Object of the Week: Goryeo Celadon

Kintsugi (golden seams or joinery) is the centuries-old Japanese art of repairing ceramics. Through mixing lacquer with powdered gold, silver or platinum, broken pottery is pieced back together—a second life made visible through glistening veins of metal. Like a palimpsest, objects bearing traces of kintsugi reveal a material history and process. Rather than devalue, kintsugi‘s mended fractures imbue a given object with new meaning. Imperfections are embraced and celebrated.

This 11–12th century celadon gourd-shaped bottle, currently on view in Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, illustrates such signs of kintsugi mending. Celadon ware of the Goryeo dynasty is considered a trademark of the period and the main type of ceramics produced. Its variably grey-green and green-blue coloring comes as a result of specific materiality and conditions: “the presence of iron in the clay and of iron oxide, manganese oxide, and quartz particles in the glaze—as well as to the firing conditions inside the kiln.”1

With its unique green hue, delicately incised floral pattern, and pleasantly attenuated proportions, this bottle finds many visual connections within the Color in Clay installation at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. However, unlike the other celadon works in its vicinity, additional streaks of gold set it apart from the rest.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Soyoung Lee, “Goryeo Celadon,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cela/hd_cela.htm.

Images: Celadon ceramics on view in the Color in Clay installation in the exhibition Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, Seattle Asian Art Museum. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

Object of the Week: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980

Unlike summer, with its durational heat and drought, winter in the Pacific Northwest brings with it water—and lots of it. We’re only two weeks into 2022 and we’ve seen over six inches of rain already, thanks to a deluge of atmospheric rivers.1

With water as its subject, this photograph by Johsel Namkung (1919–2013)—taken almost exactly 42 years ago on January 17, 1980—focuses on the swirling, glistening eddies of the Yakima River. One can feel the temperature of the waters—once snowmelt—merely by looking at the image. Rocks and sediment visible through the river’s crystal-clear waters are in rhythmic balance with translucent currents of refracted light and bubbles.

With a background in classical music, studying at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music and later the University of Washington School of Music, Namkung possessed a penchant for visual composition as well. However, his studies of nature are more than mere documentation, they express “the impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy.”2 In a 1989 interview he described his attraction to the “beauty in the lowly humble clumps of, or groups of plants, and weeds, and things like that. I think that is the essence or a component of a great nature.”3

Namkung’s work will be on view in the upcoming special exhibition, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water, opening March 18 at our downtown location. Showcasing a diverse range of artists and practices, the exhibition examines water’s pleasures and perils, as well as its changing role in our lives.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Seattle Weather Blog, “2022 Rainfall,” https://www.seattleweatherblog.com/rain-stats/rainfall-2022/.

2 Delores Tarzan Ament, “Namkung, Johsel (1919-2013),” HistoryLink.org, March 3, 2003, https://www.historylink.org/File/5346.

3 Archives of American Art, “Oral history interview with Johsel Namkung, 1989 Oct. 5-1991 Feb. 25,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-johsel-namkung-12201#transcript.

Image: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980, 1980, Johsel Namkung, Chromogenic digital laser print, 40 × 50 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2006.114 © Johsel Namkung.

Object of the Week: Kali (I’m a Mess)

Colorful, riotous, and vibrant are but three words that come to mind when thinking about Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s neon artworks. Burman’s neon lights first appeared on the Tate Britain’s façade in 2020 for her commission Remembering a Brave New World, which disrupted the neoclassical building’s exterior with a roar of color. Her installation was awarded the 2021 Dezeen Award for Design of the Year.1

Photo: © Tate 2020/Joe Humphrys.

The artist traces her love for neon to childhood visits to Blackpool, a seaside resort known for its annual lights festival. While traditional glass neon lights were not conducive to achieving the shapes and structures that Burman wanted, new developments in the medium allowed her to bend and shape silicon neon lights to create complex and multi-colored sculptures. Some of her signature works include pouncing tigers, images of Hindu deities, uplifting quotes, and her father’s ice cream van. Burman’s Tate Britain installation was unveiled in time for Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights, but also in the midst of the global Black Lives Matter movement and raging COVID-19 pandemic.

With all of this in mind, Burman communicated an uplifting message, but, more importantly, highlighted the significant role and contributions of Black and Asian British artists in the United Kingdom. Burman has also noted that the neon works are an extension of her previous practice, stating, “paradoxically, [the installation’s] concerns are the same themes I explored back in the 80s along with my colleagues in the Black British Arts Movement [that] are still so prevalent today…”

“It’s undeniable that the Tate Britain commission I was awarded was finally a step in the right direction, in acknowledging the significance of my work and practice—as well as the significant contributions of my contemporaries—that have, to be frank, been overlooked for so long,” Burman said. “In doing so, Tate have sought to re-address the biases and hypocrisy often prevalent in both our British art establishments and the wider art sector. This shift, inevitably signifies a slow erosion of the inequalities prevalent in the art world.”

“That being said,” she continued, “I saw my selection for this commission not as a final step in this process of erosion but as a beginning. I was adamant, therefore, that my commission serve as an opportunity to critique the role of the Tate—and by extension all of our British establishments—in much the same way as I have done throughout my practice.” 

SAM acquired one of Burman’s neon works, Kali (I’m a Mess) with funds from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, and additional support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Previously perched atop the Tate Britain’s pediment, obscuring the statue of Britannia, the piece will be on view in the upcoming exhibition, Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time, opening January 14 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.2

Kali (I’m a Mess) brings both a disruptive and inclusive message of liberation and rebellion. Through this artwork, Burman asks: Can Kali fast forward us into a brave new world where we will no longer be in a mess?

Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington

The author wishes to thank the artist, Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman, as well as the artist’s studio team, especially Kemi Sanbe, for kindly providing answers to interview questions. Thanks also to Dr. Natalia Di Pietrantonio, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, for providing the opportunity to write this blog post.


1 https://www.dezeen.com/awards/2021/winners/remembering-a-brave-new-world/#

2 Britannia is the embodiment of Britain in female form as a symbol of British national pride and unity, but also, more troublingly, a long-lasting symbol of colonialism, extraction, and violence.

Image: Kali (I’m a Mess), 2020, Chila Kumari Burman, 6mm 12v silicone LED neon, galvanized weld mesh, 12v switch mode transformers, IP67 plastic box, 137 13/16 x 70 7/8 × 1 3/16 in., Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, 2021.25 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: The Sacrifice of Isaac

When talking about biblical studies, Rabbi Emily Meyer once said, “every translation is a commentary.” This is true, not only for verbal and written languages, but also for the language of visual art, particularly when it comes to biblical interpretation, where artistic design choices can change the context of the narrative. Alessandro Algardi’s Early Modern Italian relief sculpture, The Sacrifice of Isaac, is a prime example of how art can act as its own biblical commentary, both through image alone and in conjunction with verbal interpretation.

The Sacrifice, or Binding of Isaac narrative, is found in Genesis, the first book of Torah, also called the Hebrew Bible, chapter 22. In the chapter, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, but he is stopped at the last moment by an angel, who tells Abraham he has proved his fear of God, and he instead sacrifices a nearby ram (or lamb in some interpretations).

In the original narrative, the angel calls out to Abraham as he is about to strike.1 Abraham simply responds, “Here I am.” Yet, in Algardi’s visual interpretation, the angel grabs onto the knife mid-swing, as if needing to physically halt Abraham’s actions, removing some of the sense of agency Abraham may have had in the original text; it is not Abraham’s choice to pause in his actions, but a result of forceful intervention by the angel. This compositional choice therefore acts as visual biblical commentary, adding to, and expanding upon, interpretations of the original text.

Similarly, Algardi chose to portray Isaac as an older adolescent kneeling on the altar with his head hung low, as if resigned to his fate. Much religious commentary has been written about Isaac’s age, as the story found in Torah does not mention any detail about Isaac, his thoughts, or his actions. Some interpretations portray him as an innocent young boy who is complacent and oblivious to his fate, others as a young man, aware and accepting of his fate. These varying interpretations can change the meaning of the narrative for different religious groups and are reflected in visual depictions across almost 2,000 years. Algardi’s Isaac falls closer to the “aware and accepting” interpretation. This tracks with Christian interpretations of the narrative, in which the character of Isaac is viewed as typological, a precursor or prefiguration to the sacrifice of Jesus. Considering that this object was undoubtedly made in and for a Christian setting, this compositional choice is no surprise.

It is a worthy endeavor to look at different portrayals of the Sacrifice of Isaac from across different religious groups, geographical backgrounds, and time periods to understand how the same original text may change—or maintain—meaning, representation, importance, and impact depending on its context. Each visual translation of the story, from contemporary versions like the painting by Marc Chagall, to late antique portrayals like the mosaics found in the 6th century CE Beit Alpha Synagogue in Israel and Basilical of San Vitale in Italy, truly is its own commentary.

