Object of the Week: Untitled

Mark Rothko is one of the preeminent American artists of the 20th century and a central figure of the New York School. This later painting, completed in 1963, is a wonderful example of his signature style—a large-scale canvas comprised of bands of color that vibrate with quiet depth and intensity.

As described by one art historian, Stephen Polcari, “Rothko’s mature paintings consist of parallel rectangles, often similar in value but different in hue and width, extended to the edges of the canvas. The shapes lack distinctive textural effect, seeming to be veils of thin color applied with sponges, rags, and cloths, as well as brushes. Line has been eliminated altogether.”1 In Untitled, a muted palette of dark, purplish browns—verging on black—are characteristic of his later work, while his earlier color field abstractions are defined by their bright and exuberant surfaces of glowing red, yellows, and oranges. (#10, also in SAM’s collection, is a strong example.)

While Polcari’s formal assessment is accurate, what cannot be captured is, importantly, the feeling of a Rothko painting. In a 1958 lecture given by the artist at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he addressed the size of his work and the importance of scale: “large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a direct way.”2 Rather than depict the human form, which had previously preoccupied many artists of his generation, Rothko opted instead to pursue something much larger—more ineffable and metaphysical: “the scale of human feelings, the human drama, as much of it as I can express.”3 Scale, coupled with the structure of the paintings, anchored by his signature layering of saturated colors, work to directly and immediately envelop the viewer, expressing “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”4 Rothko desired intimacy between his canvases and viewers, and attempted to connect his viewers with feelings of the sublime: “people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”5

A recent gift to the Seattle Art Museum from the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, Rothko’s Untitled will be on view next month as part of Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1 Conway Hall, “Rothko and Sensitive Observers,” Medium, May 22, 2016, https://medium.com/@ConwayHall/rothko-and-sensitive-observers-bc931faea110.

2 “Mark Rothko: Classic Paintings (1949-1970),” National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/features/mark-rothko/mark-rothko-classic-paintings.html.

3 Hall, Medium.

4 Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1957), 93.

5 Ibid.

Image: Untitled, 1963, Mark Rothko, oil on canvas, 69 × 90 1/4 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.16. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society.

Object of the Week: Sequential Views

Constantly growing and in flux, the built and natural environments in which we live have proven to be enduring sources of artistic inspiration. Like his fellow Los Angeles-based artists Ed Ruscha and Catherine Opie, Robbert Flick (born 1939, Amersfoort, Netherlands) is deeply inspired by the sprawling city and its changing landscape, both urban and natural.

From the late 1970s through 1990, Flick worked diligently on a series titled Sequential Views. Unsatisfied with the information conveyed by a single image—common in American landscape photography—Flick would take multiple images of a chosen site at predetermined intervals. Part performance, Flick’s prescriptive approach to photography resulted in multiple images and a more complete understanding of the landscape around him. After developing the negatives, he would organize the images manually in a grid—an analog technique whose compositions further convey a more experiential understanding of time, space, and place.1

Beginning with the urban cityscape, such as the 1980 work above—a view of LAX looking north from Imperial Highway—Flick eventually expanded the series to include parts of the Midwest and parks such as Red Rocks, Joshua Tree, and Vasquez Rocks (the latter two of which are examples in SAM’s collection). Vasquez Rocks is today a Natural Area and Nature Center located in the Sierra Pelona Mountains north of Los Angeles in Antelope Valley, known for its iconic rock formations’ sedimentary layering. In S.V. 105 at Vasquez Rock #6, Flick’s gridded views appear to overlap and repeat at times, creating an episodic and almost cinematic rhythm. The slight shifts between each frame—evident in the placement of a rock formation or cropped shadow—make clear just how many different ways there are to see and represent the world around us.2

 Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1 Lisa Hostetler, “Episode 3: Landscapes in Passing,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, https://americanart.si.edu/artist/robbert-flick-5776.

2 Museum of Contemporary Photography, “Robbert Flick,” https://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=objects&type=browse&f=maker&s=Flick%2C+Robbert&record=0.

Images: Robbert Flick, S.V. 105 At Vasquez Rock #6, 1983-1985, gelatin silver photograph, 9 x 17 1/2 in., Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 86.5.10, © Robbert Flick. Robbert Flick, SV017/80, LAX, from Imperial Looking North from Sequential Views, 1980, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts through the Photography Museum of Los Angeles, 1990.38.44, © 1980, Robbert Flick.

Object of the Week: Serious Games I-IV

The link between new technologies and the violence of war—physical and psychological—is a focus for artist Harun Farocki (1944–2014), whose essayistic films and videos pointedly address the ways in which the production and circulation of images are inextricable from, among many aspects of contemporary life, geopolitics and the development of the military apparatus.

His four-part video Serious Games I-IV (2009-10) is an installation comprised of four video works that examine the use of virtual reality and gaming for United States military recruitment, training, and therapy. Hauntingly, many of the simulations and trainings captured were in preparation for missions in Afghanistan. 

A still of Farocki's Serious Games in which marines complete simulated missions.

In one video, Marine recruits stationed in 29 Palms, California, attend simulation exercises where the distinction between combat and gaming is blurred. Focusing on four Marines and their laptop-based drills, Farocki highlights the ways in which such virtual computer environments have become a substitute for the real, and vice versa, ultimately prompting us to consider the ways in which technology, politics, and violence intersect. In another video, Farocki presents a workshop organized by the Institute for Creative Technologies, a research institute developing therapeutic tools for veterans experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perversely, the same virtual reality and simulation technologies used for military recruitment and training are used in its aftermath.

As the United States is confronted with the serious and heartbreaking consequences of its 20-year presence and withdrawal from Afghanistan, Serious Games is a critical document that reflects just one arena within a series of systems and decisions that brought us to this moment. And while Farocki’s term “operative images” was used to describe his 2001 video work Eye/Machine, it can most certainly extend to Serious Games: “These are images that do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation.”1

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Harun Farocki, “Phantom Images,” in Public, no. 29 (2004): 17.

Serious Games I-IV, 2009-10, Harun Farocki, Three two-channel color video installations, one single-channel color video installation, 44 min. Anne Gerber Fund, Helen and Max Gurvich Fund and General Acquisition Fund, 2012.12.1.4 © Harun Farocki.

Object of the Week: The Survival Series

For decades, language and its public dissemination has been at the center of Jenny Holzer’s practice. A previous Object of the Week post by Rachel Hsu chronicles the artist’s Inflammatory Essays, multi-colored posters anonymously wheat pasted throughout New York City in the late 1970s and early 80s. Each poster and its essay, as the title suggests, are provocative and confrontational, drawn from writings of dictators and anarchists, functioning as subversive critiques of power that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Just a few years later in 1982, phrases such as “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” and “MONEY CREATES TASTE” were projected on a digital billboard in Times Square. Part of a body of work known as her Truisms, these succinct and unnerving assertions speak to deeper truths about the often-contradicting ideologies and values that undergird our society.

In addition to the Inflammatory Essays and Truisms, another work by Holzer in SAM’s collection is the cast aluminum plaque that reads: “DON’T WATCH THE UNDERCLASS, IT’S MORE LIKELY THAT THE WARLORDS WILL KILL YOU.” Her aphorisms poetically call attention to self-evident and often universal truths, in this case about power, propaganda, and its abusers. Subverting the traditional use of a plaque—designed to mark historic sites, events, and people—Holzer deftly shifts the plaque’s intrinsic power and authority in new directions. The work is as potent a message today as it was nearly thirty years ago, speaking to Holzer’s penchant for identifying lasting social and political issues.

In an early interview, Holzer stated that, “From the beginning, my work has been designed to be stumbled across in the course of a person’s daily life. I think it has the most impact when someone is just walking along, not thinking about anything in particular, and then finds these unusual statements either on a poster or in a sign.”1  

Today, our bloated media ecosystems look a little different, forcing us to scroll and sift through endless grids of text and image. And while this might not be the type of public, egalitarian viewing experience that Holzer once imagined for her work, there is something exciting about it being posted on Instagram—our new commons—and (hopefully) jolting us out of our normal routines and ways of thinking.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Jeanne Siegal, “Jenny Holzer’s Language Games” in Arts Magazine, December 1985. pp. 64-68.

The Survival Series: Don’t Watch the Underclass, It’s More Likely That the War Lords Will Kill You, 1983-85, Jenny Holzer, Cast aluminum, 6 x 10 x 1/4 in., Gift of the Collectors’ Forum in honor of Susan Garcia, 98.19 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Torso Fruit

Among some of the newly installed works in Seattle Art Museum’s third floor galleries is this 1960 plaster sculpture by French artist Jean Arp (1886-1966), titled Torso Fruit.

