gallery or museum, Fuller would come upon something that struck him, and in his excitement, would learn a lot about it, and maybe buy something for the museum.

Trubner’s entry to the scene initiated a new collecting era at SAM, one marked by taking careful inventories of the art market, addressing collection gaps, and courting generous donors to support acquisitions. In other words, the collecting program began to look a lot more like it does today. Our Lacquer Plate can serve as a reminder of that transition to intentional growth.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China: Chinese Art in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 151-154.
2 Henry Trubner, Asian Art in the Seattle Art Museum: Fifty Years of Collecting, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1983; 12.
Image: Large Plate, 1280-1368, Chinese, lacquer, Diam.: 13 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 74.21.
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Object of the Week: Wilkinkarra

The year 2016 wasn’t all bad, and in fact it proved a remarkable year for the growth of SAM’s permanent collection. Just in the area of paintings, the museum acquired Robert Colescott’s colorful Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas, on view on the third floor at the top of the elevators; the beautiful Nicolas Colombel Cupid and Psyche now installed in the large European art gallery on the fourth floor; and quite a few other cool things. The largest painting SAM acquired, and among the most visually striking, is Wilkinkarra, a blast of spotted color spread over a 6-by-10-foot canvas, from Australian Aboriginal woman artist Mitjili Napanangka Gibson.

Wilkinkarra came to SAM from the distinguished collection of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, out of which a whole survey of Australian Aboriginal art was culled. Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art came to SAM in 2012 and showcased more than 100 artworks that, for many of us, provided an introduction to the history and thriving culture of Australian Aboriginal painting.

When encountering something new, we often try to connect it to something we already know and understand. This is natural because our brains are wired to make sense of new experiences and stimuli by comparing them to ones that already exist in our mental databank. Looking at Wilkinkarra, I was struck by how the aesthetic is distinctively “modern.” Countless bright pops of bold color—pinks, purples, blues, yellows, and oranges—emerge in organic patterns, encircled in heavy black outlines. The dotting approach echoes pointillist painting in the late 20th century, and we could also picture this piece fitting cleanly into newer schools of abstract art.

Only this is not an abstraction, but a representation of a specific landscape, pictured from a bird’s-eye view, and created within a unique culture and school of art-making. While we might see immediate, purely visual connections to the Modern art that we already know, there are still more meaningful connections to be made.

In the exhibition catalogue for Ancestral Modern, Lisa Graziose Corrin finds one of those connections in the idea of journeying. First, note that the features of the land itself, and the idea of moving through the land, have special meaning in Aboriginal culture: “Mitjili Napanangka Gibson’s Wilkinkarra refers to a ritual walkabout in her homeland. For Aboriginal artists, travel through the landscape is spiritual, something performed as well as painted. The ritual walkabout and the represented walkabout are equally significant mappings of sacred cultural experience. Both ensure the continuation of Aboriginal cultural memory that is deeply embedded in the topography of ceremonial places.”¹

Second, consider Corrin’s idea that “At one level or another, contemporary culture is a traveling culture.” The city of Seattle plays host to crowds of neo-nomads. The actions of moving, traveling, journeying, and migrating affect many of us in profound ways, shaping how we understand ourselves and how we relate to the people and places we encounter. Global Modern and contemporary art reflects these ideas. At SAM we see it in works like Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, and in William Kentridge’s Shadow Procession. Lawrence, Kentridge, and now Gibson remind us that sharing about where we go, and what we go through, is a very human thing to do.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

¹ Lisa Graziose Corrin, “Staging Australian Aboriginal Art,” Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art, exhibition catalogue, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, in association with Yale University Press, 2012; 46.
Image: Wilkinkarra, 2007, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson (Australian Aboriginal, Warlpiri people, Western Desert, Northern Territory, born ca. 1940), synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 78 3/4 x 120 1/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, 2016.25.

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Object of the Week: March of the Weavers

In 2015 SAM acquired this small—but powerful—etching by German artist Käthe Kollwitz. March of the Weavers is the fourth plate of six in a series Kollwitz called Ein Weberaufstand (The Rise of the Weavers). This series proved to be one of the most important works of her early career, as its public display in Berlin in 1898 catapulted her to national recognition. With the content of The Rise of the Weavers, Kollwitz was responding to a theatrical play by Gerhard Hauptmann, titled The Weavers, which told the story of an 1844 revolt over wages. In her diary, Kollwitz remembers the excitement and inspiration she gleaned from viewing that play, as well as the challenges she faced producing the series:

“A great event took place during this time: the Freie Buehne’s première of Hauptmann’s The Weavers. The performance was given in the morning. I no longer remember who got me a ticket. My husband’s work kept him from going, but I was there, burning with anticipation. The impression the play made was tremendous. The best actors of the day participated, with Else Lehman playing the young weaver’s wife. In the evening there was a large gathering to celebrate, and Hauptmann was hailed as the leader of youth.

