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.

Muse/News: Fall Into Frisson, Black Papers Unite, and Guston For Real

SAM News

Crosscut presents its fall arts preview, with an asterisk in case of COVID-related changes. Among their picks to pencil in: Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at the Seattle Art Museum, which debuts the recent gifts of pivotal Abstract Expressionist works of art (Krasner! Guston! Rothko! And more!).

Local News

The Seattle Times’ David Gutman reports on the $20 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds that King County will distribute to theaters, music venues, clubs, and other artistic spaces.

Seattle Met’s fall fashion spread celebrates the return of performers to the stage with theatrical looks (all the world’s, etc.).

The Seattle Medium is one of 10 Black newspapers in the US that have come together in a “new online collaborative” called Word In Black, reports Ernie Suggs of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“The 10 different publishers ‘sometimes have different mindsets, different politics, and they live in different parts of the country’…said [Nick] Charles. ‘But their affection and love for communities are what binds them. Collaboration is going on because people realize that to survive and to meet our mission as journalists, we have to band together.’”

Inter/National News

Shanti Escalante-de Mattei for ARTnews on the new artist residency on Long Island for Black, Indigenous, and POC creators, created by Jeremy Dennis in his family home.

On Artnet’s Art Angle Podcast: Four artists (Naomi Ben-Shahar, Monika Bravo, Simon Eldridge, and Jeff Koenigsberg) who were participating in the World Views Residency during 9/11 reflect on their experiences.

The New York Times’ Roberta Smith on Philip Guston: 1969-1979 at Hauser & Wirth.

“These paintings have their amusing aspects as images; their enthralling, startling qualities as fields of manipulated paint; and their painful auras as ridiculous yet heart-rending pictures of the hell that is being an artist, or maybe just the hell that was being Philip Guston.”

And Finally

An update on Cotton Candy Girl.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM’s Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: To B.W.T., 1952, Philip Guston, American (born in Canada), 1913–1980, oil on canvas, 48 1/2x 51 1/2 in.Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.10 © The Estate of Philip Guston. Photo: Spike Mafford /Zocalo Studios. Courtesy of the Friday Foundation.

Muse/News: A Gift to SAM, Tariqa Waters at BAM, and the Frick’s New Rental

SAM News

Last week, the Seattle Times announced some major news for SAM: The museum received a gift of 19 artworks and dedicated funds for their care and conservation from the Friday Foundation, which celebrates the legacy of two exceptional, art-loving philanthropists. The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at SAM features significant examples of Abstract Expressionist and post-war European art and will be on view later this fall.

In addition to the Seattle Times, the good news was shared by the Art Newspaper, ARTNews, Artnet, Artdaily, ARTFIXdaily, Puget Sound Business Journal, KOMO TV, Seattle PI, The Spokesman-Review, and more.

Also, the downtown museum reopens to the public on this Friday, just in time for the opening of the special exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, as well as the long-anticipated solo show, Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence. The Seattle Medium has this preview of the beloved artist’s “illuminating” show

Local News

Deems Tsutakawa, beloved Seattle jazz pianist, died last week at the age of 69. Listen to an original piano piece written by Deems inspired by a work at SAM’s Asian Art Museum.

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis touches on the effort to save the Weyerhaeuser campus from development and other cultural news in her weekly ArtsSea letter.

KING 5’s Evening Magazine heads to Pioneer Square to visit Tariqa Waters and her gallery, Martyr Sauce. Waters talks about her pop-inspired work, which is also on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum.

“‘I take things that often marginalize me as a black woman and I reshape those things. The point is to not qualify my art as Black art, it’s American art,’ said Waters.”

Inter/National News

Artnet’s Sarah Cascone on the mysterious arrival in a Portland park of a bust of York, an enslaved Black man who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Salamishah Tillet for Harper’s Bazaar on “how the Studio Museum in Harlem transformed the art world forever,” which is presented with fabulous portraits of artists linked to the pioneering institution.

The New York Times tracks the Frick Collection’s two-year sublet of the Breuer building, where their critic Jason Farago finds “European art history distilled.”

