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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

The Contemporary American Struggle: Bethany Collins

“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”—it’s a song that everyone likely knows some version of and Bethany Collins is sharing why she created a chapel space where you can hear layered recordings of it inside of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle at SAM. The exhibition questions the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history. This exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958. These 30 panels are heavily informed by the contemporary issues of Lawrence’s time as they address the history of what it means to be an American. Collins’ installation extends the conversation around what it means to be an American into the art being made today.

Bethany Collins (b. 1984) is a multidisciplinary artist whose conceptually driven work is fueled by a critical exploration of how race and language interact. Her work in the exhibition titled America: A Hymnal is an immersive audio experience within a chapel space where six layered voices sing different versions of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” The altar object within the gallery is a book containing the sheet music to 100 versions of this well-known song which has changed and been used for various purposes since it was first penned as “God Save the Queen” in Great Britain. Collins describes the book as “100 dissenting versions of what it means to be American, bound together.”

Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series interprets the democratic debates that defined early America and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.

Muse/News: SAM Director Reflects, Portraits of Isolation, and Augusta Savage’s Crafted Life

SAM News

Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, was interviewed by Megan Burbank of the Seattle Times for a Sunday feature on “how Seattle-area museums are weathering the pandemic.” Read her insights—and those from her colleagues—on the challenges and opportunities that arose.

“Pivoting to their own permanent collections is something museums may do more and more as they emerge from the pandemic with smaller operating budgets. ‘I think it’ll be really fun for viewers, and also for us, by the way. We on the staff will learn what we have in storage as well,’ said Cruz.”

A Jacob Lawrence work was featured in the Monday “Gallery” from Harper’s Magazine. And here’s Seattle University professor Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud, reviewing Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle for Hyperallergic.

“Angled figures and cutting diagonal lines — as blood, guns, and swords — iterate across panels as do themes of battle, war, migration, labor, land theft, and peace.”

Don’t miss Emily Zimmerman’s interview with Barbara Earl Thomas for BOMB Magazine. Her exhibition at SAM has been extended and will now close January 2, 2022.

“This idea of disarming my viewer is key to my process. In order to really see, one’s expectations need to be interrupted. I situate my vision in the big arc of time and human spirit, not the present journalistic moment.”

Local News

“How a Seattle game of ‘telephone’ became a worldwide art event”: Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel on a Seattle art project gone global.

Gemma Alexander for the Seattle Times on MOHAI’s new exhibition, Stand Up Seattle: The Democracy Project.

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig reviews (Don’t Be Absurd) Alice in Parts, now on view at the Frye Art Museum through April 25.

“While the work is specific to the physical and mental pain Black women deal with every day (‘Alice has always been in her own personal pandemic,’ says Anastacia-Reneé), Don’t Be Absurd captures a portrait of isolation that urgently reflects the world we’re emerging out of.”

Inter/National News

Via Artforum: The African American Historic Places Project is a new initiative from the Getty Conservation Institute and the city of LA, whose goal is “identifying and preserving Black heritage landmarks throughout Los Angeles.”

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will undergo an expansion overseen by Safdie Architects,  to increase its footprint by 50 percent, reports Artnet.

“The Black Woman Artist Who Crafted a Life She Was Told She Couldn’t Have”: The New York Times’ Concepción de León on the sculptor Augusta Savage.

“Savage was an important artist held back not by talent but by financial limitations and sociocultural barriers. Most of Savage’s work has been lost or destroyed but today, a century after she arrived in New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, her work, and her plight, still resonate.”

And Finally

Learn now to pronounce people’s names.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

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

Asian Art Conversation During the Pandemic Pause

As we prepare to reopen the Asian Art Museum to the public on May 28, we’re sharing some of the work that has happened inside the museum while it has been closed. The Asian Paintings Conservation Center will not be open when we reopen, but there will be a monitor outside of it where you can learn more about what SAM staff is doing to ensure that Asian artworks are cared for and can be enjoyed by generations to come.

Though limited due to the pandemic, conservation activities have continued at the Asian Paintings Conservation Center. With generous, multi-year funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the staff has used this time to ensure the new center operates and is fully stocked with the specialized tools and materials required for the conservation of Asian paintings. Grant funding allowed the team to acquire pigments, tools, adhesives, technical furniture, and many different types of paper in anticipation of reopening.

While waiting, the studio has been used extensively by SAM’s conservation team. Chief conservator Nick Dorman used our new Leica stereo-binocular microscope to examine and document a late 14th-century Tibetan thangka painting scheduled for display. Consisting of pigments painted on a cotton support, the thangka depicts four mandalas, universes of Buddhist deities. To ensure the painting can withstand exhibition, Dorman examined it for evidence of flaking and lifting pigments, as well as delicate areas. He also examined and documented the condition of the cotton fabric support. Given the painting no longer has its original textile mounting fabrics, this work, as in many Western museums, is in a frame with a blue silk-covered mat. The current treatment constitutes the minimum necessary set of measures to ensure the painting is safe for display. The staff looks forward to doing more comprehensive research once the studio is fully operational. In the meantime, we can all look forward to exploring the dense imagery and exquisite detail of this thangka when the Asian Art Museum reopens.

