Object of the Week: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980

Unlike summer, with its durational heat and drought, winter in the Pacific Northwest brings with it water—and lots of it. We’re only two weeks into 2022 and we’ve seen over six inches of rain already, thanks to a deluge of atmospheric rivers.1

With water as its subject, this photograph by Johsel Namkung (1919–2013)—taken almost exactly 42 years ago on January 17, 1980—focuses on the swirling, glistening eddies of the Yakima River. One can feel the temperature of the waters—once snowmelt—merely by looking at the image. Rocks and sediment visible through the river’s crystal-clear waters are in rhythmic balance with translucent currents of refracted light and bubbles.

With a background in classical music, studying at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music and later the University of Washington School of Music, Namkung possessed a penchant for visual composition as well. However, his studies of nature are more than mere documentation, they express “the impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy.”2 In a 1989 interview he described his attraction to the “beauty in the lowly humble clumps of, or groups of plants, and weeds, and things like that. I think that is the essence or a component of a great nature.”3

Namkung’s work will be on view in the upcoming special exhibition, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water, opening March 18 at our downtown location. Showcasing a diverse range of artists and practices, the exhibition examines water’s pleasures and perils, as well as its changing role in our lives.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Seattle Weather Blog, “2022 Rainfall,” https://www.seattleweatherblog.com/rain-stats/rainfall-2022/.

2 Delores Tarzan Ament, “Namkung, Johsel (1919-2013),” HistoryLink.org, March 3, 2003, https://www.historylink.org/File/5346.

3 Archives of American Art, “Oral history interview with Johsel Namkung, 1989 Oct. 5-1991 Feb. 25,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-johsel-namkung-12201#transcript.

Image: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980, 1980, Johsel Namkung, Chromogenic digital laser print, 40 × 50 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2006.114 © Johsel Namkung.

Object of the Week: Kali (I’m a Mess)

Colorful, riotous, and vibrant are but three words that come to mind when thinking about Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s neon artworks. Burman’s neon lights first appeared on the Tate Britain’s façade in 2020 for her commission Remembering a Brave New World, which disrupted the neoclassical building’s exterior with a roar of color. Her installation was awarded the 2021 Dezeen Award for Design of the Year.1

Photo: © Tate 2020/Joe Humphrys.

The artist traces her love for neon to childhood visits to Blackpool, a seaside resort known for its annual lights festival. While traditional glass neon lights were not conducive to achieving the shapes and structures that Burman wanted, new developments in the medium allowed her to bend and shape silicon neon lights to create complex and multi-colored sculptures. Some of her signature works include pouncing tigers, images of Hindu deities, uplifting quotes, and her father’s ice cream van. Burman’s Tate Britain installation was unveiled in time for Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights, but also in the midst of the global Black Lives Matter movement and raging COVID-19 pandemic.

With all of this in mind, Burman communicated an uplifting message, but, more importantly, highlighted the significant role and contributions of Black and Asian British artists in the United Kingdom. Burman has also noted that the neon works are an extension of her previous practice, stating, “paradoxically, [the installation’s] concerns are the same themes I explored back in the 80s along with my colleagues in the Black British Arts Movement [that] are still so prevalent today…”

“It’s undeniable that the Tate Britain commission I was awarded was finally a step in the right direction, in acknowledging the significance of my work and practice—as well as the significant contributions of my contemporaries—that have, to be frank, been overlooked for so long,” Burman said. “In doing so, Tate have sought to re-address the biases and hypocrisy often prevalent in both our British art establishments and the wider art sector. This shift, inevitably signifies a slow erosion of the inequalities prevalent in the art world.”

“That being said,” she continued, “I saw my selection for this commission not as a final step in this process of erosion but as a beginning. I was adamant, therefore, that my commission serve as an opportunity to critique the role of the Tate—and by extension all of our British establishments—in much the same way as I have done throughout my practice.” 

SAM acquired one of Burman’s neon works, Kali (I’m a Mess) with funds from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, and additional support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Previously perched atop the Tate Britain’s pediment, obscuring the statue of Britannia, the piece will be on view in the upcoming exhibition, Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time, opening January 14 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.2

Kali (I’m a Mess) brings both a disruptive and inclusive message of liberation and rebellion. Through this artwork, Burman asks: Can Kali fast forward us into a brave new world where we will no longer be in a mess?

Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington

The author wishes to thank the artist, Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman, as well as the artist’s studio team, especially Kemi Sanbe, for kindly providing answers to interview questions. Thanks also to Dr. Natalia Di Pietrantonio, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, for providing the opportunity to write this blog post.


1 https://www.dezeen.com/awards/2021/winners/remembering-a-brave-new-world/#

2 Britannia is the embodiment of Britain in female form as a symbol of British national pride and unity, but also, more troublingly, a long-lasting symbol of colonialism, extraction, and violence.

Image: Kali (I’m a Mess), 2020, Chila Kumari Burman, 6mm 12v silicone LED neon, galvanized weld mesh, 12v switch mode transformers, IP67 plastic box, 137 13/16 x 70 7/8 × 1 3/16 in., Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, 2021.25 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: The Sacrifice of Isaac

When talking about biblical studies, Rabbi Emily Meyer once said, “every translation is a commentary.” This is true, not only for verbal and written languages, but also for the language of visual art, particularly when it comes to biblical interpretation, where artistic design choices can change the context of the narrative. Alessandro Algardi’s Early Modern Italian relief sculpture, The Sacrifice of Isaac, is a prime example of how art can act as its own biblical commentary, both through image alone and in conjunction with verbal interpretation.

The Sacrifice, or Binding of Isaac narrative, is found in Genesis, the first book of Torah, also called the Hebrew Bible, chapter 22. In the chapter, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, but he is stopped at the last moment by an angel, who tells Abraham he has proved his fear of God, and he instead sacrifices a nearby ram (or lamb in some interpretations).

In the original narrative, the angel calls out to Abraham as he is about to strike.1 Abraham simply responds, “Here I am.” Yet, in Algardi’s visual interpretation, the angel grabs onto the knife mid-swing, as if needing to physically halt Abraham’s actions, removing some of the sense of agency Abraham may have had in the original text; it is not Abraham’s choice to pause in his actions, but a result of forceful intervention by the angel. This compositional choice therefore acts as visual biblical commentary, adding to, and expanding upon, interpretations of the original text.

Similarly, Algardi chose to portray Isaac as an older adolescent kneeling on the altar with his head hung low, as if resigned to his fate. Much religious commentary has been written about Isaac’s age, as the story found in Torah does not mention any detail about Isaac, his thoughts, or his actions. Some interpretations portray him as an innocent young boy who is complacent and oblivious to his fate, others as a young man, aware and accepting of his fate. These varying interpretations can change the meaning of the narrative for different religious groups and are reflected in visual depictions across almost 2,000 years. Algardi’s Isaac falls closer to the “aware and accepting” interpretation. This tracks with Christian interpretations of the narrative, in which the character of Isaac is viewed as typological, a precursor or prefiguration to the sacrifice of Jesus. Considering that this object was undoubtedly made in and for a Christian setting, this compositional choice is no surprise.

It is a worthy endeavor to look at different portrayals of the Sacrifice of Isaac from across different religious groups, geographical backgrounds, and time periods to understand how the same original text may change—or maintain—meaning, representation, importance, and impact depending on its context. Each visual translation of the story, from contemporary versions like the painting by Marc Chagall, to late antique portrayals like the mosaics found in the 6th century CE Beit Alpha Synagogue in Israel and Basilical of San Vitale in Italy, truly is its own commentary.

– Abby Massarano, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art


1 10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11The angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham, Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” Jewish Publication Society, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 40.

Image: The Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1638-39, Alessandro Algardi, Terracotta with white paint, 31 1/2 x 22 1/4 x 4 in., Overall h.: 33 in., Overall w.: 24 in., Overall diam.: 6 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.109.

Object of the Week: Kifwebe

Striations animate this mask to help us see the moon as a benevolent star that connects us to the world of benign dead. In simplified terms, it is said, “to chase away, or put in flight, death.” Now’s the time for it to allure Robert Farris Thompson (1932-2021), as he cartwheels his way into the cosmos, looking for a good cosmogram, as a hero of African art history should. 

I first saw Bob appear at an academic conference whose schedule said a Yale professor would give a summation. When the doors to the quiet auditorium opened, a wave of people swarmed in. A Black family took seats next to me—a grandmother and her grandson—whose excitement was contagious. Once the place was packed, Bob began walking toward the podium and yelled, “Turn the lights down so they can’t see how white I am!” Then he gave a talk like none other—filled with call and response, drumming, dancing, parables in multiple languages—and the crowd cheered, laughed, and collectively sighed. Here was someone whose love of art had put him in touch with Africa and transformed him into an oracle for recognizing the depth of its teachings. 

