Today, we have a major announcement: Thanks to the generosity of Jon and Kim Shirley, one of the most important private collections of Alexander Calder’s artworks will make its way to SAM. The gift of the Shirley Family Calder Collection includes 48 of the artist’s works and is supported by a $10 million endowment and an annual financial commitment to support Calder-related exhibitions and research.
“Calder is an artist whose work is seemingly ubiquitous,” said Amada Cruz, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum. “In truth, we’ve lost sight of the enormous artistic innovations that he was responsible for—from pioneering wire sculpture to inventing the mobile—and the tremendous impact he has had on artists of the 20th and 21st century. The extraordinary generosity of Jon and Kim Shirley allows us to explore the many facets of this creative genius.”
The Shirleys’ gift will be the centerpiece of an ongoing series of annual exhibitions and programs. Beginning this November, SAM will present an inaugural exhibition featuring all 48 works from the collection, offering an extensive look into the artist’s work, practice, and life. Following this inaugural show, a group exhibition planned for 2024 will emphasize his impact and legacy in global contemporary art.
“I first fell in love with Calder as a young man, creating a passion that has only grown with time,” said Jon Shirley. “From the moment I bought my first work 35 years ago, I treasured the experience of living with Calder and from that point built my collection very intentionally. I visited the seminal Calder exhibition at the National Gallery in 1998 and soon thereafter decided to build a truly museum-worthy collection of his work. Kim and I are so happy to have found a permanent home for our collection at the Seattle Art Museum.”
When a male colleague coined “so good it could have been made by a man” as a shiny new art-descriptor, artists Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven weren’t so keen on its uptake.
Cerny and Haven met in Seattle in 2012, when Haven was working on a show at SAM on view concurrent with ELLES: Women from the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Cerny had expertise in printmaking, and Haven had a story to share: at the show’s opening event, a male painter they both knew told her not only that her work was “so good it could have been made by a man,” but “that he was mystified (with a tinge of pity) that it had been relegated to a show of work by women.”
The comment prompted the pair to collaborate, under the witty moniker DAFT KUNTZ, to reframe his words (both literally and figuratively). Without adding their own commentary, the artists ask us to consider: Should we interpret it as an underhanded compliment or a reminder that artistic and intellectual achievement is still measured by male accomplishments?
Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN shares a certain arresting visual quality with the iconic Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? 1989 poster by the Guerilla Girls (the data for which has since been updated and is, spoiler alert, just as abysmal). The works are conceptually similar in their use of jarring statements that force the viewer to reflect on social structures, presented with bold text and graphic imagery. A component of Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met? that is often overlooked, however, is one essential word: modern. It was not the case that 5% of all of the art in the Met Museum in 1989 was created by women, rather, only 5% of the art in the galleries of modern art was created by women. A common refrain in response to criticisms of male hegemony is the classic “it was a different time,” and “that was then, this is now.” It may be true that the times they are a-changing, but Cerny and Haven remind us that we still have a ways to go.
“We all know the [women] artists that most people are able to list off automatically, right? The list usually goes a little something like…Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Lange, etc. And they are all fantastic women artists worthy of such recognition! But there’s so many more out there. Our goal at SAM is to share a wider range of women that may not be as well known, including women of color and more contemporary artists, all from our collection.“
Relegating the exclusion of women to the past both excuses the history of male superiority in art and minimizes the exclusionary tactics that contemporary women artists face. SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN admonishes the very present imbalance and asserts a new way forward. The top text, “so good it could have been,” is hopeful and earnest. “Made by a man” is tacked on below like an official stamp; it’s a dark cloud, a swift gut punch expelling the air from once hopeful lungs. But it’s a necessary evil, because only by understanding the imbalance can we move toward a future where women artists are celebrated without being measured by male accomplishments. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, even be let into the Met fully clothed.
SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN is notable in another way: it is a collaboration between two past winners of the SAM’s annual Betty Bowen Award, an unrestricted cash prize for a Northwest artist to further their career. Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven are both previous Grand Prize recipients of the Betty Bowen Award: Haven was awarded the prize in 2004, the two artists came together to create SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN in 2015, and Cerny went on to win the Grand Prize in 2020.
So who will be next? The 2022 Betty Bowen Award is currently open for applications through Monday, August 1 at 11 pm PST. The winner receives an unrestricted cash prize of $15,000 and a solo exhibition at SAM. For more information and to see a list of past winners, please visit visitsam.org/bettybowen or email email@example.com.