As a sculptor, painter, and poet, Arp’s life and career defy easy categorization and span multiple art movements, putting many current-day résumés to shame. Born Hans (Jean) Peter Wilhelm Arp in Strasbourg, Germany (now France), Arp—of French Alsatian and German descent—pursued art as a young adult, eventually traveling from his native Strasbourg to Weimar, Germany; Paris, France; and Munich, Switzerland, where in 1912 he came into contact with Wassily Kandinsky, briefly exhibiting with the Der Blaue Reiter group. Returning to Paris in 1914, his cohort grew to include Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso, to name a few. At the onset of World War I, Swiss neutrality drew Arp to Zürich, where he met his future wife and collaborator, Sophia Taueber, and, together with Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, and others, became a founding member of the radical and multi-disciplinary Dada movement. Dada led Arp to Surrealism and, later, Abstraction-Création—and this just brings us to the 1930s!

Though a later work, Torso Fruit is a wonderful example of Arp’s biomorphic style that began in the early 1930s. Biomorphism, as compared with other modes of abstraction and Surrealism, was considered by some artists to be a more intuitive and, therefore, truer reflection of the subconscious. With organic shapes that connect to the natural world, biomorphism was a formal strategy through which Arp could introduce chance and spontaneity into his practice (holdovers from Dada and Surrealism). In the words of Arp, “I only have to move my hands . . . The forms that then take shape offer access to mysteries and reveal to us the profound sources of life.”1

Arp produced sculptures in a variety of mediums ranging from bronze to marble, but plaster was often a first edition due to its malleability and susceptibility to touch and, ultimately, chance. As the title suggests, Torso Fruit blurs the distinctions between the form of the human body and other forms of the natural world. Even without the title, however, its sensuous, rounded contours suggest a fecund or growing form—a metamorphic process that Arp felt a duty, as an artist, to emulate and honor.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1 Christie’s, “Playful, ambiguous, sensuous — the alluring art of Jean Arp,” https://www.christies.com/features/Jean-Arp-Collecting-Guide-10372-1.aspx.

Torso Fruit, 1960, Jean Arp, plaster with paint, 30 x 14 x 12 in., gift of Mme. Jean Arp, 77.1 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Pool with Splash

Having grown up in Los Angeles, there is something uniquely comforting about the scene of a sun-drenched swimming pool. David Hockney, of course, is one artist whose pools come immediately mind: his bright, seductive paintings of the 1960s and 70s are highly evocative images of life and culture in Southern California, and have rendered his name nearly synonymous with the subject matter. 

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967

For Hockney, “In the swimming pool pictures, I had become interested in the more general problem of painting the water, finding a way to do it. It is an interesting formal problem; it is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything. It can be any color and it has no set visual description.”[1]

If Hockney’s iconic pools are, broadly speaking, defined by their spatial flatness, color relationships, and reduction of form through painting, Robert Arneson’s sculptural Pool with Splash is a perfect counterpoint. His exploration of the pool and its contents takes shape through ceramics: each ripple and refraction of light is represented as an immutable piece⁠—fitted together like a puzzle⁠—with blue and green glazes. And much like Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Arneson’s Pool is punctuated with a foamy burst, invoking the presence of a swimmer.

Along with his contemporaries Peter Voulkos, Bruce Conner, Viola Frey, Jay DeFeo, and others, Arneson is considered part of the “Funk Art” movement⁠—a loose affiliation of artists originally included in the 1967 exhibition curated by Peter Selz, Funk, at the University Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley.

Arneson’s irreverent work and playful sense of humor, along with an interest in everyday objects and personal narrative, are just some of the movement’s characteristics⁠ (a reaction to the non-objectivity of abstract expressionism that dominated the 1950s). Arneson’s commitment to ceramics is also notable, and part of a larger effort to elevate the medium which, at the time, was considered merely decorative or utilitarian, and pejoratively relegated to a realm of “craft.” Measuring nearly 12 feet wide at its largest point, Pool with Splash is hardly utilitarian and its use as decoration is up for debate. Here, Arneson wryly upends the once-strict divisions separating “fine art” and “craft,” all the while making clear his mastery of ceramics. Now, if only we could swim in it!

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Matthew Sperling, “The Pull of Hockney’s Pool Paintings,” in Apollo Magazine, February 2017, www.apollo-magazine.com/david-hockney-pool-paintings.
Images: Pool with Splash, 1977, Robert Arneson, ceramic with glaze, 18 1/2 x 145 x 116 in., Gift of Manuel Neri, 82.156. A Bigger Splash, 1967, David Hockney, acrylic on canvas, 95 1/5 x 96 in., Tate Modern, London

Object of the Week: Diamond Dust Shoes

“I’m doing shoes because I’m going back to my roots. In fact, I think I should do nothing but shoes from now on.”[1]

– Andy Warhol, July 24, 1980

When invoked, Andy Warhol brings to mind a near-infinite number of iconic images. From soup cans to politicians to celebrities, his Pop aesthetic and reputation lives on: “With an irreverent attitude toward art and a glorification of glamour, Warhol, paradoxically, fused high art, low culture, high society, and the avant-garde, transforming the art of an age and cultivating a lifestyle of celebrity.”[2]

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Warhol was a prolific explorer of painting, photography, printmaking, drawing, fashion, television, and film. The Factory cemented Warhol’s reputation and legacy. However, in the 1980s, the last decade of his life, Warhol pivoted away from the images of celebrity that made him a household name, and returned to what in 1966 he had referred to as “just a phase [he] went through”: painting.[3]

It was in this context that Warhol began a body of work known as his Diamond Dust Shoes. Searching for a new direction to take his work, he honed in on earlier subjects and processes. In the case of the Shoes series, Warhol went “back to [his] roots” as a commercial artist, working in the 1950s for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and I. Miller and Sons, where he illustrated, among many things, women’s footwear.[4]

Harkening back to what was once an ad-campaign assignment for Halston, Warhol purchased a selection of women’s shoes that he arranged on the floor. After taking photographs of the strewn compositions, he sent the images to his printer, Rupert Smith, to be screened and coated with diamond dust.[5] Diamond Dust Shoes (1980-81)in SAM’s collection—a gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection last year—is acrylic, silkscreen ink, and diamond dust on linen. The graphic contrast of pastel purples, greens, and blues is striking when set against the dark black background, and further heightened by the subtle glittering of diamond dust.

Diamond Dust Shoes rather poignantly connects Warhol’s later work to his origins as a young illustrator in New York, collapsing the time, space, and difference between the two modes of artistic production. The throughline, of course, is Warhol’s continued involvement and fascination with fashion, cultural consumption, mass-produced images, celebrity, advertising, and a little (or lot of) glamour.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

[1] Andy Warhol, entry for Thursday, July 24, 1980, in The Warhol Diaries, ed. Pat Hackett (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1989), 206.
[2] Joseph D. Ketner, “Warhol’s Last Decade: Reinventing Painting,” in Andy Warhol: The Last Decade (Munich, Germany: Delmonico Books-Prestel), 15.
[3] Andy Warhol in an interview with Gretchen Berg, “Andy Warhol: My True Story,” Nov. 1, 1966, in I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Any Warhol Interviews, 1962–1987, ed. Kenneth Goldsmith (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004), 88.
[4] “A la Recherche du Shoe Perdu Portfolio by Andy Warhol,” Guy Hepner, www.guyhepner.com/artist/andy-warhol-art-prints-paintings/a-la-recherche-du-shoe-portfolio-by-andy-warhol/.
[5] Philips Auction, “Andy Warhol’s ‘Diamond Dust Shoes,” www.phillips.com/article/29694970/warhol-diamond-dust.
Images: Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980-81, Andy Warhol, acrylic, silkscreen ink, and diamond dust on linen, 90 x 70 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2020.15.38 © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. “To All My Friends”, ca. 1957, Andy Warhol, American, 1928-1987 (artist), gold leaf and ink on Strathmore paper, 9 x 8 in., 1998.1.2055, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Object of the Week: Blocks

Quilt-making, as a genre, is as vast and varied as America itself, and the stories and histories embedded in each unique quilt, pieced together and often stitched by many hands, are part of what makes the craft a quintessential form of American art.

This is especially the case for the quilts of Gee’s Bend, where generations of Black women “have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present.”1 The quilts are not bound to “traditional” techniques and results, but rather take the form of the quilt and reimagine it altogether. “Housetop,” “bricklayer,” and “my way” are just some of the many styles made by Gee’s Bend women, whose ingenuity and use of salvaged fabric, worn garments, and textile scraps have earned them international acclaim.