A few years later, he came to Seattle for a press conference when the museum announced its acquisition of the Katherine White Collection, which he knew well, having curated and written African Art in Motion. He admired Katherine enormously, yet he launched into revelations about the art she collected as a tribute to her, and told me, “small people talk about people, big people talk about ideas.”

He became a constant source for guidance on exhibitions and books, such as Praise Poems and Long Steps Never Broke a Back. Whenever I need a boost, I reached for research notebooks filled with his drawings and cryptic commentary, and considered another one of his sayings, “with African art, the evidence machine of Western thinking doesn’t work.” 

Page from Robert Farris Thompson’s notebook from 1972 notes on the Katherine White Collection, SAM archives.

SAM hosted his exhibition, Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of the Black Atlantic World. We cared for live altars, recreated a beach altar with tons of sand, placed a cosmogram on the floor, involved priests and priestesses, and got to revel in his unpacking of iconography. We also took walks in the Central District where he would find yards that impressed him and knock on doors to say, “Hi, I’m Bob, and I’d like to talk about your artistry.”

So, if you haven’t come across his name before, I hope this might nudge you to look into his writing and thinking. We’re also reviewing recordings of his appearances in Seattle, including one about his book Tango: The Art History of Love. For now, here’s a quote from an interview he did with Rolling Stone to demonstrate his way with words. Ashe, Master T. 

“[The people of Africa] stand like giants in teaching us how to live. There is a moral voice imbedded in the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic that the West can’t grasp. They don’t see the monuments, just barefoot philosophy coming from village elders. But the monument is a grand reconciling art form that tries to morally reconstruct a person without humiliating him. 

These are the canons of the cool: there is no crisis that cannot be weighed and solved; nothing can be achieved through hysteria or cowardice; you must wear and show off your ability to achieve social reconciliation. Step back from the nightmare. It is a call for parlance, for congress and for self-confidence.”1

– Pam McClusky, SAM Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art


1 Fred Iseman, “Robert Farris Thompson: Canons of the Cool,” Rolling Stone, November 22, 1984, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/robert-farris-thompson-canons-of-the-cool-58823.

Image: Kifwebe (Mask), late 19th century, Congolese, Luba, Wood, raffia, bark, pigment, twine, 36 1/4 x 24 x 12 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.869.

Object of the Week: Liminal Objects #5

Computer-generated liminal spaces and objects are familiar to video gamers—and maybe more so to those who are just not very good at video games, flailing halfway between a corner, or punching through a character that is more background than plot. These virtually possible in-between spaces become perceptible at the moment a player engages with the limits of a game’s designed environment. In Seattle-based artist Gary Hill’s video installation series Liminal Objects, however, it is within the absence of a designed environment where the computer-generated objects themselves interact, and with disregard for each other’s limits.

Each work in the series shows two black-and-white unrelated computer-generated objects on a 14-inch Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor that has had its housing removed. One object is still, while the other moves back-and-forth and around, indiscriminately slicing the stationary object. In Liminal Objects #5 (1996), it is a stationary tree and a swinging chandelier. Through these shadowless animations, “Hill has avoided the spectacle of computer art and instead embraced the simple fact that the ‘program’ doesn’t care if objects penetrate each other’s solidity.”1 It’s a bit absurd, and in the case of #5, perhaps a touch romantic.

Placing the work among other video art and time-based media of its era, Liminal Objects’ sculptural presence stands out. During the 1990s, contemporary art saw a “cinematic turn,” with a proliferation of large-scale video projection within the gallery space. Video art “forged a link with cinema and its giganticism” as projected images began to engulf entire walls.2 This was a departure from the previous decade, where CRT monitors—the small boxy televisions so different from today’s large flat LCD screens—were the norm (and sometimes only option) for displaying video art. But in the 1990s, many artists sought to loosen video from default connections to sculpture and the domestic in favor of the more immersive experiences that newer technologies could support.

Hill’s Liminal Objects series doubles down on the sculptural qualities of the CRT monitor while also disengaging it from connotations with the domestic: first, by removing the monitor from its casing, thereby “exposing the circuit boards and cathode tubes, and rendering them dangerous and vulnerable sculptural objects;”3 and second, as in Liminal Objects #5, by placing the monitor vertically atop its small steel table. All of these works would originally use laser disc to play the video loops, a common format for video art at the time due to laser disc’s accuracy for synchronization and potential higher quality as compared to tape-based formats.

Engaged in a silent loop, the tree and chandelier of #5 act as ghost-like semaphores: “a compositional practice of electronic linguistics.”4 But in thinking through the considerable questions for how to continue to display such time-based artworks in the future, another riff on ‘liminal’ comes to mind. “[L]iminal or borderline states are anywhere that something is about to undergo a phase transition or turn into something else.”5 As we all know, formats will become obsolete and technology will fail (just look to your smart phone). CRT monitors are not as easily sourced today and the laser disc has long been eclipsed by the digital file.

That time-based artworks can potentially inhabit future hardware, software, and display mechanisms without losing their inherent meaning, highlights a certain liminality too. How will artists like Hill and tomorrow’s conservators imagine the “phase transition” of these works into the future?  

– Mia Ferm, SAM Project Manager, Historic Media Collection


1 Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Gary Hill: Selected Works and Catalogue Raisonné (Cologne: DuMont, 2002): p. 196.

2 Laurenson, Pip, “Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media with Reference to Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place,Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2001, pp. 259-266: p. 261.

3 Laurenson, Pip, “Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media with Reference to Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place,Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2001, pp. 259-266: p. 261.

4 Quasha, George, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009): p. 90.

5 Quasha, George, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009): p. 219.

Image: Liminal Objects, No. 5, 1996, Gary Hill, Monitor mounted on metal stand, digital disc player, and recorded video laser disc, 48 1/2 x 16 x 16 in., Purchased in honor of Shirley and Donald Young with funds from the Collectors’ Forum and the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, 98.51 © Gary Hill (1996).

Checking in on Environmental Restoration Efforts at the Olympic Sculpture Park

Salmon, sea lions, seals, rabbits, hummingbirds, eagles, and Cooper’s hawks—SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park is a refuge for Seattle’s wildlife. Today is World Wildlife Conservation Day, a holiday intended to spread awareness about the natural world and its habitants, and we’re offering an update on ongoing habitat restoration projects taking place at the park.

In 1910, the park’s site was developed as a fuel storage and transfer facility by Union Oil of California (UNOCOAL). By the time the museum purchased the property in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land in 1999, the soil and ground water had been severely contaminated by petroleum products. In acquiring the land, SAM resolved to return the site to a functioning ecosystem, while simultaneously creating a safe space for public recreation and the display of outdoor sculptures.

As SAM trustee, collector, and arts philanthropist Martha Wyckoff previously explained to SAM, “Community can include everyone in Seattle and anyone who comes to visit. As we developed the project, we realized it also included the salmon, and the plants, and the future, by making sure there’s more green, natural settings in the downtown core for all to enjoy. Where else has a major city art museum created salmon habitat in partnership with a national nonprofit land conservation group?”

After an exhaustive international search featuring 52 applicants, Weiss/Manfredi Architects of New York was selected to design the park. The designers developed a 2,200-foot Z-shaped configuration to create four distinct landscapes that reflect the native ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. This innovative design allowed for the implementation of several environmental restoration projects, including brownfield redevelopment, the creation of a salmon habitat restoration, and the capture and use of rainwater on-site.

Construction at the Olympic Sculpture Park © Seattle Art Museum.

On land, designers introduced a three-foot-thick layer of engineered soil that dramatically reduces runoff and allows rainfall to percolate and drain out to Elliott Bay. The planting of dense tree canopies, under-story vegetation, and ground covers also contribute to the retention of rainfall above the soil’s surface. By restoring the original topography of the land, the designers were able to reintroduce microclimates that allow for greater diversity in the plant and animal life which occupies the park.

Meanwhile, on the shoreline, designers focused on the creation of a nearshore habitat which serves as a refuge and foraging ground for juvenile Chinook salmon that migrate through the Green and Duwamish Rivers. They also opted to relocate rip-rap rocks from the shoreline to develop a pocket beach which created a shallow subtidal habitat bench suitable for the planting of native vegetation.

Since opening to the public in 2007, these environmental restoration projects have only continued to flourish. As SAM‘s Facilities and Landscape Manager Bobby McCullough explained, at this point, it’s all about maintaining the work first implemented while the park was being designed.

“Our efforts these days are mainly focused on watching the park grow and letting it do what it was meant to do,” he said.

The shoreline of the Olympic Sculpture Park. Image: Joe Finn.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t more progress to be made in returning the park and others across Seattle to their original environmental conditions, however. For the last year, Bobby has participated in a taskforce formed by Seattle Parks and Recreation aimed at creating and grooming more pollinator corridors throughout the city.

