All posts in “Object of the Week”

Portsmouth Sofa

Object of the Week: Portsmouth Sofa

You may have noticed SAM’s regal Portsmouth Sofa making our American galleries look super comfy and inviting. With the ubiquity of couches in the US today it’s hard for us to grasp what an item of prestige this sofa would have been 200 years ago. In early 19th century America sofas were the most expensive seating furniture, and fancy ones could be had for about $35 to $46. What else could you have gotten for that price?

In the 1810s in New Hampshire, $40 would buy you

100-150 pounds of beef

or

40 bushels of beans

or

a pair of stockings ($1.25), thick shoes ($1.75), and a wool hat ($1.75), every year for 8 years

or

a sheep weighing in at 133 pounds

or

two two-year-old heifers

or

6 tons of hay.1

How long would it take you to save that up? From 1819-1821 a woman tailor worked for $.25 per day—so just about half a year’s salary later, she’d have a sofa. In 1818 a journeyman shoemaker worked eight months for $26 per month. If he could have put away a quarter of his salary he would have had a couch in the same time span. Back then, the working day started at sunrise and continued until sunset, dark, or 9 pm, so I’m sure both of them were busting their bums. That’s when a couch comes in handy!

SAM’s Sofa once decorated the home of a wealthy ship captain and merchant named George McClean, who helpfully had his name branded on the frame. This was a finely carved sofa by Portsmouth standards and would have set him apart as a man of status. After its life of use, the sofa was acquired by Ruth Nutt, an important collector of decorative arts, and a major SAM patron. From her arrival in Seattle in 1989 until her passing in 2013, Ms. Nutt was heavily involved with SAM, as a board member and committee member, as a financial supporter and art donor. In 2014 SAM was the beneficiary of her exceptional collection of American silver, which you can admire all around the inviting Portsmouth Sofa.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 New Hampshire Commissioners on Bureau of Labor Statistics, Manchester, N.H.: James P. Campbell, 1872.
Image: Sofa, ca. 1810-20, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, mahogany and birch veneer, secondary wood elm or maple, modern upholstery, 34 x 72 x 24 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Ruth J. Nutt, 2005.180
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Object of the Week: Wheat Field

Joyeux quatorze juillet! As our French friends celebrate La Fête nationale, we’re looking at a painting by Paul Camille Guigou, an artist we categorize as French—although he really identified only with the region of southern France called Provence, where he was born and spent much of his life. His story illustrates that national identity is complex and nuanced, and being French—or American, or anything else—means different things to different folks.

Guigou was immensely proud of Provence. Its landscape, inseparable from the unique quality of light that illuminates this part of the world, inspired nearly all of Guigou’s paintings. A reclusive type, he would wander the hills near town by himself, a solitary figure seeking communion with his muse. On his hikes Guigou would make a point of going to out-of-the-way spots where few had visited, and where the views were unknown. The un-fame of these places seems to be part of what drew Guigou there; by visiting and painting them, he was drawing attention to something he knew was special and yet somehow overlooked. We can read his visions of rural Provence as a kind of journalism, enlightening those who wouldn’t see it for themselves.

Guigou’s program as an artist involved more than producing realistic, flattering pictures of places that were meaningful to him. He painted during the 1850s and 1860s, a period when France, under Louis-Napoléon, made efforts to naturalize its southern citizens, who had maintained a sense of cultural independence and local pride. Much of the Provençal cultural heritage revolved around the language spoken there, langue d’oc. Guigou and many others who cherished the region’s culture and history saw the government insist that French, and not the local language, be spoken in Provence schools. The threat to their language was a literal and symbolic one, and for Guigou, part of a larger problem in the lack of appreciation for Provence’s identity. Meanwhile, the industrialization of the area exacerbated Guigou’s sense of cultural loss. With his paintings, he became an advocate for the land, its people, and its story.

In Wheat Field, the artist’s heartfelt connection to Provence shines. Waving strands of golden wheat, warmly lit from above, and enlivened by flecks of red and blue, fill the center of the painting. Three working figures wading into the field honor the region’s agriculture. Rugged hills loom above quiet valleys. Guigou is a very textural painter, leaving nothing refined or smooth, visibly preferring a coarseness evocative of the country. I love the little footpath that he includes on the left. This unassuming trail seems just the type he would have sought out on his painting excursions.