Boykin, Alabama, historically known as Gee’s Bend, sits at a bend of the Alabama River, framed on three sides by the natural boundary. This geographic isolation has kept the rural, Black community small—though 44 miles southwest of Selma, its current population hovers just over 250. Many still living in Boykin are the descendants of enslaved men and women who worked the fields belonging to Mark H. Pettway, who in 1845 purchased the land from Joseph Gee. Upon the abolition of slavery, many continued working for the Pettways as sharecroppers and tenant farmers—an extension of servitude, or simply slavery by another name. In the late 1930s, the Farm Security Administration, created as part of the New Deal, established Gee’s Bend Farms, Inc., a cooperative pilot project designed to support and sustain the Gee’s Bend community. The government subdivided properties, built homes, and sold tracts of land, giving its African American families control of the land they worked for the first time.2 

Celebrated today for their singular aesthetic sensibility, the quilts of Gee’s Bend were born out of geographic isolation, a scarcity of materials, and a need for warmth. Yet, despite these limitations, hundreds of quilted artworks have been produced—each maker pushing the boundaries of what a quilt is and can be. Annie Mae Young is one such woman, who, in her words, “never did like the book patterns some people had,” and instead opted for quilts characterized by their larger blocks and long, meandering strips.3

Annie Mae Young and Strip Medallion quilt. Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Image: Roland Freeman, 1993.

Impressively, Young completed her first quilt while a child, with knowledge that was passed down through her family, from mother to daughter. She started cutting and piecing “anything [she] could find” around the age of 13 or 14, often “old dress tails and pants legs.”4 Ultimately, it was a photograph of Young in front of her 1976 Strip Medallionquilt—an iconic “work clothes” quilt featuring red, yellow, and brown corduroy stripes, and bands of denim—that catapulted Gee’s Bend quilts into the national imagination in the late 1990s.5 In 2002, the exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,showcased over 60 quilts and travelled to 12 venues around the country, cementing the legacy of the community of women and their craft.

With repetition and rhythm, Blocks (2003)is visually organized in an improvisational manner with a bold palette—an exemplar of Young’s work and style. Her individuality and innovation as a quilter is evident, but the quilt also represents the community of which she was an active member, the endurance of matrilineal knowledge, and the power of collective work to breed beautiful acts.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


1 “Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers,” Souls Grown Deep Foundation, www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers.

2 Stephens, Kyes. “The History of Gee’s Bend, Alabama,” Auburn University, www.auburn.edu/academic/other/geesbend/explore/history.htm.

3 “Annie Mae Young (1928-2013), Alberta, Alabama,” Souls Grown Deep Foundation, www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/annie-mae-young.

4 “Annie Mae Young,” Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

5 “Annie Mae Young,” in Outliers and American Vanguard Artist Biographies,National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov/features/exhibitions/outliers-and-american-vanguard-artist-biographies/annie-mae-young.html.

Image: Blocks, 2003, Annie Mae Young, quilted fabric, 90 1/2 x 74 in., General Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2005.199, © Annie Mae Young.

Object of the Week: Untitled

“One of the most modernist gestures of the last century was the effort of liberation. Creative work is not just about representation, or creating a cultural mirror. . . . Creation, whether in writing, music and visual making, has also been about inventing a form or space to exist, especially if the world didn’t let one be free.”[1]

– Julie Mehretu

For over two decades, Julie Mehretu (born 1970, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) has produced a body of work defined by a commitment to the politics of abstraction.[2] Through mark making, layering, and other techniques, Mehretu’s drawings and paintings are built up of complex symbols and historical referents—architectural fragments and art/historical citations—that are celebrated for their articulation of the contemporary moment in which we live.

Mehretu’s drawing in SAM’s collection, Untitled, is an earlier work by the artist, created in 2001. A palimpsest of frenzied marks—seeming to emerge from nowhere—is interspersed with arching lines of yellow and blue and muted forms of mauve and mint green. Both abstract and representational, the contoured forms at once advance and recede, creating a visually dynamic composition that teems with energy. As the eye moves, one can make out architectural elements from various perspectives: a hall of arcades, industrial posts and beams, wide stairways, and cantilevered balconies; however, just as these elements come into focus, they morph and blend into the geometric forms and marks around them (rubble? fire? explosions?)—all mutable and contingent.

The topographical nature of this drawing connects it to Mehretu’s larger practice, which engages, among many things, in a form of mapping “of no location.”[3] Collapsing time, space, and place, Mehretu creates new cityscapes and narratives that encapsulate the tensions between evolution and destruction, growth and dissolution, stability and entropy. Her personal biography and experiences, too, inform her investment in these themes, exploring the complexities and possibilities inherent in forces such as globalization, migration, diaspora, capitalism, political conflict, and climate change.[4]

Perhaps best articulated by art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson:  “[Mehretu’s] canvases, richly layered and replete with visual incident, evoke a number of urgent themes: the simultaneous decentering and consolidation of power, the frenzied temporalities that cannot be captured by simplistic narratives of progress or regression, the continuing ascendance of ethnonationalism, and the possibility that many small, accumulated gestures might gather momentum and propel change.”[5]

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


Image: Untitled, 2001, Julie Mehretu, Ink and pencil on Mylar, 21 1/2 x 27 3/8in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.30

[1] Mark Benjamin, “An Interview with Julie Mehretu: The Mark of an Artist,” in Rain Magazine, September 3, 2000, rain-mag.com/julie-mehretu-the-mark-of-an-artist.
[2] Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Julie Mehretu,” in Artforum, February 2020, http://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202002/julie-mehretu-81917.
In her review of the current mid-career retrospective organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, Bryan-Wilson contends that Mehretu’s abstraction is an “abstraction that is insistently Black, insistently feminist, and . . . insistently queer.”
[3] “Julie Mehretu,” Whitecube, whitecube.com/artists/artist/julie_mehretu.
[4] “Julie Mehretu,” Whitney Museum of American Art, whitney.org/exhibitions/julie-mehretu.
[5] Wilson, Artforum, http://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202002/julie-mehretu-81917.

Object of the Week: Essence of Spring, Chevreuse Valley

Born Jean Baptiste Armand Guillaumin, Armand Guillaumin was born in Paris, France, to a working-class family in 1841. And while he might not have achieved the same level of recognition as his contemporaries Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, or Camille Pissarro, Guillaumin was embedded in this important circle of Impressionist artists.

Guillaumin’s youth was spent in central France, where he studied art locally. After moving to Paris at the age of sixteen, he continued his education by attending evening drawing classes after working shifts at his uncle’s clothing store. In 1861, he enrolled at the Académie Suisse, further supporting himself through employment at the Paris-Orléans railway and, later, Paris’s Department of Roads and Bridges.[1]

For Guillaumin, his interest in the ephemerality of light and color connected him with his fellow classmates Cézanne and Pissarro, who would become lifelong friends. His work was included in the famous 1863 Salon des Refusés—a “historical launching pad”and, a decade later, the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874.[2]

During this formative period, Guillaumin’s mode of employ and proximity to the French railway system allowed him to travel (albeit locally) and explore the quickly industrializing landscape. Interestingly, many scholars also believe his financial situation and full-time employment impacted the time he could devote to his artistic career. Still, given his background and preoccupations as a member of the Impressionist circle, Guillaumin was committed to depicting working class scenes, landscapesoften with modern infrastructure such as bridges or viaductsand the changing environment on the outskirts of Paris.

The mid-1880s are understood as a turning point for the artist, as he started focusing primarily on color. For this reason, he is often positioned as a bridge between Impressionism and Fauvism.[3] His painting Essence of Spring, Chevreuse Valley, ca. 1885, is one such painting, depicting an idyllic countryside with rolling forested hills and a gentle pastel-colored sky.

Lyrical sections of bold, saturated colorwhere forest abuts grassare interspersed with flowering cherry trees and, behind them, small cottages and homes. Unlike some of Guillaumin’s other paintings from this period, where the encroaching and expanding reach of Paris looms like a specter (this might resonate for those reading here in Seattle), the Chevreuse Valley’s transition into springits atmospheric effects and energytakes center stage.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, “Armand Guillaumin,” https://art.famsf.org/armand-guillaumin. Selected bibliography: Gray, Christopher. Armand Guillaumin (Chester, Connecticut: Pequot Press, 1972); Rewald, John. History of Impressionism (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973).

[2] Pissarro, Joachim. Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865–1885 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005), 28.

[3] Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, “Armand Guillaumin.”