“The City of Seattle is really leading the charge right now in rethinking the landscapes of Seattle’s parks,” he said. “We’re often walking the waterfront, attending meetings, and coming up with new ideas about how we can increase the number of pollinator species that inhabit our parks.”

For 14 years, the Olympic Sculpture Park has served as a haven for art- and wildlife-enthusiasts alike. In addition to hosting thousands of visitors each day, the park often sees researchers from the University of Washington studying the growth of juvenile salmon and other organisms near the shoreline, as well as members of the Seattle Audubon Society observing its natural wildlife populations.

“The growth in wildlife that we’ve seen in the last few years around here has been really fantastic,” Bobby said. “Looking forward, I think these numbers are only going to grow.”

 Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Joe Finn.

Object of the Week: Feast Dish

Crafted out of wood, paint, and opercula shells, Calvin Hunt’s monster Feast Dish, is a testament to the importance of food, community, and potlatch culture to the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of British Columbia. Born in 1956, Calvin Hunt is known for his monumental sculptures and is a well-respected artist from the Kwagu’l band located in Fort Rupert. Hunt’s feast dish provides a remarkable contrast to the typical Kwakwaka’wakw dishes.

As many partake in Thanksgiving celebrations, it is pertinent to recognize the cultural significance of the potlatch for the First Nations, along with the impact of the Canadian potlatch ban that restricted Indigenous peoples from practicing their traditions for over sixty years, only officially ending in 1951. The word potlatch, in Kwak’wala means “to give.” Potlatching for the Kwakwaka’wakw continues to this day and has been practiced for as long as spoken and written history can remember.

Feast bowls are carefully carved and ornamented by their creators, specifically designed for their use at potlatches that will hold delicious foods such as eulachon fish oil, seal meat, cranberries, and cinquefoil roots. Hunt’s bowl, however, was crafted specifically for SAM to coincide with the Chiefly Feasts exhibition in 1994. The feast bowl is modeled after Sisiutl, a three-headed sea serpent from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, who can change between human and animal, along with morphing into a self-propelling canoe whose owner must feed with seals. Operculum shells encircle the mouth of the bowl. In nature, these shells protect marine gastropods (snails) from predators along with preventing the gastropod from drying up if they are exposed to air. With these operculum shells adorning the mouth of Hunt’s bowl where feast food is placed, along with this piece having been created shortly after the potlatch ban was lifted, it can be inferred that these shells are protecting the sacred tradition of potlatching from predatory laws.

Today, and every day, is an occasion to give thanks to Indigenous communities.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis), Wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63 © Calvin Hunt.

Object of the Week: Night Watch

Night Watch (1960) by Abstract Expressionist artist Lee Krasner is part of a body of work often referred to as her “Night Journeys.” Grieving the loss of her husband, Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), and her mother, Anna Weiss Krassner (d. 1959), Krasner found herself in a challenging and painful emotional space. Suffering from intense insomnia, she painted almost exclusively at night during this period. In her words, “I painted a great many [paintings] because I couldn’t sleep nights. I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead. And I realized that if I was going to work at night I would have to knock out color altogether, because I couldn’t deal with color except in daylight.”1

Though previously known for her dramatic use of color, Night Watch, along with other works made in the early 1960s, uses a reduced palette of black, ochre, and creamy white, with gray accents. The title alludes to one of Rembrandt’s celebrated 17th-century paintings of a militia company and, with punctuating eyes as a recurring motif, alludes simultaneously to the militia’s duty of keeping watch as well as a self-referential proclamation. Painting, for Krasner, was always autobiographical, and she maintained that “Painting is not separate from life. It is one.”2

Despite their reduced palette and somber origins, Krasner’s Night Journeys were an exciting artistic development. In a 1981 review of the exhibition The Abstract Expressionists and their Precursors at the Nassau County Museum in Roslyn, New York Times critic John Russell writes that Night Watch proves “Lee Krasner was able to go on turning the screw of her art at a moment in time when most of her colleagues were . . . beginning to lose momentum.”3 Indeed, Night Watch—with its swirling brushwork and rhythmic composition—mines a deeply personal moment in the name of self-expression.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


1 Richard Howard, “A conversation with Lee Krasner,” in Lee Krasner Paintings 1959–1962 (New York: Pace Gallery 1979), p. 3.

2 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Night Creatures, 1965, Lee Krasner, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/486683.

3 John Russell, “Gallery View; Delights, Surprises—and Gaps,” New York Times, March 8, 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/08/arts/gallery-view-delights-surprises-and-gaps.html.

Image: Night Watch, 1960, Lee Krasner, Oil on canvas, 70 × 99 1/4 in. (177.8 × 252.1 cm), Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.4 © ©️2021 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Object of the Week: Focal Point

This week’s object is from the SAM Libraries’ collections. The Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library and McCaw Foundation Library collect book arts such as photobooks, artists’ books, zines, and broadsides. A broadside is a large sheet of paper printed on only one side. Historically, they were ephemeral works plastered onto walls or folded into pamphlets and distributed. Typical broadsides include public decrees and proclamations, event posters, commentaries, or advertisements. Today, broadsides are an important artistic form created via various printmaking and hand-drawn processes which are held by libraries and museums worldwide.

Focal Point [Imogen Cunningham] is a broadside from the Bullitt Library’s collection created by Tacoma artists, Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring. The work is part of their limited-edition broadside series entitled Dead Feminists. Originating in 2008, they have released 31 broadsides focused on historical feminists: political figures, activists, environmentalists, scientists, artists, and more. Each broadside is letterpress-printed on a Vandercook Universal One press from hand-drawn lettering and illustrations and includes a quote as well as biographical information about the subject(s).

If you’re familiar with the series, you might notice that unlike the other works printed on white paper, Focal Point [Imogen Cunningham] is one of only two printed on black paper. This decision helped the artists “pull the focus” onto Cunningham’s quote: “The seeing eye is the important thing.” O’Leary and Spring thought it “provided a beautiful backdrop for a tribute to someone who spent her life creating black-and-white images.”1 Lettering was done with a metallic ink (a recipe that Spring developed) that includes real gold powder. This broadside was printed in an edition of 164 as a nod towards Cunningham being a founding member of Group f/64, a group of photographers devoted to exhibiting and promoting a new direction in photography. F/64 refers to the small aperture setting on the large format camera used by the group’s members.

When asked what drew the artists to Cunningham, Spring said, “The print was made in 2014, and we were definitely feeling the pull of social media, a world full of distractions, and a desire to focus back on our work as artists. As makers ourselves, we recognize the power of observation and the artist’s eye.”2 And observe, they did. Every aspect of this work was carefully considered, from the choice of metallic silver filigree that mimics the traditional silver-gelatin photographic process to the pastiche of images drawn from Cunningham’s photographic subjects. If you look closely, you might recognize several images from Cunningham’s work in SAM’s collection—Magnolia Blossom (Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels) (1925, 89.67) and Frida Kahlo, Painter 3 (1931, 89.28).3 Look for these and other images when you visit Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, on view at SAM from November 18 through February 6, 2022.

In addition to this single broadside, the Bullitt Library also holds O’Leary and Spring’s book, Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color (Sasquatch Books, 2016), which details the entire series in brilliant color and a set of reproduction postcards. Currently, the SAM Libraries are still closed to visitors, but we encourage you to see these items in person when we reopen. In the meantime, the book and the reproduction postcards are available in the SAM Shop during the run of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective. The entire Dead Feminists series is also currently on view at the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections in an exhibition titled, And Then She Said: Voices of Feminists Past and Present.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

Image: Focal Point [Imogen Cunningham], 2014, Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring, Broadside print, 46 x 26 cm, Image courtesy of the artists. Magnolia Blossom (Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels), 1925, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, Img/sht: 11 1/4 x 8 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.67 © Imogen Cunningham Trust.

1 O’Leary, Chandler and Jessica Spring. “Focal Point.” Dead Feminists blog, March 18, 2014. http://www.deadfeminists.com/focal-point/.

2 Email interview with Jessica Spring and Chandler O’Leary, November 2, 2021.

3 Frida Kahlo became the subject of O’Leary and Spring’s 26th Dead Feminist broadside, Estados Divididos, in 2017.

Object of the Week: Nguzu Nguzu

News from Glasgow’s UN Climate Change conference is full of speeches, protests, and debate. Among all the words being spoken, dire predictions of rising sea levels and fresh water scarcity are two issues ringing bells at the museum as we prepare texts and concerns about an exhibition titled Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water to be featured next March. For those who want to augment the news, the exhibition aims to offer a multidimensional exploration based on selections from the museum’s permanent collection and other contemporary works that have been created to help us pause and consider how water is shaping our destiny on this planet. 