“Now the Bellini has been isolated in a room of its own, in a gallery bare as a monastic cell. Light falls, from the same angle as in the painting, through a small Breuer window that the Whitney and Met often obscured. As I sat in that empty room, the cold February sun streaming in, it felt like a space worth a pilgrimage.”

And Finally

A museum that is mapping Black legacy foodways.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: Night Watch, 1960, Lee Krasner, American, 1908–1984, oil on canvas, 70 x 99 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.4 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo: Spike Mafford / Zocalo Studios. Courtesy of the Friday Foundation.

With Love From Dick and Jane

The Friday Foundation has gifted 19 significant Abstract Expressionist artworks from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection to SAM. In recognition of this occasion, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda, sat down with Lyn Grinstein, President of the Friday Foundation, to discuss the gift’s impact, her late mother and stepfather Jane Lang Davis and Richard Lang, and their love for Seattle and the Seattle Art Museum.

Catharina Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about the history of Jane and Richard Lang’s collection.

Lyn Grinstein: My mother had always been a visual arts person, but we had lived overseas most of our lives and moved a lot, so she didn’t have the chance to collect art. Dick cared deeply about Seattle and about the Seattle Art Museum, a critical pillar in the cultural community. When they married in 1966, my mother could finally settle down and Dick was about to discover contemporary art.

In 1968 they bought a house in Medina and spent the next two years completely remodeling it. By 1970 they were in a new house, with a new living room, and a new couch with a big empty wall above it. And Mom said to Dick, “I think we should get just one really good painting to put above the sofa.”

Dick had graduated from Stanford University and had made great connections there, so they went to his friend, Dr. Al Elsen, an eminent art historian in the Stanford Art Department. With his guidance, they ended up with their first acquisition, the 1951 Franz Kline masterpiece, Painting No. 11. The exhilaration of learning, selecting, negotiating, and acquiring that first painting was addicting, and they were hooked, eventually filling their house with art.

Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about watching the house gradually fill up with art. What was it like from your perspective?

Grinstein: Mom and Dick had a wonderful time with it. We would all gather when a new crate arrived, and I remember particularly when the Adolph Gottlieb was delivered. It came shortly before Christmas, and when I saw it, I said, “It looks like a great big Christmas decoration with that beautiful red burst.” Mom gave me this, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that” look.

Her office—where that ferocious 1960 Lee Krasner, Night Watch, and the brutally self-confrontational 1976 Philip Guston, The Painter, were facing each other—had been converted from a two-car garage, so the ceilings were low, and the room felt compressed. She enjoyed the tension between these two floor-to-ceiling tough paintings.

She created a mood of peace for the bedroom. Joan Mitchell’s The Sink was installed over the bed and dominated the room, flanked by Helen Frankenthaler’s contemplative Dawn Shapes. My mother and I sat on that bed, in front of that Mitchell and discussed every important decision in my life from the time I was 33 years old.

Manchanda: The Alberto Giacometti always looked so gorgeous in the living room near the windows.

Grinstein: Giacometti’s slender Femme de Venise II looked exactly like my mother. When they acquired it, she had that same hairstyle, and she had those long hands and legs and elongated body. I have a photo of her with her hair just like the Femme, standing in that living room in that same spot when the house was first completed.

Manchanda: What attracted Dick and Jane to these artists?

Grinstein: Abstract Expressionist art is so profoundly raw. When you think about the artists who were producing it, they were part of a community comprising intellectuals, many of whom had fled the most awful horrors in Europe. In America they had found a place where they could continue their rigorous inquiries without fear. That whole community—writers, architects, musicians, visual artists—met and exchanged ideas, each intensifying and clarifying the concepts of the other.

I think that was what attracted Mom and Dick to it. Neither one of them was a sentimental person. They were both smart, thoughtful, gutsy, and had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They were strong people and the art they loved was created by equally strong people.

Manchanda: Dick and Jane were longtime SAM Trustees and it’s extraordinary that this collection is coming to SAM at this time. What do you think their hopes were for SAM and the city of Seattle?