– Abby Massarano, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art


1 10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11The angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham, Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” Jewish Publication Society, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 40.

Image: The Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1638-39, Alessandro Algardi, Terracotta with white paint, 31 1/2 x 22 1/4 x 4 in., Overall h.: 33 in., Overall w.: 24 in., Overall diam.: 6 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.109.

Object of the Week: Kifwebe

Striations animate this mask to help us see the moon as a benevolent star that connects us to the world of benign dead. In simplified terms, it is said, “to chase away, or put in flight, death.” Now’s the time for it to allure Robert Farris Thompson (1932-2021), as he cartwheels his way into the cosmos, looking for a good cosmogram, as a hero of African art history should. 

I first saw Bob appear at an academic conference whose schedule said a Yale professor would give a summation. When the doors to the quiet auditorium opened, a wave of people swarmed in. A Black family took seats next to me—a grandmother and her grandson—whose excitement was contagious. Once the place was packed, Bob began walking toward the podium and yelled, “Turn the lights down so they can’t see how white I am!” Then he gave a talk like none other—filled with call and response, drumming, dancing, parables in multiple languages—and the crowd cheered, laughed, and collectively sighed. Here was someone whose love of art had put him in touch with Africa and transformed him into an oracle for recognizing the depth of its teachings. 

A few years later, he came to Seattle for a press conference when the museum announced its acquisition of the Katherine White Collection, which he knew well, having curated and written African Art in Motion. He admired Katherine enormously, yet he launched into revelations about the art she collected as a tribute to her, and told me, “small people talk about people, big people talk about ideas.”

He became a constant source for guidance on exhibitions and books, such as Praise Poems and Long Steps Never Broke a Back. Whenever I need a boost, I reached for research notebooks filled with his drawings and cryptic commentary, and considered another one of his sayings, “with African art, the evidence machine of Western thinking doesn’t work.” 

Page from Robert Farris Thompson’s notebook from 1972 notes on the Katherine White Collection, SAM archives.

SAM hosted his exhibition, Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of the Black Atlantic World. We cared for live altars, recreated a beach altar with tons of sand, placed a cosmogram on the floor, involved priests and priestesses, and got to revel in his unpacking of iconography. We also took walks in the Central District where he would find yards that impressed him and knock on doors to say, “Hi, I’m Bob, and I’d like to talk about your artistry.”

So, if you haven’t come across his name before, I hope this might nudge you to look into his writing and thinking. We’re also reviewing recordings of his appearances in Seattle, including one about his book Tango: The Art History of Love. For now, here’s a quote from an interview he did with Rolling Stone to demonstrate his way with words. Ashe, Master T. 

“[The people of Africa] stand like giants in teaching us how to live. There is a moral voice imbedded in the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic that the West can’t grasp. They don’t see the monuments, just barefoot philosophy coming from village elders. But the monument is a grand reconciling art form that tries to morally reconstruct a person without humiliating him. 

These are the canons of the cool: there is no crisis that cannot be weighed and solved; nothing can be achieved through hysteria or cowardice; you must wear and show off your ability to achieve social reconciliation. Step back from the nightmare. It is a call for parlance, for congress and for self-confidence.”1

– Pam McClusky, SAM Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art


1 Fred Iseman, “Robert Farris Thompson: Canons of the Cool,” Rolling Stone, November 22, 1984, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/robert-farris-thompson-canons-of-the-cool-58823.

Image: Kifwebe (Mask), late 19th century, Congolese, Luba, Wood, raffia, bark, pigment, twine, 36 1/4 x 24 x 12 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.869.

Object of the Week: Liminal Objects #5

Computer-generated liminal spaces and objects are familiar to video gamers—and maybe more so to those who are just not very good at video games, flailing halfway between a corner, or punching through a character that is more background than plot. These virtually possible in-between spaces become perceptible at the moment a player engages with the limits of a game’s designed environment. In Seattle-based artist Gary Hill’s video installation series Liminal Objects, however, it is within the absence of a designed environment where the computer-generated objects themselves interact, and with disregard for each other’s limits.

Each work in the series shows two black-and-white unrelated computer-generated objects on a 14-inch Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor that has had its housing removed. One object is still, while the other moves back-and-forth and around, indiscriminately slicing the stationary object. In Liminal Objects #5 (1996), it is a stationary tree and a swinging chandelier. Through these shadowless animations, “Hill has avoided the spectacle of computer art and instead embraced the simple fact that the ‘program’ doesn’t care if objects penetrate each other’s solidity.”1 It’s a bit absurd, and in the case of #5, perhaps a touch romantic.

Placing the work among other video art and time-based media of its era, Liminal Objects’ sculptural presence stands out. During the 1990s, contemporary art saw a “cinematic turn,” with a proliferation of large-scale video projection within the gallery space. Video art “forged a link with cinema and its giganticism” as projected images began to engulf entire walls.2 This was a departure from the previous decade, where CRT monitors—the small boxy televisions so different from today’s large flat LCD screens—were the norm (and sometimes only option) for displaying video art. But in the 1990s, many artists sought to loosen video from default connections to sculpture and the domestic in favor of the more immersive experiences that newer technologies could support.

Hill’s Liminal Objects series doubles down on the sculptural qualities of the CRT monitor while also disengaging it from connotations with the domestic: first, by removing the monitor from its casing, thereby “exposing the circuit boards and cathode tubes, and rendering them dangerous and vulnerable sculptural objects;”3 and second, as in Liminal Objects #5, by placing the monitor vertically atop its small steel table. All of these works would originally use laser disc to play the video loops, a common format for video art at the time due to laser disc’s accuracy for synchronization and potential higher quality as compared to tape-based formats.

Engaged in a silent loop, the tree and chandelier of #5 act as ghost-like semaphores: “a compositional practice of electronic linguistics.”4 But in thinking through the considerable questions for how to continue to display such time-based artworks in the future, another riff on ‘liminal’ comes to mind. “[L]iminal or borderline states are anywhere that something is about to undergo a phase transition or turn into something else.”5 As we all know, formats will become obsolete and technology will fail (just look to your smart phone). CRT monitors are not as easily sourced today and the laser disc has long been eclipsed by the digital file.

That time-based artworks can potentially inhabit future hardware, software, and display mechanisms without losing their inherent meaning, highlights a certain liminality too. How will artists like Hill and tomorrow’s conservators imagine the “phase transition” of these works into the future?  

– Mia Ferm, SAM Project Manager, Historic Media Collection


1 Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Gary Hill: Selected Works and Catalogue Raisonné (Cologne: DuMont, 2002): p. 196.

2 Laurenson, Pip, “Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media with Reference to Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place,Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2001, pp. 259-266: p. 261.

3 Laurenson, Pip, “Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media with Reference to Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place,Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2001, pp. 259-266: p. 261.

4 Quasha, George, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009): p. 90.

5 Quasha, George, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009): p. 219.

Image: Liminal Objects, No. 5, 1996, Gary Hill, Monitor mounted on metal stand, digital disc player, and recorded video laser disc, 48 1/2 x 16 x 16 in., Purchased in honor of Shirley and Donald Young with funds from the Collectors’ Forum and the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, 98.51 © Gary Hill (1996).

Object of the Week: Feast Dish

Crafted out of wood, paint, and opercula shells, Calvin Hunt’s monster Feast Dish, is a testament to the importance of food, community, and potlatch culture to the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of British Columbia. Born in 1956, Calvin Hunt is known for his monumental sculptures and is a well-respected artist from the Kwagu’l band located in Fort Rupert. Hunt’s feast dish provides a remarkable contrast to the typical Kwakwaka’wakw dishes.

As many partake in Thanksgiving celebrations, it is pertinent to recognize the cultural significance of the potlatch for the First Nations, along with the impact of the Canadian potlatch ban that restricted Indigenous peoples from practicing their traditions for over sixty years, only officially ending in 1951. The word potlatch, in Kwak’wala means “to give.” Potlatching for the Kwakwaka’wakw continues to this day and has been practiced for as long as spoken and written history can remember.

Feast bowls are carefully carved and ornamented by their creators, specifically designed for their use at potlatches that will hold delicious foods such as eulachon fish oil, seal meat, cranberries, and cinquefoil roots. Hunt’s bowl, however, was crafted specifically for SAM to coincide with the Chiefly Feasts exhibition in 1994. The feast bowl is modeled after Sisiutl, a three-headed sea serpent from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, who can change between human and animal, along with morphing into a self-propelling canoe whose owner must feed with seals. Operculum shells encircle the mouth of the bowl. In nature, these shells protect marine gastropods (snails) from predators along with preventing the gastropod from drying up if they are exposed to air. With these operculum shells adorning the mouth of Hunt’s bowl where feast food is placed, along with this piece having been created shortly after the potlatch ban was lifted, it can be inferred that these shells are protecting the sacred tradition of potlatching from predatory laws.

Today, and every day, is an occasion to give thanks to Indigenous communities.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis), Wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63 © Calvin Hunt.