A face from the past is an example of art that leads to a haunting reality check. It’s a spirit who stares us down, with wide open eyes, while carefully holding a man’s head. Originally, this spirit was placed as the guardian of a canoe carrying up to 35 men into warfare, or on a quest to chase schools of bonito fish. The stare would have cut through the waves at the prow of the canoe and served to protect the canoe from enemies, difficult waters, or to help keep track of the silvery blue bonito who are known for their speed and unpredictability. Just as this face is adorned with exquisite patterns of shell inlay, so too was the entire canoe, which had towering prows and sterns. Moving into the 21st century, Solomon Islanders continue to create canoes that have guardian prows and vivid decoration that make for astonishing arrivals at festivals.  

However, another Solomon Island offers a tragic story, as seen in a recent BBC trip to the island of Kale. In it, we recognize how talk about the effects of rising sea levels is no longer abstract, but a lived reality.  Please stay tuned for more updates as we prepare our special exhibition for many diverse views of art devoted to water around the world.  

– Pam McClusky, Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Image: Canoe prow figure (Nguzu Nguzu), 19th century, Melanesian, Wood, nautilus shell, 10 5/8 x 7 7/8 in., L: 5 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1443.

Object of the Week: Dawn Shapes

Organized by artists in an empty storefront on East 9th Street, the now-iconic 1951 Ninth Street Show was “a boisterous call for attention by a new generation,” and marked a formal announcement of Abstract Expressionism.1 Despite initial discussion about whether the inclusion of women would negatively impact the exhibition’s reception, Helen Frankenthaler was one of eleven women (and sixty-one men) who participated in the watershed presentation. At 22 years old, she was also the youngest.

Considered the progenitor of Color Field painting, Frankenthaler’s process involved “diluting her paints to the fine consistency of watercolors, she applied the liquid to unprimed canvas, laid on the floor, so that it soaked through in broadly spreading stains, creating opalescent veils of color, bright yet soft, not quite like anything seen before.”2

This technique was acknowledged by many of her fellow artists and art critics as a revelation.

Painted in 1967, close to twenty years after the Ninth Street Show, Dawn Shapes is a large-scale exemplar of her pioneering soak stain technique. Currently on view in Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection, the painting is also given scholarly treatment by Elizabeth A. T. Smith in the accompanying catalogue:

Of foremost significance in Dawn Shapes is how Frankenthaler configured and manipulated the predominant area of ochre at the painting’s center. Here, she achieved a nuance range of yellow and more earthen hues—from dark mustard to dusky orange to peach—applied through a combination of pouring and brushwork to enhance the subtlety of the variations in density and tone. The resulting form, while emphatic, lacks clear definition, evoking various possible associations, from the mutable conditions of visibility at dawn to the gathering of storm clouds and the emergence of sunbeams peeking around and through them. This suggested condition of indistinctness gave rise to the title she ultimately chose for the work.3

As penned in a Museum of Modern Art press release for a 1989 retrospective of her paintings, “All of Frankenthaler’s works suggest a kind of place. Some call on the experiences of her travels within this country and in Europe; others of her living and working in New York City, Connecticut, and Cape Cod. Her titles evoke places of personal and artistic interest as well: natural, religious, mythological, and imaginary. For the artist, the physical painting in itself becomes a place, an environment into which we look.”4 Indeed, painted during a highly productive time in her career, Dawn Shapes exemplifies Frankenthaler’s achievement of spatial tension between pools of contrasting color and their relationship with areas of unprimed canvas. The result is an atmospheric painting whose complex shapes and subtle colors pull us in and ask us to stay a while.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Claudia Roth Pierpont, “How New York’s Postwar Female Painters Battled for Recognition,” The New Yorker, Oct. 8, 2018, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/08/how-new-yorks-postwar-female-painters-battled-for-recognition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Elizabeth A. T. Smith, “Helen Frankenthaler: Dawn Shapes, 1967,” in Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2021): p. 154.

[4] “Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, June 5 – August 20, 1989,” Press Release, Museum of Modern Art, assets.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_327543.pdf?_ga=2.188142184.1750926861.1635457018-948855472.1630077759.

Image: Dawn Shapes, 1967, Helen Frankenthaler, Acrylic on canvas, 77 1/4 × 94 1/2 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.5 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: Street

Located in the far northwest corner of the contiguous United States, Seattle is oriented more to the Pacific than to Europe, and many of its artists looked to Asia in shaping the region’s singular form of modernism. Some practiced sumi-e (ink painting) and calligraphy as pathways to abstraction; others discovered in Zen a model of self-knowledge and unmitigated expression; still others traveled to Japan and China and made contact with those cultures directly. Artists of Asian descent experienced, on balance, an inclusive artistic environment, despite facing discrimination within the larger community, most tragically during World War II.

Alongside Kamekichi Tokita, Paul Horiuchi, and Geoge Tsutakawa, Kenjiro Nomura was one of Seattle’s leading Japanese American artists. Together, their stories reflect the historical diversity of the Pacific Northwest and its artists, adding further depth to 20th-century American art. As Issei (first-generation Japanese American), Nomura was raised in a traditional Japanese family and educated in the arts and culture of his parentage. He immigrated with his family to the United States in 1907, at the age of eleven. When he was sixteen, his parents returned home, but he stayed on and settled in Seattle to build a successful business and career as an artist.

A self-described “Sunday painter” with little formal training, he specialized in the realist style and vernacular subject matter associated with 1930s American Scene painting. Street, with its formal clarity and unmistakable awareness of place, is typical of his regionalism. Yet, even as he mastered this decidedly Western approach, he also maintained expertise in traditional Japanese painting, whose conventions of color, composition, and line inspired him to approach nature intuitively and on his terms.

Street immortalizes the busy intersection of Fourth Avenue and Yesler Way, the epicenter of Seattle’s thriving Japanese American community during the 1920s and 1930s. Here, Nomura launched Noto Sign Co., a signage manufacturer and popular gathering place for artists, and the headquarters from which he and his business partner, Tokita, established themselves on the local exhibition circuit.

In 1933, Nomura exhibited Street at the Seattle Art Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists and with it secured the prestigious Katherine B. Baker Award and a place in the permanent collection of the newly formed museum. When SAM officially opened its doors that same year, it was with a solo exhibition of Nomura’s work. His success, however, was cut short with the Great Depression and resulting forced closure of Noto Sign Co. During World War II, anti-Japanese sentiment and hostility led to his forced internment at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. When he returned to Seattle three years later, it was to continued discrimination and limited opportunities for Japanese Americans. Yet, Nomura continued to paint and participate in Seattle’s mid-20th-century cultural scene, sharing common cause with his fellow Northwest Modernists.

Nomura’s work is on view at SAM in the exhibition Northwest Modernism: Four Japanese Americans, and at the Cascadia Art Museum in the major retrospective, Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist: An Issei Artist’s Journey.

– Theresa Papanikolas, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

Image: Street, ca. 1932, Kenjiro Nomura, Oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 28 3/4 in., Gift of West Seattle Art Club, Katherine B. Baker Memorial Purchase Award, 33.225.

Object of the Week: Leaves

White flecks on a black background, over and over, could be an invitation to savor minimalism, or is it also something else? Viewers have guessed that it is fur, feathers, or seaweed floating in a tide pool.  Then the label gives it away with the title, Leaves, and suddenly you’re watching a maze of leaves fly in the air. An abundance of layered, swirling movement surrounds you. A closer look reveals how strategic the painter is. She places each stroke of paint so carefully that no two leaves merge, but barely touch each other. Something is being said when the crowd is composed of leaf after leaf, each made distinctive with infinitesimal difference.

In the fall season in the Northwest, leaves are letting loose everywhere.  We may notice them as masses, but often may not recognize their other properties. Gloria Petyarre, whose home is in the center of Australia near Alice Springs, is honoring leaves filled with medicine. She was taught by her mother to mix fat from kangaroos and echidnas with crushed leaves to make an ointment to apply to one’s face and hair. The ointment carries a powerful aroma and is a potent aid in helping fight off colds. Kurrajong, the source of the leaves, is also known as the perfect shade tree (Brachyohiton Populneus). It is a tree that only grows in the sun, has deep roots to survive droughts, is a host to butterflies, is fire resistant, and drops its leaves only in dry winters.

Petyarre’s family is famous for painting to enlighten outsiders about their knowledge of their homeland. Her shimmering waves of leaves—created by powerful ancestors—convey their value in her interactive world. Now is the ideal time to take a hint from her and appreciate leaves for the botanical wonder they offer.

– Pam McClusky, Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Leaves, 2002, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 70 7/8 x 157 1/2 in., Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, in honor of Virginia and Bagley Wright, and in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.21 © Gloria Petyarre.

Object of the Week: Blanket Stories

Every blanket tells a story. From their weaving structure, hems, threads, and wear, one can uncover the many unspoken stories of both the blanket and its owners, past and present.

