All posts in “SAM’s Collection”

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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New Cedar for Bunyon’s Chess

A brilliant conservator[1] once noted that “art conservation is a fight against entropy.” This is especially visible for works sited outside which require conservators, artists, and stakeholders to carefully consider what is essential for an outdoor sculpture to continue to exist for future generations. When the carved cedar elements of Mark di Suvero’s sculpture Bunyon’s Chess were no longer structurally stable, di Suvero and his studio worked closely with the Seattle Art Museum to explore the artwork and discover solutions.

Bunyon’s Chess was created by Mark di Suvero in 1965 for Virginia and Bagley Wright’s residence in Seattle. The family’s documentation of the creative process provides wonderful insight into the artwork.

In 2006 the Wrights promised the work to the Seattle Art Museum and it was moved to the Olympic Sculpture Park. The cedar elements had begun to show degradation in their original site but this accelerated at the park partially due to the exposed location and partially due to the natural deterioration of cedar. As cedar ages in an outdoor setting a number of events occur: the natural biocide slowly migrates out with water, the wood absorbs water at an increasing rate as it deteriorates, fungal deterioration is common, as well as insect and wildlife damage. The logs of Bunyon’s Chess were treated annually with a fungicide to slow the fungal deterioration but without major visual interventions such as end caps or moving the sculpture to an interior location, deterioration continued at a fairly rapid pace.

In 2009 an in-depth condition assessment was performed which determined that the deterioration, particularly on the interior had progressed to a state where the logs were in danger of falling. In 2010, the logs were consolidated, the large losses filled and the exterior coated to prolong the life. During this period research and conversations with di Suvero regarding the replacement were begun as this treatment could not prolong the life of the cedar indefinitely. Di Suvero determined that new logs could be carved to replace the original cedar, as it is the visual integrity of the work that is important.

After much research, new cedar of the similar dimensions and tight ring growth was sourced for carving. Seattle artist Brian Beck peeled the logs in preparation for carving.

Kent Johnson and Daniel Roberts from di Suvero’s studio traveled to Seattle and carved the new logs using the original cedar elements as a guide.

Beck worked with Johnson and Roberts to create the same join between the two logs. Much of the original hardware such as the 36” bronze bolts and galvanized steel eyehooks were presevered and reused on the newly carved elements.

If you look carefully, at the top of the sculpture you will note a slight bend in the top tube. Di Suvero wanted this natural bend to remain but believed this opportunity should be used to reinforce the structure.

Fabrication Specialties Ltd. worked with the di Suvero studio to create an interior support which was welded in place.

The logs were strung with new stainless steel cabling and were carefully measured and marked to the lengths of the original cables to assist with the rigging. Larry Tate, Andrew Malcolm, Tracy Taft, Ignacio Lopez, and Travis Leonard of Fabrication Specialties placed the new logs within the original steel frame working closely with images and a model of the original. The di Suvero studio generously participated in video calls throughout the day.


Special thank you to: Mark di Suvero and Studio, Virginia Wright, Fabrication Specialties Ltd, Equinox Studios, Alta Forest Products, Brian Beck, Christian French, and Catharina Manchanda for helping preserve this public artwork free for everyone to enjoy at the Olympic Sculpture Park year round.

– Liz Brown, SAM Objects Conservator

Photos courtesy of Virginia Wright and Liz Brown.
[1] Lauren Chang
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Greetings from the Institute of Empathy

The Institute is glad to announce that their installation of lessons is on view at Seattle Art Museum. Three Empathics now oversee the production of  transformative vapors and invite you to sit with them in Lessons from the Institute of Empathy in the Seattle Art Museum’s African Art galleries, to invigorate your mental clarity.

Better yet, you are also invited to step into their restorative pool and partake of a mosaic shower from above. A 10 minute power point given by a representative from the Institute, Aurelia Wallace, is also available to explain the lessons on view.

