All posts in “SAM’s Collection”

Object of the Week: Amulet with mummified monkey

Each of us carries with us a lens, or lenses, through which we view the world, and that lens colors and shapes our perception of, and response to, all the sights, sounds, and smells we encounter. It’s no different when we’re viewing art. Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions. Art historians produce scholarship that discusses a certain object, maker, or concept—but the questions they ask in the process reveal as much about the perspective of the scholar as they do about the object or artist under discussion. Likewise, it’s fascinating to tour through the galleries and eavesdrop on the unfiltered musings of museumgoers to the variety of art we have on display at SAM. Those comments say something about the art and the speaker.

One object that’s commented on less frequently than I’d wish is this diminutive wood Amulet with mummified monkey—a piece that acts, for me, as an ever-present reminder of Dr. Fuller and his collecting principles, so neatly reflected in this ancient, tiny figurative sculpture. Dr. Fuller, who held a Ph.D. in geology and maintained scholarly pursuits in that field throughout his tenure leading SAM (1933–1973), collected many small, old, and odd things. Disinterested in value, he instead sought out rarity. His guiding question was: Does it have a unique character—an “essential factor”? That question drove him to acquire items like this mystifying Amulet, about which little was known when Dr. Fuller purchased it from J. Khawam & Cie, Cairo, for $240 in 1955.

It had few facts to recommend it, but it was a curious piece that provoked questions for Dr. Fuller and would do the same for others. Shortly after acquiring the Amulet, Dr. Fuller received this letter from William K. Simpson, a research associate at the American Research Center in Cairo:

Simpson’s desire to research and publish the Amulet with mummified monkey encouraged Dr. Fuller to seek out expert opinions from fields that were tangentially related to the piece, aiming to solve some of the quandaries it presented. Outside experts brought to the Amulet their own questions. Professor Bror L. Grondal of the College of Forestry at the University of Washington examined the piece in 1956 to determine what kind of wood composes it:

Meanwhile, Robert T. Hatt, a mammalogist at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan, had been researching ancient and contemporary animals of the Near East. In his letter of June 25, 1956, Hatt shared with Dr. Fuller his thoughts and questions regarding what species of monkey (or ape) might be represented in the Amulet:

Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions—but to make our contribution, we have to actually ask them. Your curiosity could spark mine or someone else’s, and whether or not we ever arrived at fixed answers, the summation of our questions reveals infinitely more than one viewpoint ever could.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Amulet with mummified monkey, ca. 2920-2649 B.C., Egyptian, Early Dynastic period, wood, 3 3/16 x 11/16 x 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.136, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Standing figure (Nkondi)

SAM’s Congolese Standing figure (Nkondi) meets and enraptures visitors in our African art galleries. Beads, feathers, and knots of string secured to the wooden figure with countless iron nails lend him a startling and uncomfortable presence. Why has he been on the receiving end of this aggressive, symbolic gesture of driving nails?

Across the country, in exhibitions at great museums like the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, San Francisco’s de Young Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Nkondi has confronted viewers with his own appearance—and with wrong assumptions about his purpose.

Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese

Not only has he been exhibited extensively, the Nkondi has an interesting provenance. He was collected by Merton Simpson (1928-2013), one of the most significant dealers of African and tribal art in the second half of the 20th century. Interestingly, Simpson first opened his gallery—Merton D. Simpson Gallery—in the early 1950s in order to support what he considered his primary work: painting. An artist for life, Simpson served in the Air Force and was asked to paint General Dwight D. Eisenhower, which he did, earning $100 for his effort. Simpson became part of the New York Abstract Expressionist school, crossing paths with artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, who would critique Simpson’s paintings in the frame shop where Simpson worked. Later he joined the politically focused Spiral Group of artists, which also counted Romare Bearden among its members.1