Marie Watt is an Indigenous artist from the Seneca Nation whose practice deliberates the intricacies of history, community, and storytelling. For Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, Watt collected blankets through an open call to the public, with some blankets coming from donations from her community. Some of the blankets have visible tags that state the owner’s name and story. These blankets hold the memories and stories of those who donated them, while simultaneously sharing personal connections, community history, and Iroquois creation stories. In the words of the artist:

“As I fold and stack blankets, they begin to form columns that, to me, hold many references: linen closets, architectural braces, memorials (e.g. the Trajan Column), sculpture (e.g. Brancusi), the great totem poles of the Northwest, and the giant conifers among which I grew up. In Native communities, blankets are given away to honor people for witnessing important life events, births, and comings-of-age, graduations and marriages, namings, and honorings. Among Native people it is as much of a privilege to give a blanket away as to receive one.”

– Marie Watt

Raised by her Seneca mother in the Pacific Northwest, Watt was taught the importance of the continuation and celebration of Indigenous culture. In Blanket Stories, she credits the Iroquois story of The Three Sisters, as one of the many sources of inspiration for this piece. The Three Sisters discusses the themes of home, community, and sharing. The three sisters, Corn, Beans, and Squash, spent their days in a field when, one day, they were visited by a young native boy. Curious about the boy, the sisters followed him home, one after the other. Discovering the warmth and comfort of the boy’s home—and because it was getting colder by the day—the sisters decided to stay and keep the dinner pot full for the boy and his family. The stack of blankets represents how the sisters rely on each other throughout the season to feed our people, highlighting the importance of food, family, and oral history within Indigenous heritage.

Living and working in the Northwest, Watt has stacked blankets so that they rise from floor to ceiling, reminiscent of the totems, or welcome figures, seen in this area of the United States. By visually and thematically connecting two vibrant Indigenous cultures from opposite coasts, Watt welcomes viewers and tells of how we are all connected through the stories that we share. Indigenous people look to the past for guidance from our ancestors, while also thinking towards future generations. These blanket stacks illustrate the histories that they hold, while also demonstrating the comfort and security that they have left to offer.

Every blanket has a story. What is yours?

– Kari Karsten, Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, 2007, Marie Watt, Wool blankets, satin binding, with salvaged industrial yellow cedar timber base, 150 x 40 x 40 in., General Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.41 © Marie Watt.

Object of the Week: Soundsuit

October 11 is National Coming Out Day, and to celebrate, we are featuring a work created by queer artist Nick Cave, now on view at SAM. SAM’s collection includes many queer artists: from Marsden Hartley, Mickalene Thomas, and Francis Bacon to Paul Cadmus, Nan Goldin, and Catherine Opie. It is important to SAM that we acknowledge and discuss all artists’ identities as part of the conversations we have about their work. While not all of the queer artists in our collection were out during their careers, and not all created works biographically address queerness, sexuality or gender identity, the visibility of queer artists is an important counter to decades of erasure and exclusion, especially for BIPOC LGBTQIA+ artists. Being seen and being yourself is what coming out day is all about, and Nick Cave’s work represents this beautifully.

Cave began making his Soundsuits after seeing the video of Rodney King, a Black man, brutally beaten by police in 1991. He started by collecting sticks in a local park and stitched them together to create a suit that, when worn, allowed him to completely disappear. Once inside, the suit hid his Blackness, his gender, and other facets of his identity to give way to other modes of being that protected him from the outside world and, in many ways, gave him the freedom to move about and perform.

The Soundsuit by Cave in SAM’s collection represents many elements inherent to the process of realizing one’s sexuality, gender identity, and coming out: artifice, performance, and reinvention.

Let’s tackle these elements one at a time.

Artifice: Cave’s Soundsuits are works of art, but they also draw comparisons to costumes. The wearer/performer disappears in them, and, when worn, they create a completely different appearance from that of the person inside. Queer people have always created identities and personas—for adapting to the restrictions of straight spaces, expressing creativity, or for survival in an otherwise intolerant world. Aiding in the wearer’s transformation and disappearance from view, Cave’s Soundsuits are the ultimate type of protective artifice.

Performance: We queer people just cannot stop performing. Be it on Broadway, Drag Race, in Folk music, ballet or video games, there are queer people everywhere in the arts. We love to disappear into worlds of fantasy, to be the centers of attention, to express our ideas about the world, and to do it loudly and without reservation. The Soundsuits are performance objects that demand attention—they are colorful, loud (literally and figuratively), visually arresting, and they tower over and expand well beyond the average size of a person. When worn, they take up space with their presence and are unabashedly on display.

Reinvention: Cave takes ordinary objects—his studio space is basically a flea market of toys, shells, fake fur, and whatever else he finds out in the world—and turns them into Soundsuits that are part sculpture, part percussion instrument, and part costume. This idea of reinvention is a key component of the coming out experience that many queer people experience. The newness of coming into one’s own identity provides an opportunity to take the essence of oneself and re-introduce it to the world in a brand new, inherently strong, and freer form—much like the Soundsuits, whose raffia strands, knitted sleeves, and beads are reborn as a moving and living work of art.

It is for these reasons that I thought Cave’s work was a sound choice (see what I did there?) for SAM’s Object of the Week. But I also chose it because it is an artwork—like each of the dozens of Soundsuits that Cave has made—that evokes joy, much like that of LGBTQIA+ culture. Cave’s suits are alive with celebration, especially when they’re worn by dancers and you experience the full effect of their materials, colors, movement, and the ways they evoke wonder. I hope for anyone coming out, that ultimately it is a process that not only transforms your life but also brings you joy. 

Jason Porter, Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement

Image: Soundsuit, 2006, Nick Cave, Human hair, fabricated fencing mask, sweaters, beads, metal wire, Height: approximately 6 ft., on mannequin, Gift of Vascovitz Family, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.70 © Nick Cave.

“Libraries and Museums Liberated Me”: An Interview with SAM Board Chair Dr. Constance Rice

During their September 21 meeting, SAM’s Board of Trustees elected Dr. Constance W. Rice as their new Chair. A celebrated leader and activist in Seattle, Dr. Rice has been a member of the museum’s board since 1995 and previously served on the board’s Executive, Governance, and Education & Community Engagement Committees, serving as co-chair of the latter since 2010.

To celebrate her new role at SAM, we spoke with Dr. Rice about her proudest accomplishments on the board, how the pandemic affected its functions, her favorite memories at the museum, and what it means to be the first Black chair in SAM’s history.

SAM: Can you talk a bit about the role of SAM’s Board of Trustees at the museum and its purpose?

Dr. Constance Rice: The board of trustees is the governing body of SAM. I think one of our biggest responsibilities is being ambassadors for the museum. We work to make sure the public knows that Seattle Art Museum is a community resource and that we uphold the museum’s mission to “connect art to life.” To make that happen, we try to bring in people from a variety of different backgrounds and career fields to serve on the board so that we are get input from as many different communities—corporate and non-corporate—as possible. Our official duty is to manage the Executive director and CEO of the museum. There is also a fiduciary element: making sure the museum has an operating budget and is accurately tracking expenditures. We are the activists of the institution, and it takes money, time, commitment, and a love of the overall mission of the museum to make sure it functions properly.

SAM: Compared to work you’ve done on SAM’s board in the past, what are some important parts of your news role as SAM’s Board Chair?

CR: This role is a bit more outward facing than my previous roles on the board. As the board’s primary spokesperson, I’m responsible for talking with various community members and institutions to support the museum. Like many other art institutions right now, Seattle Art Museum is looking for better funding stability. To get that stability, I work with opinion leaders at the state legislature—both elected and non-elected officials—to develop a broad constituency of support not just for SAM, but for all art institutions in our area: Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Seattle Theatre Group, and Northwest African American Museum, among others. The other main responsibility of my role is relationship building. The chair is responsible for ensuring the cohesiveness of the board and making sure every member knows their role. I am there to support every member and to make clear that we all are there to support one another and the institution.

SAM: You’ve served on the board since 1995, in many roles, most recently as vice chair. What are some accomplishments you are most proud of?

CR: My level of activism has varied throughout my many years on the board. But I think my most proud accomplishments are working with Sandra Jackson-Dumont, former SAM Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs, and co-chairing what is now the Education and Community Engagement Committee (ECEC). Sandra has been an inspiration for me throughout my life and I feel honored that I was able to work so closely with her before she moved on from SAM. As co-chair of the ECEC, I was able to focus on community building and had the opportunity to work with several more wonderful people. My first co-chair, Herman McKinney, was very much an activist. He helped found The Breakfast Club, chaired the Martin Luther King Memorial Committee, and served as the first director of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s Urban Enterprise Center. Eventually, José Gaitán took over Herman’s role and José was very interested in ensuring the museum understood Seattle’s Latinx population and was actively reaching out to them. After José, I co-led the committee with Sandra Madrid. Sandra really got the museum interested in developing partnerships with non-profits like Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Atlantic Street Center. Co-chairing this committee has been a great joy for me in terms of watching it expand and engage with local communities over time.

