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Object of the Week: Cardbirds

While many of us are quarantined and shopping for necessary (and unnecessary) items online, the sight of Amazon and USPS boxes at front doors has become ubiquitous. In 1971, Robert Rauschenberg created a series of works based off of cardboard boxes: Cardbirds. While Rauschenberg was not the first artist to work with cardboard or to incorporate boxes in his work (Pablo Picasso had created his famous guitars in 1912 out of cardboard), his Cardbirds are more involved than one might think. Often mistaken for actual crushed boxes, the works in fact combine corrugated cardboard with offset photolithography and screen printing. Each crease, fold, and label was meticulously reproduced to mimic cast off boxes, and achieve a trompe l’oeil effect.

Still life with Guitar, assembled before November 15, 1913, Pablo Picasso, Paperboard, paper, string, and painted wire installed with cut cardboard box, Overall: 30 × 20 1⁄2 × 7 3/4 in., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the artist © 2016 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

By the early 1970s, many artists living and working in New York began to take a hiatus from the City: Jasper Johns set up a studio in Saint Martin; Donald Judd visited Marfa, Texas; Sol LeWitt spent more time in Italy; and Robert Rauschenberg found himself on Captiva Island, off the west coast of Florida.1 At the time, Rauschenberg said, “Captiva is the foundation of my life and my work; it is my source and reserve of my energies,” and “In New York, I never had time.”2  While the drivers are different today, it’s interesting to see many New Yorkers (with the means to do so) fleeing New York City, and how this will translate to the art that is being made.

Looking closer at Rauschenberg’s Cardbirds, one can’t help but notice the playfulness of these pieces—the boxes’ original forms flattened into shapes resembling a turkey or spaceship (both birds and space were a common theme in his work). There is something humorous about spending so much effort recreating something he found in an alley. While these works were produced at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, it was in Captiva where Rauschenberg became intrigued with the medium of cardboard, “a desire built up in me, “ he said, “to work in a material of waste and softness.”3 While he may have attempted to portray what we would today call globalization, the intent was very different than some of his contemporaries. Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes, for example, were paint and silkscreen ink on wood, and elevated the mundane and commercial to an art object. Donald Judd’s Minimalist Untitled works from 1969 were literal, specific objects. However, both Judd and Warhol’s works might seem overly polished and less “real” than Rauschenberg’s worn and discarded cardboard forms.

Andy Warhol with Brillo Boxes, Photo: Lasse Olsson / DN / Scanpix
Accessed May 27, 2020,
https://www.artandobject.com/articles/swedens-moderna-museet-comes-clean-warhol-brillo-box-scandal

As we look at contemporary artists working today—nearly 50 years after Rauschenberg’s Cardbirds—we see similar visual languages employed. Walead Beshty packages his works in FedEx boxes, intentionally allowing the contents to shatter and crack, serving as a marker of their journeys. Santiago Sierra uses cardboard boxes in a provocative manner, with actual people inside them, to shed light on the plight of political exiles.

Which brings us back to our current plethora of packages: ripe material for creation and available in excess. Will we be seeing more of these everyday materials on a gallery wall in the years to come? How would Robert Rauschenberg have responded to these times and these materials? I would guess playfully and insightfully.

Manish Engineer, SAM Chief Technology Officer


Images: Cardbird III, 1971, Robert Rauschenberg, collage of corrugated cardboard, tape, offset photolithograph, and screen print, 35 1/2 x 36 in., Gift of the Robert B. and Honey Dootson Collection, 81.62.2 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Untitled, 1969, Donald Judd, Clear anodized aluminum and violet Plexiglas, 33 x 68 x 48 in. Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2014.25. FedEx, 2005, Walead Beshty, www.thisiscolossal.com/2017/01/fedex-works-walead-beshty/. Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 2000, Santiago Sierra, Kunst Werke. Berlin, Germany.
1 Mark Godfrey, “Source and Reserve of My Energies,” in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. by Leah Dickerman and Achim Borchardt-Hume (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2016), pp. 284-293.
2 Robert Rauschenberg, “Statement on Captiva,” letter to Ron Bisho, n.d. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York, https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/archives/collections/a14
3Cardbirds brochure, www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/archives/collections/a14