No slight to Simpson’s visual art, his accomplishments as a dealer of traditional African art surpassed what he did in painting. When Simpson passed away in 2013, a New York Times obituary reflected on his incomparable taste and expertise, his success and renown as an art dealer, and the significance of his doing so as an African American. Heinrich C. Schweizer, then head of the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s, remarks that “Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s Simpson became the most important dealer in the US in this field . . . Worldwide, you could say he was one of the two or three leading dealers, and certainly a powerhouse in the US, and this was especially remarkable for an African-American, who began doing this in the time of segregation.” The same article quotes an equally admiring Lowery Stokes Sims, the highly respected retired Curator Emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design: “When I worked at the Met I would go to the gallery and see some of the most incredible African art I’d ever seen in my life. It was really showstopping. And occasionally he’d show his own work . . . For an African-American who came up in the art world in the 1970s, he was truly one of those unsung pioneers, crucial in establishing our place in the art world.”2

Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese

SAM’s Nkondi was purchased from Simpson in 1968 by another exceptional collector of African art, Katherine White, whose transformational 1981 gift—of which the Nkondi was part—forms the core of the museum’s African collection.

Since the Nkondi has arrived at SAM, the museum has been telling his true story and deconstructing “fetish” myths about him. Congolese advisor Fu Kiau Bunseki has offered critical insights on the Nkondi’s role as a sign of authority, and as a hearer and keeper of agreements. Check out the SAM website for rich insights on the thoughtful symbolism that informs each element of this memorable figure.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections  Coordinator

Oral history interview with Merton D. Simpson, 1968 November, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Bruce Weber, “Merton D. Simpson, Painter, Collector and Dealer in African Art, Dies at 84,” New York Times, March 14, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/arts/design/merton-d-simpson-artist-and-gallery-owner-dies-at-84.html
Image: Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese, wood, iron, fiber, beads, string, glass, feathers, chalk, 31 11/16 x 13 3/8 x 8 11/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.836, Photos: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen)

In the 1960s Donald E. Gordon, a scholar of the German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was producing a new catalogue raisonné on the artist, with the help and cooperation of Roman Norbert Ketterer, a collector and dealer who also served as executor of the Kirchner Estate. Gordon was a professor of art history at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he served as chairman of the Department of Fine Arts. He had secured two Fulbright fellowships that took him to Germany for direct study of many Kirchner works, first at the University of Hamburg in the mid-1950s, and then at the University of Marburg in the mid-‘60s. By way of his study and connections Gordon familiarized himself with the entirety of Kirchner’s oeuvre. He successfully produced the catalogue raisonné, published by Harvard University Press in 1968, a herculean effort because of Kirchner’s productivity in painting and graphic arts. The same year marked the premiere of a retrospective exhibition on Kirchner that Gordon had organized, and for which he also authored the exhibition catalogue. The Seattle Art Museum Pavilion, this museum’s first space dedicated to the display of modern and contemporary art, was the first of three venues to host the Kirchner exhibition. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner debuted there on November 23.

Amid impressive amounts of researching and writing Gordon was wheeling and dealing, too. He came upon Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen) in the collection of Mrs. Maria Möller-Garny, the widow of Ferdinand Möller, a Nazi-era art dealer. Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen) had fallen under Hitler’s ridiculous category of “degenerate art,” prompting Nazi officials to remove the painting from the Staatliche Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. Because it was taken from a state-funded museum by the government in power, it was a legal seizure at the time. Tellingly, Möller, though in the business of dealing, recognized it as a fine example of Kirchner and kept the painting in his private collection until he died. In April of 1968, seven months before the doors opened on the Kirchner retrospective in Seattle, Gordon provided the connection between Frau Möller-Garny and SAM (for a small fee, of course). Gordon’s letter to Möller-Garny notifying her of the museum’s intention to buy, part of which we have reproduced here, is fun whether or not Sie lesen Deutsch.

Gordon's letter to Möller-Garny

The next week, Gordon wrote to Thomas Maytham, then Associate Director at SAM,

Both Mrs. Möller-Garny and I are pleased that you were able to secure the Seattle Art Museum’s decision so promptly, and hope that the sale may be consummated with similar dispatch. From my long knowledge of and admiration for this masterpiece, I am also personally happy at the prospect of its permanent entry into a major American museum collection.

