Each of us carries with us a lens, or lenses, through which we view the world, and that lens colors and shapes our perception of, and response to, all the sights, sounds, and smells we encounter. It’s no different when we’re viewing art. Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions. Art historians produce scholarship that discusses a certain object, maker, or concept—but the questions they ask in the process reveal as much about the perspective of the scholar as they do about the object or artist under discussion. Likewise, it’s fascinating to tour through the galleries and eavesdrop on the unfiltered musings of museumgoers to the variety of art we have on display at SAM. Those comments say something about the art and the speaker.
One object that’s commented on less frequently than I’d wish is this diminutive wood Amulet with mummified monkey—a piece that acts, for me, as an ever-present reminder of Dr. Fuller and his collecting principles, so neatly reflected in this ancient, tiny figurative sculpture. Dr. Fuller, who held a Ph.D. in geology and maintained scholarly pursuits in that field throughout his tenure leading SAM (1933–1973), collected many small, old, and odd things. Disinterested in value, he instead sought out rarity. His guiding question was: Does it have a unique character—an “essential factor”? That question drove him to acquire items like this mystifying Amulet, about which little was known when Dr. Fuller purchased it from J. Khawam & Cie, Cairo, for $240 in 1955.
It had few facts to recommend it, but it was a curious piece that provoked questions for Dr. Fuller and would do the same for others. Shortly after acquiring the Amulet, Dr. Fuller received this letter from William K. Simpson, a research associate at the American Research Center in Cairo:
Simpson’s desire to research and publish the Amulet with mummified monkey encouraged Dr. Fuller to seek out expert opinions from fields that were tangentially related to the piece, aiming to solve some of the quandaries it presented. Outside experts brought to the Amulet their own questions. Professor Bror L. Grondal of the College of Forestry at the University of Washington examined the piece in 1956 to determine what kind of wood composes it:
Meanwhile, Robert T. Hatt, a mammalogist at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan, had been researching ancient and contemporary animals of the Near East. In his letter of June 25, 1956, Hatt shared with Dr. Fuller his thoughts and questions regarding what species of monkey (or ape) might be represented in the Amulet:
Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions—but to make our contribution, we have to actually ask them. Your curiosity could spark mine or someone else’s, and whether or not we ever arrived at fixed answers, the summation of our questions reveals infinitely more than one viewpoint ever could.
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Images: Amulet with mummified monkey, ca. 2920-2649 B.C., Egyptian, Early Dynastic period, wood, 3 3/16 x 11/16 x 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.136, Photo: Natali Wiseman.
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery,
serving something beyond me.
– “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes
Why do I visit museums and what do I hope to encounter there?
There are as many answers to that question as there are people to answer it, and actually more, because I would respond differently depending on the day. I might want something challenging and make it my goal to find something like that, or I might want to be awed by something made with otherworldly skill. But why would I go to the museum? What’s so significant about what’s here, and does it matter that I have to be here—and nowhere else—to see it? On some days I make the case for the museum by saying that the art in our galleries tells important stories in the history of the world, including ones that are still unfolding today.
Standing face-to-face with an original and unique artwork can be a deeply moving experience. I remember vividly when I “met” Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. I would argue, though, that the uniqueness—the idea that this thing is one-of-a-kind, and that only when I am standing with my two feet here, at this specific spot in the world, can I know it this way—is only part of the specialness of the museum. What completes it is the network of art-making across the whole of human history. It wouldn’t matter much to us if this were the only David by Michelangelo if not for the artist’s role in shaping the visual art of his time and managing to influence artists hundreds of years after his death. That entire conversation is what makes this moment of emphatic punctuation so gripping.
SAM’s painting of The Judgment of Paris by Lucas Cranach the Elder is not exactly notable for its uniqueness (though it is a pristine original). It’s a great painting because of its place in the story.
A highly productive artist and one who was especially drawn to this theme, Cranach produced at least ten similar paintings. There are wonderful examples in the collections of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the St. Louis Art Museum; and several European museums. Cranach has sometimes been criticized for the very fact that he was so productive. He established a studio and could be seen—from one perspective—as churning out pretty pictures, maybe investing less in the paintings, and making the artworks less remarkable.
