All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the week: Box with the Sound of Its Own Making

Honoring the life and legacy of Robert Morris, who passed away last Wednesday, this week’s Object of the Week highlights his iconic 1961 piece, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making.

A founder of Minimalism, Morris’s 1966 series of essays Notes on Sculpture cemented his reputation as a pioneering sculptor as well as a critical thinker. Among his many contributions to contemporary art of the 1960s and 70s (and beyond) was the prioritization of the relationship between viewer, artwork, and environment. Such hallmarks of Minimalism as repetition, scale, and an absence of expressive content were key elements in many of his works, forcing viewers to consider the spatial arrangement and scale of the sculptures themselves. In the words of New York Times art writer Ken Johnson, “Because the [minimalist] sculptures lacked the complex internal relationships of traditional composition, the viewer would focus on the object’s relationship to the architecture of the room and its effect on his or her perceptual experience of space, light and shape.”[1]

Rebelling against the notion of an artwork as something precious or finely crafted, Morris often worked with simple, everyday materials like plywood, felt, and mirrors. Throughout his decades-long career, Morris worked in a wide array of modes that explored the experiential nature of art and sculptural possibilities of space, ranging from labyrinths and performance to earthworks and environments with sound systems.

Box with the Sound of Its Own Making is an exemplary work in this regard. The piece is, cheekily, exactly what the title suggests: a seemingly ordinary box with a soundtrack of its own construction—three and a half hours of sawing, sanding, and hammering. Morris deftly does away with the mystery of artistic creation, pulling back the curtain to reveal a document of the physical labor necessary to create the work itself. What might otherwise be interpreted as precious, mute, and opaque is, in fact, a dynamic, narrative sculpture that highlights duration, process, and provisionality. See this piece at SAM, on view in Big Picture: Art after 1945.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Ken Johnson, ‘Robert Morris, 87, Dies; Founding Minimalist Sculptor With Manifold Passions,” The New York Times, November 29, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/29/obituaries/robert-morris-dead.html.
Image: Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, Robert Morris, wood, internal speaker, wooden cube: 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 in., overall: 46 x 9 3/4 x 9 3/4in.; TRT 3.5 hours, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 82.190 © Estate of Robert Morris
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Object of the Week: Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel

Among their many achievements, Mochica (also known as Moche) society is well-known for their innovations in and mastery of ceramics. Celebrated for their figurative vessels—often resembling animals, plants, deities, and even adult activities—Mochica ceramicists produced a variety of exquisite forms whose painted and sculpted surfaces reflect the vibrant life, religion, and culture of the Mochica people.

Mochica stirrup spout vessels, in particular, would take on complex and figurative scenes. Named for their resemblance to stirrups, such vessels are identifiable due to their wide body, which connects to an elegant circular hollow handle. Though unsure of exactly what was stored in these vessels (until recently it was believed that their purpose was mainly funerary), it is likely that they contained beverages like corn beer (chicha). Equal parts beautiful and versatile, stirrup spout vessels were also functional: in the high elevation deserts of Peru, the narrow spout would prevent the evaporation of the vessels’ liquid contents.

In this Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel on view in the exhibition Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art, an anthropomorphic figure stands surrounded by six peaks topped with snail shells, which also share anthropomorphic features. Holding a staff, the stoic figure—Ai-Apec, the chief deity of the Mochica—dons a patterned tunic and pendant earrings in the form of feline heads, as well as a helmet with two more feline figures.

Generally, Mochica vessels are slip-painted and bichrome, with red decoration on a white or cream background. However, this Ai-Apec vessel is much darker—a type of ceramic known as blackware; the dark color is achieved through a firing process that removes oxygen from the kiln, causing iron compounds in the clay to turn black. Not only does this piece represent a mythical continuity between the Mochica and later Chavín and Chimú cultures, but it represents an artistic continuity as well—such blackware ceramics were also made by the Chavín and Chimú.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel, ca. AD 200-500, Mochica, blackware ceramic, 10 × 8 1/2 × 8 in., Gift in honor of Assen Nicolov, 2018.3.2

 

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Object of the Week: Royal Incubator

Widely regarded as one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century, David Smith once described his early sculptures of the 1940s and 50s, like Royal Incubator, as “drawings in space.” Smith, a welder, often used wrought and soldered metals such as steel, bronze, and silver, arranged in a highly visual and pictorial arrangement. As explained by art historian Richard J. Williams, “[these sculptures] were really only legible as three-dimensional pictures, albeit abstract ones.”[1]

Smith’s early work prioritized the act of viewing from a fixed perspective, and while experiencing his pieces in space—and in the round—is important, Royal Incubator’s legibility as a single plane, much like the Cubist paintings of Picasso, is tantamount. In addition to finding influence in Cubism, the dream-like imagery in such early works evidences the heavy influence Surrealism had on Smith. However, thanks to its location installed in Big Picture: Art after 1945, now on view in SAM’s Modern and Contemporary Galleries, Royal Incubator’s association with Abstract Expressionism is also made clear. In many ways, it can be seen as a three-dimensional equivalent to the active, monumental, and gestural paintings by Pollock, Krasner, and Gorky nearby.

Born and raised in Indiana, Smith first worked as a welder and riveter at the Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend. Later, during World War II, Smith worked for the American Locomotive Company, working to fabricate trains and M7 destroyer tanks. These experiences proved formative, advancing his welding skills and relationship with metalwork. Smith’s early works bring together the real, often in the form of found metal scraps, with the imagined, resulting in a unique and at times deeply autobiographical visual style. For example, in Royal Incubator, metal spigots become birds of flight in a dream-like composition that defies clear interpretation.

Delta Air Lines, the Official Airline of the Seattle Art Museum, is a generous sponsor of Big Picture. Their support makes it possible to share this incredible post-war collection with our community.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Richard J. Williams, After Modern Sculpture: Art in the United States and Europe, 1965-70 (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000), 23.
Image: Royal Incubator, 1949, David Smith, steel, bronze and silver, 37 x 38 3/8 x 9 7/8 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2016.17.5 © Estate of David Smith
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Object of the Week: Triplicate vase

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

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

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

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

–Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

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

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

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

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

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Object of the Week: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture

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

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

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

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

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

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

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

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

 

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

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

– Manish Engineer, SAM Chief Technology Officer

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Adera Gandy, Visitor Services Officer

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