SAM: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way you approach leadership roles?

CR: Professionally, I’m extroverted, but personally, I’m introverted so the professional side of me has really had to adjust since we began holding our meetings virtually due to the pandemic. My leadership style is very focused on establishing relationships, and it’s been harder to do that remotely the last two years. In interviewing for this position, I had the opportunity to meet with board members mask-to-mask since the museum is open to the public and it made me realize just how much I value person-to-person interactions. Going forward, I intend to meet every single one of the board members in person at some point throughout the next year. That’s the only definite plan I have right now.

SAM: What are some of the top priorities you’re looking to address within the museum?

CR: The COVID-19 pandemic made me a lot more introspective and gave me an opportunity to read a lot more. As a kid, I was pretty much a loner. No, I was totally a loner. I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and in junior high school I would go into Manhattan on the weekdays to the 53rd Street Library to do my homework. After I finished, I would go across the street to The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) because it was free to all students at the time. The library and MOMA opened a whole new world for me—it was liberating. Libraries and museums liberated me.

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as a kid—I couldn’t imagine it. Being in the position that I am in right now, I want to focus on creating more opportunities for children and their communities to access the arts. Because without art, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Whether it’s through singing, painting, dancing, dreaming, or reading SAM offers a space for every kid to be creative and that’s what I want to emphasize as I take on this new role.

SAM: You are the first Black person appointed as SAM’s Board Chair. What does that mean to you? And why is it important for a museum board to be diverse?

CR: One of the things I asked myself when I was first approached about becoming chair was, what’s wrong with this picture? Well, I’m not male, and I’m not rich. One of the challenges of the board is the diversity within it—age, gender, ethnicity, etcetera. And while we are the ambassadors of connecting art to life, we still have work to do in terms of bringing more life into the art world. And that means really considering what work we’re putting on our walls and who we are hiring to shape and guide the museum.

SAM: The summer of 2020 was a difficult time for many people across the nation. It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the world was grappling with the murder of George Floyd. Many institutions, including museums, were called upon to reevaluate how they interact with the communities around them. How did you see this materialize within SAM?

CR: I live nearby the museum, so I was very pleased when I first saw Kimisha Turner painting the plywood on the windows that summer. As I watched her progress, I noticed that she brought her son with her and sat him down on a chair outside every day while she worked. One day I stopped by to ask about him being there, and she said, “I create better when he’s with me.”

I marched a lot that summer and the museum was on the route for many demonstrations. I am very aware that the marches, and what was going on nationally with George Floyd, bolted me to this new position on the board. I am deserving of this position, but I am also aware that my colleagues looked around and said, “we’re not going to do business as usual.” That’s what I believe I represent. It’s also why I really admire and respect my peers on the board. They looked around at what was going on in the world and decided it was time for change.

SAM: Can you share any favorite memories of being at SAM?

CR: I have so, so many wonderful memories of being at SAM. I knew Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Knight well. Jacob was from Harlem and the only living creature that could make me smile when he called me Connie because I hate being called Connie. But I was fortunate enough to attend one of their gallery talks in the old auditorium in the basement of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It was there that I got to know Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art, and I immediately became a fan.

Being at SAM, I have also been able to meet so many wonderful artists, like Brenna Youngblood and Theaster Gates, two former winners of the Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Prize. I met Theaster when he lived in Seattle and was doing The Listening Room at SAM. He had a satellite office set up in Pioneer Square and asked members of the community to bring in their albums to add to the exhibition. When I was looking through the donated albums one day, I saw a Nina Simone album with a cover that I loved. I asked Theaster what he was planning to do with albums when the exhibition was over, and he said, “I’m going to give it to you.” I nagged him and nagged him throughout the exhibition, but I never got the album. But, you know, one of the things I hope for as chair is that I have more of these special moments and memories with artists at the museum.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Courtesy of University of Washington.

Object of the Week: Form 19-3

“The act of kneading clay and creating shapes connects me to the thoughts and memories deep in my heart.”1

– Fujino Sachiko

Form 19-3, a new acquisition, is now on view in Folding Into Shape: Japanese Design and Crafts. It is a recent work by the Japanese artist Fujino Sachiko (born 1950), who began her art practice in textiles and fashion design, and later studied ceramics under the pioneering artist Tsuboi Asuka (born 1932). Inspired by the abstract ceramic works of avant-garde artists such as Yagi Kazuo (1918–1979), Suzuki Osamu (1926–2001), and Yamada Hikaru (1924–2001), Fujino ventured into ceramics, finding that the medium allowed her to express her artistic ideas most freely.2  

Drawing on her background in fashion design, Fujino manipulates clay as if folding and shaping fabric. This sculpture’s intricate form is built up from geometric shapes, and balanced with irregular folds in gradations of grey. The folds create beautiful silhouettes like those of a dress, such as the one by Issey Miyake also on view in Folding Into Shape. The elegant texture of the surface was created by the application of matte slip through an airbrush.

Image: Xiaojin Wu.

Fujino creates her clay sculptures through the laborious process of coil-building and hand-sculpting without the use of maquettes. With an aim to create works that have a dynamic appearance from different angles, she shapes the clay intuitively and does not know the final form of the work until it is complete. Many of her recent ceramic artworks began with geometric forms but turned into more organic forms in the process. While the biomorphic sculpture takes on a floral form, it also invites the viewer to think beyond petals and blossoms. The artist has remarked: “My interest in the mystery of plants has been deeply rooted since my childhood, even though my work is not a direct image of flowers.” Indeed, seen from above, the sculpture evokes a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe.

– Xiaojin Wu, Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Curator of Japanese and Korean Art


1 Online exhibition catalogue, Forming a Voice, www.mirviss.com/exhibitions/forming-a-voice, p. 3.

2 Interview with the artist produced by Joan B Mirviss LTD in April 2021: https://vimeo.com/551679336.

Image: Form 19-3, 2019, Fujino Sachiko, Stoneware with matte glaze in white and gradations of grey, 19 1/2 x 18 1/8 x 17 3/4 in., Purchased with funds from Gordon Brodfuehrer in honor of the Monsen Family, 2021.19 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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: No. 19

Fang Lijun’s No. 19 depicts five people, all bald and dressed in button-up shirts, looking at something together. In the galleries of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, it’s hard to place these figures and understand exactly what they are doing. The gray shadows on their faces and downturned mouths seem to suggest disapproval, or at least resignation. A sense of amusement gives way to an unsettling sense of curiosity about why they are dressed identically and have gathered together.

Fang Lijun’s paintings and woodblock prints often feature groups of these lookalikes. They tend to communicate a singular emotion by simultaneously donning blank stares, maniacal grins, or awestruck expressions. In 1992, art critic Li Xianting described Fang’s work, as well as that of fellow artists Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang, as “Cynical Realism.” This term encompasses works of contemporary Chinese art that, through irony and satire, responded to the societal changes of the 1980s. These artists came of age during the Cultural Revolution, a period marked by uniformity and a staunch ethos of collectivism, only to witness those values fall out of fashion a decade later amidst China’s increasing embrace of free market economics. Reflecting this context, the viewer can see both humor and bleakness in No. 19. In a 2017 interview, Fang remarked that the silly or undignified impressions given off by his figures amounts to “mischievousness, mockery, making fun of people.”1

In this same interview, a quarter century after the term was coined, Fang also voices ambivalence about his work being described as Cynical Realism. But a viewer might interpret No. 19 as commenting on Chinese society in other ways, including the artist’s choice of medium. No. 19 is a woodblock print, which requires carving the negative of an image on a piece of wood, coating the panel with ink, and impressing it onto paper or fabric. Though woodblock printing has been a part of East Asian art for over a thousand years, Chinese artists of the New Woodcut Movement in the 1930s used the art form in a new way: to advocate for social change. These artists committed to “representing the underrepresented,” populating their images with “peasants, beggars, prisoners, rickshaw pullers, boat trackers, famine victims, war refugees, industrial workers, and political protestors.”2 Through easily distributed and visually accessible prints, these artists hoped to give voice to ordinary people and spark political consciousness.

Zheng Yefu, Fight, 1933, woodcut, 19 x 14.5 cm3

Likewise, the group depicted in No. 19—nameless, without distinguishing features—seems to be fairly ordinary as well. But compared to the protestors crying out for change shown in 1930s woodcuts, they seem quieter and more ominous. No. 19 might prompt the viewer to glance over their shoulder—an instinctive reaction to the feeling that they are missing what everyone is seeing. What could it be?