A Modern Champion: Virginia Wright (1929–2020)

With a heavy heart, we share the news of the passing of Virginia Wright, a pillar of the SAM family. Virginia and her late husband Bagley played pivotal roles in the development, vibrancy, and accomplishments of the Seattle Art Museum for more than half a century. Beyond being generous contributors, the Wrights’ greatest impact on SAM is seen in the art of the collection and in the art shown. Virginia was among a very small group of people who, in the 1960s, pushed SAM to create its first modern and contemporary art program. Virginia and Bagley also contributed to the purchase of many important acquisitions over the years. Above all else, the Wrights amassed one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in the world (over 200 works), all purchased with SAM in mind as the collection’s eventual home. When the bulk of it came to SAM in 2014, forming the backbone of its modern and contemporary collection, SAM was transformed from a great institution into a truly remarkable one.

Earlier this month, Virginia said, “When I think about the future of the Wright Collection at SAM, I put my trust in the artists. I trust that future generations will value their work, that SAM will continue to provide meaningful access to it, and that the conversations that their work has inspired will continue.” We are honored by her faith in Seattle’s museum and, because of her support over the last 60 years, we are confident that we can live up to the legacy she established.

Born in Seattle and raised in British Columbia, Virginia went East for college and majored in art history. Out of college, she worked for Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan and began collecting art. Mark Rothko’s abstract painting Number 10 (1952) was one of her early, daring purchases and it is now part of SAM’s collection.

Virginia has been a SAM member since 1951. She began docent training in 1957 and led her first public tour in 1959. In 1959, the Wrights made their first-ever gift to SAM’s collection: Room with White Table (1953) by William Ward Corley. That year they also provided funding for SAM to acquire Winter’s Leaves of the Winter of 1944 (at the time titled Leaves Before Autumn Wind) by Morris Graves.

In 1964, she and a group of friends persuaded then-director Richard Fuller to let her start the Contemporary Art Council (CAC), a group of collectors at the museum. For the next decade, it functioned as the museum’s first modern art department. The CAC sponsored lectures and supported the first exhibitions of Op art and conceptual art in Seattle. It also brought the popular Andy Warhol Portraits exhibition to Seattle in 1976, among many other important exhibitions. Her role in bringing great art to the Seattle Art Museum also involved the curation of two solo exhibitions for Morris Louis (in 1967) and William Ivey (in 1975).

Virginia joined SAM’s board in 1960, making 2020 her 60th anniversary with the Seattle Art Museum. She temporarily stepped away in 1972 when her husband Bagley joined the Board and rejoined in 1982. She served as President of the Board from 1987–90. Virginia was President of SAM’s Board of Trustees from 1986–1992, years that coincided with the construction and opening of the downtown Robert Venturi building in 1991—the museum’s first major transformation since its opening in 1933 and a major shift in Seattle’s cultural life to downtown First Avenue (with the Symphony soon following).

In 1999, SAM mounted an exhibition of the Wright Collection (The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection of Modern Art, March 4–May 9, 1999). The Wrights’ entire art collection—the largest single collection of modern and contemporary art in the region—has been gradually donated (and the balance of the collection promised) to the Seattle Art Museum. A significant portion of the collection came to the museum in 2014 when the Wrights’ private exhibition space closed.

When the Seattle Art Museum opened the Olympic Sculpture Park in 2007, many works from the Wrights’ collection were installed there, including Mark di Suvero’s Bunyon’s Chess (1965) and Schubert Sonata (1992), as well as works by Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Smith, Anthony Caro, and Roxy Paine.

SAM’s ongoing exhibition Big Picture: Art After 1945 draws from the Wrights’ transformative gift of over 100 works and is a reminder of their incredible generosity.

Virginia was an active board member up to the end of her life, regularly attending meetings and advising the museum in many important endeavors. About SAM Virginia said, “It’s always been the main arena. I never wanted to break off and start a museum. I wanted to push the museum we already had into being more responsive to contemporary art.” And SAM would like to acknowledge that she did just that, leaving an undeniable mark on the cultural landscape of the entire Pacific Northwest.

As Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, says, “Even having only been in Seattle for a short time, it’s clear that Virginia Wright’s impact on the city and on SAM is beyond measure. Her legacy, and that of her late husband Bagley, is seen in both the very walls and on the walls of the downtown museum, and it fills the Olympic Sculpture Park’s landscapes. I’m honored to have been able to know her and of her hopes for SAM’s continued future.”

10 Surprising Facts about Artist Basquiat

In 27 short years artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has left a legacy far from the same-old same-old. Learn more about the artist’s life and career with 10 facts that might surprise you before you come see the one-work exhibition Basquiat—Untitled at the Seattle Art Museum, on view for the first time on the West Coast through August 13.

1. At the start of his meteoric rise to art stardom, Basquiat was a graffiti artist. Strategically spray painting near hot artist hubs, museums, and galleries—Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz graffitied NYC under the pseudonym “Samo©” which stood for same old sh*t.

2. With exhibitions around the globe 30 years after his death, it’s hard to believe that both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art rejected Basquiat’s work. Collectors Lenore and Herbert Schorr offered to donate Basquiats to both institutions in the 1980s but they declined.

3. Aside from painting and drawing, Basquiat was also a musician. He started the industrial sound band, Gray, and produced a hip-hop track called “Beat-Bop” featuring artist Rammellzee and rapper K-Rob. Original vinyl of this track featuring artwork by Basquiat sells for thousands of dollars and it’s named one of the most valuable hip-hop records of all time.

4. Basquiat hung out with a lot of celebrities, including pop artist Andy Warhol. Though some questioned the integrity of the friendship between this seemingly unlikely pair, Warhol and Basquiat were close friends and collaborated on a plethora of works and projects until they had a falling out.

5. Growing up in Brooklyn with a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father Basquiat was trilingual and spoke English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.

6. Bought at a whopping $110.5 million dollars by Japanese art collector Yusaku Maezawa, Basquiat’s painting Untitled broke the record for the most expensive American artwork ever auctioned.

7. For a period of time while Basquiat was homeless he was able to support himself by dealing drugs and selling postcards and clothing with his art on it.

8. A man of many talents, Basquiat also starred in the 1980s movie Downtown 81 also known as New York Beat Movie. Due to financial reasons, the film was abandoned in the mid-80s only to be released in 2000 at the Cannes Film Festival.

9. Basquiat dated Madonna in 1982 when she was still an aspiring entertainer. In an interview Madonna said that after they broke up he asked for all the paintings he gifted her back then painted them black.

10.Blondie fans you may have seen a familiar face in the “Rapture” music video. In addition to Basquiat making a cameo in their music video, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein bought his first painting for $200.

—Nina Dubinsky, SAM Social Media Coordinator

Image: installation view Basquiat—Untitled at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman.

The Life of the Party: Jane Lang Davis (1920–2017)

SAM is more than a museum—it’s a community. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds come together for exhibitions and educational programs, live performances and gala events, all with one common bond: a love of visual art.

Earlier this month, SAM lost one of its most passionate and dedicated community members, Jane Lang Davis. Jane passed away on September 1. For more than 40 years, Jane had been an active part of the SAM family, including serving 32 years as a Trustee. She was well known as a gregarious and committed advocate for the arts, constantly striving to get people engaged, and supporting.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Jane was part of a small group known as the Contemporary Art Council (CAC). Charged by SAM’s founder and then director, Dr. Richard Fuller, the CAC organized and presented many of the Museum’s early contemporary art exhibitions—often featuring artists from the thriving New York art scene of the time. In the years that followed, Jane also served on nearly every event committee established. Lovingly known as the “Queen of the place card” Jane knew how to set the stage for lively conversations and great fun. She was very much the life of SAM’s best parties. And if she wasn’t planning an exhibition opening or a fundraising event for the museum, Jane was welcoming people to her own home, allowing visitors the rare opportunity to enjoy one of the greatest private collections of abstract expressionist and post-war art ever gathered

Those in our community who weren’t fortunate enough to meet Jane in person are still likely to remember her smiling face. In celebration of the 1976 Andy Warhol Portraits exhibition—again organized by the CAC, Warhol painted a double portrait of Jane, with head tilted back showing the sitter’s joy and glamour, a bright smile that engages every viewer. It is the perfect portrait of a woman who brought all these same attributes to the SAM community.