Grinstein: When they were collecting in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Northwest was considered a young, quickly-evolving region. Some people really cared about experiencing and sharing art, like Jinny Wright and Mom. And some, like Dick, cared especially about the civic progress and had high aspirations for the city. He knew that a world-class museum would be essential to Seattle’s evolution.

As trustees of the Friday Foundation, our assignment is to consider all the expressed intentions and indications of the benefactors throughout their lives, and work to realize them today. Those intentions had to then be transformed through significant gifts to fulfill their vision. And the big vision was that Seattle would be a globally important player, and the visual and performing arts would be critical contributors, attracting international recognition.

The Langs hoped that the most significant artworks in their collection would join others already at SAM, and those yet to be given from the region’s premiere collections. They knew that the extraordinary quality of these works together would enable SAM to mount internationally significant exhibitions, for SAM as well as in partnership with their peer institutions around the world. If we do a good job, these works will provide an emotional and intellectual escape from the noise of everyday life.

Let’s bring everyone in and invite them to get inside themselves. That’s what these paintings can do for us if we give them time and quiet attention. They will talk back to you. Find the fire of the Clyfford Still, the calm of the Mitchell, the twilight of the Mark Rothko. These are powerful human emotions, and they are just under the surface of these objects. But it takes time, and it takes the commitment of the viewer to linger and absorb the emotions within these works. We hope everyone who passes through the galleries at SAM will give themselves the precious gift of lingering with these distinguished and profound objects.

A dedicated exhibition, Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection, will present all 19 works at Seattle Art Museum in fall 2021.

Images: Installation view of the Lang Residence, 2020, courtesy of Friday Foundation, photo: Spike Mafford. Nightwatch, 1960, Lee Krasner, oil on canvas, 70 x 99 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.4, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Crimson Spinning No. II, 1959, Adolph Gottlieb, oil on canvas, 90 x 72 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.9, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of the Lang Residence, 2020, courtesy of Friday Foundation, photo: Spike Mafford. Femme de Venise II, 1956, Alberto Giacometti, Bronze, Height: 48 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.8, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of the Lang Residence, 2020, courtesy of Friday Foundation, photo: Spike Mafford. The Painter, 1976, Philip Guston, oil on canvas, 74 × 116 in. (188 × 294.6 cm), Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.11, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. 

SAM Performs: Cross Section Dances

“Moving images
When you stare at something for a while it starts to move.
When you focus/think on it long enough it will move you.” 

– Michele Dooley

Action painting is akin to an artist dancing around their canvas. In this video Michele Dooley, Nia-Amina Minor, and Amanda Morgan, three Seattle-based contemporary dance artists, reinterpret Franz Kline’s movements in Cross Section.

Cross Section came into SAM’s collection earlier this year as part of a gift made to the Seattle Art Museum from the Wright Collection in honor of the museum’s 75th Anniversary. Though it’s been on view before, it’s inclusion in City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped a New Seattle marks it’s debut as part of our Modern and Contemporary Collection. This exhibition presents 64 works, all from the Wright Collection, created between 1943–2003 that define bold and experimental art movements across the United States and Europe. City of Tomorrow features but a fraction of the many works that Jinny and her husband Bagley gifted to SAM over the years. Kline’s Cross Section is a striking example of the Abstract Expressionist art movement.

“There is movement present in a painter’s trace. In the remnants of each brush stroke one can sense action, physicality and gravity. What does it feel like to be a paint brush to watch and listen to it’s swipe and feel each stroke embodied. What does it feel like to move with and through a painting? In the wash of this physicality there are the inevitable left overs and spillages. That space of imperfection and slippage draws me in.” 

– Nia-Amina Minor

Like many abstract expressionist artists, Kline trained as a figurative artist but chose to work abstractly, believing that the basic elements of art—line, color, shape—could evoke a transcendent experience for a viewer. In Cross Section, thick strokes of black and white paint are layered, emphasizing movement in the composition. This work is often referred to as an example of action painting because it can be seen as a record of its making.