Returning to Li Xianting’s 1992 article, a younger Fang Lijun is quoted as saying, “A fool is someone still trusting after being taken in a hundred times. We’d rather be lost, bored, crisis-ridden misguided punks than be cheated.”4 Considering that this artwork was completed in 1996, these figures seem to exist in the aftermath of the 20th century and at the dawn of the 21st century in China. Representing a generation caught between a “before” and an “after,” Fang Lijun’s figures witnessed how mass mobilization towards one vision of the future could be invalidated or entirely reversed. While there are only five people in No. 19, it’s not hard to imagine the woodcut print being duplicated many times over, producing 10, 15, or 20,000 of these sullen individuals. Their shabby clothes or slack faces may indeed be mocked by other people, especially those rebounding from upheaval by busily forging ahead in the new millennium. But their unwavering stares seem to see things a little more clearly.

Yaoyao Liu, Museum Educator, Seattle Asian Art Museum

Yaoyao develops K-12 programs and resources related to other works of contemporary Asian art at SAM, including the Eyes on Asia video series.


1 Tessa Moldan, “Fang Lijun,” Ocula Magazine, https://ocula.com/magazine/insights/fang-lijun.

2 Xiaobing Tang, “Echoes of Roar, China! On Vision and Voice in Modern Chinese Art” in positions: east asia cultures critique, Fall 2006, pp. 467-494.

3 Chang Yuchen, “From New Woodcut to the No Name Group: Resistance, Medium and Message in 20th-Century China,” Art in Print, vol. 6, no. 1, artinprint.org/article/new-woodcut-no-name-group-resistance-medium-message-20th-century-china. Zheng Yefu print reproduced from Selection of 50 Years of Chinese New Printmaking, Vol. 1, 1931–1949 (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1981).

4 Stephanie Buhmann, “Fang Lijun,” The Brooklyn Rail, https://brooklynrail.org/2004/02/artseen/fang-lijun.

Image: No. 19, 1996, Fang Lijun, various, woodblock print, Gift of Robert M. Arnold, 98.30.1-4 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Iroke Ifa and The Seated IV

Two feminine beacons of African futurism are now on view in Seattle. One is in the Seattle Art Museum and another arrived this spring on the University of Washington campus. Both encourage taking a moment to reflect on one’s destiny, and consider ways of approaching the future with new insights.

When chaos and disorder overtake your confidence in Yoruba culture, it is time to consult a babalawo, or “father of secrets.” The woman in the museum would appear to assist him. She kneels, just as Yoruba belief specifies that each person kneels to choose a destiny before being born. She wears only waist beads and holds a fan, showing modesty and respect. Her head extends into a long cone which is where one’s destiny is stored. The babalawo uses this divination tapper to call upon Orunmila, a deity who knows more about the hidden possibilities in your life that you are not aware of. 

This is just a short summary of a highly evolved Ifa divination system, a living oracle that, in 2008, was inscribed by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of humanity. A video issued by UNESCO provides a brief overview with a visit to Nigeria and offers a chance to see the tapper in use.

Moving outdoors, a newly installed woman presides over a campus soon to be activated by students in their quest for new destinies. She sits, embodying calm, while her body is covered with slithering tendrils. Her face merges with a shining disc, evoking a means of connecting with unidentified essences that hover in the air, stirring questions about what lies ahead. The Seated IV (2019) is part of a group of four entitled The NewOnes, will free us, by Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan-born artist. Her explanation about why and how these visionary women came to be is encapsulated the below video.

– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Iroke Ifa (Divination Tapper), 20th century, Yoruba, Nigerian, Ivory, 15 1/2 x 1 3/4 x 7 5/16 in., Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, 68.26. The Seated IV, 2019, Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, born 1972), Bronze, 80 1/2 x 33 3/8 x 36 3/4 in., University of Washington, Plaza of the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health, Gift of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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: Salt cellar

In the 15th-16th century, this ivory salt cellar would have belonged to a wealthy European collector, adding precious salt to their meals or variety to their cabinet of curiosities. The crocodile motif, masterfully carved by Sapi artisans in Sierra Leone, would have evoked the “newly discovered” African continent. We can understand this combination of foreign taste and local craftsmanship as an early form of commissioned “tourist art,” and exotic items like this one became increasingly popular in European collections. 

The Portuguese arrived on the shores of Sierra Leone in 1460, which began a short period of relative cross-cultural harmony. In the 15th and 16th centuries, urban life on the West African coast did not look vastly different from urban life in Lisbon, so Portuguese merchants were quickly able to establish relationships, trading for vast amounts of gold, ivory, pepper, and other goods. Curiosities like this salt cellar were also valuable African exports, so Portuguese merchants commissioned items to sell to collectors in Portugal. Artistic patronage structures in Sierra Leone were similar to those in Europe, which meant Portuguese patrons could request specific designs be used in commissioned works, often bringing an etching or other model to demonstrate their wishes. This exchange of ideas led to a confluence of European and African designs in many of these exported ivories. 

Emma George Ross writes that ivories like this one have been described as “emerging from a period that predates power imbalances and racist imagery. Therefore, the shared African and Portuguese aesthetic that they reflect is one that was achieved through the negotiation of equals.”1 However, the rosy picture of “negotiation among equals” is at odds with the 175,000 enslaved people who were taken from Africa to Europe and the Americas during this early period of Afro-Portuguese contact. The slave trade grew exponentially with increasing Dutch and British involvement in the 17th century. 

Because of the consequent power imbalance and rise of white supremacy, the African makers of carved ivories in European princely collections were often erased. Only in the 20th century did researchers rediscover the Sapi and Benin origins of certain carved ivories, returning this cross-cultural collaboration to the art historical narrative and establishing the category of “Afro-Portuguese ivories.” 

– Linnea Hodge, Former (and much-missed) SAM Curatorial Division Coordinator 

1 Ross, Emma George. “Afro-Portuguese Ivories.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/apiv/hd_apiv.htm (October 2002)

Sources:

Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/slav/hd_slav.htm (October 2003)

Clarke, Christa. “Lidded Saltcellar.” Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-africa/west-africa/sierra-leone/a/lidded-saltcellar

Ross, Emma George. “Afro-Portuguese Ivories.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/apiv/hd_apiv.htm (October 2002)

Ross, Emma George. “The Portuguese in Africa, 1415–1600.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/agex/hd_agex.htm (October 2002)

Image: Salt cellar, ca. 1490-1530, Sierra Leone, ivory, 8 1/8 x 2 9/16 x 2 11/16 in., Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, 68.31.

Object of the Week: Canoe Breaker

I draw on the lessons of our ancestors. Our ancestors left an incredible legacy of art and, in order to honor them, it’s our responsibility to relearn that legacy, whether it’s through the art, whether it’s through the song, or through the dance. When people would travel to the mainland, there’s this incredible body of water that’s very treacherous, and a storm can come up and without warning. And so, before the people crossed the water, they prepared themselves on three levels…. They prepared themselves physically; they would actually practice paddling the canoe. And they would mentally prepare themselves, they would visualize their destination. And creativity is exactly the same thing, you visualize, you get an idea like that. And so, our challenge is to hold the idea and bring it to fruition. 

Robert Davidson

Robert Davidson is arguably one of the most versatile, creative, and visionary artists of our time. Born in 1946 in Masset village, Haida Gwaii, Davidson—countering the effects of colonialism—was able to tap the memories of his elders and help revive ancient Haida art styles, revitalizing the visual heritage of his people.

His story is nothing short of remarkable and has unfolded over 40 years through numerous artworks ranging from wood and metal to paper and canvas; original songs and dances of his Rainbow Creek Dancers; and in public exhibitions, publications, and awards. His masterful feel for cedar, from monumental totem poles to expressive masks, links him to generations of some of the most accomplished artists of all time, including his maternal relative, Charles Edenshaw (ca. 1839-1920).[1] The trajectory of his carving places him among the masters who pushed Haida art to a breathtaking sophistication and refinement.

As his engagement with Haida culture and art has grown and his artistic practice has matured, Davidson has crafted an individual and distinctive approach to abstraction that is grounded in tradition yet expressive of the experiences, intellect, and creativity of an artist in his own time. In the early 1980s, he began to paint largescale paintings in gouache, experimenting with color, composition, and figural abstraction. A decade later, while still engaged with carving projects, he incorporated acrylic painting into his practice, adopting a hard-edge technique that has precision and crispness but retains elasticity and movement. The subjects (he gives us clues in the titles) might refer to personal experiences, musings on Haida art, or legends drawn from the corpus of Haida oral traditions.

Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) is an archipelago of two large and more than 150 small islands that lie sixty miles off the British Columbia mainland. Formed by glacial erosion, floods, tsunamis, and changing sea levels, this cluster of islands sits at the juncture of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. Here the ocean drops precipitously from three hundred to three thousand feet, creating an environment rich in marine resources and marked by dramatic climatic events, including gale-force winds. In Canoe Breaker, Davidson introduces his audience to a powerful force and its ancient origins: Southeast Wind.