Image: Essence of Spring, Chevreuse Valley, ca. 1885, Jean Baptiste Armand Guillaumin, oil on canvas, 26 x 48 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Philip E. Renshaw, 67.147

Object of the Week: Figurative Weight (abrammuo)

Expanded vaccine eligibility—and this amazing spring weather—is making the prospect of gathering with friends and family a palpable reality. As I imagine and anticipate what these reunions will look and feel like, an Asante work currently on view in the galleries comes to mind: a figurative weight (abrammuo) in the form of two men meeting.

Vast quantities of gold were traded in the Asante empire from 1400 to 1900, and these copper alloy figures were used to balance scales when measuring gold dust. Each miniature sculpture has an attendant proverb, immediately transforming such “business dealings into daily exhibitions of eloquence” and “small-scale momentary exhibitions.”[1] In this case, the proverbial wisdom on offer is: “They have ended up like Amoako and Adu.” 

Who are these men? Amoako and Adu are two old friends who meet after years of being apart, having encountered their own share of misfortune along the way. Now poor, or as poor as they were when they last saw one another, the proverb is about wasted opportunity and, ultimately, the lasting endurance of friendship. Their dynamic, swaying posture offers a reflection of this life—full of ups and downs—but now their heads crane forward as they reconnect and share stories.

This has been a trying year, to say the absolute least, full of collective misfortune, trauma, and challenges—locally, nationally, and globally. But in these difficult times, the wit and wisdom of proverbs like that of the Asante might offer a long view, connecting our current moment to both the past and future. And when we reunite with our loved ones this spring and summer, hopefully we can revel in the important strength of our relationships—the ultimate currency.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum with Princeton University Press, 2002), 79.
Image: Figurative Weight (abrammuo): Men Meeting, Ghanaian, copper alloy, 1 3/8 x 1 1/16 x 13/16 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.361

Object of the Week: Loser + Clark

“I’m making landscapes that I can live in through an ongoing definition of contemporary life and art. Not about America, but from America.”

– Brad Kahlhamer

It is a painting that, for many SAM staff, is one of the first and last artworks seen during a given workday—a painting embedded in the daily commute from the staff entrance to various offices. And, having worked from home for a majority of the past year, it is both a ritual and an artwork deeply missed.

The painting, titled Loser + Clark, is by artist Brad Kahlhamer. Completed in 1999, the work was featured in a solo exhibition at Deitch Projects, New York, that same year. Its size—84 x 120 inches—is large. The paint, applied in “brushy, sinewy networks,” is set against a white ground.[1] The artist’s light washes of color form an abstracted landscape, upon which shapes and forms are scattered, almost floating: “animals, figures in canoes, wobbly Happy Faces, skyscraper-like stacks of music amplifiers, scrawled phrases, portraits and self-portraits.”[2] Loser + Clark,[3] like other works included in the 1999 exhibition, ironically titled Friendly Frontier, came out of a then-recent trip Kahlhamer had made to Montana and the Dakotas—a trip taken to deeper explore and experience the history and mythology of the American landscape.[4] 

Kahlhamer was born in Tucson in 1956 to Native parents, and adopted by German-American parents as an infant. Raised between Arizona and Wisconsin, and later living in New York City as an adult, the artist considers his upbringing a nomadic one.[5] Relatedly, his paintings function as what he calls a “third place”: “distinct from the ‘first place’ of his Native American heritage, and the ‘second place’ of his . . . upbringing with his adoptive parents”—a way to express and understand two different realities.[6] Viewing both himself and his artwork as “tribally ambiguous,” Kahlhamer embraces notions of cultural hybridity to produce a vision of America that is uniquely his own.[7] 

The artist’s biography informs the mythology of his work, which is infused with rich symbolism. Red, white, and blue, for example, represent Kahlhamer’s version of the American flag, “constructed out of sky, water, and the American earth.” Color, too, holds meaning: the color black is the East, and his towers of black amplifiers signify skyscrapers and urban development; “blue [is] for the sky, the wind, and velocity. Browns and reds [are] for the earth and for flesh. Yellow [is] for understanding. Transparency and openness [are] about possibility.[8] 

For the artist’s 2019 exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, A Nation of One, Kahlhamer’s notion of the “third place” was presented as a space that is at once a site of singularity and isolation, as well as unification. And while the term means something very specific within the context of Kahlhamer’s life and work, isolation and unity have certainly been ever-present themes this past year. But even more than that, the painting offers space to reflect on what America is—real and imagined—and what it might mean to be American. It is also a vital reminder, every day, that we are on Indigenous land.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

[1] Holland Cotter, “Art in Review: Brad Kahlhamer,” The New York Times, Oct. 29, 1999, www.nytimes.com/1999/10/29/arts/art-in-review-brad-kahlhamer.html
[2] Ibid
[3] The title Loser + Clark is no doubt meant to skewer the mythologizing of Lewis and Clark’s exploration and the colonial project of Western expansion more broadly.
[4] Meghan Dailey, “Brad Kahlhamer: Deitch Projects,” Artforum, 1999, www.artforum.com/print/reviews/200001/brad-kahlhamer-237
[5]  For a wonderful in-depth conversation with the artist, see Kahlhamer’s interview with Susan Harris from the Brooklyn Rail: www.brooklynrail.org/2020/12/art/BRAD-KAHLHAMER-with-Susan-Harris
[6] “Brad Kahlhamer: Friendly Frontier,” Deitch Projects, www.deitch.com/archive/deitch-projects/exhibitions/friendly-frontier
[7] Brad Kahlhamer, “About,” www.bradkahlhamer.net/about
[8] Deitch Projects, www.deitch.com/archive/deitch-projects/exhibitions/friendly-frontier.
Image: Loser + Clark, 1999, Brad Kahlhamer, oil on canvas, 84 x 120 in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.25 © Brad Kahlhamer

Object of the Week: Sky Landscape I

Louise Nevelson was a pioneering American artist, perhaps best known for her large-scale monochromatic wooden wall sculptures. Born Leah Berliawsky in Kiev, Russia (now Ukraine), Nevelson emigrated with her family to the United States in the early 20th century. After moving to New York from rural Maine in the 1920s, Nevelson enrolled at the Art Students League, where she pursued painting. In the years that followed, she studied with some of the most preeminent artists of her day, such as Hans Hofmann and Diego Rivera.

Cubist principles influenced her earliest abstract sculptures, which were comprised of wood and other found objects. Collage and assemblage techniques continued to inform her compositions, which began taking more ambitious shape in the late 1950s. Found wooden fragments were stacked and nested to create monumental walls, architectural in scale and unified by a monochromatic finish. The sculptures, most often painted black, were done so due to the color’s harmony and, for Nevelson, the belief that black isn’t a “negation of color. . . black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all. . . . . it contains the whole thing.”[1]

This dynamic relationship between color, light, sculpture, and space motivated Nevelson throughout her career, especially as she explored the possibilities of sculpture as it translated outdoors. Her first outdoor steel sculpture, Atmosphere and Environment X, in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum, was made in 1969. Sky Landscape I is a part of this later body of work, where Nevelson continued her sculptural explorations in the round.[2]

Sky Landscape I and its dynamic forms, stretching upward and curling inward, is no stranger to the Olympic Sculpture Park, where it has been on view as a loan since 2007. As of last month, however, the piece officially entered the museum’s permanent collection as a gift of Jon A. Shirley. The work is the first sculpture by Nevelson in the collection.

With longer days and spring enlivening the Olympic Sculpture Park, it is the perfect time to visit and take in Sky Landscape I anew––its abstract forms inviting interpretation as a landscape nested within a landscape.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Diana MacKown, Dawns & Dusks (1976): p. 126.
[2] This work, like other aluminum outdoor works by Nevelson from this period, were made with the potential for even larger realization. In 1988, the American Medical Association in Washington, D.C. commissioned a more monumental version; standing 30 feet tall, it is located at the intersection of Vermont Ave and L Street NW.
Images: Sky Landscape I, 1976-1983, Louise Nevelson (born Louise Berliawsky), welded aluminum painted black, 10 ft.  x 10 ft.  x 6 ft. 2 in., Gift of Jon A. Shirley, 2021.4 copy Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Louise Nevelson, Cascade VII, 1979, wood painted black. 8 ft. 6 in. x 10 ft. 7 in. x 1 ft. 4 in., 9 elements plus base, 10 parts total, photo: Pace Gallery

Object of the Week: Bundle

Don’t imitate me;

it’s as boring

as the two halves of a melon.

– Basho, translated by Robert Hass

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Indeed, Tanaka Yu’s ceramic sculptures convincingly appear as vessels wrapped in knotted furoshiki (wrapping cloth). And still, even after we are made aware of the work’s materiality, it is difficult to see the object as anything other than a textile whose woven structure conceals an object underneath. Here, imitation serves another purpose.