– Johnna Munsen, Betty Bowen Award Administration Intern
Image: SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN, 2012, DAFT KUNTZ, Collaboration between Victoria Haven and Dawn Cerny, silkscreen on paper, 33 1/2 × 26 in. Gift of Matthew Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser with funds from the 2013 Neddy Award in Painting, 2015.2.1.
Quilt-making, as a genre, is as vast and varied as America itself, and the stories and histories embedded in each unique quilt, pieced together and often stitched by many hands, are part of what makes the craft a quintessential form of American art.
This is especially the case for the quilts of Gee’s Bend, where generations of Black women “have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present.”1 The quilts are not bound to “traditional” techniques and results, but rather take the form of the quilt and reimagine it altogether. “Housetop,” “bricklayer,” and “my way” are just some of the many styles made by Gee’s Bend women, whose ingenuity and use of salvaged fabric, worn garments, and textile scraps have earned them international acclaim.
Boykin, Alabama, historically known as Gee’s Bend, sits at a bend of the Alabama River, framed on three sides by the natural boundary. This geographic isolation has kept the rural, Black community small—though 44 miles southwest of Selma, its current population hovers just over 250. Many still living in Boykin are the descendants of enslaved men and women who worked the fields belonging to Mark H. Pettway, who in 1845 purchased the land from Joseph Gee. Upon the abolition of slavery, many continued working for the Pettways as sharecroppers and tenant farmers—an extension of servitude, or simply slavery by another name. In the late 1930s, the Farm Security Administration, created as part of the New Deal, established Gee’s Bend Farms, Inc., a cooperative pilot project designed to support and sustain the Gee’s Bend community. The government subdivided properties, built homes, and sold tracts of land, giving its African American families control of the land they worked for the first time.2
Celebrated today for their singular aesthetic sensibility, the quilts of Gee’s Bend were born out of geographic isolation, a scarcity of materials, and a need for warmth. Yet, despite these limitations, hundreds of quilted artworks have been produced—each maker pushing the boundaries of what a quilt is and can be. Annie Mae Young is one such woman, who, in her words, “never did like the book patterns some people had,” and instead opted for quilts characterized by their larger blocks and long, meandering strips.3
Impressively, Young completed her first quilt while a child, with knowledge that was passed down through her family, from mother to daughter. She started cutting and piecing “anything [she] could find” around the age of 13 or 14, often “old dress tails and pants legs.”4 Ultimately, it was a photograph of Young in front of her 1976 Strip Medallionquilt—an iconic “work clothes” quilt featuring red, yellow, and brown corduroy stripes, and bands of denim—that catapulted Gee’s Bend quilts into the national imagination in the late 1990s.5 In 2002, the exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,showcased over 60 quilts and travelled to 12 venues around the country, cementing the legacy of the community of women and their craft.
With repetition and rhythm, Blocks (2003)is visually organized in an improvisational manner with a bold palette—an exemplar of Young’s work and style. Her individuality and innovation as a quilter is evident, but the quilt also represents the community of which she was an active member, the endurance of matrilineal knowledge, and the power of collective work to breed beautiful acts.
– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate
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.
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.
Museums across the country are contending with the structural racism that shapes their collections and organizations. One component of this process, in striving for transparency, is assessing the individuals and communities who are—and who are not—represented in these collections.
In the summer of 2019, SAM’s Curatorial Department began the challenging—and ongoing—work of collecting data to better understand the diversity of the museum’s permanent collection. While I helped initiate this research, it was carried forward by one amazing and dedicated curatorial intern, Rachel Kim, whose time, energy, and care laid essential groundwork for future initiatives to increase the representation of artists of color at SAM.
The methodology that guides this undertaking is shaped by a study titled “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums,” published in March 2019 by a cross-departmental group of colleagues at Williams College in the departments of Statistics, Mathematics, Art, and Art History. The study used crowdsourcing to mine the online databases of 18 major American museums, inferring data related to artists’ ethnicities, genders, and geographic origins. As in the Williams College study, we focused our attention on artists whose identities are known to us, first conducting research to manually calculate representation by gender and, later on, ethnicity, within SAM’s permanent collection. The Williams College study relied on the crowdsourcing platform Amazon Mechanical Turk to gather data and, like much of such data collection, is subject to human error. Still, the study found that 85% of works in major U.S. museum collections are by white artists, and that 87% are by men. Works by Black artists make up just 1% of collections; works by Asian artists, 9%; and works by Latinx artists, 3%.