The purchase was heralded in Seattle, timely because of the Kirchner retrospective in which it featured, and high-profile because of Kirchner’s importance in the history of Modern art. On November 17, 1968, Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Northwest Today featured a color reproduction on the front page—unfortunately adjacent to a rhetorical headline wondering about this city’s aesthetic potential.

November 17, 1968, Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Northwest Today with a color reproduction of Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen)

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen), ca. 1922-1923, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, 1880-1938), oil on canvas, 66 1/8 x 46 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Richard E. Fuller, 68.120, Photo: Paul Macapia.

Object of the Week: Book Cover

In artspeak, “hierarchy of medium” is a phrase we might throw around to describe the relative importance that painting and sculpture have been given in the museum space historically, as compared to any other form of art-making. At SAM, one aspect of Dr. Fuller’s legacy for which we can be grateful is his openness to collecting art in a range of forms. His interests were his own, but at least they were broad. Consider that between 1938 and 1949 Dr. Fuller purchased for the collection three exquisite book covers, Islamic and Persian, that he had sought out from three different dealers. That means before SAM could claim any of its best-known paintings—before the Cranach, Church, Pollock, Rothko, and a half-century before the iconic Bierstadt—three book covers graced the collection.

Book Cover

The future of printed books seems anything but clear. As a book lover, I mourn this a bit. Digital can’t do it all. I want the whole book experience: the artful cover, the heft of the thing in my hand, the texture of the paper, the reassurance of progress I feel as my bookmark inches from front cover to back cover, and of course the incomparable smell. How sweet to have an opportunity, in SAM’s ancient art galleries, to consider two exceptionally crafted Persian book covers from the Safavid period. Their artistry reminds us of what is possible in this form.

Dr. Fuller purchased the fine example highlighted here from Thomas B.W. Allen, a dealer based in Walla Walla who advertised “Fine Things from Far Places.” Dr. Fuller went to Allen on several occasions for exotic artworks, buying from him, among other things, a Persian Dervish’s begging bowl, a Luristani bronze, a portable Qur’an, Achaemenid seals, an Islamic brass ewer, and a Persian tinned-copper vessel. Allen also gifted SAM a Persian black vessel and a classical vase, reflecting that this gallery-museum relationship, like several others Dr. Fuller enjoyed, was a congenial partnership.

Book Cover

The makers of the Book cover achieved balance and symmetry on a small scale that required a masterful and delicate touch. The central panel features a garden motif that Persian artists applied to a range of decorative objects, including ceramics, metalwork, and carpets. Floral filigree winds across the central panel, inhumanly precise—the taunting of a confident artist. The gilding that appears across the cover gives the book a regal presence that would have conferred a real sense of importance to the contents of the book. A cover this intricate would have convinced me to read what was inside.

Had Dr. Fuller never purchased this book cover or many of the other delicate, unfamiliar things from “far places” you can see in our ancient galleries, they might not be here. With one set of eyes we might see them as mementos of his idiosyncratic collecting, but with another, they exemplify that art knows no cultural or formal boundaries.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Book cover, 16th-17th century, Persian, Safavid period (1501-1722), leather, gilding, 11 1/8 x 6 3/4 x 3/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 49.172, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week Landscape: Autumn

With the onset of fall, some lament the end of summer, but the vivid beauty of the season and the assuring rhythm of change just make me grateful to be alive in such a scenic place. I find it worth musing on: Tuning into the natural artistry of the moment makes it easier to lose those long, warm summer days.

But if you’re still in need of centering, we’re your blog!

Helping us to embrace the autumnal mood, this six-panel Japanese folding screen depicting Autumn poetically pictures a misty chill over the water and the hillsides. Exposed but stubborn trees dot the landscape with green. All across the screen figures enjoy the waning bounty of land and sea, busily preparing for the coming winter: fishing, traveling, gathering. The screen embodies a visual poem to fall.