Though City of Tomorrow is closing on January 18, the impressive artworks in this exhibition will be on view again as part of SAM’s collection galleries—all thanks to the visionary voyage of Jinny Wright. Through her arts initiatives, donations, and fundraising, Jinny’s legacy lives not only in the art collections and institutions she helped build, but also in her staunch belief that contemporary artists define their time.

“When approaching making movement in response to this work, I immediately was drawn to how abstract it was. Only having black and white strokes leave so much room for interpretation and storytelling. I imagined I was a part of the black strokes, weaving in and out of the white portions. There’s a moment where I slowly slip my shoes off; this was improv, but I envisioned that I was leaving the black strokes to enter white strokes, intertwining them both, one not existing without the other.” 

– Amanda Morgan

Object of the Week: Untitled

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

Broad black strokes cut across paper, precise sweeps of motion that hold bold strength. Ink trails downward in sharp ribbons dissolving into mist, which run down into watery pools. The shape is abstract, yet gives a sense of dynamism and flow that fully utilizes the monochromatic black that it’s painted in. This piece, left untitled by abstract artist and calligrapher Toko Shinoda, is not intended to have specific form. Instead it seeks to capture a feeling, although what that feeling may be, we’ll never know for certain. Each piece of art she makes is a piece of herself, and each is made meticulously to reflect the “her” that painted it.

At around 107 years old, Shinoda has had a lot of “her” to paint. The daughter of a calligrapher herself, Shinoda has been using a brush and sumi ink since she was six, and has not stopped using them since. For the first 40 years of her life, she focused on calligraphy; an art form traditional to Japanese women, as well as one of few career paths initially open to them. She was extremely successful and exhibited her works all over Japan. The more Shinoda created, the more abstract her pieces became. This resulted in a shift toward Abstract Expressionist art after an exhibition in New York in 1953. Having spent so much of her career trying to strictly copy the work of master calligraphers, she was impressed by the formal freedom of American artists. Abstract Expressionism, she felt, was what she really wanted to achieve with her ink.

Since then, Shinoda has gained international acclaim for her prolific melding of traditional and modern approaches. However, despite her fame, she denies all awards and recognition. Time magazine might write about her, museums may acquire her work and display them in a place of high regard, but she will not take any titles or cash gifts for her accomplishments. The only honor she has accepted is a set of stamps: hers are the first artworks by a living artist to be featured on official Japanese stamps.

Even now, Shinoda paints every day to keep her art, and herself, alive. It is said that all artists go through a process called 守破離 (shu-ha-ri) in their lifetimes. The “shu” being adherence to art form and tradition, the “ha” being a departure from it. Shinoda embodies the final step, “ri”: transcendence through focus and mastery that allows for creative freedom. Still, even though Shinoda is free in her creation, she refuses to be satisfied by the style she developed, and strives to master delicacy in her work. Discontented with safety in art, she will always paint things that require precise balance, capturing that fleeting moment of experience and self.

– Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Untitled, 1965, Toko Shinoda, lithograph, 25 3/4 x 19 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 66.11 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Muse/News: Supporting change, learning a city by foot, and farewells to Toni Morrison

SAM News

SAM director and CEO Kimerly Rorschach shared the museum’s position on proposed changes to Washington State’s overtime rules. These changes are long overdue, and SAM has been a leader in implementing adjustments. However, a slower ramp-up would be more sustainable for non-profits.

Local News

Marcus Harrison Green of the Seattle Times on Blood Lines, Time Lines, Red Lines, the Warren Pope solo show now on view at NAAM that explores the city’s history of racist housing policies.

“Pulling a reverse Henry David Thoreau”: Crosscut’s Brangien Davis on Seattle Walk Report, the comic that explores the magic of the city by foot. Its anonymous creator will name herself soon!

With “Currently Hanging,” The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig gets close to an artwork. Here, she visits a figurative gold sculpture by Casey Curran that echoes previous works by Anthony White and Tessa Hulls.

“The sculpture reminds me of The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa-meets-the-alien-from-Annihilation-meets-Rodin’s-Thinker. All things I love.”