“That performance was a milestone in my work. I dropped the series on Germinal and set to work on The Weavers. At the time I had so little technique that my first attempts were failures. For this reason the first three plates of the series were lithographed, and only the last three successfully etched: The March of the Weavers, Storming the Owner’s House, and The End. My work on this series was slow and painful. But it gradually came, and I wanted to dedicate the series to my father. I intended to preface it with Heine’s poem, ‘The Weavers.’ But meanwhile my father fell critically ill, and he did not live to see the success I had when this work was exhibited. On the other hand, I had the pleasure of laying before him the complete Weavers cycle on his seventieth birthday in our peasant cottage at Rauschen. He was overjoyed. I can still remember how he ran through the house calling again and again to Mother to come and see what little Kaethe had done. In the spring of the following year he died.”1

Kollwitz might have contented herself with the satisfaction of sharing her art with proud family members had it not been for the timely help of a friend:

“I was so depressed because I could no longer give him the pleasure of seeing the work publicly exhibited that I dropped the idea of a show. A good friend of mine, Anna Plehn, said, ‘Let me arrange everything.’ She entered the series for me, sent it in to the jury, and a few weeks later it was in the show at the Lehrter Station. Later I heard that the jury—Menzel was one of the members—had voted that the Weavers be given the small gold medal. The Kaiser vetoed the recommendation. But from then on, at one blow, I was counted among the foremost artists of the country. Max Lehrs, director of the Dresden collection of engravings and drawings, bought the series and succeeded in procuring the gold medal for it. To this day the Weavers is probably the best-known work I have done.”2

In The March of the Weavers and the series of which it is part, Kollwitz expressed solidarity with the working force. Her concerns were not only socio-political, but also aesthetic. Physical effort visualized in moving masses captured her imagination. For Kollwitz, celebrating workers became a cathartic release, one she would return to throughout her career:

“My real motive for choosing my subjects almost exclusively from the life of the workers was that only such subjects gave me in a simple and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful. For me the Koenigsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish jimkes on their grain ships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement in the gestures of the common people had beauty. Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life as a whole seemed to me pedantic. The proletariat, on the other hand, had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives . . . And portraying them again and again opened a safety-valve for me; it made life bearable.”3

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Käthe Kollwitz, Diary and Letters, ed. Hans Kollwitz, transl. Richard and Clara Winston, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1955; 42.
2 Kollwitz, Diary and Letters, 42-43.
3 Kollwitz, Diary and Letters, 43.
Image: Weberzug (March of the Weavers), 1893-1897, published ca. 1931, Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867-1945), etching, 10 3/4 x 15 3/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of DeAnn and David Finkel, in memory of Harriet Clayton and Daniel Clayton, 2015.20.1, 2015.20.1 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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Object of the Week: The Wave

For regular readers of our Object of the Week series, the name Anselm Kiefer should ring a bell. It wasn’t so long ago that Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator and this series’ regular contributor, wrote about Kiefer’s monumental and haunting painting Die Orden der Nacht, currently on view in the installation Big Picture: Art after 1945. But today I’m here to talk about Kiefer again, and his work which currently hangs right next to Die Orden der Nacht: the 1990 painting Die Welle (The Wave), or Lilit am Roten Meer (Lilith at the Red Sea).

In many ways Jeff’s earlier discussion of Die Orden der Nacht rings true for Die Welle as well. It is similarly monumental in scale, similarly ambitious in its scope and symbolism. It is similarly laden with its own materiality, its thickly layered surface reaching out from the wall and defying its classification as painting. And, like Die Orden der Nacht, Die Welle is staggeringly heavy—literally (how often do you see lead listed as a medium, and hanging defiantly on a wall?), but even more so metaphorically. Its materials also include wire, ash, and children’s clothes—haunting, aching in their empty presence, a visceral gut-punch aura of destruction and death.

Aside from these obvious material and compositional differences, what distinguishes Die Welle from its neighbor is the mythology suggested in its alternate title: Lilit am Roten Meer, which translates to Lilith at the Red Sea. Lilith is a figure from Hebrew folklore who features in many of Kiefer’s works from the 1980s and ‘90s. According to the mythology, Lilith was meant to be Adam’s first wife, made by God at the same time and from the same earth as the first man. But she refused to be subservient to Adam, and fled the Garden of Eden to live on the edge of the Red Sea. So God made Adam a new wife (grown from Adam’s rib this time—a woman made of man, instead of with him), and Adam and Eve started the work of begetting the human race. Meanwhile, Lilith in her exile became the matriarch of a different kind of progeny: a massive host of demons, and a legacy of destruction and death. If Adam and Eve represent the birth of humankind, so some readings go, then evil is descended from Lilith.

This is a heavy subject (with heavily debated interpretations and readings) to go along with an already somber artwork—but, again like Die Orden der Nacht, Die Welle (or Lilit am Roten Meer) resists easy interpretation. Where is Lilith in this work? Is she one of the hollow figures, or is she lurking in the background, the unseen progenitor of this scene of devestation? More complicated still is the evocation of the Red Sea, which represents the home of Lilith and her demon-children—but also the site of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, and the drowning of the Egyptians who pursued them. Is the titular welle (wave) cresting towards us with a promise of deliverance, or destruction?

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Image: Die Welle (The Wave), 1990, Anselm Kiefer, lead, clothes, steel wire, and ash on canvas, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.120, © Anselm Kiefer.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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