I should pause here and note that the complexities and sensitivities of this research are many—there are often limited resources, including limited biographical information, available on a number of artists; many artists’ identities and orientations are intersectional or non-binary, and the application of one singular identity for the sake of data collection reduces the complexity of many artists’ backgrounds and biographies; and most important of all is how the artist personally chooses to identify. With this in mind, Rachel Kim thoughtfully reflected, “No person’s identity can be relegated to simple formulas and spreadsheet labels. With this recognition, I made it a priority to extract source material on an artist from the words of the artists themselves before turning to secondary accounts.” Many museums are beginning to conduct similar data collection and research, and some are even developing surveys to be sent to living artists during the acquisitions process; this way, the artist may self-identify and share details related to their own biography as they would like for it to be recorded. It is crucial to acknowledge another limitation as well: this first phase of data collection, focusing on “individual, identifiable” artists, inherently privileges a Western perspective and valuation of a singular object with a singular, documented maker.
Yet, as nuanced and imperfect as this data may be, it acts as a critical blueprint that reflects what SAM—like too many museums around the country—has known and knows must be corrected. We must confront the inherent biases and narratives that collecting histories, including our own, perpetuates. Serving the museum’s larger institutional goal of addressing racial inequity within its walls and collection, this research further underscores the need for increased investment in 20th- and 21st-century artists of color.
Focusing on the museum’s modern and contemporary collection as one example, roughly 7% of works are by artists of color. However, since 2010, this collection has also seen the number of works by Black artists increase by over one-third. Many of these acquisitions are directly linked to the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize, a $10,000 award offered biannually to an early career Black artist, along with a solo exhibition at SAM. The first prize was awarded in 2009, and SAM has consistently acquired works by the exhibiting artists in the years since.
Looking at another data sample, SAM acquired approximately 1,360 works by 20th- and 21st-century artists since 2010. Of these, roughly 48% are by artists of color. In addition, well over two times the funds were spent on the purchase of 110 works by artists of color compared to 94 works by white artists. These numbers are heartening and signal the progress that an intentional approach can accomplish, though we acknowledge that our work is only beginning.
This research and its analysis is far from definitive or complete, but it is a helpful tool—a compass, perhaps—that can help guide current and future actions to correct the systemic and institutional racism that has invariably shaped the museum field. Supporting, representing, and investing in artists of color through exhibitions and acquisitions is just one part of this anti-racist work for SAM.
– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate
 The authors importantly see this study as a companion to the 2014-15 “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey” conducted by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which found that 72% of staff at its member institutions identify as white. It will take more than simply acquiring more works by artists of color to correct racial inequity within museums––equal attention must be given to staffing, workplace culture, board membership, programs, exhibitions, and collections.
 SAM is a comprehensive museum, which means that its permanent collection houses artworks by artists and makers across time and place, from antiquity to the present, and we cannot always know the identities of an artwork’s maker or makers. If we expand the scope of our data to include works by artists whose specific identities are unknown to us, or perhaps worked as a community or collectively, the museum’s holdings of works by artists of color hovers around 58%. This high percentage is due in no small part to SAM’s foundational collection of historic Asian art, renowned collection of African art, and strong representation of Indigenous—especially Northwest Coast Native—art.
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.”
Crisp contours and soft, natural lines form a focus: a
fruit—a tangerine—hanging on its stem, framed by four leaves and suspended
against a backdrop of white. There are no colors, fine details, or surrounding
imagery that confirm it is specifically a tangerine. Yet there is an impulse to
see from minimal curves a familiar shape, the ubiquitous form of tree-bearing
fruit. From this abstract presentation, the tangerine exudes simple elegance
and playful whimsy.
This piece by Ellsworth Kelly is one of 28 lithographs from Suite
of Plant Lithographs, published in 1966. As a medium, lithography involves
etching a smooth stone and using the repelling properties of oil and water to
transcribe images onto paper. In addition to tangerines, the series includes
lithographs of various flowers, branches, seaweed, leaves, and other fruits.
