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Object of the Week: James Baldwin

Last month, inaugural poet Amanda Gorman captured the country’s attention with the performance of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the Presidential inauguration, speaking of our country’s fractured history and hopes for its future:

“…being American is more than / a pride we inherit, / it’s the past we step into / and how we repair it.”

                  – Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, 2021

In her words I’m reminded of those of another great American writer, which echo just as loudly now as they did over 60 years ago:

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”

                  – James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village, 1955

If history is intractably part of the present, then how do we move forward? In Joseph Norman’s 1993 portrait of poet, essayist, novelist, and activist James Baldwin, history gazes directly out at the viewer. Made just five years after the influential writer’s death, Norman portrays him not as the larger-than-life figure he had become, but in an intimate and personal portrait. Baldwin faces straight ahead, his eyes aligned with our own, in direct confrontation—or perhaps conversation—with us as viewers. This perspective is one that Norman also employed in his Notorious series (examples of which are also in SAM’s collection), in which he asks viewers to read the humanity in the eyes of young Chicago gang leaders. “You do in a sense have pity on those boys,” the artist noted, “because you are looking directly into their eyes, and you see emptiness at times. You see that these are children.”

Norman imbues Baldwin’s iconic visage with this same sense of humanity and personal connection with the viewer. Stylistically, Norman eschews the sharpness of a photographic image and renders Baldwin in a darkly shaded and richly textured manner. With the seemingly unfinished upper left quadrant and thick diagonal line crossing Baldwin’s nose and eye, it reads more like a sketch than a finished portrait. Of his own work, Norman said: “The work has to have veracity, otherwise it is fantasy. So the type of work that I make is poetic realism.”[1]

Poetic realism, indeed. What could be more real than the weighty gaze of history confronting us in the present, or more poetic than the suggestion of work still left to be done?

Norman titled the series that includes James Baldwin and other portraits of Black cultural icons, “The Last Poets.” But Baldwin himself had something to say about the idea of being the last of anything, as he wrote to his nephew, James, offering advice for the future:

“Great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock… You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.[2]

And, in the words of the latest in that long line of great poets:

“For while we have our eyes on the future, / history has its eyes on us.”

                  – Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, 2021

With the eyes of history gazing out at us, may we all have the courage and wisdom of poets past and present to move towards that unknown future.

– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7el32Hd74w
[2] James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” in The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963).
Image: James Baldwin, 1993, Joseph Norman, lithograph, 10 x 8 in., Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Chazan, 2000.26 © Joseph Norman.

Object of the Week: Map of the World

Brenna Youngblood’s abstract paintings are invariably more layered—literally and figuratively—than first meets the eye. Originally trained as a photographer, Youngblood works with an extensive personal archive of photographs and objects that she collages onto the surfaces of her densely painted canvases. In a 2013 interview she discussed the importance of this textured surface, and the integration of everyday objects into it:

“Surface is and has always been integral to my practice. The transformation of the surface of my paintings mimics objects, materials, and textures from the real world (i.e. rusted metal, wood). . . . I like introducing familiar objects like the light bulb, the door handle, and wood grain. The paintings are ‘a slice of life’, if you will. They definitely reflect the everyday not just for myself, I think for others as well. They are not only for looking at.”[1]

Youngblood is part of long tradition of artists who incorporate everyday objects into their work—we may immediately think of artists like Jasper Johns, with his thermometers imbedded into the canvas, or Robert Rauschenberg, with his photographs collaged onto their surfaces. In Youngblood’s paintings, the objects that she includes often go beyond the language of abstraction and allude to social or political topics. They are, as she says, “not only for looking at,” but speak to larger real-world issues.

In Map of the World (2015), a map of former colonial territories is embedded in the upper left quadrant of the painting, layered over an otherwise abstract, painterly surface. The political borders indicated on the map are long outdated, but the histories of colonialism that they represent still hold very real ramifications today. The sense of these histories bleeding into the present is suggested by the dripping paint that runs off the map, and the patchwork of rectangular forms just underneath that are themselves reminiscent of political boundaries.

We know that maps are never neutral—the distortions that privilege the northern hemisphere in most map projections are ubiquitous and well-documented, and the political claims they represent are contentious at best. However, they also become such a banal part of our everyday life that we stop looking at them critically, or consider what they really signify. In blending the map of the world (or one version of it) with the formal language of abstraction, Youngblood subtly but pointedly refers to these larger issues, asking us to dive deeper into the surface.

– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

[1] Brenna Youngblood, interview with Rosanna Albertini, “Not Only for Looking At,” in Flash Art, September 2013, http://honorfraser.com/pdf/press/2013FlashArtBY
Image: Map of the World, 2015, Brenna Youngblood, map, acrylic, and construction paper on canvas, 60 x 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2016.7.1 © Brenna Youngblood Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery

Object of the Week Special Edition: The Western Mystery

This blog series is designed to focus on art works on SAM’s collection but this week we’re bringing you a special feature on Spencer Finch: The Western Mystery. This nebulous formation of suspended glass panes is currently installed at the Olympic Sculpture Park in the PACCAR Pavilion and will be on view through March 3, 2019. So, while not actually an artwork owned by SAM, this piece will be hanging above the heads of visitors to the sculpture park for years to come. Find out more about the artist and this mesmerizing art work from Carrie Dedon, Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art.

SAM Book Club: Seven Days in the Art World

Welcome back, book lovers! Today we’re here to discuss Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World.

When I introduced this book here last month, I said it sounded like a whirlwind. Boy, did Thornton deliver. In what reads like part ethnography, part investigative journalism, part gossip column, the book flies around the world to relay some of the most high-drama, large-personality, and high-stakes scenes of the art world.

The picture Thornton paints is one of extremes. She didn’t just visit an artist studio: she visited Takashi Murakami’s massive international operation on the day he unveiled one of his most ambitious sculptures to date. She didn’t just go to a fair: she went to one of the highest-attended fairs in the world during the height of the art market. She didn’t just attend an MFA crit class: she sat in on Michael Asher’s legendary marathon session at CalArts, known for going longer than the average crit by a good ten hours.

It makes sense why she would choose these particular days and moments: extremes are fun. They make for fast-paced, engaging reading. But when taken all at once they hardly paint a, shall we say, realistic picture of what working in the art world is like for most people. What would Seven Days in the Art World be like if Thornton had interviewed the typical, instead of the extreme? An afternoon of returning phone calls and writing emails in a cramped office? A long string of meetings? No one wants to read that—so who can blame Thornton for choosing to highlight the days and players she did?

The other extreme that was impossible not to notice was the art market itself—and the moment in which Thornton was writing about it. In the author’s note she states that she conducted her research between November 2004 and June 2007; the book was published in November 2008. In other words, the book looks at the time period when the art market was growing to ever more staggering, unsustainable heights—and it hit the stands after that bubble burst, right in the middle of the financial crisis of Fall 2008. From the moment it hit readers’ hands, Seven Days in the Art World was a strange mix of the contemporary and the historical, highlighting a world that in some ways are timeless, and in others had already ceased to exist.

So, did I recognize the art world I inhabit in these pages? Sometimes. The events and spectacles Thornton details are certainly there, even if they’re fewer and farther between than Seven Days in the Art World would suggest. Mostly I recognized my art world in this quote from Artforum publisher Charles Guarino: “It’s the place where I found the most kindred spirits—enough oddball, overeducated, anachronistic, anarchic people to make me happy.” Amen to that, and shout out to my fellow oddballs for making this job so fun.

Because ultimately those of us who work in the art world do it because we love it. Not just the high-stakes, high-drama affairs, but the actual work of it. The long meetings and endless emails may not be fun to read about, but in the day-to-day they contribute to something we all care deeply about. So whether you’re writing, exhibiting, studying, or making art—or doing any of the countless other things that contribute to and support it—a hat tip to you, and to many happy days in the art world.

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Object of the Week: The Wave

For regular readers of our Object of the Week series, the name Anselm Kiefer should ring a bell. It wasn’t so long ago that Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator and this series’ regular contributor, wrote about Kiefer’s monumental and haunting painting Die Orden der Nacht, currently on view in the installation Big Picture: Art after 1945. But today I’m here to talk about Kiefer again, and his work which currently hangs right next to Die Orden der Nacht: the 1990 painting Die Welle (The Wave), or Lilit am Roten Meer (Lilith at the Red Sea).

In many ways Jeff’s earlier discussion of Die Orden der Nacht rings true for Die Welle as well. It is similarly monumental in scale, similarly ambitious in its scope and symbolism. It is similarly laden with its own materiality, its thickly layered surface reaching out from the wall and defying its classification as painting. And, like Die Orden der Nacht, Die Welle is staggeringly heavy—literally (how often do you see lead listed as a medium, and hanging defiantly on a wall?), but even more so metaphorically. Its materials also include wire, ash, and children’s clothes—haunting, aching in their empty presence, a visceral gut-punch aura of destruction and death.

