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.
“It has a universal nonspecific vocabulary, and if you give it the time and sit with it quietly, it is as nourishing to heart and soul as any meditation, because it speaks this universal language of emotion. This is what art is supposed to do and this is what cultural collections do for us.”
“‘In a cultural and spiritual sense, having the Indigenous histories of the land — and the current Indigenous presence on the land — recognized in physical formats is hugely meaningful,’ says local artist and curator Asia Tail.”
“Delaney’s multiphased achievement fits in all over the map of 20th-century American art: the Harlem Renaissance, the Stieglitz circle, American Scene painting and Abstract Expressionism, but it is still waiting to be written into these histories.”
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
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.
“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.”
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.
Today, the Friday Foundation announced a critical infusion of over $9 million in philanthropist gifts to nine organizations in the Seattle arts community. The Seattle Times reported the good news.
The gifts are created to honor the lives and legacies of the late Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang, who were inspired collectors and supporters of the arts. The Seattle Art Museum is among the recipients of the Friday Foundation’s generosity with two incredible gifts, one of which responds to the current moment, and the other which looks to the future of the museum and its collection.
In April, the Friday Foundation gifted SAM $2 million for its Closure Relief Fund, which was initiated in late March after the museum closed its three sites: the Seattle Art Museum, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and the PACCAR Pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture Park. The downtown museum has since reopened with new safety protocols in place, including limited capacity and hours, but the Asian Art Museum and PACCAR Pavilion both remain closed.
The Closure Relief Fund has supported all museum operations, including its dedicated staff, during the six months of closure, when all earned revenue was lost, fundraising events were canceled, and memberships declined. The Friday Foundation gift was the single largest gift to that fund, and it arrived at a crucial moment as the museum faced the crisis directly. This remarkably generous gift joins the hundreds of others to the Closure Relief Fund from SAM’s board, members, and friends, all of which have ensured the vibrancy and security of the museum both during and after the closure.
The Friday Foundation is also gifting SAM $2 million to fund the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global Contemporary Art. This exciting new fund will enable SAM to continue its focus on bringing work by emerging artists from all over the world into its collection, to share with the entire community and create dialogue with the over 25,000 objects in its global collection. You’ll be hearing more about this fund, and the art it will bring to Seattle, in the years to come.
Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, expressed her gratitude: “These gifts are a shining example of what community support for art and art institutions looks like, and it reflects and furthers the incredible legacy of the Langs. The acquisitions endowment is particularly meaningful, as it will help shape the future of SAM’s collection. We are extremely grateful for the generosity of the Friday Foundation.”