All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: Bamboo Netting Jacket

One of the many “eco-friendly” fashion trends that graced the United States during the aughts was bamboo clothing. You could find it in just about every form: bamboo shirts, hoodies, socks, athletic wear—you name it. However, this woody grass has long been used in a variety of ways due to its wide-ranging properties, and bamboo undergarments, such as this netting jacket, were prominent in China as early as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Modern bamboo textiles cannot hold a candle to them.

Made from cut sections of fine bamboo, this garment was constructed by sewing together hollow bamboo segments to create a woven mesh-like textile. The result is a simple but functional fabric that allows air to flow, keeping its wearer cool and dry (especially in the hot and humid climate of southern China). Further, this additional layer would protect outer garments, often made out of more expensive materials, from being stained and ruined. Despite the fact that this netting jacket would not be seen, its maker possessed an exquisite attention to detail and its construction; together, the mesh design, blue trim, and fasteners all enhance the elegant utility of the piece.

During the late 1800s, bamboo was already beginning to be mixed into other fibers to create alternative fabric blends. However, it was not until the 1990s that textile manufacturers realized bamboo could be substituted in producing rayon, a man-made fiber created from wood pulp and processed cellulose. As Syl Tang writes in Disrobed: How Clothing Predicts Economic Cycles, Saves Lives, and Determines the Future, rayon “was revolutionary for clothing makers. It felt like silk, yet was much cheaper to produce and did not insulate heat, which made the fabric perfect for hot climates.”[1] Add to this the fact that bamboo is an environmental powerhouse—it grows densely and quickly, regenerates after being cut, mitigates greenhouse gases—it is no wonder that bamboo was packaged as a better, safer, and greener option to other textile blends.

For the most part, many clothing companies touting the environmental and health benefits of bamboo during the 2000s were really just selling rayon (or viscose). Taking advantage of the green movement and the devotion of its consumers, such companies were able to get away with perverting a natural material that, as we see in this jacket, needs nothing else.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Syl Tang, Disrobed: How Clothing Predicts Economic Cycles, Saves Lives, and Determines the Future (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 74.
Image: Bamboo netting jacket, 19th century, Chinese, Bamboo, beads, 29 x 25 1/4, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.1062.
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Object of the Week: Dog Hedge

The teapot is a centuries-old vessel whose origins are firmly rooted in China. Features of the teapot have evolved over time, depending on the culture and period, but for the most part the vessel is a straightforward formula with certain basic elements: a spout, a handle, a lid, and, of course, a container for hot water. Tried and tested, right? Enter Peter Shire.

For decades, Los Angeles-based Shire has worked at the intersection of fine art, craft, and industrial design, experimenting with a variety of mediums and methods to produce iconic ceramic works and furniture that challenge the modernist maxim “form follows function,” first coined by American architect Louis Sullivan. The form of this ceramic teapot, titled Dog Hedge, does not immediately align with its understood function. In fact, many of Shire’s teapots (an ongoing and touchstone series in his practice), don’t pour tea properly—they are objects meant to be looked at. In the words of the artist, they are “referentially functional.”

One of the original members (and first American) of the 1980s Italian design collective Memphis Group, Shire has proven himself a master of surfaces and mimicry. Interested in the plasticity of materials such as clay, he approaches his practice with playful rigor. In this 1982 work, orange, lime green, and red geometric shapes overlap with rectilinear planes of speckled pink and blue to form a postmodern constructivist composition. The various ceramic components balance precariously, testing the limits of the teapot’s utility.

For this work, Shire found inspiration in such diverse sources as Stonehenge, aqueducts, post and beam architecture of the 1950s, the architecture of Luis Barragán, and the “anthropomorphic qualities of the [teapot’s] spout as a mouth and the lid as eyes.” In Shire’s hands, the teapot—as both an object and an idea—becomes deconstructed and reimagined on his own personal, conceptual, and architectural terms. Appearing from one angle as a dog in profile, the piece’s title also references Stonehenge—a monument whose unclear use and construction no doubt finds a parallel in Shire’s own work.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Images: Dog Hedge, 1982, Peter Shire, ceramic with glaze, 9 1/2 x 14 x 9 1/2 in., Gift of Anne Gould Hauberg, 86.138 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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Object of the Week: Abstraction

At first glance, this collage appears to be a simple study— a convergence, or construction, of differently colored shapes floating in a seemingly infinite space. A closer look, however, reveals that the work encompasses many of Hungarian-born avant-gardist László Moholy-Nagy’s beliefs about the role of art in the modern era.