For Yu, who studied oil painting before working in ceramics, this effect of concealment allows her to invoke that which is hidden, prompting her viewers to consider the sculpture’s purpose, and ideas of functionality versus non-functionality. Within the context of Japan’s centuries-long history and tradition of ceramics, too – firmly rooted in the functionality of the object –Yu’s conceptual sculptures turn utility on its head. 

However, for all its conceptual rigor, Yu’s Bundle series evidences a mastery of clay as well. Though the pieces appear to be slab-built, they are in fact coil-built. The artist, using Shigaraki-blended clay, deftly transforms the earthen material, exploiting its inherent and renowned plasticity, into a lightweight cloth. The distinctive yellow color, whose pigment is applied in thin layers by brush, further accents the newfound drapes and folds of the sculpture. The choice of color also refers to the type of yellow cloth often used to wrap a ceramic vessel within its storage box.

Yu’s Bundle, recently acquired by SAM, is a seductive work, and one that benefits from close looking, consideration, and reflection. The artist shows us that imitation, in this case, is far from boring, and can raise important questions about the use-value of objects and the functions they serve. 

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1Shigaraki is considered one of the “Six Ancient Kilns” in Japan. The clay found in the Shigaraki area is rich in iron and feldspar, among other compounds, that informs its unique texture and color once fired.

Images: Bundle, 2019, Tanaka Yu, Matte-glazed stoneware, 24 3/8 x 16 1/2 x 16 1/2 in., Gift of Gordon Brodfuehrer in honor of the Monsen family, 2020.21.3 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate Image courtesy of Joan B Mirviss LTD, photo: Kani Hazuki.

Object of the Week: The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street

On July 21, 1930, W.E.B. Du Bois delivered a speech on the contamination and neglect of the Housatonic River. For Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills,” the Housatonic held personal as well as regional significance.[1]

That summer, in his speech to the alumni of Searles High School (his alma mater), Du Bois reflected on how “this valley must have been a magnificent sight. The beautiful mountains on either side, thickly covered with massive trees, and in the midst of it all, the Housatonic River rolling in great flood, winding here and there, stretching now and then into lakes which are our present meadows and so hurrying always on toward the sea.” For Du Bois, the health of the river was commensurate with the health of the larger valley of Great Barrington, both natural and man-made. He went on to ask, “What has happened? The thing that has happened in this valley has happened in hundreds of others. The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks.”[2]

Over half a century later, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier grew up by a river that shares a similar history: the Monongahela. Located just east of Pittsburgh, Braddock—once a booming industrial town—was a hub of trade and commerce buoyed by Andrew Carnegie’s steel mill. As the steel industry declined in the 1960s and 70s, however, Braddock declined, too—their fates intertwined. Frazier, whose family dates back four generations in Braddock, recounts that while white residents could leave the area during this period, residents of color had a much harder time: “What’s interesting is that through discrimination and racial and systemic oppression, you see how Black people were entrapped in that area—through redlining, and not being able to get loans from banks to move to the suburbs, how they were left behind.”[3]

Frazier’s photograph, The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street, is part of her acclaimed 2013 series, A Despoliation of Water: From the Housatonic to Monongahela River (1930–2013). The photographic series, whose title recalls the words of Du Bois and his relationship to the Housatonic, looks at the post-industrial landscape of Braddock, bringing our attention to the continued fight for environmental and racial justice, and the ways in which the two causes are inextricably linked.

In her artist statement, Frazier described the natural and built environment of Braddock: “Andrew Carnegie’s 19th-century steel mill, railroads, and bridges dissect and erode the waters. One night the river flooded. Crossing through miles of man-made manufactures, contaminated soils, and debris, it filled the basement and soaked the floors of my childhood home on Washington Avenue, in the area historically known as ‘The Bottom’.”[4]

The Bunn family home, photographed aerially, is also located in ‘The Bottom’. Previously surrounded by a number of thriving Black-owned residences and businesses, the home’s once-vibrant block dwindled, buildings turning into vacant lots. By 2013, the year the photograph was taken, the Bunn residence was nearly all that was left; its neighboring houses, businesses, and restaurants replaced with bags of the city’s discarded tire rubber––encroaching steadily.

The Bunn Family Home, and others images in The Despoliation of Water, underscores that the continued extraction and contamination of water and land is inextricable from racial, economic, and environmental injustice. For Frazier, understanding the symbiosis between physical health and environmental health, “the properties found in waters that surround our artificial environments reflect not only a physical condition but a spiritual condition in which we exist.[5]

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street, 2013, LaToya Ruby Frazier, archival pigment print printed onto Hahnemuhle, Fine Art Baryta 325 gsm, 42 1/4 x 63 1/8 in., Gift in honor of Sandra Jackson-Dumont, from her friends, 2014.36.4 © LaToya Ruby Frazier and Michel Rein, Paris/Brussels

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1920), p. 3.
[2] W.E. B. Du Bois, “W.E.B. Du Bois: Reflections upon The Housatonic River,” speech given on July 21, 1930, https://theberkshireedge.com/w-e-b-du-bois-reflections-upon-housatonic-river/.
[3] Corrine Segal, “A bird’s-eye portrait of what was once a thriving steel town,” PBS, Nov. 16, 2015, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/latoya-ruby-frazier-braddock-pennsylvania.
[4] LaToya Ruby Frazier, Artist Statement, UMass Amherst, https://fac.umass.edu/UMCA_DIOT/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=DIOTLaToyaRubyFrazierStatement&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id.
[5] Ibid.

Object of the Week: Soul Washer’s Disc

The intricate radiating pattern of this golden pendant refers not only to the sun, but evokes its warmth and life-giving properties as well. Such discs are known as akrafokonmu, and are prized emblems of Asante leadership, worn by rulers, queen mothers, and soul washers—or akrafo—who conduct ceremonies that purify leaders’ souls.

A precious metal, gold is considered an earthly counterpart to the sun, the physical manifestation of life force (kra). In addition to gold’s spiritual properties, for centuries it has been an expression of royal status, wealth, and trading power for the Asante people.

Such protective emblems are important for members of the royal family or court. Individuals selected as akrafo are young women and men who are born on the same day of the week as the king, and assist in rites of purification and renewal. Gold discs such as this one are suspended over the akrafos’ chests by necklace cords made of various fibers.

Currently on view in Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, this akrafokonmu finds itself in the company of other Asante gold adornment—rings, bracelets, necklaces, and beads. Grouped together, they highlight the beautiful metalwork and material culture of the Asante, as well as the vital role speech and proverbs play therein.

Though the Inauguration is firmly an American ceremony—replete with its own lexicon and symbols, important sartorial statements and homages—I couldn’t help but think of this soul washer’s disc—itself an emblem of historic Asante ceremonies and traditions—and the immense power that such tokens hold for cultures around the world.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: Soul Washer’s disc (akrafokonmu), 20th century, Ghanaian, gold wash and silver core, diameter: 3 5/16 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1685

Object of the Week: Martin Luther King Jr., Lowndes County, March 24, 1965

This black and white photograph, taken by photojournalist Dan Budnik in 1965, is one of a series that Budnik had hoped to publish in a Life magazine photo-essay. (Life never ran the essay, citing recent back-to-back cover stories on the subject matter.)[1] Arguably less intimate than some of Budnik’s other photographs, it captures a reflection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his likeness obscured and rendered distant in standing water. Clear to the viewer, however, is that his body is in stride—moving forward.

Part of a series that documented critical events of the civil rights movement, this photograph, taken on March 24, 1965, is situated during the days-long, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery—a march that protested discriminatory laws suppressing Black voters’ rights in the South, and would eventually lead to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Budnik’s photograph, in fact, was taken in Lowndes County the day before demonstrators would arrive in Montgomery, and where King would deliver his now-famous “How Long, Not Long” speech, also known as “Our God is Marching On!”

This theme of movement—and movement forward—recurs throughout King’s speech, delivered to tens of thousands of civil rights activists on the steps of Alabama’s State Capitol. And while this photograph was taken the day before King’s historic remarks, Budnik’s image captures a sense of the literal and figurative dedicated movement that propelled King and others forward in their fight for equal rights.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered on March 25:

Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” . . .

How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” . . .

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

56 years later, there is still more work to be done—we remain on the move.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Tim Walker, “On the road to civil rights: Extraordinary images of the Selma march seen for the first time,” The Independent, February 22, 2015, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/road-civil-rights-extraordinary-images-selma-march-seen-first-time-10057218.html.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr., Lowndes County, March 24th, 1965, 1965, Dan Budnik, gelatin silver photograph, 11 x 14 in., Gift of Getty Images, 2000.40 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: The ’20s … The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots

Printed in 1974, decades after his celebrated Migration Series, Jacob Lawrence’s The ‘20s…The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots depicts Black Americans casting their votes in an election.[1] The screenprint was produced on the occasion of the American Bicentennial, part of the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio, for which contributing artists were asked to the respond to the question, What does independence mean to you?

