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Object of the Week: Weltempfänger

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

“My antennas were also meant to be ‘feelers,’ things you stretch out to feel something, like the sound of the world and its many tones.”[1]

– Isa Genzken

Metal antennae extend full-length from a series of seven objects resembling vintage shortwave radios. Heads tilt and ears pique while viewing Isa Genzken’s Weltempfänger—translated literally as “world receivers”—expecting the cast concrete to make audible the signals they’ve received from unknown sources. Although silent, the antennae appear deliberately and mysteriously tuned at slight angles; they must be picking up something. Can’t we hear it, or are we not listening––or looking––hard enough?

Isa Genzken (German, b. 1948) is regarded as one of the most influential contemporary artists of the last 40 years, working in sculpture and a variety of multidisciplinary media. In the late 1970s to early 80s, Genzken gained prominence for her series of floor-based sculptures in the complex and elegant shapes of Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos. Handcrafted in lacquered wood from computer designs created in collaboration with physicist Ralph Krotz, the elongated, colorful sculptures drew from the geometric forms of Minimalism, but offered more nuanced connections to industrial design, digital technology, and commercial production. During this same period in 1982, Genzken exhibited her only stand-alone readymade sculpture, a functional radio receiver entitled Weltempfänger (World Receiver), which solidified her continued interests in consumer culture, value, and material.

By the late 1980s, Genzken departed abruptly from the refined forms of her ellipsoids to rough-hewn sculptures made of concrete and plaster. She began an ongoing series, casting concrete weltempfängersof various sizes and groupings, where the receivers take on symbolic roles of relics or ruins rather than functional devices, such as the 1982 readymade. The simple forms are layered with meaning. Together, the radio, a medium of power or opposition, and concrete, a material of ruin or reconstruction, evoke connections to a postwar Germany that Genzken experienced firsthand. More broadly, the receivers ask us to consider how communication is transmitted and received, and how we decide what is made permanent or temporary.

In this present moment, the receivers offer a resonance more immediate. Facing a public health crisis that compels us to connect more and more through technology, and to seek out news and facts in order to keep our communities safe, these world receivers provide a moment to “stretch out to feel something,” and to contemplate how we look, listen, and decide what we value and make permanent for the future.

Philip Nadasdy, SAM Associate Director of Public Engagement

P.S. Weltempfänger also makes an excellent group costume! Here’s SAM’s curatorial team on Halloween, 2019.

Images: Weltempfänger, 2018, Isa Genzken, concrete, brick, and metal antennae in seven parts, overall: 62 x 54 x 20 in., Purchased with funds provided by Virginia Wright and the Contemporary Collectors Forum. Additional support provided by Jon and Kim Shirley, Ann and Bruce Blume, Lynn and Mikal Thomsen, and Carol Kipling and David Tseklenis., 2018.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Isa Genzken, Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos, Kunsthalle Wien, 2014. Weltempfänger (World Receiver), 1982, Isa Genzken, Multiband radio receiver. Photo: Natali Wiseman.
[1] Diedrich Diederichsen, “Diedrich Diederichsen in Conversation with Isa Genzken,” in Alex Farquharson et al., Isa Genzken (London: Phaidon, 2006), 25; reprinted in Lisa Lee, ed., Isa Genzken (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 120.

Object of the Week: Untitled

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

Broad black strokes cut across paper, precise sweeps of motion that hold bold strength. Ink trails downward in sharp ribbons dissolving into mist, which run down into watery pools. The shape is abstract, yet gives a sense of dynamism and flow that fully utilizes the monochromatic black that it’s painted in. This piece, left untitled by abstract artist and calligrapher Toko Shinoda, is not intended to have specific form. Instead it seeks to capture a feeling, although what that feeling may be, we’ll never know for certain. Each piece of art she makes is a piece of herself, and each is made meticulously to reflect the “her” that painted it.

At around 107 years old, Shinoda has had a lot of “her” to paint. The daughter of a calligrapher herself, Shinoda has been using a brush and sumi ink since she was six, and has not stopped using them since. For the first 40 years of her life, she focused on calligraphy; an art form traditional to Japanese women, as well as one of few career paths initially open to them. She was extremely successful and exhibited her works all over Japan. The more Shinoda created, the more abstract her pieces became. This resulted in a shift toward Abstract Expressionist art after an exhibition in New York in 1953. Having spent so much of her career trying to strictly copy the work of master calligraphers, she was impressed by the formal freedom of American artists. Abstract Expressionism, she felt, was what she really wanted to achieve with her ink.