Object of the Week: Night Watch

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.

2 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Night Creatures, 1965, Lee Krasner, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/486683.

3 John Russell, “Gallery View; Delights, Surprises—and Gaps,” New York Times, March 8, 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/08/arts/gallery-view-delights-surprises-and-gaps.html.

Image: Night Watch, 1960, Lee Krasner, Oil on canvas, 70 × 99 1/4 in. (177.8 × 252.1 cm), Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.4 © ©️2021 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Object of the Week: Nguzu Nguzu

News from Glasgow’s UN Climate Change conference is full of speeches, protests, and debate. Among all the words being spoken, dire predictions of rising sea levels and fresh water scarcity are two issues ringing bells at the museum as we prepare texts and concerns about an exhibition titled Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water to be featured next March. For those who want to augment the news, the exhibition aims to offer a multidimensional exploration based on selections from the museum’s permanent collection and other contemporary works that have been created to help us pause and consider how water is shaping our destiny on this planet. 

A face from the past is an example of art that leads to a haunting reality check. It’s a spirit who stares us down, with wide open eyes, while carefully holding a man’s head. Originally, this spirit was placed as the guardian of a canoe carrying up to 35 men into warfare, or on a quest to chase schools of bonito fish. The stare would have cut through the waves at the prow of the canoe and served to protect the canoe from enemies, difficult waters, or to help keep track of the silvery blue bonito who are known for their speed and unpredictability. Just as this face is adorned with exquisite patterns of shell inlay, so too was the entire canoe, which had towering prows and sterns. Moving into the 21st century, Solomon Islanders continue to create canoes that have guardian prows and vivid decoration that make for astonishing arrivals at festivals.  

However, another Solomon Island offers a tragic story, as seen in a recent BBC trip to the island of Kale. In it, we recognize how talk about the effects of rising sea levels is no longer abstract, but a lived reality.  Please stay tuned for more updates as we prepare our special exhibition for many diverse views of art devoted to water around the world.  

– Pam McClusky, Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Image: Canoe prow figure (Nguzu Nguzu), 19th century, Melanesian, Wood, nautilus shell, 10 5/8 x 7 7/8 in., L: 5 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1443.

Object of the Week: Dawn Shapes

Organized by artists in an empty storefront on East 9th Street, the now-iconic 1951 Ninth Street Show was “a boisterous call for attention by a new generation,” and marked a formal announcement of Abstract Expressionism.1 Despite initial discussion about whether the inclusion of women would negatively impact the exhibition’s reception, Helen Frankenthaler was one of eleven women (and sixty-one men) who participated in the watershed presentation. At 22 years old, she was also the youngest.

Considered the progenitor of Color Field painting, Frankenthaler’s process involved “diluting her paints to the fine consistency of watercolors, she applied the liquid to unprimed canvas, laid on the floor, so that it soaked through in broadly spreading stains, creating opalescent veils of color, bright yet soft, not quite like anything seen before.”2

This technique was acknowledged by many of her fellow artists and art critics as a revelation.

Painted in 1967, close to twenty years after the Ninth Street Show, Dawn Shapes is a large-scale exemplar of her pioneering soak stain technique. Currently on view in Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection, the painting is also given scholarly treatment by Elizabeth A. T. Smith in the accompanying catalogue:

Of foremost significance in Dawn Shapes is how Frankenthaler configured and manipulated the predominant area of ochre at the painting’s center. Here, she achieved a nuance range of yellow and more earthen hues—from dark mustard to dusky orange to peach—applied through a combination of pouring and brushwork to enhance the subtlety of the variations in density and tone. The resulting form, while emphatic, lacks clear definition, evoking various possible associations, from the mutable conditions of visibility at dawn to the gathering of storm clouds and the emergence of sunbeams peeking around and through them. This suggested condition of indistinctness gave rise to the title she ultimately chose for the work.3

As penned in a Museum of Modern Art press release for a 1989 retrospective of her paintings, “All of Frankenthaler’s works suggest a kind of place. Some call on the experiences of her travels within this country and in Europe; others of her living and working in New York City, Connecticut, and Cape Cod. Her titles evoke places of personal and artistic interest as well: natural, religious, mythological, and imaginary. For the artist, the physical painting in itself becomes a place, an environment into which we look.”4 Indeed, painted during a highly productive time in her career, Dawn Shapes exemplifies Frankenthaler’s achievement of spatial tension between pools of contrasting color and their relationship with areas of unprimed canvas. The result is an atmospheric painting whose complex shapes and subtle colors pull us in and ask us to stay a while.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Claudia Roth Pierpont, “How New York’s Postwar Female Painters Battled for Recognition,” The New Yorker, Oct. 8, 2018, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/08/how-new-yorks-postwar-female-painters-battled-for-recognition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Elizabeth A. T. Smith, “Helen Frankenthaler: Dawn Shapes, 1967,” in Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2021): p. 154.

[4] “Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, June 5 – August 20, 1989,” Press Release, Museum of Modern Art, assets.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_327543.pdf?_ga=2.188142184.1750926861.1635457018-948855472.1630077759.

Image: Dawn Shapes, 1967, Helen Frankenthaler, Acrylic on canvas, 77 1/4 × 94 1/2 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.5 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: Street

Located in the far northwest corner of the contiguous United States, Seattle is oriented more to the Pacific than to Europe, and many of its artists looked to Asia in shaping the region’s singular form of modernism. Some practiced sumi-e (ink painting) and calligraphy as pathways to abstraction; others discovered in Zen a model of self-knowledge and unmitigated expression; still others traveled to Japan and China and made contact with those cultures directly. Artists of Asian descent experienced, on balance, an inclusive artistic environment, despite facing discrimination within the larger community, most tragically during World War II.

Alongside Kamekichi Tokita, Paul Horiuchi, and Geoge Tsutakawa, Kenjiro Nomura was one of Seattle’s leading Japanese American artists. Together, their stories reflect the historical diversity of the Pacific Northwest and its artists, adding further depth to 20th-century American art. As Issei (first-generation Japanese American), Nomura was raised in a traditional Japanese family and educated in the arts and culture of his parentage. He immigrated with his family to the United States in 1907, at the age of eleven. When he was sixteen, his parents returned home, but he stayed on and settled in Seattle to build a successful business and career as an artist.

A self-described “Sunday painter” with little formal training, he specialized in the realist style and vernacular subject matter associated with 1930s American Scene painting. Street, with its formal clarity and unmistakable awareness of place, is typical of his regionalism. Yet, even as he mastered this decidedly Western approach, he also maintained expertise in traditional Japanese painting, whose conventions of color, composition, and line inspired him to approach nature intuitively and on his terms.

Street immortalizes the busy intersection of Fourth Avenue and Yesler Way, the epicenter of Seattle’s thriving Japanese American community during the 1920s and 1930s. Here, Nomura launched Noto Sign Co., a signage manufacturer and popular gathering place for artists, and the headquarters from which he and his business partner, Tokita, established themselves on the local exhibition circuit.

In 1933, Nomura exhibited Street at the Seattle Art Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists and with it secured the prestigious Katherine B. Baker Award and a place in the permanent collection of the newly formed museum. When SAM officially opened its doors that same year, it was with a solo exhibition of Nomura’s work. His success, however, was cut short with the Great Depression and resulting forced closure of Noto Sign Co. During World War II, anti-Japanese sentiment and hostility led to his forced internment at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. When he returned to Seattle three years later, it was to continued discrimination and limited opportunities for Japanese Americans. Yet, Nomura continued to paint and participate in Seattle’s mid-20th-century cultural scene, sharing common cause with his fellow Northwest Modernists.

Nomura’s work is on view at SAM in the exhibition Northwest Modernism: Four Japanese Americans, and at the Cascadia Art Museum in the major retrospective, Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist: An Issei Artist’s Journey.

– Theresa Papanikolas, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

Image: Street, ca. 1932, Kenjiro Nomura, Oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 28 3/4 in., Gift of West Seattle Art Club, Katherine B. Baker Memorial Purchase Award, 33.225.

Object of the Week: Leaves

White flecks on a black background, over and over, could be an invitation to savor minimalism, or is it also something else? Viewers have guessed that it is fur, feathers, or seaweed floating in a tide pool.  Then the label gives it away with the title, Leaves, and suddenly you’re watching a maze of leaves fly in the air. An abundance of layered, swirling movement surrounds you. A closer look reveals how strategic the painter is. She places each stroke of paint so carefully that no two leaves merge, but barely touch each other. Something is being said when the crowd is composed of leaf after leaf, each made distinctive with infinitesimal difference.

In the fall season in the Northwest, leaves are letting loose everywhere.  We may notice them as masses, but often may not recognize their other properties. Gloria Petyarre, whose home is in the center of Australia near Alice Springs, is honoring leaves filled with medicine. She was taught by her mother to mix fat from kangaroos and echidnas with crushed leaves to make an ointment to apply to one’s face and hair. The ointment carries a powerful aroma and is a potent aid in helping fight off colds. Kurrajong, the source of the leaves, is also known as the perfect shade tree (Brachyohiton Populneus). It is a tree that only grows in the sun, has deep roots to survive droughts, is a host to butterflies, is fire resistant, and drops its leaves only in dry winters.