Moholy-Nagy established himself as an artist in Berlin in the aftermath of World War I and spent much of the 1920s teaching at Germany’s famous school of art and design, the Bauhaus. Finding inspiration in the newly industrialized city, he saw potential for employing modern production processes for the creation of art.[1] He found that the city dweller was confronted with an array of new visual and aural stimuli—cars, buses, factories and crowds of people—as well as previously unheard of perspectives. One could now look down on the city from a skyscraper and look up a those tall buildings from a speeding car. For someone who had grown up in the quiet countryside these new experiences could be overwhelming. The artist concluded that artwork of the period should confront the urban condition and set out to find new, appropriate modes of artistic production.[2] Along this live of thought, Moholy-Nagy famously ordered paintings from a German sign factory in 1923 and, with the help of a mechanic and architect, produced a kinetic light sculpture in 1930. However, despite his embrace of new technology, painting remained for Moholy-Nagy the ultimate space within which to experiment.[3]

The metallic sheen of the copper and silver forms in Abstraction suggests newly invented industrial paints. The tall rectangles recall the shapes of recently constructed skyscrapers and the perspective suggests an aerial view. What better way for the modern urbanite to relate to the new spatial relationships of the city than to have those relationships abstracted on a small scale? If nothing else, a small French customs stamp on the back of the work reveals that the piece retained significance for Moholy-Nagy, as it followed him from Germany to France and then the United States, where he eventually settled.

– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator

[1] László Moholy-Nagy, “Abstract of an Artist,” The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist (New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1947), 72.
[2] László Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, (Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press, 1969), 43.
[3] Joyce Tsai makes this argument in “Technology’s Surrogate: On the Late Paintings of László Moholy-Nagy.” László Moholy-Nagy: Retrospective, ed. Max Hollein and Ingrid Pfeiffer (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2009): 136-167.
Image: Abstraction, 1923-28, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, collage of cardboard, tempera, ink, crayon, 18 3/8 x 22 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 56.39 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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Object of the Week: Shredded Wheat Factory with Ford

Photographer Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883–1976) is best known for her portraits, nudes, and photographic examinations of plants. So how does this photograph of a cereal factory fit in?

Born in Oregon in 1883, Cunningham moved with her parents to a communal farm in Port Angeles, Washington as a very young girl. In 1889, the family moved to Seattle creating their homestead in a forest atop Queen Anne Hill. She studied at the University of Washington, receiving a degree in chemistry. Her thesis was titled, “The Scientific Development of Photography,” and she had spent the latter half of her senior year studying the work and methods of Edward S. Curtis. Upon graduation, she was determined to make platinum prints (a photographic printing process using the metal, platinum) and secured a position working in Edward Curtis’s studio from 1907-1909. Although working in his studio, she rarely had contact with Curtis who was often away working on his monumental work, The North American Indian.[1] There she learned not only platinum printing, but also how to spot negatives, create studio portraiture, and run a studio.[2]

After a trip to Europe where she studied with Robert Luther, a renowned photochemist at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, she returned to Seattle, established her own studio, and began to exhibit and become involved in the Seattle and national art scenes. She was involved with the Society of Seattle Artists, the Pictorial Photographers of America, and, importantly, the Seattle Fine Arts Society.[3] During her time with the Seattle Fine Arts Society, she met and married her artist husband, Roi Partridge, in 1915. A few years later the family (they now had three sons) moved to San Francisco, and then, in 1920, Partridge accepted a position at Mills College and the family moved to Oakland.

Before 1920, Cunningham was firmly part of the Pictorialist movement which had “succeeded in placing photography within the realm of art” and whose work was often associated with beauty and soft focus. The photographs of her husband at Mount Rainier are examples of her working in this style. However, by the late 1920s, Cunningham’s artistic photography had diverged completely from her soft-focus Pictorialist work, and was beginning to express a more fully formed Modernist vision, reducing nature and structures to their simplest shapes and forms.[4] It is during this period and into the 1930s that she becomes associated with the Precisionists, a group who were responding to the radical, industrial changes in the country and turning to machine forms and industrial landscapes as visual resources for their work.[5]

In 1928, living in Oakland, she photographed the Shredded Wheat Factory located at 14th and Union Streets. And, although the factory had been built more than a decade before Precisionism declared beauty in industrial forms, the surrounding community was already thinking about its modern, appealing look:

“Practically no complaint has been heard from nearby property-owners over the location of the million-dollar Oakland factory of the Shredded Wheat Co. on land bounded by Twelfth, Fourteenth, Poplar and Union Streets, in a strictly residential district. It is not expected that the proposed artistic buildings, surrounded by beautiful grounds will have a deteriorating effect on the value of residence holdings.”[6]

The beauty of the industrial landscape is captured in the sleek lines of the factory’s geometric towers and the shadows that extend from known and unknown subjects. And, by including an electrical/telephone poll and a Ford automobile, Cunningham reinforces other aspects of modern life. Other photographs of the site exist in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Imogen Cunningham Trust (here, here, and here). However, SAM’s Shredded Wheat Factory with Ford is unique in that it’s the only one in the Shredded Wheat Factory series where Cunningham includes a natural object—a tree—front and center within the composition.

In Celina Lunsford’s opening essay for the catalogue to the Imogen Cunningham exhibition at the Fundación Mapfre (Madrid) and Kulturhuset Stockholm, she recognizes: “Imogen Cunningham was a true artist: throughout her long life she embraced the diverse developments of photography and the liveliness of the changing time in which she lived.”[7] Shredded Wheat Factory with Ford, a work of Precisionism, along with Cunningham’s other photographs of various pictorial styles in SAM’s collection, clearly demonstrates her wide range, a lifetime commitment to developing her work, and importance as a pioneering American woman photographer from the West Coast.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Librarian

[1] Richard Lorenz, “A Life in Photography,” in Amy Rule, ed., Imogen Cunningham: Selected Texts and Bibliography (Oxford, UK: Clio Press Ltd., 1992) 1-3.
[2] Celina Lunsford, “Imogen Cunningham: Modernist and Visionary,” in Celina Lundsford et al., Imogen Cunningham (Madrid: Fundación Mapfre, 2012), 12.
[3] Lorenz, 3-5. The Seattle Fine Arts Society ultimately became the Seattle Art Museum.
[4] Lunsford, 30.
[5] Karen Tsujimoto, Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography (San Francisco; Seattle: SFMOMA; University of Washington Press, 1982), 86.
[6] “Factory Invades a Residence Section” in The Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1914.
[7] Lunsford, 11.
Image: Shredded Wheat Factory with Ford, before 1929, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 88.9 © (before 1929), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust
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Object of the Week: Stone Pavement with Earth

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Imagine being blindfolded and asked to throw a dart at a map to determine the trajectory of an artist’s work, sending them virtually anywhere in the world. Your dart then sets in motion a series of events that drive the artist to choose a completely random site from which an artwork is fabricated. Now, imagine that this artist is not just one, but four people, and that the four collaborators are in fact a family. This ambitious project—titled World Series—was initiated by Boyle Family (Mark Boyle, Joan Hills, and their children Sebastian and Georgia Boyle) as part of their 1968 exhibition Journey to the Surface of the Earth.

It is, no doubt, an involved process that led to the creation of the pictured piece, Stone Pavement with Earth (1973–77). Upon arriving at the selected location—chosen at random by friends and visitors to the 1968 exhibition—this specific six-by-six foot site was determined by throwing a carpenter’s right angle and seeing where it landed. From there, Boyle Family cordoned off the area and recorded it with resin and paints, incorporating whatever material and visual information was on the site—in this case: York stone, earth, and other debris (my favorite area is the footprint). The work evades clear definition. Situated somewhere between painting and sculpture, it also flirts with photography in the way it accurately documents the topography of its original location, a mix of the natural and the man-made. Add to this the performative, experiential, and democratic element of the World Series project, and you can perhaps see why Boyle Family is celebrated for their unique combination of Dada, Fluxus, and conceptual strategies.1

Ultimately, what begins as a chance encounter turns into an attempt to objectively capture and represent the world as-it-is. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, it is an impossible task, but a task, I believe, that is willfully impossible. Exactly 1,000 random sites were selected for World Series—some more accessible and likely to be recorded than others; however, this quasi-scientific project, as David Thompson suggests, is less about highlighting the infinite scope of our world, and more about “the limits of man’s capacity to see it.”2 Presenting viewers with largescale fragments of our environment, Boyle Family takes on ideas of assemblage and the readymade, turning the very world in which we live into art. We just have to look closely.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

1 For more on the art historical contextualization of Boyle Family, I recommend: Chris Townsend, “Mark Boyle and Joan Hills at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague,” British Art Studies, Issue 3 (Summer 2016), http://www.britishartstudies.ac.uk/issues/issue-index/issue-3/boyle-1970.
2 David Thompson, “Afterword,” in Beyond Image: Boyle Family (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1986), 53.
Image: Stone Pavement with Earth, 1973 – 77, Boyle Family, stone, earth, and fiberglass, 72 1/16 x 72 1/16 in., Purchased with funds from the Contemporary Arts Council and Contemporary Acquisition fund, 78.34 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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Object of the Week: Swamps West of Nyrripi

Home is often hard to define, and even harder to depict. It can be a place where our childhood myths and memories reside, a more present-tense sense of community, or, perhaps, a place linked to a specific person. In Swamps West of Nyrripi (My Father’s Country) by Australian artist Ngoia Pollard Napaltjarri, the concept of home is represented through a language of symbolic abstraction.