Like much of Lawrence’s work, this print focuses attention on the African American experience. Here, we see Black Americans exercising their right to vote—a right that was systematically suppressed in the Jim Crow South, from which millions migrated to the North and West during the Great Migration.

On Wednesday, January 6, we saw the historic election of Georgia’s first Black senator—and only the second Black senator from a former Confederate state since Reconstruction. This landmark victory, and that of Georgia’s first Jewish senator as well, points to a marked shift in the Georgia electorate and increased voter turnout, especially among Black voters.[2] However, we also witnessed events in the nation’s Capitol whose consequences are still unfolding; events that are rightly eliciting anger, sadness, disappointment, and fear; events that will require much more time to process, unpack, and understand. Turning to Lawrence’s work at this juncture may help reconcile the past with the present moment: Lawrence’s work so often captures the messy complexities and contradictions of America and its history—a history whose ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality are inextricable from realities of subjugation, suppression, and violence.

When describing his Migration Series, Lawrence wrote, “To me, migration means movement. There was conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle came a kind of power and even beauty.” There is no doubt that, as a nation, we remain mired in conflict and struggle, that one century after the scene in The ’20s …The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots, voting—and the right to vote—is as fragile as ever. However, hopefully out of this struggle we can emerge stronger and, as Lawrence believed, find beauty in that strength. First we need to truly reckon with where we are as a country, and take steps to repair what is broken.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: The 1920’s…The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots, 1974, Jacob Lawrence, ink on paper, 32 x 24 5/16 in., Gift of the Lorillard Co., N.Y., 75.70 © Jacob Lawrence

[1] Lawrence’s sixty-panel Migration Series (1940-41) chronicles the Great Migration—the decades-long exodus of six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North and West—that lasted from World War I to the 1970s.
[2] Dylan Scott, “’Phenomenal’ Black turnout won the Senate for Democrats in Georgia, Vox, Jan. 6, 2021, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2021/1/6/22216677/georgia-senate-election-results-black-voters-turnout-warnock-ossoff.

Object of the Week: Wintry Sky

Snow in Seattle on the winter solstice provides a fitting backdrop for this work by Japanese artist Higashibara Hosen. Titled Wintry Sky, it encapsulates the subtle contradictions of the season and serves as a timely reminder that winter is officially here.

In the seemingly desolate scene, an angular, near leafless tree trunk and its rhizomatic branches energetically frame an overcast sky (one all too familiar for us in the Pacific Northwest). Bathed in a diffuse gray-yellow light, the moment has all the qualities of early morning. And while much is indeed dormant at this time of year, the tree is enlivened by seven chickadees—so enlivened you can almost hear their song. In this way, the painting brings to mind a wonderful line from Rumi: “And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet but the roots are down there riotous.”

Wintry Sky (detail)

Painted in the 1930s, Hosen used a “boneless” wash technique (mokkotsu), meaning that it was painted without the use of ink outlines. A detail offers a better look at his masterful use of ink, capturing both the delicate softness of feathers and gnarled age of bark. This painting technique was characteristic of his mentor, nihonga master Takeuchi Seiho, whose paintings of the natural world informed Hosen’s own approach to painting nature.

Though it may appear somber and subdued, Hosen’s painting also embodies much of what is important about the winter season. Though a fallow period, winter is a time for hibernation and repair, rest and rejuvenation. It is a time for turning inward and looking to the natural world for hope and techniques for survival.

As in the words of William Carlos Williams:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

Image: Wintry Sky, 1930s, Higashibara Hosen, ink and light colors on silk, 70 7/8 x 40 5/16 in., Gift of Griffith and Patricia Way, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.41.72 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Willy B

Like much of 2020, the past few weeks have generated a head-spinning number of events that we’ll someday—and perhaps already—recognize as historic moments. This ceramic work by Akio Takamori, on view in the exhibition Body Language, is inspired by one such world-historical event.

Titled Willy B, the sculpture memorializes a single action by Chancellor Willy Brandt, who in 1970 became the first German leader to visit Poland since 1939, when the country was invaded by Nazi Germany. Words are often times insufficient, and the Chancellor instead opted to act: he laid a wreath upon the monument to the thousands of Jews killed in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As captured in the documentation of the event, Brandt knelt and solemnly bowed his head. This gesture—one of humility, deference, and respect—was seen and felt throughout the world, understood as a pivotal step by the German government towards healing the traumas of World War II.

Takamori was a renowned ceramic artist in Seattle, where he lived and worked for decades. His sculptures bring to life a wide array of figures—villagers from his childhood upbringing in Japan, to more modern political and cultural figures. Regardless of his chosen subject, Takamori is always able to convey, with deep sensitivity and empathy, true human expression.

Made in 2016 during our last presidential election, Willy B was a central work in the exhibition Apology/Remorse at James Harris Gallery. The exhibition focused specifically on men apologizing and, inspired by images in the media, the works explored the social, cultural, and political narratives that underpin such actions. Willy B illustrates, like so many of Takamori’s works, the artist’s longstanding interest in “the deeper meaning of iconography and the truth about human nature.” [1]

Indeed, four years later and on the other side of yet another polarizing election, our country remains as divided as ever. Inspired by Takamori and his depiction of Chancellor Brandt, it is worth considering—when words fail—what kinds of actions and gestures can help a country heal.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Images: Willy B, 2016, Akio Takamori, stoneware with under and overglazes, 35 1/2 × 16 × 23 1/2 in., Howard Kottler Endowment for Ceramic Art, Northwest Purchase Fund, Decorative Arts Acquisition Fund, Mark Tobey Estate Fund, Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.12 © Akio Takamori. Installation view of Willy B, 2016, Akio Takamori (Japanese, active in the United States, 1950–2017), in the exhibition Body Language, Dec. 22, 2018–ongoing, photo: Mark Woods. Photo: German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes, Poland, December 7, 1970. Photo by Sven Simon.
[1]  James Harris Gallery, Akio Takamori: “Apology/Remorse,” https://jamesharrisgallery.com/exhibitions/akio-takamori-apology-remorse

Object of the Week: Amulet in Shape of A Human Figure

One way to get closer to a work of art is to begin to imagine the sounds that surrounded the artist as they created it. Two examples illustrating this are both amulets––objects charged with setting up a protective force field. The first is from ancient Egypt, among the oldest objects on the 4th floor galleries, and the other is one of the newest, which has been on view in the Jacob Lawrence Gallery on the 3rd floor since December of last year.

A carver living in Naqada long ago would reside on the west bank of the mighty Nile river. If he was an early riser, and close enough to the river, he would be likely to hear the most aggressive creature in his midst: the hippopotamus. Hippos let loose with a roar each morning at sunrise, and again at sunset.  When gathered in groups, hippos vocalize all day with loud exchanges that help alert humans to their presence. This behavior is helpful, since to startle or challenge a hippo is a dangerous mistake, as they harbor an unpredictable power to outrun a human in short distances, overturn boats, and open their mouths to reveal their ultimate weapon––enormous teeth. Hippo canines are up to one-and-a-half feet long, and the carver of this amulet took just a tiny sliver from one to create an image of a man less than 2 inches tall. In this amulet, the carver captures a man’s form in a compelling abstraction––he has a long triangular beard and piercing eyes, all the better to watch over the owner, placed in a burial to ensure the deceased had a safe, healthy, and productive afterlife.  

Aaron Fowler lets us know immediately what sounds were behind him when he composed his enormous sculpted amulet suspended with a rope. It has the same shape as the logo of Death Row Records, which Rap stars such as Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre all wore to show allegiance to the record company. Here, Fowler embeds his friend Debo in their musical pantheon. On one side, Debo is depicted incarcerated and in prison clothes, sitting on a flattened armchair, while on the other side he appears free in a djelaba (hoodie) that Aaron designed for him. Fowler frames his friend with electronic lights and an iconic musical form to make Debo Free into a painful and protective tribute.  

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

Image: Amulet in shape of a human figure, ca. 5000-2920 BCE, Egyptian, bone, 1 3/4 x 3/4 x 1/4 in., Gift of Nasli M. Heeramaneck, 64.33.1. Installation view of Debo Free, 2019, Aaron Fowler, American, born 1988, in the exhibition Aaron Fowler: Into Existence, December 13, 2019- October 25, 2020, photo: Jueqian Fang.