Aside from these obvious material and compositional differences, what distinguishes Die Welle from its neighbor is the mythology suggested in its alternate title: Lilit am Roten Meer, which translates to Lilith at the Red Sea. Lilith is a figure from Hebrew folklore who features in many of Kiefer’s works from the 1980s and ‘90s. According to the mythology, Lilith was meant to be Adam’s first wife, made by God at the same time and from the same earth as the first man. But she refused to be subservient to Adam, and fled the Garden of Eden to live on the edge of the Red Sea. So God made Adam a new wife (grown from Adam’s rib this time—a woman made of man, instead of with him), and Adam and Eve started the work of begetting the human race. Meanwhile, Lilith in her exile became the matriarch of a different kind of progeny: a massive host of demons, and a legacy of destruction and death. If Adam and Eve represent the birth of humankind, so some readings go, then evil is descended from Lilith.

This is a heavy subject (with heavily debated interpretations and readings) to go along with an already somber artwork—but, again like Die Orden der Nacht, Die Welle (or Lilit am Roten Meer) resists easy interpretation. Where is Lilith in this work? Is she one of the hollow figures, or is she lurking in the background, the unseen progenitor of this scene of devestation? More complicated still is the evocation of the Red Sea, which represents the home of Lilith and her demon-children—but also the site of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, and the drowning of the Egyptians who pursued them. Is the titular welle (wave) cresting towards us with a promise of deliverance, or destruction?

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Image: Die Welle (The Wave), 1990, Anselm Kiefer, lead, clothes, steel wire, and ash on canvas, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.120, © Anselm Kiefer.

SAM Book Club: Up Next – Seven Days in the Art World

Welcome back book lovers! We return with the fourth edition of SAM Book Club. For those new to the series, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog a month later to discuss in the comments.

This month we’ll be venturing into nonfiction territory with Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton. Acting as a kind of tour-guide extraordinaire, Thornton leads her readers through seven arenas which contribute to the multi-faceted world of contemporary art: Christie’s auction house; an MFA crit session; the Basel Art Fair; the prestigious Turner Prize; the offices of Artforum; artist Takashi Murakami’s studio; and the Venice Biennale. Sounds like a whirlwind to me.

Visit your local library and pick up a copy, and let’s dive in together. Meet me back here on Wednesday, March 22 to discuss Seven Days in the Art World!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman

SAM Book Club: The Sculptor

Welcome back to SAM Book Club! Today we’re here to discuss Scott McCloud’s graphic novel, The Sculptor.

The premise of this book had me intrigued: sculptor David Smith (no, not that David Smith) is struggling. His work isn’t selling, he’s having a major creative roadblock, he’s burnt all of his bridges, and he’s behind on rent—an almost literal starving artist. Desperate to gain recognition for his work, he makes a deal with Death (disguised, in a detail I loved, as his deceased great-uncle) to be able to mold any material with his hands into anything he can imagine. The catch is that David will die after just 200 days, a trade-off he is immediately willing to make—until he falls in love shortly after making the deal. Cue existential crisis.

I will admit that there were some things about this book that didn’t work for me. I could’ve gone for a bit more irony and a bit less angst, and a whole lot less self-pitying from David. And as for his love-interest, Meg—to me, she was more clichéd fantasy than well-rounded character. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl who descends from the heavens like an angel (literally) to dedicate her life (and death) to helping our male hero get over himself, realize his full potential, and live a happy remainder of his life. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that frankly bores me to tears.

But the central question still hooked me: what would you sacrifice for your work? At a much smaller and, let’s say, less permanent scale, we all make those decisions all the time. We trade off time with family and loved ones for time in the studio, or in rehearsal, or with an unfinished manuscript, or with whatever that work that gets you out of bed happens to be. And we do it gladly, because the work is worth it. But when does it stop being worth it? How much is too much to give? We’ve all been there, making those hard choices.

What really interested me about David’s trade-off was not the extremity of it, but the fact that even the ultimate sacrifice was not enough for him. David doesn’t only want to have the skills and room to make his art: he wants to be recognized for it, to be celebrated and immortalized. He makes a massive group of stone sculptures practically overnight—an incredible feat—and is devastated when they are not well-received by his gallerist friend. He achieves some anonymous, Banksy-like fame for his street sculptures, but is only truly happy with them when he learns they’re selling for half a million dollars. He learns towards the end of his 200 days that a collector has been trying to contact him to buy his work, and he laments “all those wasted days.” But were those days really wasted? Only if the goal is the final sale, the external recognition of talent. But if the goal is the process and act of making art, then that time doing the work is not ill-spent.