From another perspective, he was a trailblazer: a skilled and highly successful artist. Cranach was a pioneer for the nude painting in Northern Renaissance art. In The Judgment of Paris, he’s couching his sexy idea in a scene from classical mythology that made it culturally acceptable. He paints the goddesses in three different, seductive poses. As the story goes, Paris, who is represented in the picture by the dozing fellow in armor, was on a hunting trip in the woods when he got lost, tied up his horse, and fell asleep. Mercury, here shown as an older man with an elaborate plumed costume, came to him in a dream to present him with Juno, Minerva, and Venus. His task: to choose the fairest. Maybe Cranach was remarking on the difficulty of rating goddesses when he painted these three almost indistinguishable nudes. That they are anatomically a bit awkward reflects the newness of the nude in Northern European art when Cranach was working.
While there are others like it, there are certain charms to this painting one can only enjoy in person. Cranach painted it on an unusually thick piece of oak that has gone back to its original curvature, as panels tend to do over time. The flat frame around the curved panel creates a quirky and interesting viewing experience. The intimate size of the painting and the precision of its detail are other features one can really only appreciate in the gallery. Apparently the painting is also magnetic to fingers: SAM conservators have had to care for it multiple times after folks put their grubby paws on it. If you feel so compelled, just think: it might be your last opportunity to see the original.
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Images:The Judgment of Paris, ca. 1516-1518, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Wittenberg, 1472-1553), oil on wood, 25 x 16 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, LeRoy M. Backus Collection, 52.38.
There is an old Asante saying, “Only the lion drinks from the palm-wine pot of the leopard.”
The phrase has a lot of charm for those who come to it unaware of the story and significance behind it. You might tuck it away for a moment when you want to say something with gravity to make everyone around you feel impressed and a bit confused.
And then it also holds wisdom for us when we become one of the initiated. During the 20th century in Ghana, lions overtook leopards as the main symbol of strength and leadership. They had overtaking to do because lions aren’t native to Ghana; they seem to have appeared, with many other alien things, during the Colonial era. Before lions were known in the region, the leopard garnered similar respect, filling a symbolic role and signifying strength, power, and importance. The old king was ousted when a stronger one arrived. Even the leopard became submissive to the lion, allowing him to lap at the proverbial palm-wine pot.
The lessons are there for all of us. No matter how high we rise, there’s likely someone higher. Leaders shouldn’t be too comfortable. There’s another one ready to take their place.
SAM’s Ghanaian Lion Stool (after 1957) gives a visual form to the lion’s rise to power in the country where it was made. In the painted wood sculpture, the lion forms the base, imparting authority to whoever would sit there.
The stool is an intriguing combination of foreign and native parts. The lion, an outsider, is joined to the stool, an entrenched, deeply significant part of Asante culture. For the Asante, the stool is the primary vehicle for communicating the idea of leadership. Bright yellow and silver enamel paint gives the stool an eye-catching presence. A key, an object that here and all over the world represents access, hangs on the side of the lion, where it adds to the impression of power and wealth. The stool isn’t something that strikes me as characteristically African in aesthetic, and that is another indication that its meaning is more global, and more accessible, than we first imagine.
This is one of art’s great gifts: To connect us with people and places, times and traditions that would otherwise remain totally unfamiliar and inaccessible to us. On display in SAM’s 4th-floor galleries, the Ghanaian Lion Stool confronts most of its viewers with something unfamiliar, but it rewards those who care enough to investigate.
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
1. Ghanaian, Lion Stool, after 1957, wood, paint, 16 9/16 x 20 13/16 x 11 7/8 in. Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.545.
2. Lions command respect.
One of the many wonderful qualities of visual art is its ability to lead people forward in response to tragedy. Amor Caritas, a bronze relief sculpture at SAM by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), was meant to serve just that purpose.
Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland, and immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was just seven months old. He lived through the divisive years in America leading up to the Civil War and the catastrophic war at a formative time in his life. While his experience of the Civil War left a lasting mark on his art, its effects didn’t surface in the way one might expect.
