All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Sea Change

“It’s an important painting on several levels. It’s really important within the Seattle Art Museum collection because it’s the only Pollock painting on display in Washington state. It’s a painting that marks the transition from his earlier style of painting to his classic drip technique.” – Nicholas Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator

We’re revisiting this video of our Chief Conservator working on Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change in 2014. In Nicholas Dorman’s words, the rocks and textures of the painting mean “it’s a brutal swab shredder” to remove a varnish that was applied to the painting in the 1970s. This particular varnish would have changed color over time and influenced the experience of the painting. See what Sea Change looks like now, on view in Big Picture: Art after 1945.

Artwork: Sea Change, 1947, Jackson Pollock, American, Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim, 58.55, © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation
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Virgin and Child with Donor

Object of the Week: Virgin and Child with Donor

Seattle has been under a smoky haze for days now because of forest fires north, east, and south of us. Ash covered my kitchen table yesterday morning. The sun no longer sparkles—it looks like an opaque orange egg yolk, and its light struggles to get through the smog. If we were in the midwest I would think a tornado was imminent. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Harvey and Irma have battered their way through neighborhoods wielding the weapons of wind and water.

When I was thinking about an object to write about for this unsettling week, I considered atmospheric abstractions; a Dutch painting about an explosion in a gunpowder factory; a hazy landscape. But then I had another thought. These massive climate events make me feel small and helpless. What have people in the past done in the face of such intimidating natural force? They turned to higher powers.

In ancient civilizations people made offerings to the gods. Later, supplications could be made to royalty, once believed to be divinely endowed. But in 14th-century Christian Europe, most prayers were directed heavenward—to God, his son Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a pantheon of saints, each associated with specific conditions or complaints. Saint Christopher was supposed to protect you if you were traveling; Saint Roch was invoked against the plague; Saint Martin of Tours was the patron of the poor. For protection from bad weather, people turned to the little known Saint Medard.

We don’t have an image of Saint Medard, but we do have an image of a man kneeling in earnest prayer as he gazes up at the Madonna and Child.

The figure is easy to miss because he is so much smaller than the Virgin and Child who are the main subject of the painting, originally the central panel of an altarpiece that he paid to have painted. This man was not asking for deliverance from a momentary crisis such as a flood or fire. He was thinking longer term and bigger picture—specifically, eternal life beyond this brief earthly existence. For him, the Virgin Mary represented solace through her various roles: protective mother, Queen of Heaven, and embodiment of the living Church.

I love this painting, which is currently undergoing conservation and will be back on view in the European galleries by the end of this year. In the past I have always focused on the serene splendor of the Virgin, who remains a loving mother while embodying queenly demeanor. But, feeling small these days in the face of catastrophic world events, I feel a new identification with that tiny donor, praying away for all eternity.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Image: Virgin and Child with Donor, late 1340s, Bernardo Daddi, Italian, Florence, active ca. 1280-1348, egg tempera with gold on wood, 43 x 18 1/2 in., Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.151, photo: Eduardo Calderon.
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Object of the Week: Diversion Tunnel Construction

Viewers of this photograph, Diversion Tunnel Construction, Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936, by Margaret Bourke-White (American, 1904–1971) will likely appreciate the machine-age composition, the eccentric geometric design, and the surprising beauty evoked in a steel liner. For this Labor Day edition of Object of the Week, however, I’d like to look more closely at the worker, crouched down, performing his labor and appreciate Bourke-White’s first associations with social documentary photography.

Bourke-White began her career in the 1920s and quickly became recognized for her images capturing machines, factories, and commodities of the industrial age. She was working on corporate commissions when the great financial collapse of the late 1920s and early 1930s began to alter profoundly the American economic landscape. Subsequently, she began turning her focus from symbols of industry to human subjects directly affected by the Great Depression.¹

Bourke-White became a staff photographer for the new Life magazine in 1936 and photographing the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in northeast Montana was her first assignment. The Fort Peck Dam was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program that responded to the devastating poverty and unemployment of the day.

Life reported: “The dam is intended to give work to Montana’s unemployed and incidentally to promote carriage of commerce on the Missouri [River]… It has paid wages to as many as 10,000 veterans, parched farmers and plain unemployed parents…”² The Army Corps of Engineers, ultimately responsible for the dam’s construction, estimated the number of workers to be even higher.³

Historian, Rafe Sigmundstad, describes the construction of the dam’s diversion tunnels—of which the steel liner shown in Bourke-White’s photograph is a part—giving us a sense of the dangerous work needed to complete the complicated dam structure.

