COVID-19 Update: All SAM Locations Currently Closed »

Object of the Week: Map of the World

Brenna Youngblood’s abstract paintings are invariably more layered—literally and figuratively—than first meets the eye. Originally trained as a photographer, Youngblood works with an extensive personal archive of photographs and objects that she collages onto the surfaces of her densely painted canvases. In a 2013 interview she discussed the importance of this textured surface, and the integration of everyday objects into it:

“Surface is and has always been integral to my practice. The transformation of the surface of my paintings mimics objects, materials, and textures from the real world (i.e. rusted metal, wood). . . . I like introducing familiar objects like the light bulb, the door handle, and wood grain. The paintings are ‘a slice of life’, if you will. They definitely reflect the everyday not just for myself, I think for others as well. They are not only for looking at.”[1]

Youngblood is part of long tradition of artists who incorporate everyday objects into their work—we may immediately think of artists like Jasper Johns, with his thermometers imbedded into the canvas, or Robert Rauschenberg, with his photographs collaged onto their surfaces. In Youngblood’s paintings, the objects that she includes often go beyond the language of abstraction and allude to social or political topics. They are, as she says, “not only for looking at,” but speak to larger real-world issues.

In Map of the World (2015), a map of former colonial territories is embedded in the upper left quadrant of the painting, layered over an otherwise abstract, painterly surface. The political borders indicated on the map are long outdated, but the histories of colonialism that they represent still hold very real ramifications today. The sense of these histories bleeding into the present is suggested by the dripping paint that runs off the map, and the patchwork of rectangular forms just underneath that are themselves reminiscent of political boundaries.

We know that maps are never neutral—the distortions that privilege the northern hemisphere in most map projections are ubiquitous and well-documented, and the political claims they represent are contentious at best. However, they also become such a banal part of our everyday life that we stop looking at them critically, or consider what they really signify. In blending the map of the world (or one version of it) with the formal language of abstraction, Youngblood subtly but pointedly refers to these larger issues, asking us to dive deeper into the surface.

– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

[1] Brenna Youngblood, interview with Rosanna Albertini, “Not Only for Looking At,” in Flash Art, September 2013, http://honorfraser.com/pdf/press/2013FlashArtBY
Image: Map of the World, 2015, Brenna Youngblood, map, acrylic, and construction paper on canvas, 60 x 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2016.7.1 © Brenna Youngblood Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery

Virtual Tour with Susan Kegel

SAM Docent, Susan Kegel is taking us downtown to the Seattle Art Museum to do some close looking at an abstract painting by Auguste Herbin on this virtual tour. Kegel has been a school tour docent at SAM since 2007. She loves touring with students because they have fresh and amazing insights about the art, and are not afraid to share them. 

Auguste Herbin’s painting  Fleur (Fruit) (translated to Flower and Fruit) is abstract. Rather than painting flowers and fruit exactly how they look, Herbin chose to think about the essence of them, focusing on color and shape. Mathematicians make things abstract, too. For example, the number three is an abstraction. We can’t see three! We can see three trees, three cats, or three triangles, but three-ness is a mathematical abstraction. Abstraction can sometimes  be confusing and unapproachable, but  we can explore abstraction by borrowing a simple approach from Dan Finkel and Katherine Cooke of Math for Love. Take a look at the artwork above and ask three questions: What repeats? How many? What if?

You can try this at home. What repeats?

I see lots of shapes that repeat: triangles, semi-circles, circles, and rectangles. Some stand out because Herbin used strongly contrasting colors—warm colors layered on top of cool and vice versa. Other shapes are more subtle. For example, did you see the orange rectangle in the lower left side?

Let’s look closely at the triangles. Triangles are shapes with three sides, but the lengths of the sides can vary. Some triangles appear to have two sides of the same length—these are isosceles triangles. Equilateral triangles have all three sides of the same length. Can you find any triangles with no matching sides? There are three: one is orange, one is blue, and one is yellow. These are scalene triangles. 

How many triangles are there? This is tricky because there are also implied triangles, where the artist has not quite finished the edges but your eye fills in the missing parts. Shall we count? I see 14.  

Besides shapes, what else repeats? What about the colors? Are there any colors that don’t repeat? Why do you suppose the artist chose to have only one sky blue shape?