Beautifully irregular red ovals punctuate the variegated surface of the canvas. From afar, the undulating patches of light and dark gray appear as cross hatching, but closer inspection reveals that this is an optical effect—the background is in fact black, with meticulously placed white dots inside and around the red contours. These imperfect and lopsided ovals, stacked precariously one on top of the other, can also be read from an aerial perspective, and thus take on a more topographical or map-like quality.

For Napaltjarri, these ovals signify abundant areas of water—such as swamps and lakes—that are found throughout the region of her father’s homeland, a sacred Warlpiri territory. The white dots, too, carry symbolic meaning: they represent the dry earth cracking as water evaporates. On a more spiritual level, the artist’s act of painting honors the sacred power of the watersnake who resides in the region, and acts as the custodian of the area’s lakes and swampland. The presence and absence of water are environmental conditions constantly in tension, but Napaltjarri manages to find the harmony in such oppositional forces.

Swamps West of Nyrripi (My Father’s Country) is featured in the new exhibition Walkabout: The Art of Dorothy Napangardi, in conversation with work by another Australian artist, Dorothy Napangardi, whose meticulous paintings are similarly connected to her homeland, the Tanami Desert region, and the specificity of that place. With their intricate dotting and abstract patterns, these large-scale paintings are even more awe-inspiring in person.

Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Swamps West of Nyrripi (My Father’s Country), 2006, Ngoia Pollard Napaltjarri, acrylic on Belgian linen, 46 × 60 in., Gift of Agatha and Stephen Luczo, 2017.1.3 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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Object of the Week: The People Work

But American workers did contribute at least one lasting legacy to the international movement for working-class liberation…. That holiday is May Day, not Labor Day.

– Jonah Walters, Jacobin, 2015

May Day’s origins go as far back as the ancient world, where it was a festival celebrating spring, but more recently has become a day to honor workers and the labor movement. Although the United States officially observes Labor Day in September, May Day remains a day of international significance whose beginnings can be traced back to Chicago’s Haymarket riot of 1886.

In this lithograph by Benton Spruance circa 1935, titled The People Work: Noon, the artist captures the bustling and dynamic energy of New York City at noon. One of a series of four prints by the artist, each print captures a moment in the day: Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night. In Noon, it as if we see a play in two simultaneous acts. On the bottom level, construction workers take a break from their digging and hammering to eat lunch. Sitting and standing in small groups—surrounded by I-beams, ladders, and an excavator—this moment of respite is at odds with the scene above. With an energy akin to Pike Place Market at lunchtime, the street-level scene is replete with traffic and crowds of people donning suits and dresses. The few individuals not in a rush lean over the railing to view the construction site below.

Widely considered the artist’s most successful and ambitious series, “they [The People Work] present a wealth of scenes and imagery, tied together in space and in simultaneity by various witty and ingenious devices.”[1] Indeed, by dividing Noon into sections, we are privy to the kinds of work—and leisure—that are vital to our daily lives, as well as the imagined identities of the city’s inhabitants.

Though Spruance’s juxtaposition of work and relaxation might appear straightforward, it is important to remember that the universal eight-hour workday is an element of our modern workweek, and a hard-fought battle at that. In fact, it was not until 1938 that Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), limiting our workweeks to 40 hours. And while Spruance may not have intentionally broken his series into a structure resembling the slogan of the Eight-Hour Movement–“eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will”—it’s an important reminder this May Day.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Carl Zigrosser, The Artist in America (New York: Knopf, 1942), 87.
Image: The People Work: Noon, ca. 1935, Benton Spruance, lithograph, 14 x 19 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 38.37 © Benton Spruance
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Object of the Week: Engineering Drawing for Montlake Landfill Proposal

With President Carter’s announcement that the nation must mobilize its vast coal resources to solve the energy crisis, we are entering an era of potentially irreconcilable conflict between the pressures of energy and the pressures of environmental concern.