“The Missouri River flows through four diversion tunnels running under the east abutment of the Fort Peck Dam. How they got there is quite a story. Gangs of workers took turns cutting into the shale with coal saws that would pivot about an axis to make a 15-foot cut. Then the material was blasted out of the tunnel, scooped into railcars and removed while more digging commenced. This happened day in and day out. Three shifts totaling 4,000 men worked on the tunnels day and night, removing about 5 million cubic yards of material to make way for the tunnels. Residents grew used to the constant noise of the blasting. Serious landslides occurred during the excavation, due to bentonite fault seams in the bedrock. The bedrock itself, known as bearpaw shale, was extremely high in water volume and some 300 yards thick.”4

In addition to the construction photos, Bourke-White documented the people and the newly constructed Fort Peck City built by the Army engineers to house the workers on the dam. The city was built to house the workers, not their families. For additional housing, rent was charged which left the married worker without enough money to house the family elsewhere. Consequently, workers with families moved farther afield into self-constructed shanty towns.5

When the editors of Life sent Bourke-White on this assignment, what they expected were the construction photos that only Margaret Bourke-White could take, but what they got was a human document of American frontier life.6 On this Labor Day, take a moment to think about the human effort that went into constructing our roads, bridges, dams, office buildings, and homes.

—Traci Timmons, Librarian*

*This author acknowledges the negative impact the Fort Peck Dam had on the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. To learn more, read The History of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, 1800-2000 by David Reed Miller (Helena, Mont: Fort Peck Community College, 2008), p. 319-344.

Image: Wind Tunnel Construction, Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936, Margaret Bourke-White, gelatin silver photograph, sheet: 20 x 16 in. Gift of friends in memory of Willis Woods, 88.24, © Time Inc., All Rights Reserved
¹ Corwin, Sharon. “Constructed Documentary: Margaret Bourke-White from the Steel Mill to the South” in Corwin, Sharon, Jessica May, and Terri Weissman. American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2010, p. 108.
²Life. “Franklin Roosevelt has a Wild West” in Life vol. 1, no. 1 (November 23, 1936), p. 10.
³U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Omaha District. Fort Peck Dam. http://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/Missions/Dam-and-Lake-Projects/Missouri-River-Dams/Fort-Peck/ (accessed 8/16/2017).
4 Sixty-one workers lost their lives. Sigmundstad, Rafe. Fort Peck Dam. http://www.fortpeckdam.com/historypages/?p=10 (accessed 8/16/2017).
5 Life, p. 10.
6 Bourke-White, Margaret, and Theodore M. Brown. Margaret Bourke-White, Photojournalist: March 15 – Apr. 23, 1972; Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art. Ex. Cat. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1972, p. 59.
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Object of the Week: Audience of a Prince

“I think of Chinoise as very much a part of the conversation of the global diaspora and the spreading of cultures from one place to another.” – Saya Woolfalk

Hear from mixed media installation artist Saya Woolfalk on her favorite things in SAM’s collection and gain a new perspective on the Chinoise Tapestries, one that layers the histories evident in the intricate embroidery of these objects. The Audience of a Prince tapestry is part of a suite of four European chinoiserie tapestries from the workshop of Judocus de Vos that depict imaginary interpretations of life in Asia. In the early eighteenth century (circa 1703-07), Judocus de Vos owned the largest workshop in Brussels, with twelve looms. The tapestries feature magical scenes of exotic figures clothed in flowing robes and elaborate headdresses, fantastic animals, botanical studies, and purely imaginative flights of fancy. This suite of Flemish tapestries was commissioned for the Duke Leopold-Philippe d’Arenberg’s residence in Brussels in 1717, when it was fashionable for wealthy Europeans to create rooms evoking an exotic, foreign atmosphere.The d’Arenberg family of Edingen (Enghien, Belgium) had a long history of collecting tapestries. Recent research in the d’Arenberg archives by Koenraad Brosens, University of Leuven, has uncovered three documents that record these tapestries. The earliest document records the original commission of 1717. The four tapestries in SAM’s collection are the only tapestries from this suite known to exist today.

Artwork: “Audience of a Prince”, Judocus de Vos, commissioned in 1717, Wool, silk, metallic threads, 146 7/16 x 58 1/4 in. (370.8 x 148 cm), Gift of Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff Endowment for the Decorative Arts, Anonymous, General Acquisition Fund, Mildred King Dunn, Richard and Betty Hedreen, Decorative Arts Acquisition Fund, Margaret Perthou-Taylor, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, Ann Bergman and Michael Rorick, Mr. and Mrs. David E. Maryatt, 2002.38.4.
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Object of the Week: Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas

Sometimes our reactions and reflections on artwork do not take the shape of words. Sometimes the most accurate portrayal of emotion and thought is an ephemeral, physical reaction. David Rue, dancer and SAM’s Public Programs Coordinator, had just such a reaction to Robert Colescott’s Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas while leading an Art & Social Justice Tour in January of 2017. Enjoy this video of Rue’s response to the vibrant colors of Colescott’s “outsider’s” perspective. Colescott’s artistic identity as an African American painter led to a lifelong practice of inventing new narrative scenarios to address the persistent racial tensions in the US. See more work by Colescott in Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas opening at SAM, February 15, 2018.

