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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.”

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: #10

As part of the For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative put on by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, we’re contextualizing works in SAM’s collection within today’s political atmosphere. The program is inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

For this week’s post, we’re focusing on freedom from fear by looking at Frederic Edwin Church’s A Country Home painted in 1854, just seven years before the American Civil War. The painting illustrates an idyllic landscape, lush with vegetation and a tranquil pond. The mood is calm and serene with the sun casting a warm, comforting glow. Church, a member of the Hudson River School, paints the American landscape as a modern-day Eden. The artist’s view of his time and place is one of optimism, hope, and contentment.

 

As we compare Church’s work to Mark Rothko’s abstraction #10, painted in 1952, the differences couldn’t be greater. Rothko’s work was completed just 98 years after A Country Home, but during this period humanity witnessed two world wars (the second of which perhaps had the greatest impact on the views of artists). How much did their views of America change, as well as the times they lived in? After the horrors of World War II, how could one paint idyllic landscapes? Yet, even though freedom won the War, fear persevered—the ugly side of the human race was exposed. As a result, art turned abstract and humanity collectively wept.

So this brings us to today: even if divisiveness, racism, and hatred are overcome, what lasting effect will these times have on our art and how we view our time and place? If equality, respect, and compassion win politically, will we still be free from fear? Or is it too late and have we already exposed the darker sides of ourselves?

– Manish Engineer, SAM Chief Technology Officer

Images:
#10, 1952, Mark Rothko, oil on canvas, 81 3/4 x 42 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. (207.65 x 107.95 x 5.72 cm), Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 91.98, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. A Country Home, 1854, Frederic Edwin Church, oil on canvas, 32 x 51 in. (81.3 x 129.5 cm.), Gift of Anna Robeson Baker Carmichael, 65.80.

SAM Art: A Red Rothko

“What do you see?”

This question creates the framework for John Logan’s play Red (currently running at the Seattle Rep), centered on painter Mark Rothko; it also provides a point of departure for an investigation of Rothko’s painting.

Rothko had worked in a traditional, figural mode early in his career, and dabbled in surrealism for a time, before finally arriving at his signature composition of pulsing blocks of color. For different viewers, the forms which emerge are stubbornly objective, ranging from biota to landscapes, humans to storm clouds. However, the strong verticality of works such as this resolutely assert their abstraction, mesmerizing viewers with a maintained focus on color and light.

#10, 1952, Mark Rothko (American, born Russia, 1903-1970), oil on canvas, 81 3/4 x 42 1/2 x 2 1/4 in., Partial and promised gift of Bagley and Virginia Wright, 91.98. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.Currently on view in the Modern and Contemporary art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.