Since his passing in 2015, Ellsworth Kelly remains an
influential force in Minimalism, Hard-Edge painting, Color Field painting, and
Postwar European abstraction. From an early age, Kelly was drawn to the bright
watercolor studies of birds by James Audubon. During World War II, Kelly was
enlisted into the Ghost Army, a regiment of artists tasked with developing
camouflage strategies and inflatable tanks to confound enemy troops. From this
wartime experience, Kelly deepened his understanding of abstract colors, forms,
and shadows. 1
On his artistic process, Kelly reflected, “I’m constantly
investigating nature – nature, meaning everything,” and noted, “I think that if
you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything
becomes abstract.” 2
Tangerine (Mandarine) is visibly different from Kelly’s more recognizable pieces, including this painting from SAM’s collection, White Curve V (1973). Kelly’s work is often recognized by its geometric patterns and shapes punctuated by bold colors and hard lines.
Despite these labels, Kelly transcends them. In White
Curve V, the composition initially appears to be flat, simple, and non-representational.
Another reading reveals a striking similarity to a close-up of the moon and
sky. The color block curves appear to be moving, as they follow natural
processions of receding or expanding horizons and seas.
Kelly once said, “I think what we all want from art is a
sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living, What I’ve tried
to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation,
to get at the rapture of seeing.” 3 From Kelly’s admiration and curiosity for
the natural world, it is through his art we are encouraged to see our realities
with eyes of wonder and reverence.
A photograph of Mary Corse’s White Light Painting (Inner Band Series) provides an idea at best of the composition of the painting—a large but shallow rectangular support, the canvas neatly stretched over the bars. Three vertical bands, varying slightly in tone with an almost silvery color seen in photographs, stretch from the top to the bottom of the canvas, framed by narrower matte white bands on the right and left margins. The delineations between the center three stripes in the image are blurry, but discernible.
White Light Painting (Inner Band Series) as it exists in a photograph is an entirely different painting
from the actual painting in life. In the presence of the painting, its light,
shadow, and color is elusive, and the thresholds of the three central bands—made
of smooth layers of inherently colorless silica glass microspheres—recede and
advance. As the viewer moves around the painting, the three central bands
change value subtly in opposite directions. The outer bands of microbeads
appear dimmer near the bottom of the painting and become more incandescent near
the top, while the center band becomes more incandescent closer to the bottom
of the painting, to a shimmering, undulating effect, up and down, as each band
flashes in and out of visibility. The outermost stripes of matte acrylic white
paint on the margins assume different hues according to the refraction of the
light—briefly glowing pinkish green, then back to white, then nearly a dim gray
in contrast to the flare emanating from the center as the silica glass
microspheres bend light to create a prismatic field.
This is Corse’s goal: to instill dimension in her paintings
not with illusion or figurative ground, but by using light as it comes into
existence in the perception of the viewer, in real time, as the painting
refracts it. It would be careless to assume that her paintings are simply about
their shimmering finish.
Corse resists the easy association with California Light and Space artists. Though she lives in Topanga Canyon and shares some interests with those artists in her particular attention to light and space, the phenomenological experience of artworks and, perhaps distantly, her use of an industrial material for its surface qualities, Corse’s use of light is informed by its metaphysics, not by her particular locale.
It does happen that Corse began using silica glass
microspheres in her paintings following an encounter with the material just
outside Los Angeles. On a sunset drive in Malibu in 1968, she noticed the
luminosity of the street signs and street markings. Corse had been searching
for ways to incorporate light in her paintings, and turned to the microbeads, which
are used in retroreflective paint for pavement marking. In her Inner Band series, the iridescent effect
can be compared to the meticulous, seamless finishes of West Coast Minimalist
paint applications, and yet it isn’t so mechanically applied that the surface
Most notable to me are the ways this painting refers to and
departs from the self-reflexive qualities of modern painting in the 1960s, in
their attention to flatness and abstract use of form and color. The arrangement
of the bands of microspheres in White Light Painting (Inner Band Series) at
once describes and affirms the flatness of the surface in the evenness of the
layers, and also breaks the plane apart into fugitive planes of light.
Additionally, the contour of the bands, while elusive, are straight and
rectangular, stretching vertically from the top to the bottom of the canvas.
Even as the bands appear to flare and fade, they repeat the length and the form
of the painting itself.
Corse’s color is not inherent to any pigment in the painting,
but exists in flux in the eye of the viewer. Whereas other paintings use tints
or shades for color, Corse’s microspheres use pure light, and the random,
polychromatic color that comes from its refraction.
Light Painting (Inner Band Series) is deeper than the experience of looking
or simply beholding it—you are apprehended by the painting as you spend time
with it, paying attention to it and witnessing its permutations. It exists in
glances of light, in full silvery columns, in the soft apparent glow at its
margins, and the fluttery animation of its surface as you walk past. It is
spectacular for its sparkle, but even more so for its ability to resist
expectations of a definitive state of being.
