Object of the Week: Gray Jar

With a simple and rustic appearance, this gray jar embodies an unassuming aesthetic that proliferated throughout Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Utilized for a wide range of objects including tea cups, utensils, and kimchi jars, this style of pottery became emblematic of everyday items and was produced in great quantities during this period.

Despite the seemingly mundane appearance of items such as this jar, Japanese philosopher Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) saw a beauty in them that had been taken for granted. As a young man living in Korea in the 1920s, he quickly became enamored with Joseon pottery, considering it to be equal to the fine art of scroll painting across China, Japan, and Korea, as well as the exquisite sculptures of Europe.[1] Yanagi began avidly collecting various items and within a year opened a small folk museum in Seoul where he encouraged the masses to come and celebrate the simple beauty of his featured items, which he categorized as mingei. Meaning “art of the people,” mingei aesthetics embodied what Yanagi outlined as the “criterion of beauty,” which declared that objects should be made not by great masters of the arts, but rather by anonymous craftspeople; furthermore, the objects should be simple, functional, and made of natural materials.[2]

In his critical collection of writings, The Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi describes the concept of mingei in detail: “It is my belief that while the high level of culture of any country can be found in fine arts, it is also vital that we should be able to examine and enjoy the proofs of the culture of the great mass of the people. . . . The former are made by the few for the few, but the latter, made by the many for many, are a truer test. The quality of the life of the people of that country as a whole can best be judged by the folkcrafts.”[3]

Epitomizing the mingei aesthetic, this gray jar includes unique regional features that are easily overlooked but situate it as a one-of-a-kind piece. For example, the grayish-white surface of the jar is rough and uneven as it was made from clay with impurities that produced bubbles during the firing process. This small feature of individualism speaks to the rarity and perhaps unintended beauty of the jar, as well as countless other simple and functional objects that Yanagi Soetsu held in such high esteem.

– Caitlin Sherman, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art


[1] https://mingei.org/about/history-of-mingei
[2] Curatorial remarks, Xiaojin Wu
[3] https://mingei.org/about/history-of-mingei
Image: Gray jar, 17th or 18th century, Korean, stoneware with glaze, 6 3/8 in. x 4 3/8 in. x 22 3/8 in., Gift of Allen Parrot, 51.228

Object of the Week: Summer Evening & Woman in Summer Attire

As another breathtaking Seattle summer quickly approaches, our craving for freedom, both from the chilly Pacific Northwest damp and from the seemingly endless shadow of the pandemic, grows ever more desperate.

In this state, we can easily empathize with the two women portrayed in Uemura Shoen’s Summer Evening and Kajiwara Hisako’s Woman in Summer Attire, both painted in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Each of the two works might at first glance be identified within the tradition of bijinga (美人画), a term used to describe idealized images of beautiful women which emerged in the mid-Edo period (around 1603-1868). However, though Shoen and Hisako were both trained in the bijinga genre in Kyoto, they were motivated to resist its conventions by the desire to represent thoroughly modern women. Their subjects have complexity and agency; they demand more than what social convention has prescribed for them, and long for liberation from the domestic interior that confines them.

In Summer Evening, Uemura Shoen (1875-1949) depicts an elegantly dressed young woman whose back is turned to the viewer as she looks out from a covered balcony. In her left hand she holds a paper fan, and the loosely tied, gold-accented sash, subtle bird motif in the kimono’s patterning, and basket weave on the hem suggest the refinement of a geisha. The diagonal lines in the drapery of her kimono indicate motion, and we sense that though she may be paused in observation, the cessation of movement will be brief. We have no way of knowing whether she is awaiting a guest, enjoying the moonrise, or looking longingly after one who has just departed. This ambiguity leaves us wondering, and enhances the appeal of the image.

Kajiwara Hisako (1896-1988) was well known for her unpretentious paintings of working class or professional women, and this work is considered one of the most evocative examples of her distinctive approach. In Woman in Summer Attire, the sitter actively meets the viewer’s eyes rather than passively looking away. She pierces us with a stare that at once reflects a sense of boredom and defiance; her ambiguous expression leaves this work open to a variety of interpretations.

Shoen and Hisako blended traditional media and format with modern themes in their artistic practice at a time when Japan was undergoing rapid industrialization and globalization in response to invasive influence from the West. These and other works by Shoen and Hisako stand out amongst those of their contemporaries because they not only resist the male gaze, but are in fact crafted in the female gaze. There is an overwhelming feeling of anticipation, even impatience, in the women they portray.