Artwork: Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas, Robert Colescott, American, 1925—2009, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 92 in., General Acquisition Fund, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, and Patricia Denny Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.12.
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Object of the Week: House of the Head

This summer, thousands of people are stepping into Infinity Mirror Rooms filled with lanterns, polka dots, pumpkins, and 115 mirrors. As of this week, 90,000 visitors in Seattle have seen infinity in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Every Infinity Mirror Room makes the most of mirrors. What you may not realize is that mirrors have a long history in art and you can seen some of that history in SAM’s other galleries. The oldest mirror on view is from the 3rd century BC, an Etruscan bronze with an incised back depicting a woman who only wears a cap, necklace, and fancy shoes. Three figures stare at her, as if wondering if she forgot to put on a dress—but it happens to be a scene of seduction by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.  (48.36)

There are other small mirrors incorporated into sculptures on view: the Box of Daylight Raven Hat (91.1.124) on the 3rd floor and SAM’s very own mirrored room, which suspends 1,000 porcelains in a gilt rimmed infinity in the renowned Porcelain Room. On my walk through the galleries, however, one mirrored object calls out for attention. It only has four mirrors and is not an attention grabber—unless you happen to be tuned into art of the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. (93.157)

What looks like a small temple, or a crown, has an unusual name and concept to back it up. In Yoruba, it is called an ile ori, or House of the Head. One’s ori is not only your head, but your destiny. Before a person is born, he or she must visit the molder of spiritual heads to choose a destiny and personality which guide one’s character and fate. It is inside you, invisible to others, and is your “inner head,” which is embodied by a small abstract sculpture that is kept hidden in its own house. As seen in this house for the head, it has geometric shapes and numerical calculations, like any residence. Cowrie shells coat the entire surface, befitting the head of a wealthy person. Mirrors embellish the openings, flashing to signal the presence of a significant head held inside. When you want to “get your head together,” this house allows you to concentrate on how to align your thoughts with your destiny.

As I look at this quiet shrine, it leads me back to admire what the Yoruba Supreme Being, Odumare, stands for. He is the Prime Mover and Infinite Intelligence who created himself/herself and the universe. One Yoruba diviner and professor, Kola Abimbola, says the Yoruba have a GPS for life with a system and oracle known as Ifa. In search of more GPS and a dose of Yoruba confidence and creativity, I took a spring vacation in Nigeria. I was there to witness friends becoming chiefs and in the process, a spirit from the otherworld sat down to enact a hilarious conversation about the joys and pitfalls of raising children. Here she is making her point, offering her own version of Infinite Intelligence.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: House of the Head (Ile Ori), 20th century. Nigerian, Yoruba, cloth, mirrors, cowrie shells, leather, Gift of Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam, 93.157. Mirror with scene of the Judgement of Paris, 3rd century BC., Etruscan, Bronze, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.36. Sketch of scene on the mirror back Egungun Mother in Erin Osun, 2017, Photo: Pam McClusky.
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Object of the Week: Saint Augustine in Ecstasy

“Murillo is an exceptional painter of human emotion, which is one reason why this is my favorite painting in SAM’s collection.”– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

This is Jeffrey Carlson’s last Object of the Week post as his last day at SAM was yesterday! 😞

To say goodbye, we live streamed one last our charming Collections Coordinator speaking about his favorite painting in SAM’s collection, Saint Augustine in Ecstasy by Bartolomé Murillo. While working as SAM’s Collections Coordinator Jeffrey contributed 93 Object of the Week posts to our blog, sharing his knowledge and love of SAM’s collection of artwork from around the world with audiences far and wide. He will be missed, but we wish him well on his next adventure!

Artwork: “Saint Augustine in Ecstasy” by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, 1665–75. bit.ly/SAMArtAug
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Object of the Week Special Edition: The Western Mystery

This blog series is designed to focus on art works on SAM’s collection but this week we’re bringing you a special feature on Spencer Finch: The Western Mystery. This nebulous formation of suspended glass panes is currently installed at the Olympic Sculpture Park in the PACCAR Pavilion and will be on view through March 3, 2019. So, while not actually an artwork owned by SAM, this piece will be hanging above the heads of visitors to the sculpture park for years to come. Find out more about the artist and this mesmerizing art work from Carrie Dedon, Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art.

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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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