Object of the Week: Between Rabbit and Fox

Acquired last year and newly installed in SAM’s third floor galleries, Jeffrey Gibson’s 2017 painting Between Rabbit and Fox is a commanding and alluring work. Measuring 70 x 50 1/8 inches, the painting’s luminous acrylic and graphite surface, with its alternating and overlapping blocks and triangles of color, captivates from even across the gallery.

A citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and also of Cherokee heritage, Gibson grew up between the United States, Germany, and Korea. Much like his personal background, which evades easy categorization, Gibson’s artistic practice engages a wide range of materials, ideas, and forms. He has characterized his mode of making in the context of anthropophagia, borrowing from Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), whose concept centers on the idea of metaphorically cannibalizing, or absorbing, other cultures as a way to gain strength and assert creative autonomy.[1]

Abstraction is inextricable from the long and unique histories of Indigenous visual and material culture in America. Gibson, deeply invested in these histories, also forges his own connections to Modernist geometric abstraction. Whether he blends the hard edge abstraction we see in parfleche designs with the abstraction of Modernist painting, or reimagines traditional beadwork for entirely new applications, Gibson is able to succinctly explore complex themes of cultural hybridity and the history of abstraction and craft.

Gibson has, over time, learned to embrace and celebrate a certain state of “in-between-ness”—being between different cultures and different aesthetic histories.[2] And as the title of the painting Between Rabbit and Fox suggests, even the pattern we see is in-between. Like a highly abstracted Rorschach test or Magic Eye stereogram, our eye flits about the surface of the canvas, seeing both a stylized rabbit and fox flash before our eyes. This state of indeterminacy—of being in flux—is important for Gibson, and it’s important for us, as viewers, to experience and embody this hybridity (if even for a moment) as well.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

[1] “Innovation and Tradition: Jeffrey Gibson Interviewed by Emily Zimmerman,” Bomb Magazine, May 6, 2019, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/innovation-and-tradition-jeffrey-gibson-interviewed.
[2] Jasmyne Keimig, “Jeffrey Gibson’s Like a Hammer Strikes Today,” The Stranger, Feb. 28, 2019, https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2019/02/28/39366995/jeffrey-gibsons-like-a-hammer-strikes-today.
Image: Between Rabbit and Fox, 2017, Jeffrey Gibson, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 70 x 50 1/8 in., Purchased with funds from the Contemporary Collectors Forum and General Acquisition Fund, 2019.30 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Documenting Diversity in SAM’s Permanent Collections

Museums across the country are contending with the structural racism that shapes their collections and organizations. One component of this process, in striving for transparency, is assessing the individuals and communities who are—and who are not—represented in these collections.

In the summer of 2019, SAM’s Curatorial Department began the challenging—and ongoing—work of collecting data to better understand the diversity of the museum’s permanent collection. While I helped initiate this research, it was carried forward by one amazing and dedicated curatorial intern, Rachel Kim, whose time, energy, and care laid essential groundwork for future initiatives to increase the representation of artists of color at SAM.

The methodology that guides this undertaking is shaped by a study titled “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums,” published in March 2019 by a cross-departmental group of colleagues at Williams College in the departments of Statistics, Mathematics, Art, and Art History. The study used crowdsourcing to mine the online databases of 18 major American museums, inferring data related to artists’ ethnicities, genders, and geographic origins. As in the Williams College study, we focused our attention on artists whose identities are known to us, first conducting research to manually calculate representation by gender and, later on, ethnicity, within SAM’s permanent collection. The Williams College study relied on the crowdsourcing platform Amazon Mechanical Turk to gather data and, like much of such data collection, is subject to human error. Still, the study found that 85% of works in major U.S. museum collections are by white artists, and that 87% are by men. Works by Black artists make up just 1% of collections; works by Asian artists, 9%; and works by Latinx artists, 3%.[1]

I should pause here and note that the complexities and sensitivities of this research are many—there are often limited resources, including limited biographical information, available on a number of artists; many artists’ identities and orientations are intersectional or non-binary, and the application of one singular identity for the sake of data collection reduces the complexity of many artists’ backgrounds and biographies; and most important of all is how the artist personally chooses to identify. With this in mind, Rachel Kim thoughtfully reflected, “No person’s identity can be relegated to simple formulas and spreadsheet labels. With this recognition, I made it a priority to extract source material on an artist from the words of the artists themselves before turning to secondary accounts.” Many museums are beginning to conduct similar data collection and research, and some are even developing surveys to be sent to living artists during the acquisitions process; this way, the artist may self-identify and share details related to their own biography as they would like for it to be recorded.[2] It is crucial to acknowledge another limitation as well: this first phase of data collection, focusing on “individual, identifiable” artists, inherently privileges a Western perspective and valuation of a singular object with a singular, documented maker.[3]

Yet, as nuanced and imperfect as this data may be, it acts as a critical blueprint that reflects what SAM—like too many museums around the country—has known and knows must be corrected. We must confront the inherent biases and narratives that collecting histories, including our own, perpetuates. Serving the museum’s larger institutional goal of addressing racial inequity within its walls and collection, this research further underscores the need for increased investment in 20th- and 21st-century artists of color.

Focusing on the museum’s modern and contemporary collection as one example, roughly 7% of works are by artists of color. However, since 2010, this collection has also seen the number of works by Black artists increase by over one-third. Many of these acquisitions are directly linked to the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize, a $10,000 award offered biannually to an early career Black artist, along with a solo exhibition at SAM. The first prize was awarded in 2009, and SAM has consistently acquired works by the exhibiting artists in the years since.

Looking at another data sample, SAM acquired approximately 1,360 works by 20th- and 21st-century artists since 2010. Of these, roughly 48% are by artists of color. In addition, well over two times the funds were spent on the purchase of 110 works by artists of color compared to 94 works by white artists. These numbers are heartening and signal the progress that an intentional approach can accomplish, though we acknowledge that our work is only beginning.

This research and its analysis is far from definitive or complete, but it is a helpful tool—a compass, perhaps—that can help guide current and future actions to correct the systemic and institutional racism that has invariably shaped the museum field. Supporting, representing, and investing in artists of color through exhibitions and acquisitions is just one part of this anti-racist work for SAM.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

[1] The authors importantly see this study as a companion to the 2014-15 “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey” conducted by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which found that 72% of staff at its member institutions identify as white. It will take more than simply acquiring more works by artists of color to correct racial inequity within museums––equal attention must be given to staffing, workplace culture, board membership, programs, exhibitions, and collections.
[2] Frances Lloyd-Barnes, Head of Collections Information Management at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), further problematizes and offers thoughts on what it means to document diversity in this way: https://new.artsmia.org/stories/documenting-diversity-how-should-museums-identify-art-and-artists/
[3] SAM is a comprehensive museum, which means that its permanent collection houses artworks by artists and makers across time and place, from antiquity to the present, and we cannot always know the identities of an artwork’s maker or makers. If we expand the scope of our data to include works by artists whose specific identities are unknown to us, or perhaps worked as a community or collectively, the museum’s holdings of works by artists of color hovers around 58%. This high percentage is due in no small part to SAM’s foundational collection of historic Asian art, renowned collection of African art, and strong representation of Indigenous—especially Northwest Coast Native—art.

Object of the Week: 3 Panel Glyph #2

Seattle-based artist Denzil Hurley was born in Barbados, West Indies, and studied at the Portland Museum Art School and, later, the Yale School of Art, where he received his MFA in 1979. He was a professor in painting and drawing at the University of Washington for twenty-three years before retiring in 2017.

Known for his quiet, monochromatic abstractions, Hurley often finds himself in the company of abstract painters who came before him, such as Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt. However, Hurley—in a move that might appear heretical to these painters of earlier generations—introduces sculptural interventions to his otherwise subdued compositions.

In 3 Panel Glyph #2—part of a series inspired by the artist’s recent visits to Barbados and the island’s built environment—three stretched canvases are mounted to repurposed wooden poles and handles, a move that immediately transforms the monochromatic square paintings into objects resembling placards and signs.

Image of a group of protestors in 2020 with signs that read "Black Lives Matter" and "Get Your Knee off our Necks"

Hurley’s formal motivations are clear, and the works in his Glyph series are made through repeatedly building up layers of paint that are then removed to reveal a textured surface bearing the traces of his process. However, Hurley’s interest in form and structure is not purely abstract, for he is also deeply invested in the connection between the language of painting as it relates to speech. It is no accident that this body of work borrows its title from a term of Greek origin—glyph: a symbol that conveys information through nonverbal means.

