Object of the Week: Water Babies

Once a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists, a close friend of fellow member Marcel Duchamp, an artist called original and innovative, and an active participant in the programs of the Société Anonyme—John Covert lived and died, well, anonymously.

Given Covert’s very short career, we should not be surprised that he is not a household name. His period of creative maturity lasted eight years, from 1915 to 1923. A stay in Paris just before this period proved uncharacteristically unfruitful—Covert later lamented that he wasn’t able to connect with the artist-intellectual circle there—and the disappointment of the Paris trip was a harbinger of a sad fortune. Covert returned to the US and contributed to an important moment for modern art, playing his role as a founder of the Society of Independent Artists, and serving as its first secretary in 1917. Working from his studio in New York, Covert received brief visibility with a solo exhibition of his paintings at M. de Zayas Gallery. Little came of it; in the larger art world he remained unknown and unappreciated. Pressed by poverty, he found himself unable to eat regularly, with no income to show for his artistic endeavors. He finally closed his studio in 1923.

During the second quarter of the 20th century Covert’s work was known only to friends and one-time peers. So few of his works were seen publicly that the artist did not develop any kind of reputation. He was actually thought to have destroyed all his works when he closed his studio, but that widely held belief changed in 1959, when eight Covert paintings arrived at SAM. In fact, the artist’s friend Kathleen Lawler had preserved some of Covert’s works, and it was Lawler’s brother-in-law that donated them to the museum. On September 18 of that year, SAM director Dr. Richard Fuller wrote a note of thanks to the donor, Paul Denby Mackie, expressing his admiration for Covert’s work, saying “Although he is not well known he played an important part in the development of modern art which I feel sure will be more widely appreciated in years to come.” Kudos to Dr. Fuller for seeing what many directors, especially at that time, would not have seen.

The arrival of the Covert paintings at SAM encouraged new study of the artist’s work. The Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts included Covert in its 1960 exhibition American Genius in Review. It’s cruel that he died a recluse that same year. The visibility of the Dallas exhibition provoked more interest, leading to graduate dissertations and theses that have placed Covert’s work amid the traditions of symbolist art and New York Dada. Four of Covert’s works have essentially been on permanent view since SAM’s expansion in 2007. He is, as Dr. Fuller anticipated, more widely appreciated than in 1959. However much Covert’s legacy grows in the future will depend to a large extent on SAM’s collection of Covert paintings (now seven), their exhibition and reception.

I find Covert’s work a quirky kind of fascinating, and especially magnetic to me is Water Babies. In this painting, the artist plays with the visual phenomenon of refraction. A peculiarity of physics, refraction makes our eye see an object bending and changing form as it is partially submerged under water, while our mind understands that the object itself remains unchanged. By painting the visual effect of refraction, Covert offers the viewer a chance to muse on reality, our perception of reality, and the slippery boundary that separates the two. The dolls would be creepy enough rendered as straight illustrations, but with certain parts disjointed and enlarged, they are like the beginnings of a bad horror film. Water Babies is memorable, even if the artist’s name isn’t.

John Covert's signature

At the lower right, Covert has signed the painting, with his fingerprint standing in to form the “O.” It’s not an especially graceful signature. To the left of the thumbprint, near its top, he incised the painting with a “C”, and opposite the thumbprint, a “V”—apparently an unsatisfactory first attempt. The finished signature, along the bottom of the thumbprint, seems to have been first incised and then traced in with graphite. The thumbprint, too, is encircled in graphite. Altogether, the signature serves as an odd, very personal, memento of a distinctive artist who may never be truly recognized.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Water Babies, 1919, John Covert (born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1882; died Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1960), oil on paperboard, 25 1/4 x 23 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Paul Denby Mackie in memory of Kathleen Lawler and Nona Lawler Mackie, 59.152, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Paul Macapia.

Object of the Week: Bell with five-pronged handle

SAM’s Bell with five-pronged handle, one of the works you can visit now at the Asian Art Museum, looks an angry and forbidding object. Pointed prongs wend upward from the bell’s handle, emanating from the mouths of snarling lions, curving like the teeth of a predator. A band of decoration on the handle features a circle of human faces, each one with its brow angrily furrowed. Come hither and ring me! it does not bid you. It looks like something that could just as easily be found here.