Poet and activist Frédéric Mistral, who had been a fellow champion of Provence with Guigou, wrote in 1908:

I consider Paul Guigou the greatest painter of Provence. No one could paint better than him the luminosity of our beautiful land, the rugged poetry of its rocky and powdery soil. With great sincerity of vision, he made a truthful and faithful portrait of his little nation. He does not yet have the place in the world of art which he deserves, but that will come.¹

Anything but a detached observer, Guigou makes no attempt to hide his nationalistic affection for his subject. His way of romanticizing Provence will be too sentimental for some, but I appreciate that he clearly loved what he painted. He felt it worth recording and celebrating, especially in the face of cultural domination and industrial intrusion.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Wheat Field, 1860, Paul Camille Guigou (French, 1834-1871), oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 45 13/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Corydon Wagner, 60.49
¹Quoted in Paul Guigou: 1834-1871. Exh. Cat. New York: William Beadleston, Inc., 1987.
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The Adoration of the Magi

Object of The Week: The Adoration of the Magi

SAM’s painting by Francesco Bassano of the Adoration of the Magi contributes to several different stories in art history: the Italian Renaissance, Venetian painting, and religious art, among others. By situating this work where it is, in our Emblems of Encounter installation, we’re encouraging folks to look at the painting through a particular lens, focusing on its inclusion of two figures with dark skin: the magus that takes a central place in the painting, and the smaller page who stands behind him.

Why are these figures here? What role do they play? What do they reveal?

By the time he painted this work, Francesco Bassano could rely on established traditions attached to the Adoration story that would tell him what symbols to include and how to compose his picture. This prominent biblical story had been referenced by countless artists over several hundred years and had become codified in European visual art. Still, it wasn’t until the years between the middle of the 14th and the middle of the 15th centuries that artists working in what is now Germany and the Czech Republic initiated the trend of depicting one magus with dark skin.¹ The motif of the African magus in visual art developed out of Medieval writings that allegorized biblical stories: scholars at that time understood the three magi, or wise men, who appear in the Book of Matthew as symbols for the three known continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe. A writer known as Pseudo-Bede would make the not unreasonable corollary that the African magus was dark-skinned.² This black magus made his arrival in Italian painting around the mid-15th century, importantly coinciding with growing interaction between Europe and Africa: trade, missionary efforts, and of course, the importing of slaves.

Similarly serving to fill the scene with visual interest and to illustrate the burgeoning diversity of the painter’s world, a group of sweetly rendered animals attends the scene. The caravan of worshippers arrives on the backs of camels, donkeys, and horses. A furry monkey surveying the scene, a pair of handsome dogs, and a regal peacock complete the menagerie. The movement of the painting, enforced by the swooping line of the caravan, leaning figures and gestures, directs our eye to the figures of the infant Jesus and mother Mary. Their whiteness is the standard against which the African magus and his page are made to look different.

Though Bassano’s painting reflects a one-sided perspective, it seems to me that it could hardly have been otherwise. The painting records a historical moment when people were interacting across cultures and across continents with more frequency than ever. The appearance of the black magus in the larger theme of the Adoration shows one people group attempting to make sense of an increasingly complex and diverse world, folding new revelations into their existing understanding of things. In such pictures, we see a European effort to “reassert order and to avoid an ontological abyss,” says historian Peter Mark. “By fitting the African into an existing Christian iconography, European artists were incorporating the Black man into their familiar view of the world.”³

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: The Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1575, Francesco Bassano (Italian, 1549-1592), oil on canvas, 61 5/8 x 81 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Clarence A. Black Memorial Collection, 50.76
¹ Stefan Goodwin, Africa in Europe, Vol. 1, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009; 148.
²Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Epiphany of the Black Magus Circa 1500,” in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. III, Pt. 1, Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2010; 10-11.
³ Peter Mark, “European Perceptions of Black Africans in the Renaissance,” in Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, Exh. Cat., New York: Center for African Art, 1988; 30.
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Object of the Week: Lukwalil (feast dish)

Artist Calvin Hunt has followed in the footsteps of his older brother, father, and grandfather, inheriting traditions from a family of accomplished carvers. He has carried on his family’s legacy admirably. Among his achievements he can count totem poles, masks, and canoes in several museum collections worldwide, and a 25-foot-long feast dish made around 1987 for the Great Hall of the Canadian Museum of History.