Ultimately, the most satisfying part of The Sculptor for me was the artwork itself. McCloud literally wrote the book on comics, and is clearly a master of the medium. The graphic novels that resonate most with me are the ones that use artwork to tell stories that words just can’t touch: the indescribable horrors of genocide in Art Spiegelman’s Maus; the terror and banality of a tumultuous adolescence in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis; or the infinite history of a single corner of the earth, as in Richard McGuire’s Here. The Sculptor had many such moments for me, but the one that stands out the most was the beautiful and complex multi-page spread in which we see David’s life flash before his eyes, milliseconds before his death. The ability to both compress and stretch time onto a single page, to relay all the mundane joys and sorrows of a single life, to paint a full narrative without using a single word—that is a gift worth sacrificing for.

What did you think of The Sculptor? Tell us in the comments, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

SAM Book Club: Up Next – The Sculptor

Welcome back, book lovers! We return with the third edition of SAM Book Club. For those new to the series, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog to discuss in the comments.

I promised in the first installment of SAM Book Club that we’d be mixing up the genres in our reading, and I’m here to make good on that promise. This month we’ll be reading Scott McCloud’s graphic novel The Sculptor. McCloud’s protagonist is a struggling artist who makes a deal with Death to be able to mold any material into anything he can imagine—in exchange for his own life after just 200 days. Author Neil Gaiman described it as “the best graphic novel I’ve read in years. It’s about art and love and why we keep on trying.” If that doesn’t sound like something you want to sink into on a rainy Seattle day, I don’t know what does.

Visit your local library and pick up a copy, and let’s fall into an artful book about art together. Meet me back here on Wednesday, November 23 to discuss The Sculptor!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

 

SAM Book Club: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Welcome back to SAM Book Club! Today we’re here to discuss Dominic Smith’s newest novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

This is a book that’s hard to describe succinctly. In 1637 Amsterdam, artist Sara de Vos diverges from her training as a still-life painter to paint the landscape At the Edge of a Wood, an enigmatic work she makes as she mourns her daughter’s death. In 1957 Manhattan, the painting is stolen from the home of Marty de Groot, whose family has owned the work for 300 years. And in 2000 Sydney, renowned art historian Ellie Shipley is curating an exhibition of 17th century female Dutch artists when she learns that two versions of At the Edge of a Wood are traveling to her gallery: the original, and the forgery that she herself painted in 1957. Is your head spinning yet?

As difficult as it is to make an elevator pitch of the book’s plot, the three storylines mesh fairly seamlessly as Smith swerves between them—and as they begin to crash into each other. Although they are separated by centuries, the lives of the three main characters become intimately interwoven as they orbit around the painting.

In fact, I said there are three main characters, but you could make a case for four: Sara, Marty, Ellie, and At the Edge of a Wood. The painting itself has a presence, a personality, an impact on the events taking place. It certainly has a gravitational pull on the hapless artist, collector, and curator.

Harder to pinpoint than the plot itself is the category this book fits into. It could be considered a mystery, but the question of who stole the painting is answered on the book jacket. Some of the chapters read like historical fiction, but there’s a definite lean towards “fiction” over “history.” And I suppose there is a romantic relationship subplot, but it reads as more of a dysfunctional cat-and-mouse game than anything else to me. The easiest is to lump it with the seemingly ever-growing category of “art heist book”—think Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming, and B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger*—but even that feels unsatisfying: the heist is hoisted in chapter one. What now?

Which brings me back to those four main characters. I think this is ultimately a book that is driven by characters, by relationships, and by the things we do to make, maintain, or break them. And ultimately it hinges not on relationships between people (although there is plenty of material there to armchair psychoanalyze), but on the relationship between people and objects. Or, I should say, one object, that fourth character which is the planet to Sara, Marty, and Ellie’s moons.

I suspect many of us have had a love affair with an art object: a work that moves you, that stays with you for years, that changes the way you think and maybe even changes the direction of your life. Isn’t that what drives us to art museums? The close encounter with art objects, and the chance to let them teach and inspire you?

But for the three human characters in the novel, the relationship with At the Edge of a Wood is anything but healthy. For Sara, painting it is an act of mourning she is driven to complete, as if it will assuage her grief or extend the too-short life of her daughter. For Marty, even as he seeks to reclaim the painting he suspects it has been a bad luck charm, blaming it for generations of ill health and unhappiness. And as for Ellie: what kind of self-destructive act is it to write a book about the very painting she forged, to spend a career shedding light on that one work, and to literally invite the crimes of her past to her doorstep? That is some serious projection of personal issues onto someone (or something) else.

As the plot thickens so do these issues until—they release. Sara finds happiness and love; Marty lives a long and happy (enough) life; and Ellie lets go of her demons, or they let go of her. And all three are able to rekindle a healthy relationship—a spark of new romance—with the object that inspired it all to begin with.

What did you think of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos? Tell us in the comments, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

*See what I did there? Bonus books to tide you over until the next SAM Book Club installment! You’re welcome.

Photo: Natali Wiseman