Yet the bell has a striking form, and looking more closely reveals the thoughtfulness of the work’s form and decoration. To dig into the concepts present in the work we have to think about vajra. A Sanskrit term, vajra means both “diamond” and “thunderbolt,” carrying the connotations of strength and power that those things embody—an indestructible jewel, a boom and flash of energy. More than a concept, the vajra is also a visual form. Looking back at the bell, the five prongs at the top make up a vajra. A vajra can feature different numbers of prongs, and elsewhere on the bell one will find single and three-prong vajras in decorative motifs, as well as the torture-y five-prong vajra at its top. The form of the vajra has specific meaning in the Buddhist visual language, in which it signifies the vow of a Buddha or bodhisattva. Everything on the bell has meaning: Lotus blossoms, enflamed jewels, and more vajras on the body of the bell signify the presence of the Buddha, his law, and his priesthood.

Detail of the base of the Bell

Situated in GOLD: Japanese Art from the Collection, the Bell with five-pronged handle joins other fine art and functional objects, including portable shrines, hanging scroll paintings, a sword stand, a fan, ceremonial kimono, netsuke, sake cups, and a folding screen. One of my other favorite works in the show lies somewhere between functional and purely formal: a Hooded Cape meant to be worn by the wife of a Japanese feudal lord on the specific occasion of a fire. I have to think the absurdity of that purpose essentially makes it a decorative object.

The bell and its company in GOLD reveal a culture that has infused religious and philosophical symbolism into its functional objects. “Used” or not in their first lives, they all now have a second existence as museum artworks, as examples of exceptional craftsmanship and markers of cultural stories. Gilt bronze amid other works in gold leaf, gold lacquer, gold thread, and pure gold, the bell shows, on the part of its maker, an appreciation for eye-catching aesthetics, complemented by a desire for stimulating thought.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Bell with five-pronged handle, 12th-13th century, Japanese, Late Heian period (794-1185)-early Kamakura period (1185-1333), gilt bronze, 9 1/4 x 4 1/4 x 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 49.237, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: High Level of Cat

CatDrumArtist PaletteThinking FaceFace Without Mouth

(When words fail, emoji. Inspired by the artist’s playful incorporation of visual puns into his work, I decided to unpack the layered concepts of High Level of Cat by David Hammons, now on view in Big Picture: Art After 1945, solely in emojis. We welcome your translations in the comments!)

ManNew York CityArtist PaletteSpeakerHaircutPaperclipThrowing away litter

CatSaxophoneDrum

CatSkull & CrossbonesCoffinWeary Cat Face

Confounded Face

Post OfficeArtist PaletteMuted SpeakerElderly Man

Hand Pointing Up

Artist PaletteRight Left ArrowMusic NotesTrumpetSaxophoneGuitar

Artist PaletteRight Left ArrowEarEyesNoseTongue

Confused Face

Artist PaletteMan With TurbanMan with Gua Pi MaoGirlElderly WomanRainbow

Artist PaletteFlag for United StatesFlag for TurkeyFlag for FranceFlag for JamaicaFlag for Cameroon

Face with Tears of Joy

Artist PaletteNo EntryMoney BagDollarsWealthy

Smiling FaceClapping Hands

Pile of PooArtist Palette

Angry Face

ManClapping Hands

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: High Level of Cat, 1999, David Hammons (American, b. 1943), wood, taxidermied cat and mixed media, 96 x 24 x 24 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2009.50, © David Hammons, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: A Shepherdess Adorned with Flowers

In an old photo from SAM’s archive, we see the inimitable Dottie Malone examining the museum’s painting by Dutch master Gerrit van Honthorst before it was exhibited in the two newly finished Kress galleries in October, 1954. There’s something of straitlaced concern visible on her face; her left arm fully outstretched, she seems to be keeping the painting at a safe distance. She’s at least not visibly impressed. I wonder if the low-cut blouses of the three shepherdess figures, and the abundant flesh laid bare, didn’t quite meet with her approval. If she were scandalized in the ‘50s, she would have been far from the last. The painting is coming up on 400 years old and can still sometimes draw a blush or a stern look of disapproval. What an accomplishment!