SAM’s Lukwalil (feast dish) measures roughly 1/5 the size but still creates a visual impact, its gaping mouth threatening to swallow up anything in its path. Hunt carved this feast dish from wood, colored it with earth-tone pigments in green, red, and black hues, and adorned it with opercula shells. The operculum—I learned—is the disk on the foot of gastropods that acts like a trap door, allowing them to close up in self-defense against predators. Repurposed in fine art, the pearly shells are natural bling on this wooden serving dish.

SAM acquired the Lukwalil with the goal of demonstrating the persistence of cultural traditions among living artists—still, and maybe increasingly, important to the museum’s mission today. Expanding the collection with a feast dish allowed SAM to better illustrate an important part of the potlatch: feeding guests, abundantly, in style.

Hunt is a member of the Kwagu’l, a Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast from central British Columbia, on northern Vancouver Island. SAM commissioned Hunt to produce this Lukwalil in conjunction with the exhibition Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch—an homage to the significance and persistence of this tradition among Hunt’s people:

The Kwakiutl held tenaciously to their potlatch . . . The Canadian government, while sometimes misdirected, had its reasons for the law. The potlatching Kwakiutl, even when subjected to an increasingly authoritarian paternalism, were convinced that nothing was wrong with the potlatch and that the law was mistaken. Exploiting the government’s weaknesses, they were able to thwart the law at least as often as it thwarted their potlatches. They remained significant participants in their own destiny. Except for a brief period between 1919 and 1927, the Kwakiutl did with their potlatches pretty much what they wanted to do.1

On Vancouver Island, and all over the Canadian provinces, many will be celebrating this weekend on July 1. Canada Day commemorates the formation of Canada from the original provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, a result of the British North America Act, passed by British Parliament on July 1, 1867. This year holds special significance as it marks Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Some Indigenous people in Canada are responding to Canada Day with demonstrations of “reoccupation,” a reminder that such celebrations take up a European perspective and carry the taint of colonization. Come see the Lukwalil and the rest of SAM’s exceptional Native American collection to give honor to, and open up conversations with, enduring Native traditions.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis; Kwakwaka’wakw, Kwagu’l band, b. 1956), wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63
1 Douglas Cole, “The History of the Potlatch,” in Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, Exh. Cat., Seattle and New York: University of Washington Press and the American Museum of Natural History, 1991; 135.
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17 years’ supply

Object of the Week: 17 years’ supply

In 2016 the SAM docents—a rockin’ group of volunteers that plays a huge part in sharing our collection—donated funds for the museum to acquire a new artwork. Their collaborative effort raising the funds found a very fitting consummation in the acquisition of Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2014 photograph 17 years’ supply, an image that projects togetherness and interconnectedness, especially in the face of trials.

Tillmans has achieved international recognition for his innovative and thoughtful photography. Central to the artist’s work are his interest in the formal structure of photography and his desire for intimacy, what he calls “the very being-in-this-worldness with others, and the desire to be intensely connected to other people.”¹ He is a gay man whose attachment to the LGBTQ community has surfaced at various times in his work, in overt and in quieter references. Tillmans doesn’t aim to document subcultures with his images, nor does he hope that his photography will be read as a diary, directly expressive of his personal life. 17 years’ supply, however, is a work that challenges both those intentions.

Powerful symbolism informs both the choice of subject and the straightforward title. A cardboard box frames the image in humble terms. Inside lies a jumbled assortment of bottles and boxes of medical prescriptions that once contained treatments for HIV, and some of them bear Tillmans’ name (he is, himself, living with HIV). The artist took this photograph in 2014, the 17th anniversary of the death of his partner, Jochen Klein, who fell sick with AIDS-related pneumonia and never recovered. Here, Tillmans staged, and recorded, a visualization of his defense against the same sickness that took his partner 17 years prior.

In a published interview with New York artist Peter Halley, Tillmans reflects on the role HIV/AIDS has played in his life and work:

Tillmans: All my work has been made with the knowledge of possible death, because since 1983 I’ve had an acute awareness that this disease, AIDS, affects me. In 1985, after my first few sexual encounters, when I was seventeen, I had this big AIDS fear. That’s actually crazy, when you think of a seventeen-year-old schoolboy lying in bed thinking he’s going to die.

Halley: I don’t think it’s that crazy. It happened. It was real and a lot of people did get sick and die.

Tillmans: The threat of AIDS has been with me for all my active sexual life, and so all the celebration and the joy and the lightness in my work has always taken place with that reality on board.

Halley: In other words, if life is fragile one needs to celebrate and appreciate it more?