Since then, Shinoda has gained international acclaim for her prolific melding of traditional and modern approaches. However, despite her fame, she denies all awards and recognition. Time magazine might write about her, museums may acquire her work and display them in a place of high regard, but she will not take any titles or cash gifts for her accomplishments. The only honor she has accepted is a set of stamps: hers are the first artworks by a living artist to be featured on official Japanese stamps.

Even now, Shinoda paints every day to keep her art, and herself, alive. It is said that all artists go through a process called 守破離 (shu-ha-ri) in their lifetimes. The “shu” being adherence to art form and tradition, the “ha” being a departure from it. Shinoda embodies the final step, “ri”: transcendence through focus and mastery that allows for creative freedom. Still, even though Shinoda is free in her creation, she refuses to be satisfied by the style she developed, and strives to master delicacy in her work. Discontented with safety in art, she will always paint things that require precise balance, capturing that fleeting moment of experience and self.

– Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Untitled, 1965, Toko Shinoda, lithograph, 25 3/4 x 19 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 66.11 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Focus No. 37

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

From across a gallery, Focus No. 37 looks like the face of someone seen in passing. The person might appear vaguely familiar, prompting the viewer to stop and focus. But the face does not become any clearer after directing attention to the image, or moving closer. Instead, it is the white threads that wind across the surface of the portrait to form a neat braid that become more visible. The threads further obscure an already out-of-focus photograph, making the individual’s age and gender seem ambiguous.

This work is part of the Focus series by artist Lin Tianmiao, who created multiple portraits of herself, family members, and friends modified by her thread-winding technique. Her artistic practice often involves materials associated with domestic labor and the Chinese household during the 1960s and 70s. Reflecting on her personal association with white cotton thread, Lin recalls the childhood chore of unwinding old uniforms and gloves provided by state-owned “work units,” or danwei, and rewinding them into sweaters, tablecloths, hats, and curtains for family use or to exchange with relatives and friends.1

Speaking about the connection between her choice of materials and her own memories, Lin remarks, “When I look back at the materials I chose over the years and think about why I chose thread and other soft materials, I think it has to do with my personal experience. When I was a child, my [mom] sometimes asked me to help her with housework. It was actually like a form of corporal punishment in that it stamped a physical memory on me. When I came back [to China] from America and saw those kinds of materials again, I thought to myself: this is it, these are going to be my materials. It happened very naturally. Also, since I did a lot of housework when I was a child, it helped me acquire endurance and tenacity.” 2

While the thread in Focus No. 37 does produce the effect of obscuring the photograph beneath, the central braid humanizes an anonymous face by bringing to mind a familiar haptic act. Just as Lin Tianmiao describes her memories of housework, the viewer might think about their experiences braiding someone’s hair, having their own hair braided, or someone they know with braided hair. In this way, the work raises the question of how identity is formed. Individuals are not only defined by their outward appearance, but also by their everyday actions and practices.

Yaoyao Liu, SAM Museum Educator

1 https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/interview-lin-tianmiao-art-influence-and-bodily-reaction-inspiration

2 https://www.tate.org.uk/research/research-centres/tate-research-centre-asia/women-artists-contemporary-china/lin-tianmiao

Image: Focus No. 37, 2004, Lin Tian Miao, black-and-white photograph on vinyl with white embroidery, 55 1/8 × 66 15/16 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2004.25, © Lin Tianmiao.

Object of the Week: Artist with African Inspiration

Meschac Gaba takes much inspiration from the streets of Cotonou, Benin, the city where he was born. The artist, full of clarity and humor about the nature of his work, understands the power of art in social environments. 

After finding millions (Gaba’s estimate) of cut banknotes on the street, the artist started incorporating money into his work. This was the early 1990s, when Benin first devalued currency, and Gaba was fascinated. 

In Artist with African Inspiration: Salle de Francophonie (2004), Gaba prints new images on a West African 1000 CFA franc. On the back of the original bill, a chalkboard appears on the lower right side with the letters “abc” in cursive. However, Gaba replaces the letters and uses the chalkboard to frame his own face—smiling. On the left side of the bill appears an image of one of the artist’s braided hair sculptures as well. It’s a small revision, and it’s cheeky. 