Landscape: Autumn

To lead you further down the path to fall zen, here is an offering of seasonal poems from the master of the haiku, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694):

None is travelling
here along this way but I,
this autumn evening.

The first day of the year:
thoughts come—and there is loneliness;
the autumn dusk is here.

Autumn wind
through an open door—
a piercing cry.

On a withered branch
a crow has alighted:
nightfall in autumn.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Landscape: Autumn, 16th century (Muromachi period, 1333-1573), Attributed to Sesson Shukei (Japanese, 1504-1589), ink and color on paper, 66 15/16 x 138 3/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.127, Photos: Paul Macapia.

Object of the Week: Guanyin

Have you ever purchased something at full price, feeling slightly guilty about it, only to find a sale item that suits you even better? Something similar happened to Dr. Fuller in the early 1930s, as he was seeking to expand his Chinese art collection in new directions.

[Fuller] acquired . . . a large Guanyin in pale glaze with ivory tone from Yamanaka in 1931 for $2,500. With a dated inscription of 1615, the Guanyin is among the few extant figures commissioned by patrons of the Kaiyuan Temple in Zhanzhou (in modern-day Fujian province). Seven months after that acquisition, Fuller encountered a whiter blanc de chine Guanyin of similar size. It was allegedly bought from Spain after the revolution and was priced at $900 by Roland Moore. Fuller bought it at once. The price gap between the two Guanyin probably bothered Fuller, especially because the latter work is whiter and hence more attractive, with a more elaborately carved base positioning the Guanyin on an auspicious beast emerging from or riding on water. Commenting on the Yamanaka Guanyin from Zhangzhou, Fuller noted that ‘years of incense smoke discolored its crackled glaze.’ He proposed exchanging the Guanyin for a Tianlongshan sculpture in 1934 . . . and Yamanaka graciously accepted. Luckily, the Guanyin remained in Seattle. Yamanaka resold the work to Fuller for $750. He made the right decision to keep the Yamanaka Guanyin because it matches the Moore Guanyin beautifully.1

The best decision, as we all know, is to walk away with both! Not only do the two Guanyin complement each other in form, as former SAM Chinese art curator Josh Yiu notes, but the message carried by the Guanyin bodhisattva is one that resonates deeply today, and Dr. Fuller’s choice to buy back his original porcelain Guanyin doubly enhances its life-giving presence at SAM. Known as Lord of Mercy, Guanyin represents boundless love and compassion. In the Mahayana doctrine, extending love to all people figures as an important step on the path to enlightenment.

Guanyin

The second, whiter Guanyin purchased by Dr. Fuller will graciously greet you on your next visit to the Chinese art galleries at the Asian Art Museum.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 56-63.
Image: Guanyin (detail), 17th18th century, Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Dehua ware: porcelain, 33 1/2 x 9 x 9 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.38, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Guanyin, 1615, Chinese, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Dehua ware: porcelain, 34 x 10 x 9 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.39, Photos: Natali Wiseman. Guanyin (detail).

 

 

Object of the Week: Tapestry of America

The tapestries of the continents that feature in Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World at the Asian Art Museum are simply stunning art objects, almost too much to see, each offering a near-constant barrage of decorative detail that takes time and energy to decipher. Happily, their aesthetic abundance encourages return visits. As particularly exaggerated allegorical portrayals, the tapestries provoke more thoughts about the values of the culture that produced them than the actual life of 17th-century inhabitants of Asia, Africa, and America. Or maybe we think Native women did lounge about, attended by tobacco-smoking cherubs, petting alligators?

Tapestry of America (detail)

As an American citizen, I find the Tapestry of America especially interesting to consider. On a staff tour of Mood Indigo, SAM curator Pam McClusky pointed out one detail that has echoed in my brain since, prodding me to think on it whenever I see the tapestry. Near the feet of the enthroned lady of America stand three stacks of gold coins, with a small pile next to them. The coins are ignored by the figures and occupy an unimportant place in the composition; they are as easily overlooked by the viewer as by America and her active attendants. With this detail, the makers of the tapestry commented on the value of money in cultures other than their own. America, we see, is laughably uninterested in gold and riches.