Petyarre’s family is famous for painting to enlighten outsiders about their knowledge of their homeland. Her shimmering waves of leaves—created by powerful ancestors—convey their value in her interactive world. Now is the ideal time to take a hint from her and appreciate leaves for the botanical wonder they offer.

– Pam McClusky, Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Leaves, 2002, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 70 7/8 x 157 1/2 in., Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, in honor of Virginia and Bagley Wright, and in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.21 © Gloria Petyarre.

Object of the Week: Blanket Stories

Every blanket tells a story. From their weaving structure, hems, threads, and wear, one can uncover the many unspoken stories of both the blanket and its owners, past and present.

Marie Watt is an Indigenous artist from the Seneca Nation whose practice deliberates the intricacies of history, community, and storytelling. For Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, Watt collected blankets through an open call to the public, with some blankets coming from donations from her community. Some of the blankets have visible tags that state the owner’s name and story. These blankets hold the memories and stories of those who donated them, while simultaneously sharing personal connections, community history, and Iroquois creation stories. In the words of the artist:

“As I fold and stack blankets, they begin to form columns that, to me, hold many references: linen closets, architectural braces, memorials (e.g. the Trajan Column), sculpture (e.g. Brancusi), the great totem poles of the Northwest, and the giant conifers among which I grew up. In Native communities, blankets are given away to honor people for witnessing important life events, births, and comings-of-age, graduations and marriages, namings, and honorings. Among Native people it is as much of a privilege to give a blanket away as to receive one.”

– Marie Watt

Raised by her Seneca mother in the Pacific Northwest, Watt was taught the importance of the continuation and celebration of Indigenous culture. In Blanket Stories, she credits the Iroquois story of The Three Sisters, as one of the many sources of inspiration for this piece. The Three Sisters discusses the themes of home, community, and sharing. The three sisters, Corn, Beans, and Squash, spent their days in a field when, one day, they were visited by a young native boy. Curious about the boy, the sisters followed him home, one after the other. Discovering the warmth and comfort of the boy’s home—and because it was getting colder by the day—the sisters decided to stay and keep the dinner pot full for the boy and his family. The stack of blankets represents how the sisters rely on each other throughout the season to feed our people, highlighting the importance of food, family, and oral history within Indigenous heritage.

Living and working in the Northwest, Watt has stacked blankets so that they rise from floor to ceiling, reminiscent of the totems, or welcome figures, seen in this area of the United States. By visually and thematically connecting two vibrant Indigenous cultures from opposite coasts, Watt welcomes viewers and tells of how we are all connected through the stories that we share. Indigenous people look to the past for guidance from our ancestors, while also thinking towards future generations. These blanket stacks illustrate the histories that they hold, while also demonstrating the comfort and security that they have left to offer.

Every blanket has a story. What is yours?

– Kari Karsten, Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, 2007, Marie Watt, Wool blankets, satin binding, with salvaged industrial yellow cedar timber base, 150 x 40 x 40 in., General Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.41 © Marie Watt.

Object of the Week: Soundsuit

October 11 is National Coming Out Day, and to celebrate, we are featuring a work created by queer artist Nick Cave, now on view at SAM. SAM’s collection includes many queer artists: from Marsden Hartley, Mickalene Thomas, and Francis Bacon to Paul Cadmus, Nan Goldin, and Catherine Opie. It is important to SAM that we acknowledge and discuss all artists’ identities as part of the conversations we have about their work. While not all of the queer artists in our collection were out during their careers, and not all created works biographically address queerness, sexuality or gender identity, the visibility of queer artists is an important counter to decades of erasure and exclusion, especially for BIPOC LGBTQIA+ artists. Being seen and being yourself is what coming out day is all about, and Nick Cave’s work represents this beautifully.

Cave began making his Soundsuits after seeing the video of Rodney King, a Black man, brutally beaten by police in 1991. He started by collecting sticks in a local park and stitched them together to create a suit that, when worn, allowed him to completely disappear. Once inside, the suit hid his Blackness, his gender, and other facets of his identity to give way to other modes of being that protected him from the outside world and, in many ways, gave him the freedom to move about and perform.

The Soundsuit by Cave in SAM’s collection represents many elements inherent to the process of realizing one’s sexuality, gender identity, and coming out: artifice, performance, and reinvention.

Let’s tackle these elements one at a time.

Artifice: Cave’s Soundsuits are works of art, but they also draw comparisons to costumes. The wearer/performer disappears in them, and, when worn, they create a completely different appearance from that of the person inside. Queer people have always created identities and personas—for adapting to the restrictions of straight spaces, expressing creativity, or for survival in an otherwise intolerant world. Aiding in the wearer’s transformation and disappearance from view, Cave’s Soundsuits are the ultimate type of protective artifice.

Performance: We queer people just cannot stop performing. Be it on Broadway, Drag Race, in Folk music, ballet or video games, there are queer people everywhere in the arts. We love to disappear into worlds of fantasy, to be the centers of attention, to express our ideas about the world, and to do it loudly and without reservation. The Soundsuits are performance objects that demand attention—they are colorful, loud (literally and figuratively), visually arresting, and they tower over and expand well beyond the average size of a person. When worn, they take up space with their presence and are unabashedly on display.

Reinvention: Cave takes ordinary objects—his studio space is basically a flea market of toys, shells, fake fur, and whatever else he finds out in the world—and turns them into Soundsuits that are part sculpture, part percussion instrument, and part costume. This idea of reinvention is a key component of the coming out experience that many queer people experience. The newness of coming into one’s own identity provides an opportunity to take the essence of oneself and re-introduce it to the world in a brand new, inherently strong, and freer form—much like the Soundsuits, whose raffia strands, knitted sleeves, and beads are reborn as a moving and living work of art.

It is for these reasons that I thought Cave’s work was a sound choice (see what I did there?) for SAM’s Object of the Week. But I also chose it because it is an artwork—like each of the dozens of Soundsuits that Cave has made—that evokes joy, much like that of LGBTQIA+ culture. Cave’s suits are alive with celebration, especially when they’re worn by dancers and you experience the full effect of their materials, colors, movement, and the ways they evoke wonder. I hope for anyone coming out, that ultimately it is a process that not only transforms your life but also brings you joy. 

Jason Porter, Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement

Image: Soundsuit, 2006, Nick Cave, Human hair, fabricated fencing mask, sweaters, beads, metal wire, Height: approximately 6 ft., on mannequin, Gift of Vascovitz Family, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.70 © Nick Cave.

Object of the Week: Form 19-3

“The act of kneading clay and creating shapes connects me to the thoughts and memories deep in my heart.”1

– Fujino Sachiko

Form 19-3, a new acquisition, is now on view in Folding Into Shape: Japanese Design and Crafts. It is a recent work by the Japanese artist Fujino Sachiko (born 1950), who began her art practice in textiles and fashion design, and later studied ceramics under the pioneering artist Tsuboi Asuka (born 1932). Inspired by the abstract ceramic works of avant-garde artists such as Yagi Kazuo (1918–1979), Suzuki Osamu (1926–2001), and Yamada Hikaru (1924–2001), Fujino ventured into ceramics, finding that the medium allowed her to express her artistic ideas most freely.2  

Drawing on her background in fashion design, Fujino manipulates clay as if folding and shaping fabric. This sculpture’s intricate form is built up from geometric shapes, and balanced with irregular folds in gradations of grey. The folds create beautiful silhouettes like those of a dress, such as the one by Issey Miyake also on view in Folding Into Shape. The elegant texture of the surface was created by the application of matte slip through an airbrush.

Image: Xiaojin Wu.

Fujino creates her clay sculptures through the laborious process of coil-building and hand-sculpting without the use of maquettes. With an aim to create works that have a dynamic appearance from different angles, she shapes the clay intuitively and does not know the final form of the work until it is complete. Many of her recent ceramic artworks began with geometric forms but turned into more organic forms in the process. While the biomorphic sculpture takes on a floral form, it also invites the viewer to think beyond petals and blossoms. The artist has remarked: “My interest in the mystery of plants has been deeply rooted since my childhood, even though my work is not a direct image of flowers.” Indeed, seen from above, the sculpture evokes a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe.

– Xiaojin Wu, Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Curator of Japanese and Korean Art


1 Online exhibition catalogue, Forming a Voice, www.mirviss.com/exhibitions/forming-a-voice, p. 3.

2 Interview with the artist produced by Joan B Mirviss LTD in April 2021: https://vimeo.com/551679336.

Image: Form 19-3, 2019, Fujino Sachiko, Stoneware with matte glaze in white and gradations of grey, 19 1/2 x 18 1/8 x 17 3/4 in., Purchased with funds from Gordon Brodfuehrer in honor of the Monsen Family, 2021.19 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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.