Tillmans: Yes—well maybe that’s too much of a statement. You could take away the ‘if’, because life is fragile, and you have to celebrate it and enjoy it and not despair over the fact that it’s fragile because it just is. And that’s why I don’t despair; that’s why I’m optimistic, because it doesn’t only affect me—it affects us all. It just brings us all together again in the sense that that’s part of the deal. We’re all equally mortal.²

I’m deeply moved by Tillmans’ optimistic perspective. Each of us knows our end, and the end is the same for each of us. Loving others well and enjoying life in the meantime is something each of us gets to choose—or not choose.

After winning the prestigious Turner Prize in 2000—becoming the first non-British artist to receive the award—Tillmans designed a related exhibition catalogue that was essentially a comprehensive visual index of his published work to date. To his show and catalogue he gave the title If one thing matters, everything matters. I would add to Tillmans’ proclamation: If one person matters, everyone matters. Our togetherness in the fragility of life is part of what makes us human. So is our need to share its joys. Wishing everyone a sense of closeness and celebration!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: 17 years’ supply, 2014, Wolfgang Tillmans (German, b. 1968), Inkjet print on paper, 12 x 16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Seattle Art Museum Docents, 2016.18
¹Wolfgang Tillmans, interview with Nathan Kernan, published in Wolfgang Tillmans: View from Above, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2001; 11.
²Wolfgang Tillmans, interview with Peter Halley, published in Wolfgang Tillmans, New York: Phaidon, 2014; 22.
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Object of the Week: Scholar’s rock on stand

Wander into a Chinese scholar’s studio at the Seattle Art Museum to find treasures like a masterfully carved brush pot and a tiny cage to house a lucky cricket. This display of Pure Amusements brings together objects and furnishings collected by scholars as a display of learning, a claim to social status, and an inspiration for reflective thinking.

The Qing period Scholar’s rock on stand, a craggy piece of limestone mounted to a carved wooden base, rewards our contemplation, too. Interesting examples of the scholarly collecting impulse, scholars’ rocks were “favored stones that the Chinese literati and their followers displayed and appreciated indoors, in the rarefied atmosphere of their studios.”¹

A very human desire lies at the heart of this tradition. Who, as a kid, does not build their own killer rock collection? In China, too, people have been gathering rocks for a long time. The Chinese practice of decorating gardens with rocks was in place by the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). The specific tradition of the scholar’s rock has been traced back to the Song dynasty (960–1279), and it continued through the Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644–1911) periods.

Before the 20th century collectors referred to them in terms that mean “fantastic rocks.” The type of rock, as well as its texture, form, and color, were all important elements for the collector to consider. Different rocks were most treasured at different moments in history, so the look of these rocks has allowed new scholarship to date them, and also to think about changing tastes in collecting over time. Generally, the darker the color, the more prized the scholar’s rock: black and slate grey were at the top. Limestone came first among rock types not only for its look but also for its sound. Due to its density, it would ring like a bell when struck.²

Scholars’ rocks were used in several senses of the word. Functionally, they might serve as brushrests, inkstones, or censers. But their primary function was to inspire. The form of the rock suggested a mountainous landscape, and like a landscape painting, a scholar’s rock acted as a microcosm of the universe—a small piece of an infinite, natural puzzle—an object on which to meditate and to gain cosmic perspective.³ They would be displayed indoors on a desk, on a table or bookshelf, or perhaps on the floor if they were especially large. Traditionally, a scholar displayed his choice rock on a finely carved wooden stand, both to support the irregular form, and to designate the rock as a special item, like a piece of sculpture.

And sculpted they were. Once chosen from nature, scholars’ rocks were frequently carved, weathered, and burnished to suit their owner’s aesthetic. Collecting a scholar’s rock involved both selection—the finest rock would inherently resemble a painting by the powers of nature—and manipulation—as the scholar imprinted their aesthetic onto the rock form by carving or treating it in some way. There is a fascinating give-and-take here, a loop of influence whose beginning and end is hard to identify. As much as the natural forms of rock, and the mountainscapes they represented, informed styles of scholarly painting, the Chinese literati also made natural rock conform to their vision of a painterly landscape, molding it into their idea of beauty.