Image: Four Mandalas, Late 14th Century, Tibetan, Watercolor on cloth, 27 x 23 1/4 in. (68.58 x 59.06 cm) Overall h.: 34 5/16 in. Overall w.: 29 5/8 in., Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr., 66.120.

Muse/News: Asian Art Museum to Reopen, Post-Pandemic Art Eyes, and a Mughal Miniature

SAM News

It’s official! SAM’s Asian Art Museum will reopen to the public on May 28; members get the first look beginning May 7. The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig offered this preview, revisiting her February 2020 article on the museum’s grand reopening following its three-year renovation and reimagining (we hardly knew ye!). Capitol Hill Seattle Blog also shared the news. Get ready for more art!

“I’m excited to get back into the building and see what new connections my brain will make after more than a year away. And in the wake of the targeted violence on the Asian community both here and across the country, it’s an important moment to reflect on the history and culture of an invaluable part of Seattle.”

And the downtown Seattle Art Museum is open, with the special exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle on view through May 23. Carla Bell reviewed the show for PREVIEW Magazine, out in the world now.

Local News

Last week, Washington State announced Rena Priest as its next Poet Laureate. Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel has more on the state’s first Native American named to the post.

Have you reviewed the full lineup for the 2021 Seattle International Film Festival? It’s first-ever virtual edition? Seattle Met has the details.

Also this week from the Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig: A moving long read reflecting on how the pandemic has changed the way we look at art.

“Had that Georges de la Tour painting always been so tender? Or that Akio Takamori sculpture so solemn? My mind was a mess. Good Critic Impulses were apparently left in March of 2020.”

Inter/National News

“How an LA Printmaking Workshop Advanced the Career of Women Artists.” Hyperallergic’s Jordan Karney Chaim on June Wayne’s Tamarind Lithography Workshop.

“My work is focused on the idea of how crucial it is for Black people to think of leisure as a radical act.” Derrick Adams speaks with Vogue; his work is on view at SAM as part of The American Struggle.

One of those “ooh…ahh!” New York Times art interactives! Jason Farago with a stirring close read of an eight-inch tall, 17th-century Mughal painting.

“Within the details of this miniature lies a master class in the political uses of cultural hybridity. And the uses of something else too: dumbfounding, superhuman beauty.”

And Finally

Welsh bunnies, archaeologists.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Tim Griffith

Object of the Week: Sky Landscape I

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

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

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

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

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

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


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

Revisiting Reopening the Asian Art Museum, At Last

One year ago, we welcomed you back to the renovated Asian Art Museum following a three-year closure while we reimagined and reinstalled SAM’s original home. Now, we are thrilled to invite you to another reopening in May 2021, following our year-long COVID closure to keep our community safe. The galleries have been waiting for you.

During the opening weekend in February 2020, 10,000 people visited the museum to experience the groundbreaking new thematic installation of SAM’s Asian art collection and share in creativity across cultures. It was moment to remember and we invite you to revisit the festivities in this video. Closing the museum just one month after this video was filmed was a sad moment and we know that many people did not get a chance to experience the expanded and enhanced Asian Art Museum. But soon, everyone will be able to!

The Asian Art Museum will reopen with limited capacity to members on May 7 and to the public on May 28. Friday, May 28 will be free and hours will be extended for Memorial Day weekend. Member tickets will be available starting April 15 and the public can get tickets starting April 29. The museum hours are 10 am–5 pm, Fridays–Sundays and admission is free on the last Friday of every month. When the museum reopens, the inaugural exhibitions will remain on view, including Boundless: Stories of Asian Art and Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art in the museum’s galleries and the installation Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn: Gather in the Fuller Garden Court. Learn more about what to know when you visit the Asian Art Museum.

Today’s Seattle Asian Art Museum is inspired. The Asian Art Museum breaks boundaries to offer a thematic, rather than geographic or chronological, exploration of art from the world’s largest continent. The restoration of the historic Art Deco building, improvements to critical systems, expanded gallery and education spaces, and a new park lobby that connects the museum to the surrounding Volunteer Park are just some of the ways the Asian Art Museum has been transformed and preserved as a cultural and community resource for future generations.

You will no longer find galleries labeled China, Japan, or India. Instead, vibrant artworks from Vietnam to Iran, and everywhere in between, come together to tell stories of human experiences across time and place. From themes of worship and celebration to clothing and identity, nature and power to birth and death, the new collection installation reveals the complexity and diversity of Asia—a place of distinct cultures, histories, and belief systems that help shape our world today.

The Contemporary American Struggle with Derrick Adams

Hear Derrick Adams discuss his artworks included in SAM’s exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. The exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958 and features contemporary art, all of which work together to question the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history.

Derrick Adams’s (b. 1970) multidisciplinary practice probes the influence of popular culture on self-image, and the relationship between man and monument. Adams is deeply immersed in questions of how African American experiences intersect with art history, American iconography, and consumerism. He describes his two works in The American StruggleSaints March and Jacob’s Ladder—as a way to “contribute to conversations that expand on histories that are both Black American and American overall.” Saints March is a video considering the original American dance form of tap and contemporary street tap performance, while Jacob’s Ladder brings Lawrence’s personal archives into the gallery through a sculptural installation that lends optimism to the concept of struggle.

Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series interprets the democratic debates that defined early America and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.