Object of the Week: No. 19

Fang Lijun’s No. 19 depicts five people, all bald and dressed in button-up shirts, looking at something together. In the galleries of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, it’s hard to place these figures and understand exactly what they are doing. The gray shadows on their faces and downturned mouths seem to suggest disapproval, or at least resignation. A sense of amusement gives way to an unsettling sense of curiosity about why they are dressed identically and have gathered together.

Fang Lijun’s paintings and woodblock prints often feature groups of these lookalikes. They tend to communicate a singular emotion by simultaneously donning blank stares, maniacal grins, or awestruck expressions. In 1992, art critic Li Xianting described Fang’s work, as well as that of fellow artists Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang, as “Cynical Realism.” This term encompasses works of contemporary Chinese art that, through irony and satire, responded to the societal changes of the 1980s. These artists came of age during the Cultural Revolution, a period marked by uniformity and a staunch ethos of collectivism, only to witness those values fall out of fashion a decade later amidst China’s increasing embrace of free market economics. Reflecting this context, the viewer can see both humor and bleakness in No. 19. In a 2017 interview, Fang remarked that the silly or undignified impressions given off by his figures amounts to “mischievousness, mockery, making fun of people.”1

In this same interview, a quarter century after the term was coined, Fang also voices ambivalence about his work being described as Cynical Realism. But a viewer might interpret No. 19 as commenting on Chinese society in other ways, including the artist’s choice of medium. No. 19 is a woodblock print, which requires carving the negative of an image on a piece of wood, coating the panel with ink, and impressing it onto paper or fabric. Though woodblock printing has been a part of East Asian art for over a thousand years, Chinese artists of the New Woodcut Movement in the 1930s used the art form in a new way: to advocate for social change. These artists committed to “representing the underrepresented,” populating their images with “peasants, beggars, prisoners, rickshaw pullers, boat trackers, famine victims, war refugees, industrial workers, and political protestors.”2 Through easily distributed and visually accessible prints, these artists hoped to give voice to ordinary people and spark political consciousness.

Zheng Yefu, Fight, 1933, woodcut, 19 x 14.5 cm3

Likewise, the group depicted in No. 19—nameless, without distinguishing features—seems to be fairly ordinary as well. But compared to the protestors crying out for change shown in 1930s woodcuts, they seem quieter and more ominous. No. 19 might prompt the viewer to glance over their shoulder—an instinctive reaction to the feeling that they are missing what everyone is seeing. What could it be?

Returning to Li Xianting’s 1992 article, a younger Fang Lijun is quoted as saying, “A fool is someone still trusting after being taken in a hundred times. We’d rather be lost, bored, crisis-ridden misguided punks than be cheated.”4 Considering that this artwork was completed in 1996, these figures seem to exist in the aftermath of the 20th century and at the dawn of the 21st century in China. Representing a generation caught between a “before” and an “after,” Fang Lijun’s figures witnessed how mass mobilization towards one vision of the future could be invalidated or entirely reversed. While there are only five people in No. 19, it’s not hard to imagine the woodcut print being duplicated many times over, producing 10, 15, or 20,000 of these sullen individuals. Their shabby clothes or slack faces may indeed be mocked by other people, especially those rebounding from upheaval by busily forging ahead in the new millennium. But their unwavering stares seem to see things a little more clearly.

Yaoyao Liu, Museum Educator, Seattle Asian Art Museum

Yaoyao develops K-12 programs and resources related to other works of contemporary Asian art at SAM, including the Eyes on Asia video series.


1 Tessa Moldan, “Fang Lijun,” Ocula Magazine, https://ocula.com/magazine/insights/fang-lijun.

2 Xiaobing Tang, “Echoes of Roar, China! On Vision and Voice in Modern Chinese Art” in positions: east asia cultures critique, Fall 2006, pp. 467-494.

3 Chang Yuchen, “From New Woodcut to the No Name Group: Resistance, Medium and Message in 20th-Century China,” Art in Print, vol. 6, no. 1, artinprint.org/article/new-woodcut-no-name-group-resistance-medium-message-20th-century-china. Zheng Yefu print reproduced from Selection of 50 Years of Chinese New Printmaking, Vol. 1, 1931–1949 (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1981).

4 Stephanie Buhmann, “Fang Lijun,” The Brooklyn Rail, https://brooklynrail.org/2004/02/artseen/fang-lijun.

Image: No. 19, 1996, Fang Lijun, various, woodblock print, Gift of Robert M. Arnold, 98.30.1-4 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Iroke Ifa and The Seated IV

Two feminine beacons of African futurism are now on view in Seattle. One is in the Seattle Art Museum and another arrived this spring on the University of Washington campus. Both encourage taking a moment to reflect on one’s destiny, and consider ways of approaching the future with new insights.

When chaos and disorder overtake your confidence in Yoruba culture, it is time to consult a babalawo, or “father of secrets.” The woman in the museum would appear to assist him. She kneels, just as Yoruba belief specifies that each person kneels to choose a destiny before being born. She wears only waist beads and holds a fan, showing modesty and respect. Her head extends into a long cone which is where one’s destiny is stored. The babalawo uses this divination tapper to call upon Orunmila, a deity who knows more about the hidden possibilities in your life that you are not aware of. 

This is just a short summary of a highly evolved Ifa divination system, a living oracle that, in 2008, was inscribed by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of humanity. A video issued by UNESCO provides a brief overview with a visit to Nigeria and offers a chance to see the tapper in use.

Moving outdoors, a newly installed woman presides over a campus soon to be activated by students in their quest for new destinies. She sits, embodying calm, while her body is covered with slithering tendrils. Her face merges with a shining disc, evoking a means of connecting with unidentified essences that hover in the air, stirring questions about what lies ahead. The Seated IV (2019) is part of a group of four entitled The NewOnes, will free us, by Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan-born artist. Her explanation about why and how these visionary women came to be is encapsulated the below video.

– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Iroke Ifa (Divination Tapper), 20th century, Yoruba, Nigerian, Ivory, 15 1/2 x 1 3/4 x 7 5/16 in., Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, 68.26. The Seated IV, 2019, Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, born 1972), Bronze, 80 1/2 x 33 3/8 x 36 3/4 in., University of Washington, Plaza of the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health, Gift of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Object of the Week: Sequential Views

Constantly growing and in flux, the built and natural environments in which we live have proven to be enduring sources of artistic inspiration. Like his fellow Los Angeles-based artists Ed Ruscha and Catherine Opie, Robbert Flick (born 1939, Amersfoort, Netherlands) is deeply inspired by the sprawling city and its changing landscape, both urban and natural.

From the late 1970s through 1990, Flick worked diligently on a series titled Sequential Views. Unsatisfied with the information conveyed by a single image—common in American landscape photography—Flick would take multiple images of a chosen site at predetermined intervals. Part performance, Flick’s prescriptive approach to photography resulted in multiple images and a more complete understanding of the landscape around him. After developing the negatives, he would organize the images manually in a grid—an analog technique whose compositions further convey a more experiential understanding of time, space, and place.1

Beginning with the urban cityscape, such as the 1980 work above—a view of LAX looking north from Imperial Highway—Flick eventually expanded the series to include parts of the Midwest and parks such as Red Rocks, Joshua Tree, and Vasquez Rocks (the latter two of which are examples in SAM’s collection). Vasquez Rocks is today a Natural Area and Nature Center located in the Sierra Pelona Mountains north of Los Angeles in Antelope Valley, known for its iconic rock formations’ sedimentary layering. In S.V. 105 at Vasquez Rock #6, Flick’s gridded views appear to overlap and repeat at times, creating an episodic and almost cinematic rhythm. The slight shifts between each frame—evident in the placement of a rock formation or cropped shadow—make clear just how many different ways there are to see and represent the world around us.2

 Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1 Lisa Hostetler, “Episode 3: Landscapes in Passing,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, https://americanart.si.edu/artist/robbert-flick-5776.

2 Museum of Contemporary Photography, “Robbert Flick,” https://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=objects&type=browse&f=maker&s=Flick%2C+Robbert&record=0.

Images: Robbert Flick, S.V. 105 At Vasquez Rock #6, 1983-1985, gelatin silver photograph, 9 x 17 1/2 in., Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 86.5.10, © Robbert Flick. Robbert Flick, SV017/80, LAX, from Imperial Looking North from Sequential Views, 1980, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts through the Photography Museum of Los Angeles, 1990.38.44, © 1980, Robbert Flick.

Object of the Week: Serious Games I-IV

The link between new technologies and the violence of war—physical and psychological—is a focus for artist Harun Farocki (1944–2014), whose essayistic films and videos pointedly address the ways in which the production and circulation of images are inextricable from, among many aspects of contemporary life, geopolitics and the development of the military apparatus.