Southeast Wind has ten brothers or, in some accounts, nephews, who are manifestations of his powerful force. John Swanton, an ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnology from 1900-1944, recorded a story told to him by a Haida man named Abraham in the winter of 1900 about Master-Carpenter who went to war with Southeast Wind because he was sending too much rainy, stormy weather to the people. After four failed attempts to make a seaworthy canoe, Master-Carpenter succeeds and sets out on his mission. He seizes the matted hair (kelp) of Southeast Wind and pulls him into the canoe. The Wind sends the first of his nephews, Red Storm Cloud, who turns the sky red, followed by Taker off the Tree Tops who blows so hard that tree branches come down around Master-Carpenter in his canoe. Next, Pebble Rattler brings rolling waves that violently toss the rocks and Tidal Wave covers the canoe with water. Other brothers bring mist and melted ice. During all this wind activity, Master-Carpenter is putting medicine on himself that he has brought with him for the task, as Haida travelers and fisherman (since the beginning of time) are keenly observant of the weather—perhaps a metaphor for preparing for the unknown, as in performing a new song or creating an art work.

Southeast Wind is represented in this painting by an image of the killer whale, which becomes human when on land. A human-like nose and eye signal this transformative nature. The large ovoid is its head, and a black three-pointed shape defines the lower jaw. Black U-shapes with red ovals indicate the pectoral and dorsal fins, and the tail is shown at the very top. The entire image is dematerialized without being wholly abstract and shows how Davidson’s art practice moves effortlessly from figuration to abstraction.

– Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art


[1] See Charles Edenshaw work in SAM’s Collection: Platter, argillite carving: 91.1.127
Image: Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother, 2010, Robert Davidson, acrylic on canvas, 60 × 40 in., Gift of The MacRae Foundation, the Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council, and Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.35 © Robert Davidson

Object of the Week: Dead or Alive

Nancy Worden made art that ignited conversations with narratives to be worn, inviting curiosity so as to bypass shyness. A necklace in the museum’s collection illustrates her gifts, and emerged after she visited the Seattle Art Museum in 1993. There she saw what she calls a “very powerful and haunting piece”––a Mesquakie bear claw necklace from the Chandler-Pohrt collection in an exhibition entitled Art of the American Indian Frontier.[1]  Here’s what she saw:

This Mesquakie necklace features 40 claws from several massive grizzly bears who hunted buffalo on the plains of the Midwest. It was once worn in reverence for bears and offered a link to the spiritual essence of their tremendous force. Struck by the visual strength of that necklace, Nancy sought out claws of resin, mink fur, quarters, buttons and other elements to create her own. For her, it brought up concerns about how hunting was enacted in Kittitas County, where she grew up. Her next inspiration came from the news. As she recounts, “While I was working on the necklace, Princess Diana was killed, fleeing from cameras that hunted her her whole adult life. So it seemed fitting to put her photo in the piece––set in a camera lens. The piece is about hunting and shooting, using a camera as a gun. ‘Dead or Alive’ is an old cliché from the movies and seemed an appropriate title for a piece about an obsession with capturing animals or a beautiful person. For some reason we have to have a piece of them to take home, whether they are dead or alive.”

What is behind the camera lens at the bottom of the necklace is a portrait of Princess Diana, wearing a crown––a conventional sign of royalty. Meanwhile, she is surrounded by imitation bear claws and beads made out of quarters, mink, and camera parts. The assembly would not go unnoticed when worn, and would prompt a story that reflects on Nancy’s desire for imaginary connections to be made. 

Dead or Alive was featured in the SAM exhibition, A Bead Quiz, in 2010. Nancy once said, “You can pretty much look at everything as whether or not it’s a potential bead.” On the occasion of the exhibition, SAM filmed a trip to her studio to witness the vast array of beads she discovered or invented–– from oranges to typewriter balls to pennies with mirrors. Here is a trip back to that visit.

– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art


[1] This bear claw necklace is seen in: David W. Penney, Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1992). Cat. no. 45.
Images: Dead or Alive, 1997, Nancy Worden, silver, brass, mink, resin bear claws, coin, taxidermy eyes, military buttons, and found objects, 24 x 2 3/4 x 1 1/2 in., Anne Gould Hauberg Northwest Crafts Fund and Mark Tobey Estate Fund, 98.29 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Bear Claw Necklace, ca. 1835, Native American, Meskwaki (“Red Earth People”) Nation, bear claws, otter fur, glass beads, ribbon, horsehair and cloth, 67 1/2 x 14 x 4 in., The Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase with Funds from the Flint Ink Corporation, 81.64. Photos: Pam McClusky. Video by and courtesy of Aaron Bourget, 2010.

Object of the Week: Raven Releasing the Sun

The Warmth of the Sun
Recently, we have really been feeling the heat of the sun! This wonderful and mysterious celestial body is a life-giving force and, without its presence, we would be in darkness with our companion species and without food resources. For millennium, Indigenous Peoples have understood the connectedness of humans to the forces of the land, water, and sky.

Raven, a wily trickster and culture hero, is credited with bringing humankind many important gifts to aid in their survival, like water, light (in the form of the sun, moon, and stars), and ceremony. His questionable deeds and adventures—and especially his voracious appetite—are well documented in orally transmitted stories (later written down by anthropologists) that form a corpus of oral traditions that demonstrate important teachings about Indigenous values and wisdom. These “legends” formed part of the “encyclopedia knowledge,” called hečusəda in the Lushootseed language of our region, whose teachings reveal the knowledge that humans need to live respectfully in the world, and which would be passed down through the generations.

In this famous story, the world is in darkness and humans are suffering. A great chief is the only one with light, which he keeps in his treasure box. Raven disguises himself as a hemlock needle so that the chief’s daughter would drink it and become pregnant, thereby giving the chief a beloved grandson, Raven himself, in the form of a human child. The raven-child is unrelenting in his desire for his grandfather’s treasure box and will not stop crying until he is given it. With the box safely in hand, he reverts to his raven form, flies through the house’s smoke hole, and releases the sun, moon, and stars, thus illuminating the world for all of its creatures.

In this print by George Hunt, Jr., Raven Releasing the Sun, the artist shows the crafty protagonist in the moment after he has opened the chief’s treasure box and released the first of its precious items—the sun—which the artist has depicted as a mask-like face. The rays of the sun are so formidable as to reveal themselves as bold, red tapering lines embedded with formline ovoids, U-shapes, and three-pointed “trigons”—the building block of Northwest Coast design.

George Hunt, Jr. is a part of the renowned Hunt family of artists that goes back generations to the village of Fort Rupert (Tsaxis), British Columbia.1 Descendants of the Kwaguł people, who still live there, trace their occupancy to at least 6,000 years. In 1849 the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a fort there and drew an active exchange between Indigenous People of the coast and the traders.

In the early twentieth century, famed anthropologist Franz Boas collaborated with George Hunt (1854-1933), who provided invaluable cultural material (art objects and cultural information) to Boas’s expanding exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and to the many volumes Boas published on the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl). George Hunt was half Tlingit, the son of a high-ranking chief’s daughter, Mary Ebbetts Hunt (Anislaga) from Klukwan, Alaska, and an English fur trader. He was born in Fort Rupert in 1854 and deeply enmeshed in Kwaguł art, culture, and ceremony. George Hunt, Jr, the artist of this print, is a directly connected to this lineage. He is a well-known carver and painter, like his relatives Mungo Martin, Henry Hunt, and Tony Hunt. Interestingly, his native name Nas-u-niz means “Light Beyond the World.” This story of Raven was likely brought to the Hunt family by George’s great-great-grandmother, Mary Ebbetts Hunt, herself an accomplished weaver.2

The Newest United States Forever Postage Stamp

Rico Lanáat’ Worl (Tlingit/Athabascan), Raven Story, Forever Stamp Series 2021

“Many depictions of this story show Raven with the Sun in his mouth representing the stealing of the Sun. I was trying to showcase a bit of drama . . . The climax of the story is after Raven has released the sun and the moon and has opened his grandfather’s final precious box, which contained the stars. In this design I am imagining Raven in a panicked state of escape—transforming from human form to raven form and holding on to as many stars as he can while trying to escape the clan house.”  – Rico Worl

– Barbara Brotherton, SAM Curator of Native American Art


1 For more information about Fort Rupert, see www.sfu.ca/brc/virtual_village/Kwakwaka_wakw/tsaxis–fort-rupert-.html.

2 See a Chilkat Robe woven by Mary Ebbetts Hunt (1823-1919) in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art: blog.honoluluacademy.org/verifying-the-artist-of-a-very-special-chilkat-robe/

Image: Raven Releasing the Sun, 1985, George Hunt Jr.. silkscreen on Arches buff paper, 20 x 15 in., Gift of R. Bruce and Mary-Louise Colwell, 2018.29.191. © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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.
SAMBlog