Saint-Gaudens contributed to the American Renaissance, a broad movement that flourished in the decades following the Civil War that inspired not just art and architecture, but also politics and finance. The visual artists of the American Renaissance looked to the iconic examples of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration, aiming to express an equally grand vision for America and its culture. The foundation of their art was a firm belief that art could inspire healing and progress.
In the figure of Amor Caritas—a composition that Saint-Gaudens returned to multiple times and that earned him international recognition—the artist felt that he had achieved a perfect female form, and that was essential to his purpose. Feminine beauty here personifies our human capacity for amor (love) and caritas (charity). Physical beauty provides a visual form for these lofty, encouraging sentiments.
I find it very telling that in a private letter, Saint-Gaudens wondered about titling the sculpture “Peace on Earth” or “to know is to forgive.” For the artist, each of these themes was equally present in the idealized human form. As today marks fourteen years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, we can appreciate the artist’s positive response to a tragedy of his day, and the call this sculpture gives for us, as people, to move forward in a spirit of love, togetherness, and forgiveness.
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Amor Caritas, modeled 1898, cast probably 1898, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, bronze, lost wax cast, bronze: 39 7/8 x 4 1/2 in., frame: 52 x 32 x 6 3/8 in., Gift of Ann and Tom Barwick, the General Acquisition Endowment, the Gates Foundation Endowment, the Utley Endowment, the American Art Endowment, and the 19th Century Paintings Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.4.
This summer, Seattle artist Dan Webb will set up shop at the Olympic Sculpture Park. In a small wooden shed, he will gradually turn a tree into a procession of carved sculptures. He will continue to carve until nothing is left but sawdust.
The ephemeral project pays tribute to the natural life cycle of the tree, which will come from the sculpture park—our chief gardener has selected one that needs to be thinned for the health of the grove. The tree’s seeds will be preserved and planted in the park.
We talked to Webb about his project—and what making art means to him.
Note: Selections from this interview appeared in the SAM magazine for June–September 2015. This is the full interview.
SAM: This summer, you’ll be spending two months carving sculptures out of a tree but I hear that none of the works you make will be kept. What motivates you to do this? What’s your thinking behind this?
Dan Webb: I think it really talks about a certain ephemerality to most things that everything lives for a while. I mean, even if you look at the acropolis or something like that, it’s melting because of the rain and such. There are these things that we’re able to make but we’re not able to make anything that’s permanent. So maybe the conceit of sculpture is that you can hold on to a moment for a bit but a lot of my work really references the idea of time and the idea of a cycle, that you’re born and you live and you die and that just starts another beginning.
And I think wood is a great material to do that with. You know, it’s a material that was alive and is no longer. There’s a way that you can really talk about those kinds of systems, the falling apart and then coming out of the ashes and falling apart, that just seems really natural in wood. You don’t have to reach very far and it doesn’t seem mockish or melodramatic.
The work to me is on the one hand is quite light-hearted and fun and on the other hand is very much about entropy and death and stuff. I feel like that material spans that emotional distance really well. I do want all of that stuff kicking around in there somewhere.
SAM: Something that occurred to me while looking at this project and some of your other work is that you start with block of wood and you start carving. And with this project, you’re going to keep carving until—
Dan Webb: Exactly.
SAM: —you can’t keep carving anymore.
Dan Webb: Right.
SAM: This is unique to carving. That if you keep going, your medium will disappear. If a painter just kept layering on paint and paint and paint and engaging in the process, his material would get thicker. His canvas would eventually get thicker but yours will eventually disappear.
Dan Webb: Exactly. Yeah, it’s very much a reductive process—it’s something you think about. It’s something you notice as you carve, you know, that every time I take a little bit off, there’s very much a reference. It’s not a metaphor. It’s very much like a tick of the clock. There’s a little bit gone, you know, and that just percolates through the work.
It’s hard to keep it away so that’s really the beginning of it. I hope that doesn’t sound like a big fat bummer but it’s in there. But along that path of that life and all the stuff that I’m going to make, there’s all sorts of stuff that’s great.