Tori Champion, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Images: Summer Evening, ca. 1900, Uemura Shoen, color on silk, 84 7/16 x 24 1/2 in., Gift of Griffith and Patricia Way, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2009.70.11. Woman in Summer Attire, 1921, Kajiwara Hisako, ink and color on silk, 79 5/8 x 22 3/4 in., Gift of Laura Elizabeth Ingham in honor of Amalia Partridge Ingham, 94.149

Object of the Week: Flower Ball

During his time in New York in 1994, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami developed a style of art he describes as “East-meets-West” or “high-meets-low.”[1] Featuring bright colors and a vivid style that is ingenious in its simplicity, Murakami quickly became a renowned contemporary artist, collaborating with prominent cultural figures such as Kanye West and Pharell Williams.

Flower Ball speaks to the beauty of individuality and diversity. Each flower is unique in its colorations and size, situated harmoniously to create the illusion of a three-dimensional ball. The smiling, emoji-like faces at the center of each flower embody a sense of joy and innocence, and have become one of Murakami’s most featured motifs.

Murakami has become increasingly concerned with using his joyful artwork to balance out what he sees as sorrow or tragedy associated with minority groups in America.[2] This topic is a personal one for Murakami, based on his own experiences as an outsider in New York. The prominence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in response to anti-Black violence has also had an impact on Murakami’s artistic motivations. His simple pop-art images, bold and effervescent, attempt to offer an equilibrium to sadness, highlighting the joy and beauty of diversity. “If my art can effect any change here and now,” Murakami explains, “I want to contribute it not only to give back but to give power to the Black community plagued by the racial injustice.”[3]

This discussion regarding the necessity of celebration and inclusion in the face of tragedy and exclusion is more essential than ever in the current climate of not only the BLM movement, but the recent violence towards Asian Americans as well. The divisiveness and inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued racial discrimination have created unsafe spaces for many groups, with countless instances of vitriol and violence.

Works like Flower Ball remind us that differences between individuals are beautiful and vital––a concept embodied in the diversity of each iconic flower situated together in harmony. As a global art museum, SAM promotes the voices of Black, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), Latinx, immigrant communities, minority groups, and all other diverse actors who contribute to the beauty of art, media, culture, and society here in America and across the globe.

– Caitlin Sherman, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art


[1] https://hbr.org/2021/03/lifes-work-an-interview-with-takashi-murakami
[2] https://hbr.org/2021/03/lifes-work-an-interview-with-takashi-murakami
[3] https://www.instagram.com/p/CBPI4YRl5gB/?utm_source=ig_embed&ig_rid=f0315211-5e0c-4448-87b3-76a3475193a6
Image: Flower Ball, 2002, Takashi Murakami, acrylic on canvas, 98 1/2 in., Gift of Richard and Elizabeth Hedreen, 2016.24.1 2002 © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo: Jueqian Fang

Object of the Week: Hanging Scroll

Intrigue, deception, mistaken identity, and overlapping love triangles carry Chapter 51 of the Tale of Genji to the heights of drama. Caught in between a love for two suitors who could not be more different, except in their indefatigable adoration for her, Ukifune struggles to discover where her heart truly lies. On the one hand, the prince Niou is handsome and charming, but impetuous and inconstant. On the other, the general Kaoru is understated and sensitive, but formal and overly mannered. Isolated from society in a remote mountain residence where Kaoru is keeping her, the desired lady is agonized by indecision, knowing that her life depends on a man’s provision. Ukifune, the central character’s name and also the title of this chapter, means “floating boat,” and is suggestive of Ukifune’s state of adriftness. 

The scene depicted in this hanging scroll invites us into a rare moment of calm amidst the turmoil. Niou has managed to evade the watchful eyes of Kaoru’s guards, and has absconded with Ukifune in the middle of the night, to a boat that will take them to a place across the river Uji where they can be alone. Under the gaze of the winter moon, the couple drifts through silent mists and icy waters towards the other shore.

“Without a word, he took Ukifune up in his arms and carried her off. Jijū followed after and Ukon was left to watch the house. Soon they were aboard one of the boats that had seemed so fragile out on the river. As they rowed into the stream, she clung to Niou, frightened as an exile to some hopelessly distant shore. He was delighted. The moon in the early-morning sky shone cloudless upon the waters. They were at the Islet of Oranges said the boatman, pulling up at a large rock over which evergreens trailed long branches.”[1]

The artist, Kiyohara Yukinobu (1643-1682), was one of only a few known women artists permitted to publicly practice her craft in Edo-period (1603-1868) Japan. Yukinobu lived in Kyoto and was likely trained by her father in the tradition of the Kano school. Celebrated for her exacting brushwork and meticulous detail, Yukinobu was also known for her portrayals of legendary women of history. The Tale of Genji, said to be the first novel, was written in the eleventh century by a female writer, Murasaki Shikibu. In another hanging scroll by Yukinobu titled Murasaki Shikibu Gazing at the Moon, the author is captured in the process of drafting Genji.

