Come Back to SAM! Everyone must get tickets online in advance of their visit. Get yours today »

Object of the Week: Woman Playing a Harp

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.

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) was born in Switzerland, but she traveled extensively throughout Europe in her early life. She started painting by assisting her father, a muralist, but she was somewhat of a child prodigy who quickly developed her own career as a history painter and portraitist, which soon supported both her and her father. At age 25, she moved to London, where she made such an impact on the arts community and market that a contemporary quipped, “The whole world has gone Angelica-mad.”[1] At age 27, she was elected as one of two female members of London’s newly-formed Royal Academy of Arts (RA). Kauffman’s trademark was to put female subjects first and foremost, and she often used her own likeness. Her Neoclassical personifications of art were more than the inert Renaissance damsels commonly used: they were women artists (see Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting below). Pretty impressive stuff.

Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting

But even knowing this illustrious resume, the feeling that pervades this possible self-portrait Woman Playing a Harp (ca. 1778) is one of uncertainty. The woman’s fingers seem too hesitant to be making any sound, and her eyes telegraph a wariness of her audience. My reading could be influenced by the strange times we currently find ourselves in, but I don’t think it’s just me. A Seattle Art Museum staff member, working from home, gave this painting new life as a quality art meme.

The more I looked into Angelica Kauffman’s work, the more I witnessed refreshing moments of “un-confidence.” Just look at Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (1791). Kauffman was a talented cellist and singer, and as a young woman she was torn between a career in painting and one in the opera. This self-portrait honestly portrays the common agony of having to choose a life path, decades after Kauffman chose painting. Many women today can likely identify with this feeling: you can be London’s finest hostess, speak five languages, take the art world by storm, and still feel completely unsure and inadequate sometimes. And that’s okay.

Admittedly, there are benefits to being multi-talented. Kauffman was commissioned not only for portraits and history paintings, but also for decorative work that adorned some of England’s greatest estates. However, her practice was not easily categorized in a culture of male super-painters, and this brought its own challenges. In the words of painter and Kauffman scholar Sarah Pickstone, “She was so flexible as an artist, making furniture decorations, ceiling decorations, that when the Victorians came along, they dismissed her as a purely decorative artist, and I think that can sometimes happen to women’s work.”[2] Kauffman’s history as a founding member of the RA was largely erased after her death, and over a century passed before the academy elected any more female members.[3]

Kauffman’s legacy has started to shift, however, as creative historians have come to appreciate her complex life and practice, including those “feminine” decorative arts. It follows a promising trend toward women being valued for their professional activities and qualities outside of a patriarchal framework. The RA is bringing Kauffman back into their history by planning a major exhibition of her work for Summer 2020. Though it may likely be postponed, as the museum is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus, that’s just another uncertainty we will have to embrace.

Linnea Hodge, SAM Curatorial Coordinator

[1] Brighton Museums, “Angelica Kauffman: An Eighteenth-Century ‘Wunderkind,’” 19 February 2015, https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2015/02/19/angelica-kauffman-an-eighteenth-century-wunderkind
[2] Royal Academy of Arts podcast, “Sarah Pickstone and Rommi Smith discuss Angelica Kauffman,” 3 April 2018
[3] Annette Wickham, “A ‘Female Invasion’ 250 Years in the Making,” 13 May 2018
Images: Woman Playing a Harp, ca. 1778,Angelica Kauffman, oil on canvas, 34 7/8 x 27 1/4 in., Gift of Mrs. Lew V. Day in memory of her husband, 66.63. Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794, Angelica Kauffman, oil on canvas, 70 x 98 in., Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire

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

SAM on TV, Seattle’s new arts hub, and pink collar jobs

SAM News

Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer was featured in a spring arts preview on KING 5’s Evening Magazine’s March 14 episode, and the writers of Teen Tix highlighted the show in their email newsletter.

Because we could all use some laughs: Classic British Comedy Films is now playing weekly at SAM; the series was included on the Stranger’s list of “Movies Worth Watching in Seattle.”

Local News

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig takes a life-changing coffee break, encountering a “brave and stirring painting of a dignified small-toothed whale.”

Watch Jen Dev’s video story for Crosscut on the Black Trans Prayer Book, an interfaith, interdisciplinary project created by J Mase III and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi.

The Seattle Times’ Brendan Kiley explores the new and shiny ARTS at King Street Station, along with its inaugural exhibition, yəhaw̓—go see it this weekend!

The King Street project, from rumor to reality, was a team effort between the city and its arts community. “I’ve been using a coral-reef metaphor,” Engstrom said. “We all put this thing here, like a reef. Now we’ll see what will come and go, what will make a home here and how it will change.”

Inter/National News

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper reports that London’s National Portrait Gallery will not accept a €1 million grant from the Sackler Trust; the Sackler family is under fire for their role in the opioid epidemic.