– Hannah Hirano, SAM Coordinator
for Museum Services and Conservation
Clark, Robin, ed. Phenomenal:
California Light, Space, Surface. Berkeley, CA: University of California
Press, The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
New Year’s Eve ushers in and allows for all sorts of behavior. For some, it might be a night to reflect on the past year while making resolutions for the next, but for others it is a social occasion during which one can celebrate freely, throwing caution—and social mores—to the wind. This work by John Wesley, titled Nail Police, seems to be a proponent of the latter.
At first the work appears relatively benign, with a cartoon-like image of a woman drying toenail polish—a standard beauty routine. Upon closer look, Nail Police reveals more erotic undertones, and raises further questions: Why are there three feet instead of two? Is the woman pictured even painting toes at all? Is the painting in fact an adult fantasy rendered ambiguous?
One of Wesley’s many strengths as an artist is his ability to create images that are at once explicit and enigmatic. And, like his highly stylized paintings, Wesley has defied easy categorization throughout his career. His flat, graphic figures and distinctive color palate of periwinkle blue and pale pink often align him with artists who share a Pop sensibility, although Wesley associates his uncanny, dreamlike compositions with Surrealism. However, his painting style, which bears little trace of the human hand, has also been espoused by many Minimalist artists, most notably Donald Judd.
Interested in our mass consumption of media, Wesley regularly begins his paintings by tracing images from publications such as newspapers and fashion magazines—dogs, birds, women, and cartoon characters—which are then converted into gouaches and, ultimately, acrylic paintings. This process allows certain characteristics to be reduced to their most basic elements. Here, this can be seen in the contours of the woman’s feet, or the treatment of her full lips and eyelashes.
Regardless of how you might read this image, the last night of the year is as good a time as any to paint the town—and maybe even your toenails—red. However you celebrate, Happy New Year!
Giving tours to young people through our big Jane Lang Davis Gallery in the Modern and Contemporary collection can be difficult. It’s impossible to avoid the fact that there’s a really large painting of a naked woman on the wall! Even if, as the tour guide, one forgets about it momentarily, kids will always bring the attention straight to that piece. Their stifled laughter, or even outright laughter, will probably derail conversation about anything else happening in the gallery. Once my focus is drawn to it, I feel simultaneously uncomfortable and totally compelled by the image. I get why they’re staring and pointing.
There’s a name for the painting with the naked woman: Salad Days. She’s just one half of a two-panel piece that measures seven by fourteen feet, rendering relational discord on a huge scale. The artist is contemporary American painter Eric Fischl. He has been creating uncomfortably naked paintings since the early 1980s, and there are few artists out there who do it better, or with more unsettling creep factor.
Fischl has described himself as a storyteller, an artist who aims to create scenes that are full of meaning. Whether that meaning is positive or negative does not matter to him; whether the viewer’s senses are offended does not matter either. Instead, he’s interested in radical openness and honesty. Many of Fischl’s paintings focus on awkward territory: enduring down time in an unhappy relationship, singing in the shower, or lounging unceremoniously in the buff. Over and over, he confronts viewers with scenes that are unusual for their bare honesty.
Of course there’s a very long history of naked people in art, and Fischl is hardly the first, last, or only artist to engage the subject. Most of these artists are working in one of two traditions: nude art, or naked art. The nude is an idealized figure, on display for the viewer, situated in a context that justifies, or makes more art history appropriate, the lack of clothes. Nakedness is all about the lack of clothes and flying in the face of propriety. Fischl fits squarely in the naked camp.
SAM’s collection has great examples of the nude genre too…
Salad Days pictures a private moment, and in doing so, turns it into something highly public. The woman’s physical nakedness comes to represent a psychological nakedness, where her private thoughts and actions come to the surface. This, like much of Fischl’s work, is a voyeuristic, intimate vignette—not an idealized display set up for our consumption. Imagining two sides of a conversation happening over the phone, he invites us to imagine how others act when we can’t see them. You’ll be thinking about it the next time you’re on a call…
We are thrilled to welcome Catharina Manchanda to the Seattle Art Museum as our new Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art! Manchanda will be joining the SAM team in August. To introduce Catharina to our community, we asked her a couple of questions about art and life in Seattle. You can also read more about Catharina in our official press release.