This moment of passage across the nighttime waters is one that has drawn many artists across the centuries, but Yukinobu’s approach is unique. In the text, the couple are accompanied by a boatman and an attendant, but Yukinobu has chosen to depict them alone, sharing a private embrace. The artist may have been thinking of an exchange earlier in the chapter:

“Niou sent for an inkstone. He wrote beautifully, even though for his own amusement, and he drew interesting pictures. What young person could have resisted him? ‘You must look at this and think of me when I am not able to visit you.’ He sketched a most handsome couple leaning towards each other. ‘If only we could be together always.’ And shed a tear.”[2]

We can compare Yukinobu’s interpretation to that of one of her seventeenth-century near-contemporaries, Tosa Mitsuyoshi, in his five-volume set of handscrolls depicting scenes from the novel. Mitsuyoshi chooses the same scene, but paints Ukifune and Niou sitting apart, looking away from one another, rather than locked in a warm embrace. We are positioned with a bird’s eye view of the couple, and Niou’s back faces us, effectively excluding us from any intrusion we might make on the couple’s private escape. In contrast, Yukinobu encourages us to share this moment that is at once blissfully serene and full of anxious uncertainty. Our view is unobstructed, our gaze unfettered; we see deeply into the emotional state of each of the vessel’s passengers. We are immersed in the scene, traveling invisibly alongside Ukifune and Niou, and are invited to contemplate the tender stillness of time’s passage.

– Tori Champion, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art


[1] Murasaki Shikibu and Edward Seidensticker (translator), The Tale of Genji (New York: Knopf, 1976), 991.
[2] Ibid., 983.
Images: Hanging scroll, ca. 1670, Kiyohara Yukinobu, ink and color on silk, 13 15/16 × 22 13/16 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.322. Illustrations of Genji Monogatari:  Vol. 2, The Sacred Tree, 17th century, Tosa Mitsuyoshi, color and platinum on paper, 10 1/2 in. x 29.9 ft, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.40.2

Object of the Week: Lined Robe

This show-stopping bingata robe comes from Okinawa, the southernmost islands of Japan. With brilliant colors and a rhythmic pattern of cherry blossoms, swallows, irises, and flowing water, it is descended from an important textile tradition. See if you can spot it during your next visit to the Asian Art Museum, which reopens to the public at the end of May.

Bingata textiles are created with a paste-resist technique using either stencils or freehand motifs. The name refers to this process, not to the fiber or weave of the textile itself. This bingata robe is made of silk, but cotton and ramie were also used as a base. In paste-resist dyeing, a thick, water-soluble paste is applied to a textile in order to keep pigment or dye from coloring selected areas. For bingata, this paste is traditionally made from a cooked rice flour mixture. When the paste is dry, multiple layers of pigment are then brushed onto the open areas with thick, short brushes. Once the pigment has dried, the resist paste is washed away but the color remains. The process can be repeated many times to create detailed designs of many colors.

A Japanese katagami (paper stencil). Resist paste is applied to the open/white areas. When the paste is dry and the stencil removed, dyes or pigments are applied to the paste-free area, bringing to life the irises and their leaves.

Okinawa was an independent kingdom known as Ryukyu until it was formally annexed by Japan in 1872.  In 1879, Japan’s central government abolished the Ryukyu monarchy and renamed the region Okinawa. Under the Ryukyu monarchy, the production and consumption of bingata was tightly connected to the royal court. Expensive and labor-intensive, bingata was reserved for members of the monarchy. Family workshops, patronized primarily by the royal family, produced bingata from start to finish. The large-scale pattern and yellow ground of this striking robe are characteristic of the garments worn by the highest-ranking members of the Ryukyu royal family.[1]

When the Ryukyu monarchy was abolished, bingata was in danger of disappearing. Without the patronage of the royal family, bingata production collapsed. In the following decades, increasing popularity of western-style dress and the violent conflicts of World War II (some of which occurred on Okinawa) further diminished interest in traditional textiles like bingata. After World War II, descendants of bingata family workshops worked to revive the craft. The patterns of bingata were applied to objects other than garments, including folding screens, greeting cards, calendars, and placemats. Today, Okinawan makers apply the colors and patterns of bingata to a range of garments and accessories in an expression of regional identity.