The Institute wants to thank everyone who sticks their necks out to facilitate their work, and suggested a poem full of empathy to honor their efforts.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Installation view Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, 2018, Seattle Art Museum, photos: Natali Wiseman
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My Favorite Things: DJ Riz Rollins & Choreographer Donald Byrd

“The painting is delightful but the content of it is not.” – Donald Byrd

If you missed seeing Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, or if you just can’t enough of these artists—don’t fret! We’ve got works by Robert Colescott and Kerry James Marshall from SAM’s collection on view in our third floor galleries! KEXP DJ Riz Rollins and Executive Artistic Director Donald Byrd have shared some thoughts on these paintings with us. Look through the eyes of these opinionated individuals and continue to consider the questions and lessons that Figuring History explored.

“. . . I think this individual is prescient. Which means he has a sense of something deeper . . . .” – Riz Rollins

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Talent among Beauty at SAM

Downtown, we have two galleries dedicated to Chinese and Japanese art. So, while the Seattle Asian Art Museum is temporarily closed, get your fill of Asian art with the latest installation, Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, on view through July 15, 2018. “We know women as subjects; we see that all the time in artwork,” says Xiaojin Wu, SAM’s Curator of Japanese and Korean Art. “But to look at women as artists in addition to as a subject of art—that’s what you’ll see evidenced here from the 11th to the 21st century.”

The heart of the installation features artworks inspired by The Tale of Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century and debated as the first novel ever written, the illustrations of this literary masterpiece may not be by women, but as Wu states, “How many women writers do we know from 1,000 years ago? How many artworks have been made from every scene in The Tale of Genji, including the contemporary manga? It’s just countless. In a way we are attributing all of these wonderful works back to the original writer, the woman who wrote the tale.” The two pages below excerpt the scene depicted in the right-hand panels of the screen above.

This excerpt and the page below refer to the right-hand panels of the image above.

Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji to entertain the members of her court. Because of this, it was written in an archaic court language that was little used and quickly lost to Japanese speakers. This accounts for one of the reasons why there are so many illustrations of the tale—as a classic piece of literature, the tale continued to be told in images and annotations across the centuries until in the 20th century when it was first fully translated into modern Japanese.

 

The Tale of Genji follows the life of  Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, and his many romantic endeavors. Featuring over 400 characters that age throughout the book and whose family lineages are often intertwined, Genji is considered a feat of characterization consistency for having been written in installments of chapters over a long period time. Although the book does not have what we might consider a plot nowadays (events simply take place and the characters age), it is one of the first pieces of literature to feature a protagonist, supporting characters, strong characterization, and a sequence of events following the lifetime of the main character.

Xiaojin Wu is planning “. . . a sequence of installations that look at various patronage and audience groups. Following Talents and Beauties we’ll focus on aristocrats, and then samurai.” Make the time to visit this gallery for new perspectives on Asian art and culture.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist and Social Media Manager

Images: Installation view Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, 2017, Seattle Art Museum, photo: Natali Wiseman.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji,  trans. Royal Tyler (New York: Viking Press, 2001)
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Fireman's Coat

Object of the Week: Commoner’s Firefighting Jacket

As Halloween approaches and our thoughts turn to the weird and witchy, we wanted to highlight an early-nineteenth-century firefighter’s coat, called hikeshibanten, since it features a spooky spider. Made in the Edo period in Japan, these firefighter’s coats were reversible, and this design is actually on the interior of the jacket, only visible when the jacket has been turned inside out. A large spider—with an endearing face—looms over the shoulder of the jacket, where it hovers menacingly over an abandoned go board (Pacific Northwesterners may have unnerving flashbacks to the giant house spiders that descend on Seattle in the autumn). The range of tonalities centers on indigo, white, black, and greyish-brown, with red accents on the fan; this color palette visually unites the work, creating parallels between the spider’s eyes and the go pieces.