Now, let’s imagine what if: what if the painting were hung upside down?  

When right-side up, the shapes seem to be balanced on top of each other or on top of imaginary horizontal lines. When upside down, the shapes are tumbling down towards the floor.  It feels quite different to me. What differences do you notice when imagine the painting upside-down?

We typically learn mathematics starting with physical things, such as counting apples or blocks. Only later do we learn how to manipulate the abstract numbers. Artists often progress in the same way, first learning how to draw realistically before experimenting with more abstract styles. Herbin’s early works were much more realistic.

– Susan Kegel, SAM Docent

Image: Fleur (Fruit), 1945, Auguste Herbin, oil on canvas, 38 × 28 3/4in., Gift of Gladys and Sam Rubinstein, 2014.26.14 © Estate of Auguste Herbin/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Virtual Art Talks: Abstract O’Keeffe

SAM’s locations may be temporarily closed, but our curators are still here to connect you to art! Here’s Dr. Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, to give you an overview of Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations. This installation featuring 17 works by this American master opened just one week before we had to make the difficult decision to close for the safety of our community. Tune in for a lecture developed just for you and learn more about the works on view at SAM. We can still appreciate these artworks and the artist who made them, even if can’t visit them at the moment.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations features 17 works from the 1910s to the 1930s. At the heart of the installation is Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1, a recent addition to SAM’s collection and a gift of late Trustee Barney A. Ebsworth. The first complete expression of O’Keeffe’s personal brand of modernism, Abstract Variations brings Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1 together with Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2, from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, for the first time in Seattle, along with loans from museums across the country.

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

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Inside Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations

Stay home with SAM and see inside Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations, zoom in on some early O’Keeffe drawings using our online interactive, and make some art of your own following along with the activity below.

“I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things that I had no words for.”

– Georgia O’Keeffe

These words from a 20th-century artist best known for her paintings of flowers and desert landscapes may be surprising. “She had a very particular iconography, so we don’t typically think of her as an abstractionist,” says Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art. Abstract Variations offers us a chance to broaden our perspective on this celebrated artist through a focused selection of 15 of her paintings and drawings, as well as portraits of her by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who eventually became her husband. The accompanying catalogue examines O’Keeffe’s pioneering innovations into abstraction.

You may be familiar with Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1, O’Keeffe’s first major oil painting, now in SAM’s collection. Abstract Variations also includes Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2, a loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, bringing these two landmark paintings together in Seattle for the first time. Experiencing them alongside other works from this pivotal period in O’Keeffe’s career offers a glimpse into her practice. “There’s a tangible tension between geometry and curvilinearity in these early works,” says Papanikolas. “When you see them in person, they look as if they’re vibrating.”

Zoom in on Georgia O’Keeffe’s Drawings »

Take a good look at all the details in these charcoal drawings from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Like many of us right now, these precious drawings have to stay home. O’Keeffe’s earliest works on paper are extremely fragile and therefore unable to travel, but we can still enjoy them—just click or tap on the image above!

Art Making Activity

The painting above by Georgia O’Keefe is called Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1. Like many paintings the artist made, its shapes and colors are inspired by music. Can you make a drawing of a song?

  • Choose a song that makes you feel happy, sad, calm, or excited. Close your eyes and think about what you hear: What lines, shapes, and images appear? What colors do you see? What more can you imagine?
  • Find a pencil and a piece of paper and listen to the song a second time. This time, take a deep breath and let your hand move around the paper to draw lines and shapes that connect to the music. You can draw fast or slow, whatever feels natural to you. Try not to think too much, just draw and capture the images from your imagination.
  • When the song is finished, you can add to or change the drawing that you have started. You might choose to press your pencil down to shade some areas darker and leave some areas light. You might choose to erase some sections and add additional shapes and lines. You might use other materials to add color or texture to your drawing.
  • When you have finished, display your drawing on the floor, a table, or pinned onto the wall or refrigerator. See what it looks like up close and far away. Ask people around you what looking at your drawing makes them think about or feel. Does it bring any music to their mind?

These process images are an example of Lauren Kent, SAM’s Museum Educator for School Programs & Partnerships, drawing to “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush at her kitchen table. We want to see your artwork! Share a photo of your drawing and the song that inspired you with us via email or on social media using #StayHomewithSAM!

