Hear from Jinny Wright on how she came to own Mark Rothko’s #10, now in SAM’s collection and on view in City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art Shaped A New Seattle. #10 is an early characteristic abstract composition for Rothko and was of great significance to Jinny Wright, setting the tone, she said, for everything she subsequently acquired. The painting was exhibited at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, next door to where Jinny worked in the early 1950s, and she recalled being bowled over by it. Purchasing this artwork was a major milestone in Jinny’s collecting of contemporary art. Before she donated it to SAM in 1991 it hung in the Wright family’s dining room alongside Barnett Newman’s The Three, also on view in City of Tomorrow.
Unfortunately City of Tomorrow closes January 18 but thanks to the generosity and vision of Jinny Wright, all 64 works in this extraordinary exhibition will be on view at SAM in the future as part of our modern and contemporary collection. This is but a fraction of the many works that Jinny and her husband Bagley gifted to SAM over the years, leaving an undeniable mark on the cultural landscape of the entire Pacific Northwest. Tomorrow we will celebrate both the new year and the birthday of Jinny who passed on in February of 2020.
With a heavy heart, we share the news of the passing of Virginia Wright, a pillar of the SAM family. Virginia and her late husband Bagley played pivotal roles in the development, vibrancy, and accomplishments of the Seattle Art Museum for more than half a century. Beyond being generous contributors, the Wrights’ greatest impact on SAM is seen in the art of the collection and in the art shown. Virginia was among a very small group of people who, in the 1960s, pushed SAM to create its first modern and contemporary art program. Virginia and Bagley also contributed to the purchase of many important acquisitions over the years. Above all else, the Wrights amassed one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in the world (over 200 works), all purchased with SAM in mind as the collection’s eventual home. When the bulk of it came to SAM in 2014, forming the backbone of its modern and contemporary collection, SAM was transformed from a great institution into a truly remarkable one.
Earlier this month,
Virginia said, “When I think about the future of the Wright Collection at SAM, I
put my trust in the artists. I trust that future generations will value their
work, that SAM will continue to provide meaningful access to it, and that the
conversations that their work has inspired will continue.” We are honored by
her faith in Seattle’s museum and, because of her support over the last 60
years, we are confident that we can live up to the legacy she established.
Born in Seattle and raised
in British Columbia, Virginia went East for college and majored in art history.
Out of college, she worked for Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan and began
collecting art. Mark Rothko’s abstract painting Number 10 (1952) was one
of her early, daring purchases and it is now part of SAM’s collection.
Virginia has been a SAM
member since 1951. She began docent training in 1957 and led her first public
tour in 1959. In 1959, the Wrights made their first-ever gift to SAM’s
collection: Room with White Table (1953) by William Ward Corley. That
year they also provided funding for SAM to acquire Winter’s Leaves of the
Winter of 1944 (at the time titled Leaves Before Autumn Wind) by
In 1964, she and a group of friends persuaded then-director Richard Fuller to let her start the Contemporary Art Council (CAC), a group of collectors at the museum. For the next decade, it functioned as the museum’s first modern art department. The CAC sponsored lectures and supported the first exhibitions of Op art and conceptual art in Seattle. It also brought the popular Andy Warhol Portraits exhibition to Seattle in 1976, among many other important exhibitions. Her role in bringing great art to the Seattle Art Museum also involved the curation of two solo exhibitions for Morris Louis (in 1967) and William Ivey (in 1975).
Virginia joined SAM’s board in 1960, making 2020 her 60th anniversary with the Seattle Art Museum. She temporarily stepped away in 1972 when her husband Bagley joined the Board and rejoined in 1982. She served as President of the Board from 1987–90. Virginia was President of SAM’s Board of Trustees from 1986–1992, years that coincided with the construction and opening of the downtown Robert Venturi building in 1991—the museum’s first major transformation since its opening in 1933 and a major shift in Seattle’s cultural life to downtown First Avenue (with the Symphony soon following).
In 1999, SAM mounted an
exhibition of the Wright Collection (The Virginia and Bagley Wright
Collection of Modern Art, March 4–May 9, 1999). The Wrights’ entire art
collection—the largest single collection of modern and contemporary art in the
region—has been gradually donated (and the balance of the collection promised)
to the Seattle Art Museum. A significant portion of the collection came to the
museum in 2014 when the Wrights’ private exhibition space closed.
When the Seattle Art Museum opened the Olympic Sculpture Park in 2007, many works from the Wrights’ collection were installed there, including Mark di Suvero’s Bunyon’s Chess (1965) and Schubert Sonata (1992), as well as works by Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Smith, Anthony Caro, and Roxy Paine.
SAM’s ongoing exhibition Big Picture: Art After 1945draws from the Wrights’ transformative gift of over 100 works and is a reminder of their incredible generosity.
Virginia was an active board member up to the end of her life, regularly attending meetings and advising the museum in many important endeavors. About SAM Virginia said, “It’s always been the main arena. I never wanted to break off and start a museum. I wanted to push the museum we already had into being more responsive to contemporary art.” And SAM would like to acknowledge that she did just that, leaving an undeniable mark on the cultural landscape of the entire Pacific Northwest.