I’m reminded of David B. Williams’s reflection in Too High and Too Steep, his account of man-made changes to Seattle’s topography: “We shape the land, and the land shapes us.”⁴

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Scholar’s rock on stand, Chinese, Qing period (1644-1912), limestone, 15 ¾ x 8 ¼ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.326
¹Robert D. Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks: An Overview,” in Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars’ Rocks. Exh. Cat. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1997; 19.
²Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 20.
³Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 21.
⁴David B. Williams, Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.
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Sea Bear

Object of the Week: Sea Bear

We who love art find joy in putting words to what artists are doing visually. Scholarly articles and Instagram posts, Ph.D. dissertations and dinnertime monologues, poetry and pop music are all common sites for reflecting on the ideas impressed upon us by visual art. However much we enjoy sharing our own angle, we should designate the greatest respect for the words artists share about their own work. They are often, in themselves, a kind of poetry.

Along with a few images of this week’s object, Sea Bear, by Seattle artist Sherry Markovitz, here’s a selection of thoughts from the artist on her work and this resplendent piece:

I am after beauty, with an edge of uncertainty, vulnerability, and power. I use animal metaphors to explore issues of intimacy, closeness, and separation.1

Immersing myself in work and making objects is a way of setting boundaries and losing them at the same time.2

This piece was done after the birth of my son Jake. It has a quiet about it that is different from the preceding pieces. It also is part of the stories I have been doing that utilizes an extension to the head. It also is a transition piece that displays the qualities of the work that involves horns & gourds.

The quiet, monochromatic color.

I see the ‘collar’ as directional. The wood shape & the bear shape—working in tandem was the key (formally) on this one. I think the large pearls pulled the shape back to the bear. It’s funny, as I get further away from a piece, it is, in fact, the abstract concerns that remain the most visible to me.

Emotionally Sea Bear is circular, all the stuff on it is traceable to significant walks. Walks with my mother in Florida, walks in Port Townsend with Peter (during which time J was conceived), walks alone to find the ‘root’ pieces at Discovery Park. Walking on the beach is such a drifting and wonderful activity.

I feel whole at those times, and quiet.

The beadwork is a lot about getting quiet—& color—the beauty of the colored glass. Muting it somewhat on Sea Bear—making it more sand like and solid. How pieces lay in the sand—3

I have several strong personal influences: my family of origin, whose psychodynamics have been a continual source of reference; my partner, whose vision, optimism, and endurance keep everything in fresh perspective; and the late Emil Gehrke, a folk artist of Grand Coulee, Washington, who taught me that art could be about joy and totality.4

I work as hard as I can. I set no limits on how or when I work. My limit is exhaustion.5

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz (American, b. 1947), wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mâché, 25 x 17 x 29 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3 © Sherry Markovitz. Installation view of Pacific Currents at Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Nathaniel Willson. Sherry Markovitz’ hand-written notes on Sea Bear, from SAM’s curatorial files.
1 Sherry Markovitz, quoted in 50 Northwest Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in the Pacific Northwest, ed. Bruce Geunther, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1983; 81.
2 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 81.
3 Sherry Markovitz, letter to Vicki Halper, August 14, 1991.
4 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 80-81.
5 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 80.
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Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor, 1882

Object of the Week: Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor

The almost-summer, peek-a-boo-sun weather here in Seattle has me excited about all the potential the coming season holds for outdoorsy activity. Having been cooped up through a cold winter and rainy spring, we’re ready to get outside, to maximize those sun rays, and to utterly exhaust ourselves. Let’s burn some skin and burn ourselves out! What better place to get the most out of summer than the Pacific Northwest? (Nowhere, that’s where.)

One can find endless things to do on a sunny day here, but a favorite of mine, and of quite a few other folks, clearly, is to get out on the water. Kayaks, SUPs, sailboats, and some one-percenter yachts will be out in full force these summer weekends. After three years of living in Seattle, I’ve finally met a family with a boat and can’t wait to bum a ride, to float out over the Sound, to reverse my land-bound perspective, and to drink in the beauty of the coastal landscape. The quality of light and the diversity of the geography in the Northwest give us the perfect ingredients for a romantic painting, which is why I’m especially grateful that we have a really good one at the Seattle Art Museum: Cleveland Rockwell’s Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor.

In the painting, soft orange light filters through a dense atmosphere to coat the scene in mystical hues. Hardly joy riding, its figures row with exertion and carefully navigate an active harbor, bustling about to accomplish the trade that made Astoria an important port town in the 19th century. The scale of their enterprise varies, some maneuvering humble canoes and others commanding imposing merchant ships. A flock of seagulls finds its breakfast before gliding into the distance, maybe headed next for the salmon canneries that are the only sign of humanity’s nascent shaping of the land. Silhouetted by the gently rising sun, the mounds of Astoria’s Tongue Point root this picture in a place, reminding us that it records a real local history. Rockwell worked with the US Coast Survey and knew the terrain in Astoria well, so he’s not imagining anything. Even the phantasmagoric warmth of the sunlight may be truer to life than we imagine; his title references then-frequent fires that would leave this kind of dreamy atmospheric effect.