Hey, it’s Women’s History Month. Let’s explore the perils of the pink collar with this just-released report from the Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM).

The Guardian’s Hamilton Nolan on New York City’s Hudson Yards, the biggest private real estate development in US history (spoiler alert: he HATES it).

But let it not be said that Hudson Yards does not promote the arts. It will be centered around “The Vessel”, a 15-story high answer to the question: “How much money could a rich man waste building a climbable version of an MC Escher drawing?” (The answer is $200m.)

And Finally

“Thank you my life long afternoon/late in this spring that has no age”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Image: Installation view of Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer at Seattle Art Museum, 2019, photo: Stephanie Fink

Object of the Week: Illumination from the Book of Kells

No celebration of Women’s (or Womxn’s, if you prefer) History Month would be complete without a mention of International Women’s Day, a holiday in March celebrated worldwide with roots in early 20-century Socialist demonstrations for increased visibility and support for female workers.[1] Although International Women’s Day 2019 has already passed, Theodora L. Harrison’s meticulous reproduction of a medieval illumination is a wonderful reminder of the value of artistic work created by women.

Harrison (born in Ireland in 1890) lived in Seattle for over 20 years and enjoyed a prolific career as an illustrator, watercolorist, local art gallery director, and president of the Women Painters of Washington association. Throughout her life, Harrison achieved international success as an illustrator, and championed diverse artists at the Little Gallery in the Fredrick and Nelson department store, right here in Seattle.

This illustration is a precise rendering of the Latin text “Tunc crucifixerant,” from folio 124r from the Book of Kells, one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts in Western European Medieval History, created sometime in the ninth century.[2] The original work is famed for its intensely detailed illustrations, featuring teeming organic forms which bring its religious text to life. These illustrations were incredibly labor intensive and show an undeniable level of devotion, labor, and skill. A millennia later, Harrison’s renderings demonstrate an equal level of devotion and exertion, though for a different cause. Her vibrant pigments sharply contrast with the blank white background, forcing the viewer to focus on minuscule details and dizzying intertwined forms, which she recreates deftly.

Her fantastic illustration, along with numerous other reproductions of medieval manuscripts, was sponsored as part of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in an effort to instill public confidence in government-subsidized projects following the Great Depression. Along with changing public perception, this federally funded project also aimed to catalog and elevate the work of artists in the United States, showing a commitment to the social and economic value of artistic labor. Along with works of so-called fine art, this project also elevated other types of art production in the United States, including illustration and arts and crafts, which featured far more works by women.

Harrison’s valued contributions to the PWAP show an estimation of her time, effort, and skill as a female working artist. Her work in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection help continues to celebrate her contributions to the artistic community in Seattle, and participate in the long legacy of hard work and dedication of women artists.

Siri Benn, Curatorial Intern

Image: Illumination from the Book of Kells, from the Series, Examples of Illumination and Heraldry, Federal Public works of Art Project, Region #16, Washington State, 1934 or 1935, Theodora Harrison, ink and watercolor on simulated vellum, sheet size: 7 3/4 x 10 3/4 in., Federal Public Works of Art Project, Region #16, Washington State, 2013.6.8 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

[1] “International Women’s Day History | International Women’s Day | The University of Chicago,”  https://iwd.uchicago.edu/page/international-womens-day-history#1909TheFirstNationalWoman’sDayintheUS

[2] “Book of Kells,” https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=MS58_003v

Object of the Week: Mending the Tears

This etching, Mending the Tears, by Winslow Homer is often celebrated for its quiet dignity, beauty, and composition. Scholars look to, for example, “the strong but simple modeling of the two girls, the boldness of their silhouettes against the misty background, and the play of the erect girl’s posture against that of the bent-over mender,” and “the relaxed crossing of feet or the curl of hair casually freeing itself from the formality of a bun,” as examples of Homer’s mastery.[1]

Homer is rightly renowned for his contributions to American painting and printmaking, but less addressed in the scholarship surrounding this work are the actions of the depicted women—mending a net and darning a sock—from which the title bears its name. Once we consider the date of Mending the Tears, made during the middle of the women’s suffrage movement in 1888, this romanticized image of women doing domestic work takes on different meaning.

The women’s suffrage movement, which began in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, is inextricable from the history of women’s labor in the United States. At the time, many working class women, enduring 14-hour shifts in garment factories and textile mills, would participate in the kind of work pictured in Mending the Tears, albeit on a much larger scale and in less picturesque settings. However, as early as 1844, women activists were speaking out against the working conditions of these workplaces: women working in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA); in 1866, shoe stitchers formed the first national women’s labor union, the Daughters of St. Crispin; and, that same year, newly freed black women in Jackson, Mississippi also formed a union demanding higher wages, The Washerwomen of Jackson. The list of such accomplishments, driven by women workers across the country, goes on.

