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Object of the Week: I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s collection throughout the month of February.

Kara Walker’s particular mode of engaging with our attention spans—her visual and conceptual provocations—have often caused furor, first from the generation above her, now not infrequently from the generation below. For when it comes to the ruins of history, Walker neither simply represents nor reclaims. Instead she eroticizes, aestheticizes, fetishizes, and dramatizes.

Zadie Smith, What Do We Want History to Do to Us?, The New York Review of Books, February 2020

With a prolific and controversial career spanning decades, Kara Walker is perhaps best known for her use of cut-paper installations that give visual form to the histories of racism, violence, and subjugation in the antebellum South. Walker’s unsettling images mine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stereotypes and ideologies and consider the legacies of slavery today.

This lithographic print in SAM’s collection, I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, is a relatively modest work compared to larger installations and sculptures since realized by Walker. However, the print is an early work, dating to 1995-96—one year after receiving her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and two years before receiving the MacArthur “Genius” award at just 27 years old. Walker has since gone on to produce major sculptural works, such as Fons Americanus (2019-20) in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) sited in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory. 

In this graphic work, a woman holds a dripping rope or do-rag[1] before a monkey—a recurring figure in Walker’s work and, together with the title, often read as an allusion to the scientific racism used to justify the enslavement of African women, men, and children. Regarding her use of the silhouette figure, Walker explains:

The silhouette technique announced itself to me as I was researching the cultural identity of early America. In many ways as a form it succeeded in being both a minimal reduction and a means to cover a lot of territory. With the technique one is talking both about the shadow as a form by making a paper cut, but also shadow as the subconscious in psychology. I surprised myself, actually, when I began working [by] how well it…seemed to exemplify the experience of women and blacks as second class citizens. This was a craft form that was (and is) everywhere, but rarely attains a high status. Silhouette cutting, for me, was my rebellion against high art and painting, and to me a way of undermining the patriarchal tendency in Western art.[2]

Producing work that has received praise and criticism in equal parts, Walker is a provocative and challenging contemporary figure who offers a challenging portrait of American history. Probing the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and power, Walker intends to make work where, as she describes, “viewer[s]…get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate


[1] Julia Szabo, “Kara Walker’s Shock Art,” The New York Times, March 23, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/23/magazine/kara-walker-s-shock-art.html
[2] Kara Walker, “Art Talk with Kara Walker,” interview by Paulette Beete, National Endowment for the Arts, February 1, 2012, https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2012/art-talk-kara-walker
[3] “Kara Walker,” ArtNet, accessed February 12, 2020, http://www.artnet.com/artists/kara-walker/
I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, 1995-96, Kara Walker, lithograph, 39 1/2 x 35 in., Print Acquisition Fund and gift of P. Raaze Garrison, 99.61 1995-96 © Kara Walker

Object of the Week: Tangerine (Mandarine)

Crisp contours and soft, natural lines form a focus: a fruit—a tangerine—hanging on its stem, framed by four leaves and suspended against a backdrop of white. There are no colors, fine details, or surrounding imagery that confirm it is specifically a tangerine. Yet there is an impulse to see from minimal curves a familiar shape, the ubiquitous form of tree-bearing fruit. From this abstract presentation, the tangerine exudes simple elegance and playful whimsy.

This piece by Ellsworth Kelly is one of 28 lithographs from Suite of Plant Lithographs, published in 1966. As a medium, lithography involves etching a smooth stone and using the repelling properties of oil and water to transcribe images onto paper. In addition to tangerines, the series includes lithographs of various flowers, branches, seaweed, leaves, and other fruits.

Since his passing in 2015, Ellsworth Kelly remains an influential force in Minimalism, Hard-Edge painting, Color Field painting, and Postwar European abstraction. From an early age, Kelly was drawn to the bright watercolor studies of birds by James Audubon. During World War II, Kelly was enlisted into the Ghost Army, a regiment of artists tasked with developing camouflage strategies and inflatable tanks to confound enemy troops. From this wartime experience, Kelly deepened his understanding of abstract colors, forms, and shadows. 1

On his artistic process, Kelly reflected, “I’m constantly investigating nature – nature, meaning everything,” and noted, “I think that if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract.” 2

Tangerine (Mandarine) is visibly different from Kelly’s more recognizable pieces, including this painting from SAM’s collection, White Curve V (1973). Kelly’s work is often recognized by its geometric patterns and shapes punctuated by bold colors and hard lines.

Despite these labels, Kelly transcends them. In White Curve V, the composition initially appears to be flat, simple, and non-representational. Another reading reveals a striking similarity to a close-up of the moon and sky. The color block curves appear to be moving, as they follow natural processions of receding or expanding horizons and seas.

Kelly once said, “I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living, What I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.” 3 From Kelly’s admiration and curiosity for the natural world, it is through his art we are encouraged to see our realities with eyes of wonder and reverence.

– Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Rachel Gershman, “Ellsworth Kelly: American Painter and Sculptor.” ©2019 The Art Story Foundation, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-kelly-ellsworth.htm

2 Rachel Gershman, “Ellsworth Kelly: American Painter and Sculptor.” ©2019 The Art Story Foundation.

3 Holland Cotter, “Ellsworth Kelly, Who Shaped Geometries on a Bold Scale, Dies at 92.” New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015.

Images: Tangerine (Mandarine), 1964-65, Ellsworth Kelly, lithograph on Rives BFK paper, 35 1/4 in. x 24 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.46, © Ellsworth Kelly. White Curve V, 1973, Ellsworth Kelly, oil on canvas
93 1/4 × 91 1/8 in., Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright (by exchange) with funds from the Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund and with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, 76.10, © Ellsworth Kelly.