You know, I’m really already planning on making a salad set for the table that I’m supposed to make in the park or making some kind of implements for people when they sit around their table and we have dinner in the park that will come from that tree [Dan is a featured artist for Party in the Park]. I want those things to really live a life and to be touched, to be in the hands of people and to go somewhere. That’s just one idea. There’s a few others too related to that.
SAM: That’s one of the things I want to ask. How will you decide what to carve?
Dan Webb: There’s a lot of improvisation in what happens with a particular piece of wood and some of it is just—to me—sort of silly inside jokes.
I always think of the phrase “ripped limb from limb” because I make so many limbs out of the limbs of trees through what amounts to a whole lot of violence, really. That just seems so dumb and obvious, to carve a limb from a limb, but I can’t help myself.
It’s still great. Not really worrying about the starting point is more of my process. The idea that [Marcel] Duchamp had of chance—the standard stoppages and all that kind of stuff of making, building into his process the way that he does—he isn’t really sure what it’s going to be. I’m sympathetic to that way of working.
I think illustrating my deep thoughts on things as they are would be a whole lot less interesting than discovering things along the way and being sensitive to the serendipity of certain shapes, certain ways that the wood seems to be doing certain things. Just listening to that makes it more than I think I could plan for it to be.
SAM: Is there a point in the carving where you either discover something and your path forward is set or because you get to a point where you’ve made enough decisions that you’re now limited—?
Dan Webb: There is a point at which it’s set. I’m starting to make things where I take a single block and I start cutting chunks out of the block and carving different things from them with a simple joint at the top, a dove-tail joint, and then sliding all those things together that I pull out of the block.
And I’ve found that it doesn’t take very long before there’s something going on with that initial piece that leads to the next piece and then I’m trying to really find that in the block. I’m trying to make sure that I can find that in there. So while there’s improv, there’s also me trying to exert my will on it. There’s a tension between the two.
SAM: We tend to think about the artist as a solitary, isolated figure. I read somewhere that you work in a studio in Georgetown with other artists so you aren’t necessarily that on a daily basis anyway. But now you’re bringing your studio to the park, which is this very public space.
What are your expectations? Why are you interested? Are there things here you’re excited about or worried about?
Dan Webb: Yeah, I know. Well, I think that really has to be part of the work. I am really interested in Robert Smithson’s work, Partially Buried Woodshed, that he made in the 70s. I got a chance to see it actually. It was a woodshed where a bunch of woodworkers were and he poured a whole bunch of dirt on it and left it and it rotted. His work was really about entropy and everything like that. But I was really interested in what happens to those woodworkers inside of that. I know he pulled them out before he poured dirt on it—but the whole idea of what happens to the people, and how do people fit into that work, and his thinking in some ways informs this piece.
I’m very much the woodworker there in the shack. The activity of it, the pretty slow quotidian boringness of it will be on display, as well as the conversations I’ll have and all the rest of it. I hope that’s very much a part of the work.
SAM: What are five things you’ll bring with you? What do you need to work when you’re carrying your studio with you?
Dan Webb: Well, I’m going to have a rolling cart that I’ll have to roll into the shack from the pavilion and roll back at the end of the night because there’s—I’ll probably have fifty or sixty chisels with me and saws—a lot of stuff will be required to do this. So I’d be pretty stumped if I had to think of just five. A cup of coffee, my toolbox. What else? What else do I get? Is that two? Technically I’ve already listed more than a hundred because of the tools so I better stop. I’m cheating already.
SAM: I want to ask you about some of your influences and I have to be honest—I’m hoping you’ll talk a little bit about Robert Morris’s Box With a Sound of Its Own Making.
Dan Webb: Oh, yeah, which I just paid homage to ten minutes ago. I love it. I love talking about other people’s work. Well, it’s just a towering work of genius, first of all.
I think what it does for me as a maker of things—it really says that there’s this life lived by someone who made that thing. That new object was brought to this place by a person who thought things through, had all these problems to solve, and was having a hard day that day, and told a really hilarious joke at lunchtime to his friends.