Tapestry of America (detail)

It’s clear that cultural tensions are surfacing here, but what exactly are they, and where do they originate? University of Washington professor of history Benjamin Schmidt helps us to identify what’s happening in the tapestry in his 2015 book Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World.

Writing on the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe, Schmidt points to maps and other material objects that reflect consistent opinions on what was European, what was not, and how the European related to things non-European. Of course, implicit in those ideas was an assumption that Europeans did it better. Take, for instance, commodities. Schmidt writes that “Europeans, even as they dearly coveted them, believed only they understood an object’s ‘true’ material value, while non-European peoples, notwithstanding their casual regard of them, failed to grasp the worth of those very goods they so richly possessed.”1 The maddening judgment present in the picture visualizes Schmidt’s thesis perfectly: Gold coins would sit at the feet of the Natives; they just didn’t understand true value.

Tapestry of America (detail)

A related point revealed in the tapestry is the Europeans’ readiness to take. Schmidt explains how, in their portrayals of exotic lands, early modern Europe developed a habit of thinking about the broader world as a consumable commodity, theirs for the taking.2 This “exotic” other world was essentially “agreeable” and ripe for plundering. So, even as the makers of the tapestry ridicule its subject for valuing anything above gold, we also see Europe’s greedy desire for tobacco reflected in the smoking cherub. Tobacco, like everything else, could probably be taken, because it probably wasn’t valued rightly.

Profound cultural differences and centuries of difficult history have made the Tapestry of America a charged work, one that is rewarding to engage.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Benjamin Schmidt, Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015; 256-257
2 Schmidt, Inventing Exoticism, 228.
Images: Installation view of Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World at Asian Art Museum, © Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Natali Wiseman. Tapestry of America (detail), late 17th c., Jacob van der Borcht (Flemish) and Jan Cobus (Flemish), wool, 156 x 144 1/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Hearst Foundation, Inc., 62.1991, Photos: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Persephone Unbound

Beverly Pepper’s Persephone Unbound draws out a tension that is central to the human experience, echoed in our mythology, and enacted in both art and life: the contrast between restraints and the desire to be released from them.

A work in cast bronze, the varied textures of the sculpture’s several facets give the appearance, instead, of poured concrete, in various states of leveling and finish. Near its base the surface of the sculpture bears the kind of textural depth that marks stucco walls, but here they are magnified to the sculpture’s monumental scale. As the eye scans upward to take in ten feet of vertical mass, passing over gravelly sections and dripping globs, more discrete forms begin to emerge, and the visual impression of human manufacture and intervention becomes more acute. The sculpture’s tallest arm is clean-cut, smoothly finished. Where initially the work might seem a monolithic rock formation roughly hewn, it emerges as a precisely chosen crystallization of contrasts, something in between natural and (wo)manmade. It’s a work that strikes me as if it’s perpetually in formation.

The artist has given us a particularly leading title as a way into her thinking. Persephone’s role in Greek mythology elicits sympathy for the character, and for the reader, a sense bitter loss. Persephone is an aching reminder of what could be. Hers is a pure beauty only sometimes accessible; her abundance, pleasant as it is to enjoy, is fleeting, ever accompanied by the foreboding of its imminent end. She wishes to be free, we wish her to be free, but that’s not the way of things.

What would it mean if Persephone were unbound? What if the goddess of spring growth were also the goddess of growth all the time, everywhere, forever?

The myth explains the reality of changing seasons, an immutable truth of the natural world. But Persephone Unbound begs us to imagine what restrictive realities exist that are of our own making—how have we limited ourselves, and one another, by lack of imagination, or belief, or desire? What about our world is not as good as it could be?

Persephone Unbound is one of seven works by Beverly Pepper in SAM’s collection. A widely recognized sculptor, Pepper has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The sculpture has been an integral part of the Olympic Sculpture Park since the park’s opening in January of 2007.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Persephone Unbound, 1999, Beverly Pepper (American, born 1924), cast bronze, 122 x 31 1/2 x 21 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, 2009.14 © Beverly Pepper, Photo: Paul Macapia.