Many other paintings from the Richard and Jane Lang (Davis) collection have been shown at SAM over the years. From Mark Rothko and Philip Guston, to Francis Bacon and Clyfford Still, and many more. Through her incredible generosity, steadfast leadership, and constant willingness to share works from her collection for the benefit of our region, SAM blossomed into the museum it is today. We are forever grateful.

We will miss her dearly.

Image: Jane Lang Davis and Andy Warhol at Andy Warhol: Portraits opening reception, 1976, From the Seattle Art Museum Photo Archives.

Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Exhibition Design

The design and installion of the Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style exhibition was a large undertaking and involved constructing elaborate stages and catwalks. The galleries are completely transformed to create an experience unique to the art of fashion. By building out into the galleries to execute this design, our capacity is limited. If you’re purchasing tickets online or in person and notice that we are selling timed tickets, this exhibition layout is the reason why. Each section of the exhibition approaches a different era or design technique used by Yves Saint Laurent. Take a quick walk through it with us!

The Little Prince of Fashion - Installation view of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum

The Little Prince of Fashion
Beginning with the Winter 1955 collection, Dior, the world’s most celebrated couturier, began to include his young assistant’s designs in the collections. A black dress draped with a white scarf caused a sensation when it appeared in the now-iconic photograph by Richard Avedon, Dovima with Elephants.

The Beatnick Couturier
In 1962, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé co-founded the haute couture house at 30 bis rue Spontini in Paris. From that moment, the collections drew their inspiration from street life and pop culture. Saint Laurent proclaimed, “You no longer need to be rich to have style.” In 1966, Saint Laurent and Bergé launched the SAINT LAURENT rive gauche label. A pioneer in luxury ready-to-wear, the brand succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, enjoying worldwide acclaim. The shy young man in the black tie had evolved into a long-haired beatnik couturier. He exemplified the synchronicity between appearance and lifestyle.

The Celebrity Couturier
During the 1970s, Saint Laurent’s status went from fashionable couturier to superstar on a par with Mick Jagger or David Bowie. This emboldened him to court scandal personally and in his work. In November 1971, to promote his men’s fragrance Pour Homme, he released a nude photograph of himself taken by Jeanloup Sieff. Saint Laurent told the press: “I wanted to shock.”

A Living Legend
From the 1980s until the maison de couture’s closing, every move by the couturier contributed to the creation of his mythic persona. The first such event was the large retrospective exhibition in 1983 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Curated by Diana Vreeland, it celebrated twenty-five years of creations. It was the first time that a living couturier was the subject of a museum show. Saint Laurent was only forty-seven years old. Another global milestone was reached in 1992, this time in Seville, where Saint Laurent’s iconic styles were shown in a fashion retrospective at Expo 92.

The Genders - Installation view of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum

The Genders
The play between masculine and feminine is seen in Saint Laurent garments that borrow from menswear: the Winter 1963 motorcycle jacket, the Winter 1967 pantsuit inspired by film noir gangsters, the trench coat drawn from British World War I officers, and the jumpsuit, the uniform of aviators. The exploration of fashion that transcends gender culminated in the redesign of the safari jacket, inspired by big game hunters of France’s colonial past. In an emblematic photograph from 1969, Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux stand together, wearing nearly identical safari jackets that express their own new gender. Worn with thigh-high boots, Betty Catroux exemplifies rock and roll while Yves adopts an androgynous pose. Saint Laurent proposed that men concede part of their virility to women and that women accept men’s feminine side.

A Modular Wardrobe
The younger generation, which had adopted jeans and T-shirts as a sign of belonging to a more egalitarian society, saw haute couture as a symbol of inequality. With his ready-to-wear line, Saint Laurent offered an alternative to haute couture, creating styles that were more affordable and easier to wear. “Attitude” replaced “well-dressed.”