Object of the Week: Mary, Queen of Scots

“…I could not believe that all these seemingly important contributions of women had been omitted from the mainstream of culture, be it in art, literature, history, or philosophy. My discoveries intersected with the values of my upbringing—which had emphasized the possibility of radical transformation—and led me to conclude that the only real solution to the problems I was facing lay in the creation of an entirely new framework for art: one that included, rather than excluded, women, along with women’s ways of being and doing, which, I was convinced, could be quite different from men’s.”

– Judy Chicago, Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist, 1996

It would be an understatement to summarize Judy Chicago as simply “a pioneering feminist artist,” for her impact is far greater than those four words can suggest. Perhaps best known for her 1979 work The Dinner Party, which celebrates the achievements of women in Western culture, Chicago has throughout her decades-long career dedicated herself to the research and representation of women artists, writers, thinkers, and historical figures. Deploying a wide range of female symbols and domestic craft traditions typically considered “women’s work,” Chicago has redefined the art historical canon and inserted herself—and other women—within it.

In the years prior to The Dinner Party, from 1972 to 1973, Chicago created a series of paintings entitled Great Ladies, dedicated to historical queens such as Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, and Queen Victoria. Considered “abstract portraits,” these paintings served to represent the lives of important women in history and “challenge the overriding presumption that women had no history to speak of.”[1] The pictured lithograph, Mary, Queen of Scots (1973), is based on paintings from the series and bears Chicago’s signature visual style: radiating spiral lines that resemble that of flower petals or sunrays, rendered in soft, muted pastels. Chicago once described her formal approach to the series as an attempt “to make my form-language and color reveal something really specific about a particular woman in history, like the quality of opening and blockage and stopping, the whole quality of a personality.”[2]

In fact, bordering the image is text, written by Chicago in Palmer Method cursive: “This print was originally intended to be brightly colored with a glowing yellow center and a blue-green outside edge. It was to be titled Mary Tudor/Mary Sunshine—Mary Tudor, the Queen, daughter of Henry the 8th and Catherine of Aragon; Mary Sunshine, the printer. As I’ve worked, the image changed, becoming more subdued and quiet. Now it reminds me of Mary, Queen of Scots, the proud woman locked up in the tower for her ambitiousness.” This first-person description sheds light on Chicago’s process, as well as the specificity and closeness she feels to the women she portrays.

Despite the historical debates that still center on Mary, Queen of Scots, Chicago celebrates her accomplishments as an ambitious woman and role as a major political figure in 16th-century Europe. In the words of the artist, “One reason for my staunch and abiding commitment to feminism is that I believe its principles provide valuable tools for empowerment—and not only for women. In my view, feminist values are rooted in an alternative to the prevailing paradigm of power, which is power over others. By contrast, feminism promotes personal empowerment, something that, when connected to education, becomes a potent tool for change.”[3]

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Judy Chicago, Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 36.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/07/t-magazine/judy-chicago-dinner-party.html

[3] Chicago, 27.

Image: Mary, Queen of Scots, 1973, Judy Chicago, lithograph, 20 x 20 in., Gift of Bruce Guenther, 82.189.

The Late Caprichos of Goya: A Gift to the SAM Libraries

During the exhibition, Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb, the SAM Libraries is showcasing an exceptional work in the Lockwood Foundation Living Room near the exhibition entrance.

We are honored to present an important recent gift to the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library: Late Caprichos of Goya: Fragments from a Series (New York: Walker & Co., in association with the Department of Print and Graphic Arts, Harvard College Library, 1971). This limited edition illustrated book, with photomechanical lithograph reproductions and six original etchings, was donated in 2015 by Stuart and Beverly Denenberg.

Why is this work on Francisco José Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828), published in the 1970s, so special? In short: exceptional scholarship in a beautifully-produced volume, containing extremely rare prints. Written and compiled by Eleanor A. Sayre (American, 1916-2001), one of the first female curators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, this work has been described as “a book of exceptional quality . . . and importance.” The Late Caprichos of Goya: Fragments from a Series was published in an edition of 150 copies, with the Bullitt Library’s copy being number 79. It is the only known publicly-accessible copy in the Pacific Northwest.

The rare prints that are included in this work were created from three double-sided copper plates Goya made in the 1820s. Thirty years after Goya’s death, the plates were purchased in Spain by an English diplomat, John Savile Lumley (British, 1818-1896), from Goya’s grandson. They eventually made their way to the London firm of P. & D. Colnaghi where they lay in a drawer for over a decade, until they were bought by Harvard librarian and print scholar, Philip Hofer (American, 1898-1984), in the 1930s—notice the PH embossed in each print at lower right.

Witch on a Swing

In the 18th century, according to the Royal Spanish Academy Diccionario de la lengua castellana (Madrid 1791), the word, “capricho” meant “In works of poetry, music, and painting, it is that which is done by the power of invention rather than by adherence to rules of art. It is also called fantasy.”

Goya completed these caprichos in 1825, a quarter century after the original series of 1799. Those earlier prints can be read as political and clerical critiques, and made Goya an important moralist to those contemporaries who truly understood their meaning. Goya published the original series during the reign of Carlos IV, hoping that enlightened men and women would see and heed his criticisms, and that some public good might result from the work. For this later series, which is believed to be only the fragmentary beginning, there are—unlike the original series—no titles or details which may have caused trouble. In her commentary, Sayre wonders: “We shall probably never know how great a risk the old artist intended to take.” He was then 80 years old and died three years later.

Maja, after Goya

goya-installation-3

To see the book and these late caprichos in person, visit the Lockwood Foundation Living Room, just inside the exhibition. While there, take time to peruse some of the great resources selected by the SAM Librarians in the pop-up library.

– Traci Timmons, Librarian, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Photos: Natali Wiseman.