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

Artwork: Georgia O’Keeffe, American, 1887–1986, Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1, 1918, oil on canvas, 35 x 29 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.161, photo: Paul Macapia

Object of the Week: Hester Diamond Tribute

What lasts

This abstract composition is pieced together from fragments of ordinary things—corrugated cardboard, painted fabric, and wrinkled burlap. The surface is pierced, stained, and gouged, painfully reminiscent of scarred skin. It comes from a series called Sacchi (sacks), which use humble materials to create compositions that hover between painting and sculpture. Alberto Burri, who had been a doctor in the Italian army during World War II, started making art when he was a prisoner of war in Texas in 1943. As much as anything, the Sacchi seem to be about the temporary nature of materials, experiences, life—for many viewers in the 1950s, they seemed to express the suffering and darkness of the war years.

Burri created Sacco in 1955 when he was staying in New York. He had become friends with Harold and Hester Diamond, a young New York couple with an interest in art (Harold, a schoolteacher, would go on to become a prominent art dealer). Harold’s brother owned the Upper West Side building where Mark Rothko had his studio, and the Diamonds, who lived upstairs, arranged for Burri to use the studio. He included the sleeve of one of Harold Diamond’s discarded shirts in the lower right of this work, and presented the work to the Diamonds at the end of his stay.

Decades later in 1995, Hester Diamond gave Sacco to the Seattle Art Museum in memory of the artist, who had died that same year. Harold Diamond had passed away in 1982, and Hester, with her second husband Ralph Kaminsky, had become a friend of SAM and a supporter of the Seattle Opera, whose Ring cycle brought her to Seattle numerous times. Over the years she gave three more works to SAM, all very different from the Burri.  

One of them is this wonderfully strange family portrait of Leda, Jupiter in the form of a swan, and their three children, hatched from eggs—a work by the mid-16th century Flemish painter Vincent Sellaer. The combination of appealing and unsettling visual qualities is typical of Mannerism, a style which attracted Hester’s interest beginning in the early 1990s. Previously devoted to 20th-century art, she fell in love with the refined technique, inventiveness, and beauty of 15th- and 16th-century European painting and sculpture and shifted her collecting focus.

Hester Diamond was an enthusiastic and generous friend to international art institutions, artists, curators, scholars, and gallerists. The seriousness of her commitment to art was matched by her sense of humor and love of adventure as she explored new fields. A lifelong New Yorker, Hester had a close relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made significant gifts to her hometown museum over the decades. SAM is fortunate that she also recognized how works from her collection could make a difference here in Seattle.

Hester’s collecting interests could encompass a post-war collage roughly fashioned out of the ephemeral everyday, as well as a painting superbly crafted to last forever. Both are now valued works in our collection which future generations will be able to enjoy thanks to her generosity. Sadly, they outlast Hester herself, who died on January 23, 2020 at the age of 91. She will be greatly missed.

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

Images: Sacco (Sack), 1955, Alberto Burri, burlap, cardboard, muslin, and paint, 35 1/2 x 28 1/4 in., Gift of Hester Diamond in memory of Alberto Burri, 95.134 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Leda and the Swan and Her Children, ca. 1540, Vincent Sellaer, oil on wood panel, 43 1/2 x 35 1/16 in., Gift of Hester Diamond in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2004.31. Photograph ©️ Carla van de Puttelaer, 2019.

Object of the Week: Fountain

Situated beside the sublime glass and steel edifice of the Seattle Public Library Central branch stands Fountain of Wisdom (1958–60), designed by George Tsutakawa. This piece was the artists’ first public fountain commission after a prolific career as a painter, sculptor, and teacher in the Pacific Northwest. Within the Seattle Art Museum’s collection is Fountain (1971), a bronze metal sculpture that helps tell the story of Tsutakawa’s unique Japanese-American experience.

Tsutakawa was born in Seattle in 1910 and spent his early years in Capitol Hill, not far from Volunteer Park. At the age of seven, like many American-born kibei, he was sent to Japan for an education in Japanese art and culture. When he returned to Seattle a decade later, he studied sculpture at the University of Washington and spent his summers working in the Alaska canaries. Drafted into the US Army during World War II, Tsutakawa returned to UW as a graduate student on the GI Bill. Soon after, he began his teaching career in the School of Art.