So there’s that really clear, awesome humanity to it.
The other thing too that becomes maybe even more important than the piece—the physical artifact really takes a backseat (maybe) to the idea, to the circumstance, to the context. There’s a lot of things that go into it and the object becomes the artifact of that.
I think about that when I look at the Michelangelo “Slave” Series as well. It’s not that they’re finished or that’s even important. They’re sort of struggling to get out of this block environment. But you can just see his chisel. More than any other piece that Michelangelo made, you see these tourists just running by these things in Florence. Nobody looks at them. I was the only person.
You can see the chisel marks and you make the connection that there was this funny little shrunken dude who was making that stuff.
It seems to be pretty profound to me that there’s the things that you think and feel and hope for. And then there’s the artifact of that life—which is your work. Not forgetting that, not ever forgetting that, is really important.
SAM: That art is made by humans.
Dan Webb: Art is made by humans who are muddling through, and trying to make sense of it, and the issues are pretty much the same [then that they are now].
I think with a lot of other work, before I saw Box With a Sound of Its Own Making, it was harder for me to access some of that stuff. It seemed like this thing had just arrived—rather than feeling like there was a context for why that thing existed or there were conflicts and difficulties with them, which leads to it looking a certain way. You have to grapple with the thing.
SAM: How do you define mastery?
Dan Webb: You know, that word is a real—whenever I hear that word, I think of Caine in Kung Fu or something like that, an impossible TV black belt in a Shaolin temple. I don’t know.
I know that it’s easy to point to history and say well, Michelangelo was and Bernini was and Sam Maloof was. You could point to these people but I wonder if they would say that. I wonder if any of them—I bet they were champing to get to work so that they could get a little bit better that day, the day that they died.
I think at best what you can maybe access is total effort. I don’t know that a lot of people understand what total effort is. It’s not 99 percent. It’s 100 percent and when you’re absolutely, completely—then there’s nothing left.
And to do that over the course of a long period of time, in order to get to a place where something like mastery becomes part of the question or part of the discussion—I think that’s a pretty awesome, gratifying thing. But I don’t know anybody that’s even come close who would say, “Yeah. Yeah, mastery, that’s me. Look up mastery in a dictionary and my picture’s right there.” I think the goal posts keep moving further.
SAM: I have this—well, it might be sort of a sillier question but I know in this book, Jenni Sorkin provides one of the essays and writes that there’s this “uncommon sensuousness” of wood.
Dan Webb: Oh, right.
SAM: And I think romance novels and romantic comedies often cast their male leads as oh, first architects.
Dan Webb: Oh, wow.
SAM: And then often carpenters.
Dan Webb: Wow, really? Man, I need more of this stuff.
SAM: So I’m wondering if you think there’s anything to this romanticizing of wood.
Dan Webb: Oh. Oh, okay. I was thinking romanticizing carpenters. I sure was a carpenter a lot and they’re a bunch of smelly, gassy dudes that just told terrible jokes so I don’t know that worked with the ladies but…
SAM: Maybe it’s tied to this larger phenomenon where our culture romanticizes working with our hands at this point.
Dan Webb: I think we’re very, very much in that mode of romanticizing working with our hands. Nobody really wants to do it and nobody knows very much about it. But my wife is a farmer, for example. And there’s all these farm blocks where kids from Brooklyn buy a sheep farm in New Hampshire. Then they start a blog about it and the husband is always a guy who was a part-time model for J. Crew and he looks great when he’s holding the sheep and you just wonder if they’re making money or whatever. They’re probably not, you know, and—
SAM: There’s a trust fund behind them.
Dan Webb: Yeah, so I think now, especially with our super-curated lives that we can do on social media, I think it takes on even more of the patina, this luster. We’ve made chefs into celebrities—the beautiful food that comes out and it just seems like magic—but at the end of the day, who really does want to do that stuff? You know, who really wants to castrate sheep and feed a hundred of them and shear a hundred of them? I mean, that’s a small herd.