The method of dyeing used, tsutsugaki, is a type of resist dyeing. The design was drawn on the cotton using rice paste, and these initial lines are visible now as the lightest areas of the design. The spider and the go board were dyed their respective colors, and covered with more rice paste to block any other dye from entering the area. Then the fabric was dipped into indigo multiple times, dried, soaked in hot water again, and the rice paste was scraped off to reveal the layering of colors; this whole process could take 20 days.[1]

But why is this spider on a firefighting jacket at all? The jacket tells a story from the life of Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948–1021), a warrior-hero. The story is as follows: Yorimitsu was sick, and was resting in bed. He was visited by a priest—but the priest was actually a giant spider (tsuchigumo) in disguise! Yorimitsu, being very clever, sees through the disguise, and attacks the spider with his sword, wounding him. Yorimitsu’s four attendants, called the Four Heavenly Kings, were playing a game of go while guarding him, and leapt up to track the spider back to his den.[2]

This narrative was popular in theatrical productions, and there was a song in Noh theatre specifically about tsuchigumo, the intimidating earth spider. The story appears frequently in woodblock prints in the nineteenth century as well. The jacket shows the moment when the go game was abandoned, with tsuchigumo retreating back to his web. So great was the hurried effort to find the spider that the attendants left behind their personal effects, scattering go pieces in their haste.

The human figures in this story are removed from the jacket’s design and the firefighter symbolically takes their place. The firefighter becomes imbued with Minamoto no Yorimitsu’s special powers as a warrior-hero, and the design works as a talisman to protect the firefighter from harm. Firefighting was an especially important occupation in Edo, where most of the buildings were made of wood. The job was both dangerous and glamorous, valorized as a crucial masculine exemplar in Edo.[3] So while these jackets were for a real, practical, dangerous job, they are also imbued with a sort of glamour, which helps explain why such an effort was taken to dye the jackets with symbolic designs. After battling a fire, the coats would be worn reversed to make the designs visible, a stunning effect that visually linked the clothing to success and survival.[4]

Listed in our records as a “commoner’s firefighting jacket,” the ordinariness of the hikeshibanten is one of the things I find so compelling about it. These jackets were objects of both use and beauty, and of hidden, personal importance to the wearer. There are several Edo firefighter’s coats in SAM’s collection, and this one is my favorite. Textiles often have an intimate history with their owners, and this firefighter’s coat makes me think about the capacity for cloth to protect us, define us, and celebrate us. This firefighter, whose name is now lost to time, found solace in Yorimoto’s defeat of tsuchigumo, literally clothing himself in a hero narrative.

– Anna Wager, Blakemore Intern

Image: Commoner’s firefighting jacket (hikeshibanten), Japanese, cotton cloth with indigo dye (sashiko and tsutsugaki), 38 1/2 x 50 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.414
[1] Richard Mellott, “Katazome, Tsutsugaki, and Yuzenzome,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Seattle: Thames and Hudson and the Seattle Art Museum, 1993, 51-57, 55.
[2] For more on this narrative and related woodblock prints, see Kuniyoshi: From the Arthur R. Miller Collection, edited by Timothy Clark, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009, 268.
[3] Michiyo Morioka, “Sashiko, Kogin, and Hishizashi,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Seattle: Thames and Hudson and the Seattle Art Museum, 1993, 107-129, 121.
[4] Morioka, 124.
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Crepin

The Ins and Outs of Acquisitions: A Newly Discovered French Masterpiece

Adding a piece to a museum collection is an involved process. In the case of Shipwreck Off the Coast of Alaska, a painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin, the first interaction was on a trip to London when Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European and Sculpture got an email from Christie’s auction house in London about a private sale of a uniquely important painting.

Museum curators continually consider art for the museum’s collection. They assess intellectual and historical importance of artworks, ownership, relevance to the larger collection, as well as condition, potential costs for conservation, framing, display, and storage. SAM’s collection includes approximately 25,000 objects, with 36 new artworks acquired so far in 2017.

To acquire a work of art, the curator has to first convince the director and then the Committee on Collections (COC), an advisory group of board members and community arts leaders, who, in turn, make recommendations to the Executive Committee of the Board, which has the final vote.

To give you a peek into the acquisition process, below is the curatorial argument for this newly acquired painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin.

This painting represents a shipwreck of two launches from the famous French Enlightenment-era expedition led by Count Jean-François de La Pérouse, which reached Alaska in July 1786. The ships were getting ready to leave Lituya Bay when two boats were caught up in violent tidal currents and one boat capsized. The second vessel may have tried to rescue the sailors but itself went under. This painting was commissioned by the family of two brother officers who were killed in this event, and it was enthusiastically reviewed when it was displayed at the 1806 Salon. It has been in the family since that time.