Gaba employs the same intervention with an American dollar bill in Artist with American Inspiration: 4 World Financial Center, swapping out our stately eagle for his face (again, smiling). One of Gaba’s sculptures appears on the left as well. These could be read as ironic: an act of empowerment or a moment of tongue-in-cheek capitalist self-promotion.

However you might interpret his actions, Gaba uses everyday objects to continually play with questions of global trade and economy, and call attention to the modern conditions that drive us to constantly earn, measure, and compete against one another. Through his artistic practice, he questions who can be an artist, and how artists can create space.

Jenae Williams, Exhibitions and Publications Associate

Artist with African Inspiration: Salle de Francophonie, 2004, Meschac Gaba, pigmented inkjet print, 17 15/16 x 35 1/16in., Gift of Vascovitz Family, 2012.22.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Artist with American Inspiration: 4 World Financial Center, 2004, Meschac Gaba, pigmented inkjet print, 18 1/8 x 42 15/16 in., Gift of Vascovitz Family, 2012.22.1 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Uncle Thomas

Despite becoming interested in art relatively late in life, Titus Kaphar quickly built an impressive career by blurring the line between art and activism. Through his use of paint, tar, sculpting, and a wide range of other techniques, Kaphar uses his work to recontextualize and reimagine the way we look at history. This includes literal instances of altering history by crumpling, shredding, and reforming well-known images.

With his 2008 painting Uncle Thomas, Kaphar uses his gift for portraiture to shift an age-old archetype. The term “Uncle Tom,” named after the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has long been used to promote a picture of blackness that centers on obedience and servitude. In this work from SAM’s collection, Kaphar takes inspiration from his real-life uncle Thomas to display his updated perception of the name. By placing his uncle—a well-respected, land-owning black man—at the center of Uncle Thomas, Kaphar exchanges an image of servitude and oppression for one of strength, dignity, and authority. During Black History Month especially, Kaphar’s art represents an important example of empowerment and support within one’s own community.

This work is less experimental than other pieces Kaphar has created in more recent years, but its bold confrontation of history is representative of the artist’s larger body of work. Kaphar’s willingness to challenge complicated historical narratives directly through images has driven him to work with Time magazine and receive several accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018. Through his unique approach, Kaphar is altering the way many view our nation’s past while shining a light on the unheard voices and forgotten faces of history.

Michael Miller, SAM Communications Intern

Image: Uncle Thomas, 2008, Titus Kaphar, tar on paper, 48 x 36 in., Contemporary Art Support Fund, 2009.31 © Titus Kaphar

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: Wounded Eagle No. 10

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

“I wait until intuition moves me, and then I begin.”

– James Washington, Jr.

Though born and raised in Mississippi, James Washington, Jr. is proudly remembered as a seminal Northwest artist and member of the Northwest School. Close to other notable artists from the region, like George Tsutakawa, Mark Tobey, and Morris Graves, Washington shared an affinity for the natural world. Surely informed by his upbringing—his father was a Baptist minister—Washington’s work also possessed spiritual elements, further connecting him to his cohort of Northwest artists. In Washington’s words, “art is a holy land where initiates seek to reveal the spirituality of matter.”

Before moving to Seattle in 1944, Washington taught as a WPA artist in Mississippi. Upon his arrival in the Pacific Northwest, he worked in the Bremerton Naval Yard as an electrician. Then a painter, he was soon introduced to Mark Tobey, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. As Washington continued to navigate Seattle’s arts community, he also traveled and, in 1951, visited the famed social realist painters Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros in Mexico. Although this meeting was the impetus for the trip, it was another experience altogether that altered Washington’s artistic trajectory: when visiting the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán, he was drawn to a piece of volcanic rock which he couldn’t leave behind—this stone would be the first of many sculptures Washington would carve, and the reason for his move away from painting.

Wounded Eagle No. 10 (1963) is just one of seven stone sculptures by Washington in SAM’s collection. It is a tender and sorrowful image, rendered delicately by the artist despite its granite medium. And while Washington would carve a variety of animals and humans, birds were a recurring subject—the eagle, in particular, for its symbolism of salvation and ascension. Guided by a self-described ‘spiritual force’ intrinsic to his geologic materials, Washington would alter his stones only slightly, preferring instead to let their natural form, shape, and coloration determine the subject matter. Moved by intuition, he considered himself a conduit through which art would reveal itself.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Wounded Eagle No. 10, 1963, James Washington, Jr., granite, 8 x 10 5/8 x 13 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.159 © James W. Washington

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: Rat water dropper

Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.

Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.

Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119