Inter/National News

“The first Abstract Expressionist”: Who would you name? The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has a new exhibition that may answer that question.

DCist on the Phillips Collection’s new exhibition of 100 works by 75 artists on global displacement; director Klaus Ottmann calls it “the most ambitious exhibition the museum has ever undertaken.”

Author Toni Morrison died this week at the age of 88. This New York Times obituary celebrates her “luminous, incantatory prose resembling that of no other writer in English.”

“Ms. Morrison animated that reality in prose that rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.”

And Finally

Quiet As It’s Kept.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: Installation view Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer, Seattle Art Museum, 2019, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Union

Sam Gilliam’s 1977 painting Union tantalizes with its tactility. It’s rhythm, texture, color, and shade; bright and inviting, dark and rough. It’s free-form abstraction raked as a zen garden, and grounded by geometric shape.

Over the course of his career Gilliam has shown a deep interest in painting as a physical process. He made waves in the art world in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he displayed paint on canvas in innovative ways. He began suspending his canvases, hanging them by corners like linen sheets on a laundry line, or pinning them up at certain points, allowing the canvas to cascade downward in thick, heavy folds. While this body of work created a sculptural experience of the canvas, his series of Black Paintings, of which Union is a prime example, created a sculptural experience with paint. In these works he used a shag-rug rake to create a notched surface texture that unifies the painting.

Interestingly, Gilliam started out as a representational painter. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, he studied at the University of Louisville, earning his BA in 1955 and his MA in 1961. In the ‘60s he relocated to Washington, DC, where fate awaited. In DC Gilliam joined up with the artists who would become known as the Washington Color School—a group working in abstract modes to press the expressive potential of color.

In his own milieu Gilliam was a sponge, always soaking up wisdom, but also dispensing it. Discussing artists who have influenced him in a recent interview, he begins with Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis but covers a staggering range after them, speaking smoothly on Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Claude Monet, Georges Braque, Arthur Dove, Tintoretto, Alice Denney, Jan van Eyck, and David Smith. Add to that mix: jazz music, especially the tunes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk; curators like Walter Hopps, one-time director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art; symbols, like the American flag; and Washington’s urban design, its circular hub and radiating arteries.[1] Gilliam links his own productivity with his ability to recognize fine material: “There’s a mental connection that’s very good between the activity of painting and, let’s say, the visual and the listening process from the outside, which is always stimulating.”[2]

Though Gilliam’s beginnings were tied to the figure, his future was bound in colorful abstraction. His first one-man show in DC, held at Adams-Morgan Gallery in 1963, featured exclusively representational paintings, while his second show, held just a year later, featured no representational works.[3] Gilliam recounts that one of the DC artists, Tom Downing, played a large part in encouraging this shift: “Tom saw an exhibition of mine that was entirely figurative plus a series of watercolors on a grid, which were Klee-like. He suggested that, obviously, the figurative painting was unnecessary and that the watercolors were right in. So, I guess he’s the one that got me started making abstract paintings.”[4]

Gilliam’s work now graces prominent collections all over the country, and his Black Paintings have been collected by many important museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We can safely say that his influences, and his innovations, have served him well.

Check out Union and a group of earlier paintings in the Sam Gilliam exhibition on view now at SAM!

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Union, 1977, Sam Gilliam (American, b. 1933), acrylic on canvas, 55 x 65 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Peirolo, 82.117 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.
[1] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82-92.
[2] Sam Gilliam, 92.
[3] Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions. Ex. Cat. Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1974; 15.
[4] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82.

Object of the Week: Dark Figures with Green

Two historical moments, remembered well, can bring us to a fuller appreciation of Lester Johnson’s Dark Figures with Green.

When you next come to Seattle Art Museum and stand in front of Johnson’s ominous painting, if you situate yourself in the right spot, you can catch a glimpse of Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change (1947) in your peripheral view. Maybe the connection will be immediately clear to you, or maybe not, but Johnson’s way of aggressively scratching out figures in a dark and contained palette grew out of the expressive freedom pioneered by Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist school. Lester Johnson’s paintings of the 1950s and ‘60s picked up that mode of creating and took it in a different direction. Johnson was about economy: working to create an impact with limited means. Dark Figures with Green looms over us and says “Look what can I do with only this.” Black. Brown. Green. Three figures. Rough. Heavy.