– Rachel Harris, SAM Asian Art Conservation Associate


[1] Rathburn, William Jay. “Okinawan Weaving and Dyeing,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles (Thames and Hudson/Seattle Art Museum, 1993), 196.
Images: Lined robe, early 20th century, Japanese, plain weave silk crepe with paste-resist stencil decoration (Oki., bingata) lined with modern replacement silk broadcloth, 47 3/4 in. long (from collar) x 43 in. wide, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 89.155. Paper stencil (katagami), late 19th century, Japanese, mulberry bark paper treated with persimmon juice and silk thread, 19 x 14 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.1782

Object of the Week: Essence of Spring, Chevreuse Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


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

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

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

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

Object of the Week: Sarong (kain kapala)

When I first saw this Javanese sarong on display, its indigo dye was its commonality with other works on view in the 2016 Seattle Asian Art Museum exhibition, Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World. The label for this particular textile was striking: “step into a sarong and you enter via a network of symbols that support your place in a cosmic sacred landscape.” 

Every label for Mood Indigo, written by Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art,was beautifully informative and poetic, but this sarong was more than a costume or uniform: It promised to be fully transportive—beyond Earth—while recalling living things on our planet, with its plants and depiction of night and day. It is replete with delicate flowers on the trim, intricately veined flora against a dotted night sky, and a lighter sky contoured with broad diagonal lines, with butterflies and birds with trailing tails.

Batik—the Indonesian textile-based process in which designs are applied with wax to cloth that is then dyed—is a celebrated Javanese cultural tradition practiced on a national scale. In its early history, however, batik designs were tightly regulated as a court art, with certain designs reserved for reigning Javanese families to wear, signifying and legitimizing their power within a kingdom. To describe batik as only an aesthetic demonstration of the wearer’s authority, however, falls short of its greater ambitions as a means of contributing to the balance of the cosmos. 

Very generally speaking, in the context of the universe within ancient Javanese culture, bringing society to align with the harmony and balance of the cosmos also meant centering the aristocratic family, from which order and prosperity would follow. The practice of wearing certain batik designs differed between courts and regions, but certain symbols would be consistent, such as winged, long-tailed birds, indicative of royalty in reference to the prominent Hindu deity Vishnu, or his son, Skandi-Karkitteya. Patterns of plant life with animals, which were also part of the categories reserved for royalty, referred to fertility and the growth promised by Javanese sovereignty. The design might be dictated depending on the type of clothing (sarong were usually worn around the waist, and in full ensembles, with an accessory such as a type of knife known as a kris), and would complete a ritual ensemble aimed to place the wearer in greater cosmic alignment. 

These traditions far preceded this 19th-century sarong. The early symbolism of batik design, and its regulation, was highly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, and was worn for a wide variety of ceremonies and more mundane purposes as well. By the time of the production of this particular sarong, Java would have already been colonized by Dutch and British rule, interrupting certain categories of batik design, though the original meaning of specific symbols would persist. 

Given the centuries-long endurance of batik to its present-day status as emblematic of Indonesian culture (in Java in particular), its practice and lexicon of patterns are protected, and its practice widely encouraged. In 2009, batik was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity from Indonesia. 

Though it was not part of the original intention for this garment to be worn by just anyone, the transcendental state of being that was extended to the wearer asserts their place on a micro- and macro-cosmic scale: as participating in Javanese culture and sustaining Javanese traditions, as well as as their particular station in the broader context of the universe, as a point from which harmony and growth for a whole kingdom can emanate, wherever they go. 

Hannah Hirano, SAM Coordinator for Museum Services and Conservation

1 Robert Wessing, “Wearing the Cosmos: Symbolism in Batik Design,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 2, no. 3 (1986): pp. 40-82, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40860214
2 “Decision of the INTERGOVERNMENTAL COMMITTEE: 4.Com 13.44,” 2009, https://ich.unesco.org/en/decisions/4.COM/13.44
Image: Sarong (kain kapala), 19th century, Javanese, Cotton, factory plain weave; wax resist (batik); natural/synthetic indigo dye
87 x 42 1/2 in. Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 37.35.

Object of the Week: Figurative Weight (abrammuo)

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

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

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

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

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


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

Object of the Week: Loser + Clark

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

– Brad Kahlhamer

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

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

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

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

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

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

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