La Pérouse’s expedition into the Pacific Northwest followed celebrated efforts by Spanish and British explorers in the previous decade. Scientific inquiry was a primary motivation, but the explorers were also seeking political advantage for their governments. On July 2, 1786 the expedition arrived at a previously uncharted bay on the Alaskan coast. La Pérouse named it Port des Français, but we know it today as Lituya Bay. After successfully navigating the rocky entrance to the bay, the crews set up camp, planning to stay for a month to explore the bay and glaciers on the mainland at the northeast end of the bay. They concluded their investigations sooner than planned and made ready to leave on July 13. Two boats were sent ahead to sound the channel near the perilous entrance to the bay so that they could chart the depth; one officer miscalculated the distance from the rocks and found his boat engulfed by a sudden high tide. Both boats capsized, and twenty-one men were lost in ten minutes.

The painting closely follows La Pérouse’s own narrative of the disaster and draws on images by the professional artists who illustrated the Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse. The two endangered boats teeter in the foreground amid boulders and high waves as a third tries vainly to reach them. The two mother ships emerge from behind Observatory Island (after the tragedy, La Pérouse redubbed this Cenotaph Island). The urgent efforts of the sailors caught up in the roiling waves are set against the majestic backdrop of the Fairweather mountain range. At the right, gesturing from a rock, are two members of the Tlingit tribe, witnesses to the event, who searched in vain for survivors, according to La Pérouse. The interaction with the French and the story of the shipwreck would remain part of the Tlingit oral tradition.

Crépin captures the men’s desperate actions as conditions suddenly changed. The two La Borde brothers, in the boat at right, offer a line to their doomed comrades just before they too are swept under. The terrible drama is all in the foreground, at eye level. Beyond the turbulent waves in the pass the bay is calm, the mountains of the Fairweather range are impassively still, and the sky is clear and blue.

Born in Paris, Louis-Philippe Crépin was a specialist in marine painting who had trained under celebrated artists Claude-Joseph Vernet and Hubert Robert. His interest in marine subjects kindled by Vernet, Crépin made his debut at the Salon of 1796 with a painting of the port of Brest. His primary patron throughout his long career would be the Naval Ministry of the government. Many of his works are in the National Maritime Museum in Paris, while others are in provincial museums throughout France. This work would likely be the first painting by Crépin in an American museum.

This painting transcends the standard conventions of marine painting. It stands alone within the artist’s oeuvre, achieving a peak of clarity, drama, and pathos that are typical of more highly valued history painting. The prestige of the La Pérouse expedition, the spectacular American landscape, and the portraits of the Laborde brothers make this one of  Crépin’s most outstanding works. In his review of the 1806 Salon, Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Chaussard singled out the painting: “But the most beautiful painting by M. Crépin, and the one which most attracted the attention of art lovers and artists, was the Shipwreck of the Dinghies of M. de la Peyrouse. It is in this tragic event that he has deployed all his genius and all the resources of his art. The scene is represented with a touching simplicity, and yet with an energy which inspires at once terror and pity. There are no superfluous figures or accessories: all dramatic interest is in the truth of the action. . . . In sum, this painting promises that he is the rightful successor to Vernet, and that no other country has produced a rival to match this celebrated man.”

In addition to the painting’s superb quality, it has never been on the market, remaining in the family that commissioned it for over 200 years. This undoubtedly has contributed to its excellent state of preservation. The Empire frame, an impressive part of its visual impact, is from the same period as the painting.

Like the curators of the Salon, Ishikawa saw something exceptional in this work that lent itself to SAM’s focus. “It offers an insight into the European perspective of the Northwest as an uncharted area that hadn’t been recorded—the wonder and exoticism. Count Jean-François de La Pérouse who led the expedition to Lituya Bay, which at the time he named the Bay of the French, though it was clear by the trading skills of the Tlingit that this expedition was not the first to find this bay.” Ishikawa continues to point out that, “Crépin is not a famous artist but this is a painting that transcends its genre. It’s an impressive and successful example of human drama.” See this painting installed in Extreme Nature: Two Landscape Paintings from the Age of Enlightenment, opening December 23. Accompanied by the return of  Volaire’s much admired Eruption of Mount Vesuvius with Ponte della Maddalena in the Distance, painted around the same time as the Crépin and last seen hanging at SAM this spring in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, this installation will instill a very human awe and fear in the face of nature’s power.