Object of the Week: Water Babies

Once a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists, a close friend of fellow member Marcel Duchamp, an artist called original and innovative, and an active participant in the programs of the Société Anonyme—John Covert lived and died, well, anonymously.

Given Covert’s very short career, we should not be surprised that he is not a household name. His period of creative maturity lasted eight years, from 1915 to 1923. A stay in Paris just before this period proved uncharacteristically unfruitful—Covert later lamented that he wasn’t able to connect with the artist-intellectual circle there—and the disappointment of the Paris trip was a harbinger of a sad fortune. Covert returned to the US and contributed to an important moment for modern art, playing his role as a founder of the Society of Independent Artists, and serving as its first secretary in 1917. Working from his studio in New York, Covert received brief visibility with a solo exhibition of his paintings at M. de Zayas Gallery. Little came of it; in the larger art world he remained unknown and unappreciated. Pressed by poverty, he found himself unable to eat regularly, with no income to show for his artistic endeavors. He finally closed his studio in 1923.

During the second quarter of the 20th century Covert’s work was known only to friends and one-time peers. So few of his works were seen publicly that the artist did not develop any kind of reputation. He was actually thought to have destroyed all his works when he closed his studio, but that widely held belief changed in 1959, when eight Covert paintings arrived at SAM. In fact, the artist’s friend Kathleen Lawler had preserved some of Covert’s works, and it was Lawler’s brother-in-law that donated them to the museum. On September 18 of that year, SAM director Dr. Richard Fuller wrote a note of thanks to the donor, Paul Denby Mackie, expressing his admiration for Covert’s work, saying “Although he is not well known he played an important part in the development of modern art which I feel sure will be more widely appreciated in years to come.” Kudos to Dr. Fuller for seeing what many directors, especially at that time, would not have seen.

The arrival of the Covert paintings at SAM encouraged new study of the artist’s work. The Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts included Covert in its 1960 exhibition American Genius in Review. It’s cruel that he died a recluse that same year. The visibility of the Dallas exhibition provoked more interest, leading to graduate dissertations and theses that have placed Covert’s work amid the traditions of symbolist art and New York Dada. Four of Covert’s works have essentially been on permanent view since SAM’s expansion in 2007. He is, as Dr. Fuller anticipated, more widely appreciated than in 1959. However much Covert’s legacy grows in the future will depend to a large extent on SAM’s collection of Covert paintings (now seven), their exhibition and reception.

I find Covert’s work a quirky kind of fascinating, and especially magnetic to me is Water Babies. In this painting, the artist plays with the visual phenomenon of refraction. A peculiarity of physics, refraction makes our eye see an object bending and changing form as it is partially submerged under water, while our mind understands that the object itself remains unchanged. By painting the visual effect of refraction, Covert offers the viewer a chance to muse on reality, our perception of reality, and the slippery boundary that separates the two. The dolls would be creepy enough rendered as straight illustrations, but with certain parts disjointed and enlarged, they are like the beginnings of a bad horror film. Water Babies is memorable, even if the artist’s name isn’t.

John Covert's signature

At the lower right, Covert has signed the painting, with his fingerprint standing in to form the “O.” It’s not an especially graceful signature. To the left of the thumbprint, near its top, he incised the painting with a “C”, and opposite the thumbprint, a “V”—apparently an unsatisfactory first attempt. The finished signature, along the bottom of the thumbprint, seems to have been first incised and then traced in with graphite. The thumbprint, too, is encircled in graphite. Altogether, the signature serves as an odd, very personal, memento of a distinctive artist who may never be truly recognized.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Water Babies, 1919, John Covert (born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1882; died Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1960), oil on paperboard, 25 1/4 x 23 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Paul Denby Mackie in memory of Kathleen Lawler and Nona Lawler Mackie, 59.152, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Paul Macapia.