– John D. Spellman, Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, 1979

We find ourselves in a critical and precarious moment: our impact on the environment has caused irreparable harm. With this in mind, it is incredible to look back nearly forty years ago, when the King County Arts Commission brought together a roster of internationally recognized artists to re-imagine post-industrial sites in King County, such as gravel pits, surface mines, and abandoned airstrips. The 1979 initiative and its attendant symposium—Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture—was a progressive city-backed project meant to envision earthworks as a tool for environmental recovery.

Among the group of accomplished artists—which included Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Mary Miss, and Herbert Bayer—was Beverly Pepper, who worked with the University of Washington to develop her proposal for Montlake Landfill, part of the University of Washington’s East Campus. [1] Measuring approximately 80 acres, the landfill site proposal contained two main elements: the first, rendered in the lower right-hand corner of the plan, a 100-foot circle of white-capped posts that would, over time, reveal changes in land levels and be a resource for University of Washington students; the second, an intervention into the landscape that would reveal (through a glass wall) decades of waste disposed at the site, as well as a layer of gravel to again indicate the earth’s movement over time.[2]

While it is not the responsibility of artists to respond to political, social, or cultural events, it is often the case that artists are in the unique and privileged position to call attention to contemporary issues, respond to our increasingly complex world, and, most importantly, effect change. Though Pepper’s Montlake Landfill proposal never came to fruition (Robert Morris and Herbert Bayer’s plans were selected by the jury panel), it remains a radical gesture that will hopefully serve to inspire future artists, environmentalists, and civic leaders alike.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Images: Engineering Drawing for MontLake Landfill Proposal, 1979, Beverly Pepper, Collage of graphite on vellum, 30 1/4 x 54 3/4 in., King County Office of Cultural Resources, 98.3.47, Beverly Pepper. Cover of Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture catalogue, 1979.
[1] The Montlake Landfill operated as a burn dump and, eventually, as landfill between the years 1926 and 1966. In 1971, the landfill was closed, and covered with two feet of clean soil. According to a report published by the University of Washington’s Environmental Health & Safety Department, “Municipal solid waste, primarily consisting of residential wastes, was disposed in the landfill. Some limited amounts of industrial waste that could be considered hazardous were also disposed at this location.” As for the location: “Although the exact limits of the Montlake Landfill are not definitively known, available documentation suggests that the landfill is generally bounded by Montlake Boulevard NE to the west; NE 45th Street to the north; Laurel Village and the Douglas Research Conservatory to the east; and Canal Road, the Intramural Activities Building, and Union Bay to the south.” For the entire report, please see: https://www.ehs.washington.edu/system/files/resources/montlake.pdf
[2] For more on the projects included in Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, please see: https://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/records-licensing/archives/exhibits/earthworks_brief.aspx.
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Labret

Object of the Week: Labret

This beautiful gold object—known as a labret—was crafted circa 900-1500 AD in Pre-Columbian Mexico, either by the Mixtec or Aztec. Labrets have an extensive history and appear in cultures beyond Central and South America, in Africa, the Middle East, and Pacific Rim cultures. Despite its size, a mere 1 1/2 x 1 x 1 1/8 inches, this precious piece of jewelry was likely worn by a high-ranking person—perhaps a dignitary or warrior. A symbol of status, such ornaments would fit piercings in the lower lip; the flat backing would rest inside the mouth, while the decorated portion would extend away from face.

While much more elaborate labrets do exist, sometimes representing animals or featuring moveable elements (see this serpent labret with an articulated tongue for a rare example of both), this relatively simple labret bears an intricate spiral patterning on its reverse. Though not overly ornamental, the curved shape could certainly be interpreted as an abstraction of an animal form, perhaps a fang or beak, as birds and serpents were among many figures commonly depicted.

Gold has, throughout time and across cultures, proven to be an extremely precious metal. In Aztec culture, gold was sacred and understood literally as the excrement of the gods (from teocuitlatlteotl, meaning ‘god’, and cuitlatl, meaning ‘excrement’). Unfortunately, when Spanish colonizers arrived to the Americas, many prized gold objects such as this labret were melted down in order to facilitate their transportation back to Europe and subsequent trade. Small gold objects from this period are rare, making this labret an exciting new acquisition that helps shed light on the important goldworking traditions of Mixtec and Aztec cultures.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Labret, ca. AD 900-1500, Mixtec or Aztec, gold, 1 1/2 × 1 × 1 1/8 in., Gift in honor of Assen Nicolov, 2018.3.5
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