Image: Shipwreck Off the Coast of Alaska, 1806, Louis-Philippe Crepin, French, 1772-1851, oil on canvas, 40 15/16 × 58 11/16 in., Seattle Art Museum, European Art Acquisition Fund; Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund; by exchange Gift of Mrs. Lew V. Day in memory of her husband; Gift of Arthur F. Ederer; H. Neil Meitzler, Issaquah, Washington; Col. Philip L. Thurber Memorial; Gift of Mrs. Donald E. Frederick; The late Mr. Arrigo M. Young and Mrs. Young in memory of their son, Lieut. (j.g.) Lawrence H. Young; Phillips Morrison Memorial; Gift of Mrs. Oswald Brown, in memory of her parents Simeon and Fannie B. Leland; Gift of Miss Grace G. Denny in memory of her sister Miss Coral M. Denny; Gift of friends in memory of Frank Molitor; Purchased from funds contributed in memory of Henry H. Judson; Purchased from the bequest of Charles M. Clark; Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr.; Norman and Amelia Davis Collection; Norman Davis Collection; Mrs. Cebert Baillargeon, in memory of her husband, 2017.15.
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Beneath the Surfaces: Conservation and Care at the Olympic Sculpture Park

Stroll through the Olympic Sculpture Park on a summer day, and you’ll find yourself immersed in an overload of the senses. The Puget Sound scents the air around Alexander Calder’s towering sculpture, The Eagle, with a salty freshness, while the waves below lap in the wind. Uninterrupted sunlight warms the curving, concrete benches of Roy McMakin’s Love & Loss to the touch. Bike commuters coast along the Elliott Bay Trail, an urban artery connecting bustling downtown Seattle and the neighborhoods to the north. But while visitors enjoy the natural and manmade beauty of the park, the outdoor sculptures on view are constantly under attack by the very elements that makes the park so special.

This coalescence of elements within the Olympic Sculpture Park provides a different sensory experience when your job is to preserve its works of art. SAM’s Chief Conservator Nicholas Dorman explains, “It’s a pretty aggressive environment out there. When the sun does shine, it’s unimpeded and bounces off the Sound, creating very intense light levels. Unhindered wind also comes through, carrying salt and lots of pollution. All of these elements break down the sculptures’ materials over time.”

Love & Loss

Care for each sculpture in the park requires attention to a range of factors that include its materials and fabrication, the artist’s or foundation’s intentions, and SAM’s curatorial and exhibition design philosophies. It’s easy to understand that the illuminated ampersand in Love & Loss requires upkeep in order to keep glowing. However, even its concrete benches and paths are prone to deterioration. Once a sculpture requires intervention, the conservators must consider many questions before deciding on a solution. Liz Brown, SAM’s Objects Conservator, describes, “When I’m looking for a treatment system, I have to keep in mind everything from how the public might interact with the piece, to the artist’s intent, to how the sculpture and the materials we apply are going to react to the environment.”

Coating the surface of Love & Loss is one part of its conservation treatment. When the conservators found that the original acrylic-polyurethane coating wasn’t performing well within the interactive environment of the installation, Brown worked with artist McMakin to replace it with a water-borne acrylic paint designed for pools, which she reapplies every year in order to preserve the aesthetic he originally envisioned for the piece. By comparison, sculptures painted with matte, highly pigmented paints, such as The Eagle and Tony Smith’s Stinger, are susceptible to damage by human touch because oils and contact more easily mar and break down the underbound coatings. The park’s proximity to the Puget Sound also brings the problem of chloride corrosion, making the coatings’ maintenance essential to the preservation of the metal sculptures.

As summer approaches, much of the conservation work at the park moves from behind-the-scenes to more publicly visible processes. Brown will soon begin cleaning all of the art and treating areas where corrosion has appeared. Several larger projects will also take place. This year, she hopes to manage refabrication of the Love & Loss ampersand and to determine a painted surface that will work for that portion of the sculpture in the long term. The next time you’re at the park, sitting on Love & Loss may feel a bit different, knowing more about the care that lives both within and beneath its surface.

—Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager

This post is the fourth installment in a series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over the course of this year, we will continue reflecting on the Park’s evolution over the past decade.

Images:  Photo: Benjamin Benschneider. Love & Loss, 2005-2006, Roy McMakin, American, b. 1956, mixed media installation with benches, tables, live tree, pathways and illuminated rotating element, Overall: 288 × 480 in., Olympic Sculpture Park Art Acquisition Fund and gift of Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.2, photo: Benjamin Benschneider, © Roy McMakin. Stinger, 1967-68 / 1999, Tony Smith, American, 1912-1980, steel, painted black, 6 ft. 6 in. x 33 ft. 4 1/4 in. x 33 ft. 4 1/4 in., Gift of Jane Smith, 2004.117, photo: Paul Macapia © 2006 Estate of Tony Smith.
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Object of the Week: Rummage

The word “rummage” has satisfying and nostalgic connotations for me. Hearing it triggers memories of summertime outings to what my grandma called rummage sales, where I’d pore over knick-knacks and tchotchkes in search of another person’s junk that would be my treasure. To rummage is to search with a kind of directionless mind—to not know what we’re looking for until we find it. When we rummage we’re also navigating through a mass of objects, of all varieties, without neat structure or organization. If you think about it, it’s the disorganization and diversity of these things that gives us something to do: We sort the unsorted according to our principles and desires.

In the season of spring cleaning it’s much easier for me to imagine contributing to the rummage pile than doing any rummaging of my own. Still, it seems a fitting time to reflect on Mark Tobey’s important 1941 painting Rummage, celebrating the barrage of sights and sounds found at the Pike Place Market.

The market became a touchstone for Tobey, and in the art of Pacific Northwest modernism, Tobey’s work pictures the market most and best. The connection he felt to the energy, the people, and the goods was quasi-spiritual. Tobey called the market “a refuge, an oasis, a most human growth, the heart and soul of Seattle.”1 His visits to the market were restorative and cathartic, and they also provided plentiful aesthetic stimulation for his work. While he would return to Pike Place for subject matter at various points, the years 1940–1942 saw Tobey complete the greatest number of market studies. Rummage, painted in 1941, fits into this period of concentrated attention.

Tobey gives us a maelstrom of ‘40s Seattle symbols: lounge chairs, mannequins, spoons, wheels, neon signs, birds, and clocks, arranged haphazardly, and pictured from different vantage points. His figures join the scene quietly and timidly, their presence overwhelmed by the visual noise around them. Looking at this painting, I picture Tobey doing his own rummaging, perusing the market’s stimuli and selecting his subjects from it. In a broader sense, he was also selecting from Western art’s tradition of forms in space, Cubism’s rethinking of those forms, and Asian art’s different emphasis on line.

One of the Seattle Art Museum’s best-traveled pictures, Rummage has greeted viewers in Tacoma; Portland; San Francisco; Detroit; New York City; Poughkeepsie; Palm Beach; Cincinnati; Baton Rouge; Utica, New York; Albany; Buffalo; Baltimore; Andover; Copenhagen, Denmark; Frankfurt, Germany; Berlin; Nuremburg; Munich; Hamburg; Essen; London; Colorado Springs; Pasadena; Milwaukee; Valparaiso, Indiana; Fort Worth; Los Angeles; Oakland; Cortland, New York; East Lansing, Michigan; Columbia, Missouri; Newark, Delaware; Tucson; Aurora, New York; Macon, Georgia; Geneseo, New York; Jacksonville, Illinois; Lafayette, Indiana; Neenah, Wisconsin; Madison; Chicago; Pittsburgh; Interlochen, Michigan; Dallas; Osaka, Japan; Omaha; Miami; Des Moines, Iowa; Philadelphia; and of course, right here in Seattle.

Here’s proof that rummaging—seeking and finding—translates well.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Mark Tobey, Mark Tobey: The World of a Market, Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1964, introduction
Image: Rummage, 1941, Mark Tobey (born Centerville, Wisconsin, 1890; died Basel, Switzerland, 1976), transparent and opaque watercolor on paperboard, 38 3/8 x 25 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 42.28
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