As Amada Cruz, SAM’s
Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, says, “Even having only been in
Seattle for a short time, it’s clear that Virginia Wright’s impact on the city
and on SAM is beyond measure. Her legacy, and that of her late husband Bagley,
is seen in both the very walls and on the walls of the downtown museum, and it
fills the Olympic Sculpture Park’s landscapes. I’m honored to have been able to
know her and of her hopes for SAM’s continued future.”
This abstract composition is pieced together from fragments of ordinary things—corrugated cardboard, painted fabric, and wrinkled burlap. The surface is pierced, stained, and gouged, painfully reminiscent of scarred skin. It comes from a series called Sacchi (sacks), which use humble materials to create compositions that hover between painting and sculpture. Alberto Burri, who had been a doctor in the Italian army during World War II, started making art when he was a prisoner of war in Texas in 1943. As much as anything, the Sacchi seem to be about the temporary nature of materials, experiences, life—for many viewers in the 1950s, they seemed to express the suffering and darkness of the war years.
Burri created Sacco
in 1955 when he was staying in New York. He had become friends with Harold and
Hester Diamond, a young New York couple with an interest in art (Harold, a
schoolteacher, would go on to become a prominent art dealer). Harold’s brother
owned the Upper West Side building where Mark Rothko had his studio, and the
Diamonds, who lived upstairs, arranged for Burri to use the studio. He included
the sleeve of one of Harold Diamond’s discarded shirts in the lower right of
this work, and presented the work to the Diamonds at the end of his stay.
Decades later in 1995, Hester Diamond gave Sacco to the Seattle Art Museum in
memory of the artist, who had died that same year. Harold Diamond had passed
away in 1982, and Hester, with her second husband Ralph Kaminsky, had become a friend
of SAM and a supporter of the Seattle Opera, whose Ring cycle brought her to Seattle numerous times. Over the years
she gave three more works to SAM, all very different from the Burri.
One of them is this wonderfully strange family portrait of
Leda, Jupiter in the form of a swan, and their three children, hatched from
eggs—a work by the mid-16th century Flemish painter Vincent Sellaer. The
combination of appealing and unsettling visual qualities is typical of
Mannerism, a style which attracted Hester’s interest beginning in the early
1990s. Previously devoted to 20th-century art, she fell in love with the refined
technique, inventiveness, and beauty of 15th- and 16th-century European
painting and sculpture and shifted her collecting focus.
Hester Diamond was an enthusiastic and generous friend to
international art institutions, artists, curators, scholars, and gallerists.
The seriousness of her commitment to art was matched by her sense of humor and
love of adventure as she explored new fields. A lifelong New Yorker, Hester had
a close relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made significant
gifts to her hometown museum over the decades. SAM is fortunate that she also recognized
how works from her collection could make a difference here in Seattle.
Hester’s collecting interests could encompass a post-war collage roughly fashioned out of the ephemeral everyday, as well as a painting superbly crafted to last forever. Both are now valued works in our collection which future generations will be able to enjoy thanks to her generosity. Sadly, they outlast Hester herself, who died on January 23, 2020 at the age of 91. She will be greatly missed.
– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture
As part of the For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative put on by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, we’re contextualizing works in SAM’s collection within today’s political atmosphere. The program is inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
For this week’s post, we’re focusing on freedom from fear by looking at Frederic Edwin Church’s A Country Home painted in 1854, just seven years before the American Civil War. The painting illustrates an idyllic landscape, lush with vegetation and a tranquil pond. The mood is calm and serene with the sun casting a warm, comforting glow. Church, a member of the Hudson River School, paints the American landscape as a modern-day Eden. The artist’s view of his time and place is one of optimism, hope, and contentment.
As we compare Church’s work to Mark Rothko’s abstraction #10, painted in 1952, the differences couldn’t be greater. Rothko’s work was completed just 98 years after A Country Home, but during this period humanity witnessed two world wars (the second of which perhaps had the greatest impact on the views of artists). How much did their views of America change, as well as the times they lived in? After the horrors of World War II, how could one paint idyllic landscapes? Yet, even though freedom won the War, fear persevered—the ugly side of the human race was exposed. As a result, art turned abstract and humanity collectively wept.
So this brings us to today: even if divisiveness, racism, and hatred are overcome, what lasting effect will these times have on our art and how we view our time and place? If equality, respect, and compassion win politically, will we still be free from fear? Or is it too late and have we already exposed the darker sides of ourselves?
This question creates the framework for John Logan’s play Red (currently running at the Seattle Rep), centered on painter Mark Rothko; it also provides a point of departure for an investigation of Rothko’s painting.
Rothko had worked in a traditional, figural mode early in his career, and dabbled in surrealism for a time, before finally arriving at his signature composition of pulsing blocks of color. For different viewers, the forms which emerge are stubbornly objective, ranging from biota to landscapes, humans to storm clouds. However, the strong verticality of works such as this resolutely assert their abstraction, mesmerizing viewers with a maintained focus on color and light.