His four-part video Serious Games I-IV (2009-10) is an installation comprised of four video works that examine the use of virtual reality and gaming for United States military recruitment, training, and therapy. Hauntingly, many of the simulations and trainings captured were in preparation for missions in Afghanistan. 

A still of Farocki's Serious Games in which marines complete simulated missions.

In one video, Marine recruits stationed in 29 Palms, California, attend simulation exercises where the distinction between combat and gaming is blurred. Focusing on four Marines and their laptop-based drills, Farocki highlights the ways in which such virtual computer environments have become a substitute for the real, and vice versa, ultimately prompting us to consider the ways in which technology, politics, and violence intersect. In another video, Farocki presents a workshop organized by the Institute for Creative Technologies, a research institute developing therapeutic tools for veterans experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perversely, the same virtual reality and simulation technologies used for military recruitment and training are used in its aftermath.

As the United States is confronted with the serious and heartbreaking consequences of its 20-year presence and withdrawal from Afghanistan, Serious Games is a critical document that reflects just one arena within a series of systems and decisions that brought us to this moment. And while Farocki’s term “operative images” was used to describe his 2001 video work Eye/Machine, it can most certainly extend to Serious Games: “These are images that do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation.”1

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Harun Farocki, “Phantom Images,” in Public, no. 29 (2004): 17.

Serious Games I-IV, 2009-10, Harun Farocki, Three two-channel color video installations, one single-channel color video installation, 44 min. Anne Gerber Fund, Helen and Max Gurvich Fund and General Acquisition Fund, 2012.12.1.4 © Harun Farocki.

Object of the Week: The Survival Series

For decades, language and its public dissemination has been at the center of Jenny Holzer’s practice. A previous Object of the Week post by Rachel Hsu chronicles the artist’s Inflammatory Essays, multi-colored posters anonymously wheat pasted throughout New York City in the late 1970s and early 80s. Each poster and its essay, as the title suggests, are provocative and confrontational, drawn from writings of dictators and anarchists, functioning as subversive critiques of power that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Just a few years later in 1982, phrases such as “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” and “MONEY CREATES TASTE” were projected on a digital billboard in Times Square. Part of a body of work known as her Truisms, these succinct and unnerving assertions speak to deeper truths about the often-contradicting ideologies and values that undergird our society.

In addition to the Inflammatory Essays and Truisms, another work by Holzer in SAM’s collection is the cast aluminum plaque that reads: “DON’T WATCH THE UNDERCLASS, IT’S MORE LIKELY THAT THE WARLORDS WILL KILL YOU.” Her aphorisms poetically call attention to self-evident and often universal truths, in this case about power, propaganda, and its abusers. Subverting the traditional use of a plaque—designed to mark historic sites, events, and people—Holzer deftly shifts the plaque’s intrinsic power and authority in new directions. The work is as potent a message today as it was nearly thirty years ago, speaking to Holzer’s penchant for identifying lasting social and political issues.

In an early interview, Holzer stated that, “From the beginning, my work has been designed to be stumbled across in the course of a person’s daily life. I think it has the most impact when someone is just walking along, not thinking about anything in particular, and then finds these unusual statements either on a poster or in a sign.”1  

Today, our bloated media ecosystems look a little different, forcing us to scroll and sift through endless grids of text and image. And while this might not be the type of public, egalitarian viewing experience that Holzer once imagined for her work, there is something exciting about it being posted on Instagram—our new commons—and (hopefully) jolting us out of our normal routines and ways of thinking.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Jeanne Siegal, “Jenny Holzer’s Language Games” in Arts Magazine, December 1985. pp. 64-68.

The Survival Series: Don’t Watch the Underclass, It’s More Likely That the War Lords Will Kill You, 1983-85, Jenny Holzer, Cast aluminum, 6 x 10 x 1/4 in., Gift of the Collectors’ Forum in honor of Susan Garcia, 98.19 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Pool with Splash

Having grown up in Los Angeles, there is something uniquely comforting about the scene of a sun-drenched swimming pool. David Hockney, of course, is one artist whose pools come immediately mind: his bright, seductive paintings of the 1960s and 70s are highly evocative images of life and culture in Southern California, and have rendered his name nearly synonymous with the subject matter. 

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967

For Hockney, “In the swimming pool pictures, I had become interested in the more general problem of painting the water, finding a way to do it. It is an interesting formal problem; it is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything. It can be any color and it has no set visual description.”[1]

If Hockney’s iconic pools are, broadly speaking, defined by their spatial flatness, color relationships, and reduction of form through painting, Robert Arneson’s sculptural Pool with Splash is a perfect counterpoint. His exploration of the pool and its contents takes shape through ceramics: each ripple and refraction of light is represented as an immutable piece⁠—fitted together like a puzzle⁠—with blue and green glazes. And much like Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Arneson’s Pool is punctuated with a foamy burst, invoking the presence of a swimmer.

Along with his contemporaries Peter Voulkos, Bruce Conner, Viola Frey, Jay DeFeo, and others, Arneson is considered part of the “Funk Art” movement⁠—a loose affiliation of artists originally included in the 1967 exhibition curated by Peter Selz, Funk, at the University Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley.

Arneson’s irreverent work and playful sense of humor, along with an interest in everyday objects and personal narrative, are just some of the movement’s characteristics⁠ (a reaction to the non-objectivity of abstract expressionism that dominated the 1950s). Arneson’s commitment to ceramics is also notable, and part of a larger effort to elevate the medium which, at the time, was considered merely decorative or utilitarian, and pejoratively relegated to a realm of “craft.” Measuring nearly 12 feet wide at its largest point, Pool with Splash is hardly utilitarian and its use as decoration is up for debate. Here, Arneson wryly upends the once-strict divisions separating “fine art” and “craft,” all the while making clear his mastery of ceramics. Now, if only we could swim in it!

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Matthew Sperling, “The Pull of Hockney’s Pool Paintings,” in Apollo Magazine, February 2017, www.apollo-magazine.com/david-hockney-pool-paintings.
Images: Pool with Splash, 1977, Robert Arneson, ceramic with glaze, 18 1/2 x 145 x 116 in., Gift of Manuel Neri, 82.156. A Bigger Splash, 1967, David Hockney, acrylic on canvas, 95 1/5 x 96 in., Tate Modern, London

Object of the Week: Canoe Breaker

I draw on the lessons of our ancestors. Our ancestors left an incredible legacy of art and, in order to honor them, it’s our responsibility to relearn that legacy, whether it’s through the art, whether it’s through the song, or through the dance. When people would travel to the mainland, there’s this incredible body of water that’s very treacherous, and a storm can come up and without warning. And so, before the people crossed the water, they prepared themselves on three levels…. They prepared themselves physically; they would actually practice paddling the canoe. And they would mentally prepare themselves, they would visualize their destination. And creativity is exactly the same thing, you visualize, you get an idea like that. And so, our challenge is to hold the idea and bring it to fruition. 

Robert Davidson

Robert Davidson is arguably one of the most versatile, creative, and visionary artists of our time. Born in 1946 in Masset village, Haida Gwaii, Davidson—countering the effects of colonialism—was able to tap the memories of his elders and help revive ancient Haida art styles, revitalizing the visual heritage of his people.

His story is nothing short of remarkable and has unfolded over 40 years through numerous artworks ranging from wood and metal to paper and canvas; original songs and dances of his Rainbow Creek Dancers; and in public exhibitions, publications, and awards. His masterful feel for cedar, from monumental totem poles to expressive masks, links him to generations of some of the most accomplished artists of all time, including his maternal relative, Charles Edenshaw (ca. 1839-1920).[1] The trajectory of his carving places him among the masters who pushed Haida art to a breathtaking sophistication and refinement.

As his engagement with Haida culture and art has grown and his artistic practice has matured, Davidson has crafted an individual and distinctive approach to abstraction that is grounded in tradition yet expressive of the experiences, intellect, and creativity of an artist in his own time. In the early 1980s, he began to paint largescale paintings in gouache, experimenting with color, composition, and figural abstraction. A decade later, while still engaged with carving projects, he incorporated acrylic painting into his practice, adopting a hard-edge technique that has precision and crispness but retains elasticity and movement. The subjects (he gives us clues in the titles) might refer to personal experiences, musings on Haida art, or legends drawn from the corpus of Haida oral traditions.

Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) is an archipelago of two large and more than 150 small islands that lie sixty miles off the British Columbia mainland. Formed by glacial erosion, floods, tsunamis, and changing sea levels, this cluster of islands sits at the juncture of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. Here the ocean drops precipitously from three hundred to three thousand feet, creating an environment rich in marine resources and marked by dramatic climatic events, including gale-force winds. In Canoe Breaker, Davidson introduces his audience to a powerful force and its ancient origins: Southeast Wind.