The Alchemy of Style - Installation view of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum

The Alchemy of Style
The production of an haute couture garment was a complex process that began with a sketch. Saint Laurent’s drawings included specifics about ergonomics, “drape” and the equilibrium that must be maintained between the fabric and the body. He would then meet with his chefs d’ateliers (workshop heads) to give them his drawings to be translated onto a toile, the preliminary garment made of white cotton. The toile was then fitted on the mannequin cabine (fitting model) and presented to Saint Laurent. Once Saint Laurent had approved the toile after three or four fittings, it was time to choose the fabrics, colors and adornments, such as exclusively-made buttons. Then the toile was laid flat to create the paper pattern that would be used to cut the fabric. If the fabric was to be embroidered, the motif was either drawn in pencil or a paper cutout of the motif was applied to the toile. Sometimes the process was simplified, by draping the fabric directly onto the model’s body. Saint Laurent declared, “I can’t make any decisions without them.” The models were, he said, his “reality.” Finally, a few days before the fashion show, in the large Second Empire style salon, Saint Laurent would choose among the many accessories displayed on trays and other embellishments.

The Pop Moment
Saint Laurent’s first incorporation of fine art into fashion was the iconic Mondrian dress from 1965. Its design was based on Piet Mondrian’s signature geometric compositions from the 1920s, which marked a breakthrough in modern painting. The designer would next turn his attention to the artists of his own time who embodied the youthful spirit of Pop Art. Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol found inspiration for their boldly colored imagery in advertising, comic books, and ordinary mass-produced objects. Experimentation, humor, and a sense of freedom also emerged in popular music and film—and through Saint Laurent, in fashion. He later said, “I participated in the transformation of my era. I did it with clothes, which is surely less important than music, architecture, painting . . . but whatever it’s worth, I did it.”

From Darkness to an Explosion of Color - Installation view of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum

From Darkness to An Explosion of Color
The next galleries conduct you through a large selection of pages of échantillons de tissu—fabric samples that he used as a reference to his preferred hues, including his favorites, pink and blue. Near these pages, color-coordinated gowns from forty years of his career display key elements of the Saint Laurent style. The young Saint Laurent used a rather dark color palette. When he discovered Morocco in 1966 he was shocked by the intensity of the blue sky, the beauty of the Majorelle Garden which Pierre Bergé and he saved from destruction and bought in 1980, and the varied hues of traditional garments worn in the medina. In addition, his admiration for the paintings of Henri Matisse helped Saint Laurent to expand his palette into an explosion of intense colors that would become a strong element of his style going forward. From black, which he considered a real color, to the exploration of this colorful palette, Saint Laurent’s sensitivity to color is noticeable in every aspect of his style.

Images: Installation views of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style at Seattle Art Museum, Photos: Natali Wiseman.

Winning, SAM style

The Seattle Art Museum won first prize in the 2011 American Association of Museums Publications Design Competition for our “Kurt” exhibition poster designed by SAM graphic designer Rebecca Nickels.

While a certain actor’s career took a nosedive, SAM won a number of awards recognizing the outstanding work of our Communications team.

American Association of Museums Publications Design Competition
May 2011

  • Posters category: KURT poster
    First Prize
  • Educational Resources category: SAM Kids Events Campaign
    Honorable mention
  • Invitations category: PICASSO Suite of Invitations
    Honorable mention Read More

Behind the Scenes: Unconventional Portrait Workshop

As SAM’s summer exhibitions Kurt and love fear pleasure lust pain glamour death—Andy Warhol Media Works opened last week, the Adult Public Programs team has been working hard to get ready for all of the affiliated lectures, performances, tours and  June 4th SAM Remix.  The simultaneity of these two exhibitions is exciting from a programmatic standpoint because we have the opportunity to use educational experiences to explore some of the conceptual connections between works in both.  One of the projects I have focused on developing in recent months is a set of three classes that are part of our adult workshop series “SAM Creates.”

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