It’s pretty romanticized, I would say, and I don’t want to be privy to that. To me, it’s a job, which is totally awesome. I’m super lucky and grateful that I get to work every day and do the thing that I get to do, but it’s really hard. It’s a really hard job for the most part. People will see when I’m in the park how romantic it really is.
That said, it’s not totally crazy to talk about the sensuality of wood. I could definitely go on for a long time about that. I agree with it on the one hand. On the other hand, the nuts and bolts of how to make something are pretty hard, one, and, two, it’s not a path for everyone. Let’s just say that.
SAM: I have one question left about art and craft and their contentious recent history. Historically, they were tied closely together. How do you negotiate that?
Dan Webb: I still think we really fall prey to seeing things in a really binary way so if it’s art, it’s not craft; and if it’s craft, it’s not art; or if it’s a conceptual, then it’s not an object; or if it’s an object, it’s not conceptual. I’m a little disappointed at how binary even smart people can be about that stuff.
I think we’re at a point in history where an artist can do anything that they want to do and call it art. In fact, if anything’s art, then everything’s art and if everything’s art, then the word just lost all specificity. There’s no meaning to that word and it’s by design.
I think a lot of modernist artists and the post-modern artists, with a lot of effort and foresight, made that word meaningless, functionally meaningless. If you have knocked all those walls down that surrounded this idea of art, where are you?
I think when art gets subsumed by life and the bigger world rather than the art world—then it’s all just the world. And that’s not scary. And art didn’t go away. The idea of having to digest the experiences that’ll happen to us didn’t go away. It’s just that it starts to be more integrated into something bigger and I think it’s a really exciting time for that. Whatever you want to do, it’s all good.
For example, I think the move towards social practice is really interesting. But then you’re in a realm where essentially telling a story or interacting with people becomes your art. If you do that, then you have to understand that—the nurses at the children’s cancer ward, what’s their story? I mean, you’re elevating your story because it’s “art.” When what you’re actually doing is saying, let’s just realize that all stories are part of this conversation.
I think it’s binary to say that the social practice story must be art but that the other stories that are so prevalent in all of our lives are less so because they haven’t identified themselves as that.
If you really want to understand the repercussions of making the word meaningless, then you’re in a big environment with a lot of really incredible stuff. I talk about that with technology. There’re a lot of kids that are really interested in making art with technology. Technology’s got to be this new cool thing and great art will be made from it—but maybe great art already has been made from it. There’s a rover on Mars right now. The rover’s totally rad. If you’ve seen it—it’s so awesome. It’s a six-wheeled super-cool thing and they [the people that made it] become your colleagues. If you want to go down that path, they become your colleagues.
For me, my colleagues happen to be woodworkers and carvers. I really jettisoned the idea that I’m going to fetishize originality or I’m going to say something that no other person in history has ever thought of. That ship has sailed, luckily. I’d way rather feel like I was stepping into a conversation and I was part of something rather than reinventing the wheel and feeling proud of myself for doing that. I just think that’s a function of where we are.
Modernists made art and their brave, cool selves became their lives, but I think now we live a life and the result is our art. So it’s flipped. A lot of it is flipped and that’s a good place, exciting. It means that I get to have cool conversations about what I do with the lady that comes and reads my gas meter because she’s able to get a little bit of what I do and it’s not for art people. It’s not designed just for the super-smartypants that went to art school.
That’s just a facet of a lot of really incredible stuff that’s happened. Like T.S. Eliot said, you’ve got to read everything. Knowing about contemporary art really puts you in that category. You have to know a lot about visual information and some of that is cats flushing the toilet on YouTube, and there’s an equality to that. You know, there’s Marcel Duchamp on the one hand and cats flushing the toilet on the other and there’s all spectrum in between. I think a lot of us now are interested in putting all that together so—
SAM: All our pieces based on toilets?
Dan Webb: You could do it. I’m sure there’s somebody that is doing it.
SAM: Where we started, to where we are now.
Dan Webb: Yeah.
SAM: Well, thank you, Dan.
Dan Webb: Yeah.
SAM: We really appreciate your taking the time.
You can follow Webb’s progress this summer at the sculpture park. Learn more about the project on our website.
Photos: Matt Sellars