Southeast Wind has ten brothers or, in some accounts, nephews, who are manifestations of his powerful force. John Swanton, an ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnology from 1900-1944, recorded a story told to him by a Haida man named Abraham in the winter of 1900 about Master-Carpenter who went to war with Southeast Wind because he was sending too much rainy, stormy weather to the people. After four failed attempts to make a seaworthy canoe, Master-Carpenter succeeds and sets out on his mission. He seizes the matted hair (kelp) of Southeast Wind and pulls him into the canoe. The Wind sends the first of his nephews, Red Storm Cloud, who turns the sky red, followed by Taker off the Tree Tops who blows so hard that tree branches come down around Master-Carpenter in his canoe. Next, Pebble Rattler brings rolling waves that violently toss the rocks and Tidal Wave covers the canoe with water. Other brothers bring mist and melted ice. During all this wind activity, Master-Carpenter is putting medicine on himself that he has brought with him for the task, as Haida travelers and fisherman (since the beginning of time) are keenly observant of the weather—perhaps a metaphor for preparing for the unknown, as in performing a new song or creating an art work.

Southeast Wind is represented in this painting by an image of the killer whale, which becomes human when on land. A human-like nose and eye signal this transformative nature. The large ovoid is its head, and a black three-pointed shape defines the lower jaw. Black U-shapes with red ovals indicate the pectoral and dorsal fins, and the tail is shown at the very top. The entire image is dematerialized without being wholly abstract and shows how Davidson’s art practice moves effortlessly from figuration to abstraction.

– Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art


[1] See Charles Edenshaw work in SAM’s Collection: Platter, argillite carving: 91.1.127
Image: Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother, 2010, Robert Davidson, acrylic on canvas, 60 × 40 in., Gift of The MacRae Foundation, the Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council, and Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.35 © Robert Davidson

Object of the Week: Dead or Alive

Nancy Worden made art that ignited conversations with narratives to be worn, inviting curiosity so as to bypass shyness. A necklace in the museum’s collection illustrates her gifts, and emerged after she visited the Seattle Art Museum in 1993. There she saw what she calls a “very powerful and haunting piece”––a Mesquakie bear claw necklace from the Chandler-Pohrt collection in an exhibition entitled Art of the American Indian Frontier.[1]  Here’s what she saw:

This Mesquakie necklace features 40 claws from several massive grizzly bears who hunted buffalo on the plains of the Midwest. It was once worn in reverence for bears and offered a link to the spiritual essence of their tremendous force. Struck by the visual strength of that necklace, Nancy sought out claws of resin, mink fur, quarters, buttons and other elements to create her own. For her, it brought up concerns about how hunting was enacted in Kittitas County, where she grew up. Her next inspiration came from the news. As she recounts, “While I was working on the necklace, Princess Diana was killed, fleeing from cameras that hunted her her whole adult life. So it seemed fitting to put her photo in the piece––set in a camera lens. The piece is about hunting and shooting, using a camera as a gun. ‘Dead or Alive’ is an old cliché from the movies and seemed an appropriate title for a piece about an obsession with capturing animals or a beautiful person. For some reason we have to have a piece of them to take home, whether they are dead or alive.”

What is behind the camera lens at the bottom of the necklace is a portrait of Princess Diana, wearing a crown––a conventional sign of royalty. Meanwhile, she is surrounded by imitation bear claws and beads made out of quarters, mink, and camera parts. The assembly would not go unnoticed when worn, and would prompt a story that reflects on Nancy’s desire for imaginary connections to be made. 

Dead or Alive was featured in the SAM exhibition, A Bead Quiz, in 2010. Nancy once said, “You can pretty much look at everything as whether or not it’s a potential bead.” On the occasion of the exhibition, SAM filmed a trip to her studio to witness the vast array of beads she discovered or invented–– from oranges to typewriter balls to pennies with mirrors. Here is a trip back to that visit.

– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art


[1] This bear claw necklace is seen in: David W. Penney, Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1992). Cat. no. 45.
Images: Dead or Alive, 1997, Nancy Worden, silver, brass, mink, resin bear claws, coin, taxidermy eyes, military buttons, and found objects, 24 x 2 3/4 x 1 1/2 in., Anne Gould Hauberg Northwest Crafts Fund and Mark Tobey Estate Fund, 98.29 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Bear Claw Necklace, ca. 1835, Native American, Meskwaki (“Red Earth People”) Nation, bear claws, otter fur, glass beads, ribbon, horsehair and cloth, 67 1/2 x 14 x 4 in., The Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase with Funds from the Flint Ink Corporation, 81.64. Photos: Pam McClusky. Video by and courtesy of Aaron Bourget, 2010.

Object of the Week: Untitled

“One of the most modernist gestures of the last century was the effort of liberation. Creative work is not just about representation, or creating a cultural mirror. . . . Creation, whether in writing, music and visual making, has also been about inventing a form or space to exist, especially if the world didn’t let one be free.”[1]

– Julie Mehretu

For over two decades, Julie Mehretu (born 1970, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) has produced a body of work defined by a commitment to the politics of abstraction.[2] Through mark making, layering, and other techniques, Mehretu’s drawings and paintings are built up of complex symbols and historical referents—architectural fragments and art/historical citations—that are celebrated for their articulation of the contemporary moment in which we live.

Mehretu’s drawing in SAM’s collection, Untitled, is an earlier work by the artist, created in 2001. A palimpsest of frenzied marks—seeming to emerge from nowhere—is interspersed with arching lines of yellow and blue and muted forms of mauve and mint green. Both abstract and representational, the contoured forms at once advance and recede, creating a visually dynamic composition that teems with energy. As the eye moves, one can make out architectural elements from various perspectives: a hall of arcades, industrial posts and beams, wide stairways, and cantilevered balconies; however, just as these elements come into focus, they morph and blend into the geometric forms and marks around them (rubble? fire? explosions?)—all mutable and contingent.

The topographical nature of this drawing connects it to Mehretu’s larger practice, which engages, among many things, in a form of mapping “of no location.”[3] Collapsing time, space, and place, Mehretu creates new cityscapes and narratives that encapsulate the tensions between evolution and destruction, growth and dissolution, stability and entropy. Her personal biography and experiences, too, inform her investment in these themes, exploring the complexities and possibilities inherent in forces such as globalization, migration, diaspora, capitalism, political conflict, and climate change.[4]

Perhaps best articulated by art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson:  “[Mehretu’s] canvases, richly layered and replete with visual incident, evoke a number of urgent themes: the simultaneous decentering and consolidation of power, the frenzied temporalities that cannot be captured by simplistic narratives of progress or regression, the continuing ascendance of ethnonationalism, and the possibility that many small, accumulated gestures might gather momentum and propel change.”[5]

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


Image: Untitled, 2001, Julie Mehretu, Ink and pencil on Mylar, 21 1/2 x 27 3/8in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.30

[1] Mark Benjamin, “An Interview with Julie Mehretu: The Mark of an Artist,” in Rain Magazine, September 3, 2000, rain-mag.com/julie-mehretu-the-mark-of-an-artist.
[2] Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Julie Mehretu,” in Artforum, February 2020, http://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202002/julie-mehretu-81917.
In her review of the current mid-career retrospective organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, Bryan-Wilson contends that Mehretu’s abstraction is an “abstraction that is insistently Black, insistently feminist, and . . . insistently queer.”
[3] “Julie Mehretu,” Whitecube, whitecube.com/artists/artist/julie_mehretu.
[4] “Julie Mehretu,” Whitney Museum of American Art, whitney.org/exhibitions/julie-mehretu.
[5] Wilson, Artforum, http://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202002/julie-mehretu-81917.

Object of the Week: Essence of Spring, Chevreuse Valley

Born Jean Baptiste Armand Guillaumin, Armand Guillaumin was born in Paris, France, to a working-class family in 1841. And while he might not have achieved the same level of recognition as his contemporaries Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, or Camille Pissarro, Guillaumin was embedded in this important circle of Impressionist artists.

Guillaumin’s youth was spent in central France, where he studied art locally. After moving to Paris at the age of sixteen, he continued his education by attending evening drawing classes after working shifts at his uncle’s clothing store. In 1861, he enrolled at the Académie Suisse, further supporting himself through employment at the Paris-Orléans railway and, later, Paris’s Department of Roads and Bridges.[1]

For Guillaumin, his interest in the ephemerality of light and color connected him with his fellow classmates Cézanne and Pissarro, who would become lifelong friends. His work was included in the famous 1863 Salon des Refusés—a “historical launching pad”and, a decade later, the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874.[2]

During this formative period, Guillaumin’s mode of employ and proximity to the French railway system allowed him to travel (albeit locally) and explore the quickly industrializing landscape. Interestingly, many scholars also believe his financial situation and full-time employment impacted the time he could devote to his artistic career. Still, given his background and preoccupations as a member of the Impressionist circle, Guillaumin was committed to depicting working class scenes, landscapesoften with modern infrastructure such as bridges or viaductsand the changing environment on the outskirts of Paris.