In February of 1966, the influential art critic Harold Rosenberg put eloquent words to what Lester Johnson was doing:

To respond to Lester Johnson’s work is to respond to painting, rather than to technical minutiae, or to art history, to the social environment, to a tickle of the optical nerve. With painting undergoing an annual revolution of de-definition (Is it theatre? the display business? an illustrated lecture? science fiction?) to paint amounts to imposing arbitrary restrictions on painting. An artist who is satisfied to apply pigment to a flat surface is likely to appear slow and intellectually unadventurous . . . .

Johnson has chosen to build his art upon Action Painting through tightening its procedures. An heir of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Hofmann, Guston, he emphasizes an essential principle of their work continually obscured by the clichés of art journalism: that an action is not a letting go, a surrender to instantaneity, except as a ruse. Painting that is an action is a struggle against limits, those within the artist himself, those which he finds in the situation of art, those which he deliberately sets up on the canvas. Mere stroking and slopping of paint resulted in tiresome caricatures of Action Painting that marked its phase of mass acceptance.

Johnson has had the insight to go in a direction opposite to looseness. Distrusting the easy effect obtainable through color, texture, and non-representational shapes, he followed a course analogous to that of de Kooning in his ‘women’ paintings and of Guston in the compositions of the past four years, both of whom brought into play as a counterforce to spontaneity the more or less felt presence of objects and the human figure.1

Johnson was a painter exploring what he could achieve by putting more restrictions on himself than most would do, because adding those restrictions clarified and highlighted his creativity in solving the problem. He was a painter, part of a school of abstract artists, who took away color, texture, and abstract forms from his own toolbox. The things he’s able to accomplish with what’s left—just the figure and a few tones—are impressive. Imagine a great right-handed pitcher like Felix Hernandez announcing he’s decided to start throwing with his left arm, just to see how well he could do—or if Russell Wilson held a presser to tell everyone that he’s done running when he plays quarterback; it’s only standing still from here on out. It’s kind of like that. Rosenberg describes Lester Johnson’s achievement this way: “[He] divined that the freedom of the artist is best served by establishing the boundaries that will most effectively challenge his capacity to act.”2

In September and October of 1983 Dark Figures with Green hung in a timely exhibition of Lester Johnson’s early work at New York City’s Zabriskie Gallery. The show, Lester Johnson: The Early Paintings 1957-1967, was a hit. Johnson’s pithy, powerful statements brought him a posthumous moment. SAM curator Bruce Guenther was there to select Dark Figures with Green from among the pictures. Zabriskie Gallery wrote to Guenther on November 17 about the frenzy of interest in Johnson’s work from other parties:

Bring some folks with you to see Seattle’s Lester Johnson, so you can impress them with the story of the Abstract Expressionist who refused abstraction, and the museum who plucked one of his paintings out of New York when the Met and the Whitney were climbing over one another to get a hold of one.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Harold Rosenberg, “Lester Johnson: The Image as Counterforce,” Art News 64 (February, 1966): 10, 48-49, 64-65.
2 Rosenberg, “The Image as Counterforce.”
Image: Dark Figures with Green, 1967, Lester Johnson (American, 1919-2010), oil on canvas, 73 x 48 3/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 84.1, © Lester Johnson.

SAM Art: Sea Change

Abstract Expressionism was a dynamic fusion of Surrealism and Abstraction, seeking to awaken in the viewer—and in the artist as well—a deeper, often physical, response to the work. Large scale, edge-to-edge compositions and rich colors fill the eyes with often unified fields that are connected by movement and the traces of the brush.

 Sea Change is from a breakthrough group of early “transitional” works that Jackson Pollock made in 1947, which led away from figuration toward a fully abstract application of his drip technique. Its title comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and lends extra narrative content to the composition, suggesting an impending meteorological event.

Installation view, Modern and Contemporary art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown, 2011.
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