The labor movement was largely inspired by the republican values of a just society, social equality, and virtuous labor, as well as the socialist theories of David Ricardo. Mending the Tears, based on a watercolor made by Homer in 1882 while in England, beautifully captures one version of 19th-century life—and the role of women within it—but it is an idyllic one, and one at odds with much of the social and political changes taking place in the United States during the late 19th century.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Philip C. Beam, Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck (Lanham, Maryland: Down East Books, 1966), 58; Doug Gruse, “‘Impressions’ of a master,” The Post-Star, October 5, 2008.
Images: Mending the Tears, 1888, Winslow Homer, etching, 17 3/4 x 22 7/8 in., Josephine and Windsor Utley Purchase Fund, 98.21. Photograph by Lewis Hine. Women strikers in the early 19th century.

Object of the Week: Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper

In recognition of International Women’s Day, as well as Women’s History Month, this week we look at Mary Beth Edelson’s Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper. Printed during a historic decade of feminist activity, this 1972 lithograph takes Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Last Supper and replaces the biblical male figures with contemporary female artists. Jesus, represented instead as Georgia O’Keeffe, sits at the center of the (literal and proverbial) table alongside a number of other pioneering women artists: Miriam Schapiro, Hannah Wilke, Yoko Ono, Faith Ringgold, Lee Bontecou, Eleanor Antin, Agnes Martin, Lee Krasner, Carolee Schneeman, Lynda Benglis, Alice Neel—the list goes on. In the spirit of this feminist work, one that gives representation to an international and overlooked roster of women, below are four quotes from four generations of feminist writers, philosophers, and activists: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), Luce Irigaray (b. 1930), bell hooks (b. 1952), and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (b. 1977).

 To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue nonetheless to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other. The reciprocity of their relations will not do away with the miracles—desire, possession, love, dream, adventure—worked by the division of human beings into two separate categories; and the words that move us—giving, conquering, uniting—will not lose their meaning. On the contrary, when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form.

– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1952[1]  

How can I say it? That we are women from the start. That we don’t have to be turned into women by them, labeled by them, made holy and profaned by them. That that has always already happened, without their efforts. And that their history, their stories, constitute the locus of our displacement. It’s not that we have a territory of our own; but their fatherland, family, home, discourse, imprison us in enclosed spaces where we cannot keep on moving, living, as ourselves. Their properties are our exile.

– Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 1977[2]

Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.

– bell hooks, Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics, 2000[3]

Some people ask: “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists, 2014[4]

[1] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1952), 767.

[2] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 212.

[3] bell hooks, Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics (New York: Routledge, 2000), 123-124.

[4] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists (New York: Anchor Books, 2014), n.p.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper, 1972, Mary Beth Edelson, offset lithograph, 37 1/2 in. x 20 3/4 in., Leonardo Lives Exhibition Fund, 98.14 © Mary Beth Edelson

Can You Name Five Women Artists?

This March, Seattle Art Museum is participating in a social media campaign led by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) to celebrate Women’s History Month in a new way.

The goal is for museums across the country to share information about women artists—their histories, birthdays, quotes, and more—using the hashtag #5womenartists to highlight works in their collections and exhibitions made by women.

The impetus for the project? According to the campaign’s press release:

“Through #5womenartists, the Women’s Museum hopes to help the public answer the question—without hesitation—‘Can you name five women artists?’” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “By calling attention to the inequity women artists face today as well as in the past, we hope to inspire conversation and awareness.”

We all know the artists that most people are able to list off automatically, right?  The list usually goes a little something like…Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Lange, etc. And they are all fantastic women artists worthy of such recognition! But there’s so many more out there. Our goal at SAM is to share a wider range of women that may not be as well known, including women of color and more contemporary artists, all from our collection.

We’re going to share more than five women artists here, and here is the first: a collaboration by artists Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven (under the group moniker DAFT KUNTZ) called SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN. The piece tends to speak for itself in terms of why we’re highlighting it first, and it was a comment made by a male colleague to the artists. How you choose to view it—as a compliment, or as a statement highlighting the fact that the art world still defines most achievements as defined by men—is up to you. But we love the work because it confronts the fact that there is a significant gender imbalance in the art world, (their representation, and exposure to them and their works) head-on.

A few other museums are participating in this campaign, including: Brooklyn Museum, The J. Paul Getty Museum, The National Gallery of Art, the New Museum, LACMA, and more.

Be sure to check back for more posts about women artists we think you should know from SAM’s collection.

We’d also love our readers’ participation in this important initiative. Who are #5womenartists everyone should know?

IMAGE: SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN, 2012, DAFT KUNTZ, Collaboration between Victoria Haven and Dawn Cerny, Victoria Haven, American, born 1964, Dawn Cerny, American, born 1979, Silkscreen on paper, 33 1/2 x 26 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Matthew Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser with funds from the 2013 Neddy Award in Painting, 2015.2.1, © Victoria Haven and Dawn Cerny, Photo: Natali Wiseman.