Second to Rockwell, we have Captain George Flavel to thank for this painting. Captain Flavel lived in Astoria and did quite well for himself as a bar pilot, helping ships to navigate the very dangerous access point to the Columbia River from the Pacific, and running a tugboat service that took ships upriver from Astoria to Portland. Captain Flavel was a friend of Rockwell’s and commissioned him to make several important paintings, including Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor. He passed away in 1893, but this painting remained in the Flavel family for several generations. Within the first few months of my time as Collections Coordinator at SAM, I received a call from a descendant of Captain Flavel who had an interest in the painting and planned to visit SAM. It was heartwarming to look at this painting with him and his family, who held such a personal connection to it. Our warm and fuzzy feelings reflected right back at us from Rockwell’s cheery painting.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor, 1882, Cleveland Rockwell (Born Youngstown, Ohio, 1837; died Portland, Oregon, 1907), oil on canvas, 20 x 34 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Len and Jo Braarud, Ann and Tom Barwick, Marshall and Helen Hatch; and gift, by exchange, of Lawrence Bogle, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor Collins, Eustace Ziegler, Mary E. Humphrey and Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 89.70
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Object of the Week: Union

Sam Gilliam’s 1977 painting Union tantalizes with its tactility. It’s rhythm, texture, color, and shade; bright and inviting, dark and rough. It’s free-form abstraction raked as a zen garden, and grounded by geometric shape.

Over the course of his career Gilliam has shown a deep interest in painting as a physical process. He made waves in the art world in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he displayed paint on canvas in innovative ways. He began suspending his canvases, hanging them by corners like linen sheets on a laundry line, or pinning them up at certain points, allowing the canvas to cascade downward in thick, heavy folds. While this body of work created a sculptural experience of the canvas, his series of Black Paintings, of which Union is a prime example, created a sculptural experience with paint. In these works he used a shag-rug rake to create a notched surface texture that unifies the painting.

Interestingly, Gilliam started out as a representational painter. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, he studied at the University of Louisville, earning his BA in 1955 and his MA in 1961. In the ‘60s he relocated to Washington, DC, where fate awaited. In DC Gilliam joined up with the artists who would become known as the Washington Color School—a group working in abstract modes to press the expressive potential of color.

In his own milieu Gilliam was a sponge, always soaking up wisdom, but also dispensing it. Discussing artists who have influenced him in a recent interview, he begins with Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis but covers a staggering range after them, speaking smoothly on Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Claude Monet, Georges Braque, Arthur Dove, Tintoretto, Alice Denney, Jan van Eyck, and David Smith. Add to that mix: jazz music, especially the tunes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk; curators like Walter Hopps, one-time director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art; symbols, like the American flag; and Washington’s urban design, its circular hub and radiating arteries.[1] Gilliam links his own productivity with his ability to recognize fine material: “There’s a mental connection that’s very good between the activity of painting and, let’s say, the visual and the listening process from the outside, which is always stimulating.”[2]

Though Gilliam’s beginnings were tied to the figure, his future was bound in colorful abstraction. His first one-man show in DC, held at Adams-Morgan Gallery in 1963, featured exclusively representational paintings, while his second show, held just a year later, featured no representational works.[3] Gilliam recounts that one of the DC artists, Tom Downing, played a large part in encouraging this shift: “Tom saw an exhibition of mine that was entirely figurative plus a series of watercolors on a grid, which were Klee-like. He suggested that, obviously, the figurative painting was unnecessary and that the watercolors were right in. So, I guess he’s the one that got me started making abstract paintings.”[4]

Gilliam’s work now graces prominent collections all over the country, and his Black Paintings have been collected by many important museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We can safely say that his influences, and his innovations, have served him well.

Check out Union and a group of earlier paintings in the Sam Gilliam exhibition on view now at SAM!

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Union, 1977, Sam Gilliam (American, b. 1933), acrylic on canvas, 55 x 65 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Peirolo, 82.117 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.
[1] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82-92.
[2] Sam Gilliam, 92.
[3] Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions. Ex. Cat. Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1974; 15.
[4] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82.
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