In our current moment, it is hard not to see this work as a visual placeholder for the political, asserting its agency through its very presence, as well as what’s made absent. Though any explicit meaning is obfuscated, its form alone is reminiscent of signs carried by activists and protestors the world over. What the 3 Panel Glyph declares, however, is left for the viewer to decipher.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: 3 Panel Glyph #2, 2012-14, Denzil Hurley, oil on canvas on panel and sticks, 60 x 56 in., Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.34, © Denzil Hurley

Object of the Week: 400 Men of African Descent

Seattle-based artist Marita Dingus has two works in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection: 400 Men of African Descent, acquired in 1998, and 200 Women of African Descent, acquired in 2009. Both were completed in 1997 as companion installations. These works are described as a “Hail Mary, a visual prayer” by the artist, where repetition serves as a spiritual act of catharsis (the pieces took over a year to complete) and a mode of reflection on the horrific conditions of slavery that became clear during a visit to West Africa.  

Dingus was inspired to create these works after visiting Elmina Castle, a Ghanaian fort where for two centuries enslaved Africans were held captive. She walked into rooms where 400 men and 200 women were held in dungeons of extreme confinement, with little light and almost no air. There, they spent their last days before the Middle Passage––a term that fails to capture the atrocities of the slave trade and the conditions of being shipped over the Atlantic. Upon her return, Dingus made a man or woman each day to mark this memory. Each becomes a new form of monument to honor the 200 women and 400 men held captive in Elmina Castle, the aggregate total of figures a powerful and haunting reminder of the conditions of chattel slavery.

As in Dingus’s larger sculptural practice, the miniature figures in 400 Men and 200 Women are comprised of discarded materials, in this case elements such as zipper pulls, Christmas light bulbs, and textile fragments. As articulated in Dingus’s artist statement, “My art draws upon relics from the African Diaspora. The discarded materials represent how people of African descent were used during the institution of slavery and colonialism then discarded, but who found ways to repurpose themselves and thrive in a hostile world.”[1]

400 Men of African Descent came into the museum through an unusual museum experiment.  In 1997, the installation was included in a unique exhibition in which museum visitors chose, via ballot, the acquisition of a work of art featured in the show. The options ranged from photographs and sculptures by contemporary African artists, to installations like this one by a  contemporary Black American artist.

Knowing that the Seattle community chose for this work to enter the collection is an important and, perhaps today, lesser-known element of the work’s history. More than twenty years later, 400 Men and 200 Women of African Descent continue to alert viewers to questions and ignite conversations about slavery, colonialism, and systemic racism. Hopefully, they might also be seen as an offering, an emblem of a community’s support for important dialogue and change.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Marita Dingus, Artist’s Statement, https://www.travergallery.com/artists/marita-dingus/
Image: 400 Men of African Descent, 1997, Marita Dingus, cloth and mixed media, African Art Acquisition Fund, 98.43 © Marita Dingus. 200 Women of African Descent, 1997, Marita Dingus, cloth and mixed media, Gift of the artist and Francine Seders Gallery, 2009.54 © Marita Dingus.

Object of the Week: As One III & IX

Historically, museums have been spaces of hegemony. My practice has often been about finding space for critique within that history. As an artist I believe that my role in museums can be to challenge our understanding of how museums and their powers operate.

– Brendan Fernandes

Many reading this post might recall the 2015 exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, co-curated by SAM’s curator of African and Oceanic Art, Pam McClusky, and Seattle-based curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi. The show traveled to the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, and later on to the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Living in neither Seattle, Los Angeles, or Brooklyn at the time, I missed this celebrated show. However, luckily for me and others who missed it, there is a trove of reviews, writings, videos, images, and responses to the exhibition that continue to bring its resonant ideas and artists to life, five years later.

Such exhibition research provides a necessary foundation for contextualizing two recent acquisitions by Brendan Fernandes––photographs titled As One III and As One IX––who was one of twenty-five artists included in Disguise. Born in Nairobi, Kenya to a Goan, Indian family who later immigrated to Toronto, Canada, Fernandes is a truly transnational artist. Working at the intersection of dance and visual art, his work seeks to push against notions of a fixed or essential identity. Once a dancer himself, his current body of work uses movement and choreography (among other mediums) to examine issues of cultural displacement, migration, labor, and queer subjectivity.

For the video As One in Disguise––a precursor to As One III and As One IX––Fernandes selected masks from SAM’s collection and staged compositions in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, as well as a live performance with Etienne Cakpo. He writes, “The Ballet and the Museum are pivots of Western culture that have greatly shaped our image of what counts as culture. When first placed in French museums, African culture was pictured as ‘other’––primitive, exotic, uncivilized, etc. . . . Using gestures derived from classical French ballet, two dancers address the masks with the formality and etiquette that is not how they have ever been approached before. Movements and bows in the French court were loaded with hierarchical order. Here they are offered to masks that observe these ritualized actions, but cannot dance themselves. Just as European countries like France removed masks and emptied out their meaning, these dancers now dance in a way that is deemed the epitome of elegance, but is also a representation of a power struggle.”[1]

As a direct extension of this work and line of thinking, As One III and As One IX were produced for a 2017 exhibition at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery, titled The Language of Objects. The conceit of the show was to push against Adorno’s claim that museums and mausoleums are innately connected and that, once objects enter a museum, they are removed from culture and, neutralized, cannot accrue new meanings. Fernandes deftly upends this notion, working with Lauren Post and Grayson Davis of the American Ballet Theater to animate and complicate the objects from the University of Buffalo collection.

Fernandes’s museological interventions facilitate important conversations surrounding cultural hegemony and colonial history, both within and outside of museum walls. Importantly, they also point to Fernandes’s aspirations for institutions such as SAM and the communities they serve. To quote once more from the artist, “There is a sense that as our world becomes increasingly privatized and profit-driven, and as artists make the ties between profit and violence more apparent, that [museums and galleries] should use their resources and influence to push back. I believe that one way these spaces can do this is to create space for artists and audiences to experience and experiment with new forms of agency and to imagine what future forms of freedom might look like. I think this is an important and political function of museums and galleries: imagining future freedoms, imagining future ways to show and consider art.”[2]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Images: As One IX, 2017, Brendan Fernandes (Canadian, born Kenya), 1979, digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. As One III, 2017, Brendan Fernandes (Canadian, born Kenya), 1979, digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.1 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of As One, 2015, Brendan Fernandes, Canadian, born Kenya, 1979, in the exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, June 18–Sept. 7, 2015, photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Brendan Fernandes on June 14, 2020, at the Drag March for Change in Chicago. Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune.
[1] Brendan Fernandes, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art label.
[2] “Artist Brendan Fernandes On the Dance Floor as a Space for Resistance and Resilience.” Interview with Saisha Grayson, Smithsonian American Art Museum, June 6, 2019, https://americanart.si.edu/blog/artist-brendan-fernandes-dance-floor-space-resistance-and-resilience.

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: 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

Object of the Week: Confrontation at the Bridge

This 1975 screenprint by Jacob Lawrence was commissioned on the occasion of the United States’ bicentennial. The prompt: to create a print that reflects an aspect of American history since 1776. Lawrence, one of 33 artists to contribute to the portfolio An American Portrait, 1776-1976, chose to depict the infamous incident in Alabama known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, hundreds of unarmed protesters—led by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis—organized a 54-mile march from Selma to the state’s capitol, Montgomery, advocating for the voting rights of African Americans. As demonstrators began their route out of Selma, they were met by a barrage of state troopers at Edmund Pettus Bridge. With orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace “to use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march,” the state troopers attacked the activists—resulting in the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson—using clubs and tear gas. Though the march dissipated due to this senseless violence, two days later the protesters safely reached Montgomery (thanks to court-ordered protection) and numbered nearly 25,000.

As horrible as these events were, what took place on March 7—publicized nationally and internationally—helped galvanize public opinion and finally mobilize Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson five months later.

In Lawrence’s screenprint, the troopers’ brutal actions are represented through the presence of a vicious, snarling dog. To its right, we see African American men and women of various ages clustered together, their political solidarity conveyed through their visual unity. A tumultuous sky surrounds them, whose jagged cloud forms find likeness in the choppy waters below.

This horrible event would leave an indelible mark on our nation’s history and is remembered today for the courage shown by the thousands of activists who marched for a more equitable world. When articulating his choice to depict this important moment, Lawrence recalled: “I thought [the Selma-to-Montgomery march] was part of the history of the country, part of the history of our progress; not of just the black progress, but of the progress of the people.”

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, Jacob Lawrence, serigraph; ink on paper, 19 1/2 x 25 15/16 in., Anonymous gift in honor of Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight, 92.10 © Jacob Lawrence
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