During the mid-1950s, artist Johsel Namkung introduced Tsutakawa to a book called Beyond the High Himalayas. Included were descriptions of ritually stacked stone structures accumulated by travelers at mountain passes as private and public spiritual offerings.[1] The influence of these obos proved to be profoundly impactful on Tsutakawa, forming the basis of much of the rest of his life’s work. After creating a series of abstract wooden sculptures, Tsutakawa translated obos into metal sculptures and public fountains.

Fountain stands over five feet tall and is composed of a single vertical axis that holds a stack of abstract forms: a footed base, a pronged shallow bowl, intersecting parabolic-shapes, and a hallowed ovoid. It is easy to imagine this sculpture as a fountain, water flowing over and through the bronze forms; the symmetry adding to its geometry.

From 1960 until his death in 1997, Tsutakawa designed and fabricated over 70 fountains. His work can be found all along the West Coast, as well as in Washington, DC, Florida, Canada, and across Japan. Fortunately for Seattleites, a crowd-sourced map has been created to help us locate this important artists’ public works.

– Steffi Morrison, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

[1] Kingsbury, Martha. George Tsutakawa. Seattle: Bellevue Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1990.
Image: Fountain, 1971, George Tsutakawa, welded sheet bronze, 65 x 37 x 45 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Langdon S. Simons, Jr., 86.276 © George Tsutakawa Estate

Artists on Art: Carla Rossi

“Approach the art, do not cross the line, look, turn to your friend and say, ‘my kid could do that,’ and then walk away!”

– Carla Rossi

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1jlanSSplo

Follow Carla Rossi, an immortal trickster and your unofficial tour guide through Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer. Gibson’s contemporary art combines powwow, pop culture, and punching bags to explore what modernity means within Indigenous cultures. Carla Rossi combines drag, clowning, and entitlement to address complacency, and the confusion of “mixed” identities. See through Carla’s eyes when you visit Like a Hammer.

This video is one of a series presenting Northwest Native American artists responding to Gibson’s work. The character of Carla was created by Anthony Hudson, a multidisciplinary artist, writer, performer, and filmmaker. Hudson, a member of the Grand Ronde tribe, started performing as Carla as an art project in 2010 and has since turned Carla into a full-fledged persona, body of work, and occupation. Hudson prefers the term “drag clown” over “drag queen” because he’s not trying to emulate women. Carla is a tool for critique. When he performs as Carla, Hudson wear whiteface in direct allusion to whiteness, clowning, and as a critical inversion of blackface.

Jeffrey Gibson believes, “everyone is at the intersection of multiple cultures times, histories. . . . that there’s a lot more to be gained at the space in between mapped points then there is at the mapped points. . . . I’m always looking for these in-between spaces of things.” Similarly, Anthony Hudson (Grand Ronde), is interested in “in the edge – that line between satire and sincerity, between critique and reification—as a site where transgression and transformation occur.”

Jeffrey Gibson is of Cherokee heritage and a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He grew up in urban settings in Germany, South Korea, the United States, and England, and his work draws on his experiences in different cultural environments. In his artwork, materials used in Indigenous powwow regalia, such as glass beads, drums, trade blankets, and metal jingles, are twined together with aspects of queer club culture as well as the legacies of abstract painting. Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer is a major museum exhibition presenting a significant selection of this contemporary artist’s exuberant artwork created since 2011. The presentation in Seattle closes on May 12.


Pop-Art Video: I Put a Spell on You, Jeffrey Gibson

How many Everlast punching bags has Jeffrey Gibson turned into hanging sculptures? What number did Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You” reach on the Billboard chart? What do these two things have to do with each other? Visit Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer and find out before it closes May 12!

Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer is a major museum exhibition presenting a significant selection of this contemporary artist’s exuberant artwork created since 2011. Gibson’s complex work reflects varied influences, including fashion and design, abstract painting, queer identity, popular music, and the materials and aesthetics of Native American cultures. The more than 65 works on view include beaded punching bags, figures and wall hangings, abstract geometric paintings on rawhide and canvas, performance video, and a new multimedia installation.

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