The mid-1880s are understood as a turning point for the artist, as he started focusing primarily on color. For this reason, he is often positioned as a bridge between Impressionism and Fauvism.[3] His painting Essence of Spring, Chevreuse Valley, ca. 1885, is one such painting, depicting an idyllic countryside with rolling forested hills and a gentle pastel-colored sky.

Lyrical sections of bold, saturated colorwhere forest abuts grassare interspersed with flowering cherry trees and, behind them, small cottages and homes. Unlike some of Guillaumin’s other paintings from this period, where the encroaching and expanding reach of Paris looms like a specter (this might resonate for those reading here in Seattle), the Chevreuse Valley’s transition into springits atmospheric effects and energytakes center stage.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, “Armand Guillaumin,” https://art.famsf.org/armand-guillaumin. Selected bibliography: Gray, Christopher. Armand Guillaumin (Chester, Connecticut: Pequot Press, 1972); Rewald, John. History of Impressionism (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973).

[2] Pissarro, Joachim. Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865–1885 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005), 28.

[3] Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, “Armand Guillaumin.”

Image: Essence of Spring, Chevreuse Valley, ca. 1885, Jean Baptiste Armand Guillaumin, oil on canvas, 26 x 48 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Philip E. Renshaw, 67.147

Object of the Week: Figurative Weight (abrammuo)

Expanded vaccine eligibility—and this amazing spring weather—is making the prospect of gathering with friends and family a palpable reality. As I imagine and anticipate what these reunions will look and feel like, an Asante work currently on view in the galleries comes to mind: a figurative weight (abrammuo) in the form of two men meeting.

Vast quantities of gold were traded in the Asante empire from 1400 to 1900, and these copper alloy figures were used to balance scales when measuring gold dust. Each miniature sculpture has an attendant proverb, immediately transforming such “business dealings into daily exhibitions of eloquence” and “small-scale momentary exhibitions.”[1] In this case, the proverbial wisdom on offer is: “They have ended up like Amoako and Adu.” 

Who are these men? Amoako and Adu are two old friends who meet after years of being apart, having encountered their own share of misfortune along the way. Now poor, or as poor as they were when they last saw one another, the proverb is about wasted opportunity and, ultimately, the lasting endurance of friendship. Their dynamic, swaying posture offers a reflection of this life—full of ups and downs—but now their heads crane forward as they reconnect and share stories.

This has been a trying year, to say the absolute least, full of collective misfortune, trauma, and challenges—locally, nationally, and globally. But in these difficult times, the wit and wisdom of proverbs like that of the Asante might offer a long view, connecting our current moment to both the past and future. And when we reunite with our loved ones this spring and summer, hopefully we can revel in the important strength of our relationships—the ultimate currency.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum with Princeton University Press, 2002), 79.
Image: Figurative Weight (abrammuo): Men Meeting, Ghanaian, copper alloy, 1 3/8 x 1 1/16 x 13/16 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.361

Object of the Week: Loser + Clark

“I’m making landscapes that I can live in through an ongoing definition of contemporary life and art. Not about America, but from America.”

– Brad Kahlhamer

It is a painting that, for many SAM staff, is one of the first and last artworks seen during a given workday—a painting embedded in the daily commute from the staff entrance to various offices. And, having worked from home for a majority of the past year, it is both a ritual and an artwork deeply missed.

The painting, titled Loser + Clark, is by artist Brad Kahlhamer. Completed in 1999, the work was featured in a solo exhibition at Deitch Projects, New York, that same year. Its size—84 x 120 inches—is large. The paint, applied in “brushy, sinewy networks,” is set against a white ground.[1] The artist’s light washes of color form an abstracted landscape, upon which shapes and forms are scattered, almost floating: “animals, figures in canoes, wobbly Happy Faces, skyscraper-like stacks of music amplifiers, scrawled phrases, portraits and self-portraits.”[2] Loser + Clark,[3] like other works included in the 1999 exhibition, ironically titled Friendly Frontier, came out of a then-recent trip Kahlhamer had made to Montana and the Dakotas—a trip taken to deeper explore and experience the history and mythology of the American landscape.[4] 

Kahlhamer was born in Tucson in 1956 to Native parents, and adopted by German-American parents as an infant. Raised between Arizona and Wisconsin, and later living in New York City as an adult, the artist considers his upbringing a nomadic one.[5] Relatedly, his paintings function as what he calls a “third place”: “distinct from the ‘first place’ of his Native American heritage, and the ‘second place’ of his . . . upbringing with his adoptive parents”—a way to express and understand two different realities.[6] Viewing both himself and his artwork as “tribally ambiguous,” Kahlhamer embraces notions of cultural hybridity to produce a vision of America that is uniquely his own.[7] 

The artist’s biography informs the mythology of his work, which is infused with rich symbolism. Red, white, and blue, for example, represent Kahlhamer’s version of the American flag, “constructed out of sky, water, and the American earth.” Color, too, holds meaning: the color black is the East, and his towers of black amplifiers signify skyscrapers and urban development; “blue [is] for the sky, the wind, and velocity. Browns and reds [are] for the earth and for flesh. Yellow [is] for understanding. Transparency and openness [are] about possibility.[8] 

For the artist’s 2019 exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, A Nation of One, Kahlhamer’s notion of the “third place” was presented as a space that is at once a site of singularity and isolation, as well as unification. And while the term means something very specific within the context of Kahlhamer’s life and work, isolation and unity have certainly been ever-present themes this past year. But even more than that, the painting offers space to reflect on what America is—real and imagined—and what it might mean to be American. It is also a vital reminder, every day, that we are on Indigenous land.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

[1] Holland Cotter, “Art in Review: Brad Kahlhamer,” The New York Times, Oct. 29, 1999, www.nytimes.com/1999/10/29/arts/art-in-review-brad-kahlhamer.html
[2] Ibid
[3] The title Loser + Clark is no doubt meant to skewer the mythologizing of Lewis and Clark’s exploration and the colonial project of Western expansion more broadly.
[4] Meghan Dailey, “Brad Kahlhamer: Deitch Projects,” Artforum, 1999, www.artforum.com/print/reviews/200001/brad-kahlhamer-237
[5]  For a wonderful in-depth conversation with the artist, see Kahlhamer’s interview with Susan Harris from the Brooklyn Rail: www.brooklynrail.org/2020/12/art/BRAD-KAHLHAMER-with-Susan-Harris
[6] “Brad Kahlhamer: Friendly Frontier,” Deitch Projects, www.deitch.com/archive/deitch-projects/exhibitions/friendly-frontier
[7] Brad Kahlhamer, “About,” www.bradkahlhamer.net/about
[8] Deitch Projects, www.deitch.com/archive/deitch-projects/exhibitions/friendly-frontier.
Image: Loser + Clark, 1999, Brad Kahlhamer, oil on canvas, 84 x 120 in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.25 © Brad Kahlhamer

Object of the Week: Sky Landscape I

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

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

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

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

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

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


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

Object of the Week: Bundle

Don’t imitate me;

it’s as boring

as the two halves of a melon.

– Basho, translated by Robert Hass

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Indeed, Tanaka Yu’s ceramic sculptures convincingly appear as vessels wrapped in knotted furoshiki (wrapping cloth). And still, even after we are made aware of the work’s materiality, it is difficult to see the object as anything other than a textile whose woven structure conceals an object underneath. Here, imitation serves another purpose.

For Yu, who studied oil painting before working in ceramics, this effect of concealment allows her to invoke that which is hidden, prompting her viewers to consider the sculpture’s purpose, and ideas of functionality versus non-functionality. Within the context of Japan’s centuries-long history and tradition of ceramics, too – firmly rooted in the functionality of the object –Yu’s conceptual sculptures turn utility on its head. 

However, for all its conceptual rigor, Yu’s Bundle series evidences a mastery of clay as well. Though the pieces appear to be slab-built, they are in fact coil-built. The artist, using Shigaraki-blended clay, deftly transforms the earthen material, exploiting its inherent and renowned plasticity, into a lightweight cloth. The distinctive yellow color, whose pigment is applied in thin layers by brush, further accents the newfound drapes and folds of the sculpture. The choice of color also refers to the type of yellow cloth often used to wrap a ceramic vessel within its storage box.

Yu’s Bundle, recently acquired by SAM, is a seductive work, and one that benefits from close looking, consideration, and reflection. The artist shows us that imitation, in this case, is far from boring, and can raise important questions about the use-value of objects and the functions they serve. 

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1Shigaraki is considered one of the “Six Ancient Kilns” in Japan. The clay found in the Shigaraki area is rich in iron and feldspar, among other compounds, that informs its unique texture and color once fired.

Images: Bundle, 2019, Tanaka Yu, Matte-glazed stoneware, 24 3/8 x 16 1/2 x 16 1/2 in., Gift of Gordon Brodfuehrer in honor of the Monsen family, 2020.21.3 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate Image courtesy of Joan B Mirviss LTD, photo: Kani Hazuki.
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