Dottie Malone examining the painting

Besides being sexy, Honthorst’s A Shepherdess Adorned with Flowers is masterfully painted, rosy pinks and mellifluous yellows playing against the porcelain skin of its heroines. Theatrical light, a reminder of Caravaggio’s lasting influence on Honthorst, captures the figures as actors in a stage play—and in a sense, that’s what they are. Painted to accommodate courtly and aristocratic taste, pastoral scenes like this one offered a momentary escape from the pressures and strictures of the early modern world. Blatantly artificial, they conjured an idealized world of love and leisure, reflecting nostalgic desires for intimacy with nature and human desires for release from the morals and rituals that governed daily life. Responding to a world that disallowed dalliances, Honthorst imagines a more primal world that blithely sanctions them. Given the look of availability about the main figure, few would be surprised to hear that literary and visual traditions of the time linked the shepherdess and the sex worker.

Officially acquired in 1961, SAM had the painting seven years earlier than that. On May 12, 1954, Kress Foundation art director Guy Emerson wrote to Dr. Fuller with updates on the Foundation’s recent activities, including a mention of our fine Honthorst painting: “I am enclosing a photograph of a painting by our old friend Honthorst which we all saw at Knoedler’s last week and like very much. Mr. Kress thought that it ought to go to the National Gallery and Walker and Modestini felt that it was the best Honthorst they had seen in America. It is gay and fresh and full of color and life.” In short order, the Kress Foundation had acquired the painting with Dr. Fuller and SAM in mind.

Telegram

The Honthorst arrived in a batch of artworks from the Kress Foundation that also included Bernardo Strozzi’s Hagar and the Angel, Veronese’s Venus and Adonis, Abraham van Beyeren’s Banquet Still Life, and Massimiliano Soldani’s bronze The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. October 15, 1954 marked the first display of the Honthorst in Seattle, the grand opening of SAM’s Kress galleries, and the confirmation of an important relationship between the museum and the foundation.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

A Shepherdess Adorned with Flowers, 1627, Gerrit van Honthorst (Dutch, 1590-1656), oil on canvas, 43 9/16 x 39 13/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.156, Photo: Paul Macapia.

Object of the Week: Bent-corner chest

Spewing facts can bore just about anyone, but there are some really good facts that are enchanting. Here’s a big hat tip to the Seattle Aquarium for its fun-fact billboards and ad banners around town, from which I’ve discovered how ridiculously sweet otters are and some other awesome tidbits. As in conversations about marine animals, facts figure importantly in talking about art because they illuminate the rare, remarkable, phenomenal aspects of great artworks. They lend substance to our imaginings on art and they can also inspire new thoughts and creative responses.

One simple fact about SAM’s Bent-corner chest spurred me on to investigate it further: The four sides of the chest have been formed from a single plank of wood. “Tell me more, chest!” I said.

Bent-corner chest

It boggles my mind to think about forming four sides of a box from a single plank of wood, and apparently it boggles many minds because the bent-corner technique is unique to Native artists of the Northwest Coast. Beginning with a long plank of wood, the artists would shape the walls of the box by carving some portions thinner, readying the plank for folds. At the points where the plank will bend, they cut notches across the plank, called kerfs. Cutting the kerfs carves out the needed space for the wood to fold into itself. The plank is steamed—traditionally over hot rocks and seaweed—making it pliable enough to bend. From there, the artists make three folds, bringing the walls together at 90-degree angles. The fourth corner is joined together with an adhesive. The joined corner remains visible, so the makers would orient that corner toward the back of the room where the chest is placed, and the whole decorative program for the chest would be planned out accordingly, with the primary designs on the opposite, frontal side. It’s a show of perfect craftsmanship and thoughtful presentation.

The designs on SAM’s chest were executed by Captain Richard Carpenter, who is especially important as one of only a handful of named Native artists of the 19th century. Captain Carpenter’s English name communicates his role as a carver and boat maker, and he was also a second-ranked chief. The evenly distributed, sinuous formlines we see are characteristic of Captain Carpenter’s style, as are the large areas of negative space, enlivened with bright blue and red paint.1

Bent-corner chest

Purpose and symbolism converge in the Bent-corner chest, which would have served as storage space—housing clan regalia and heirlooms—and as a seat for a chief. Literally supported by the chest and the items inside that represent the clan’s tradition, the chief has a physical connection to these objects of importance. He also assumes a position of symbolic power as the clan’s guide and protector, figuratively supported by its history.

What does your seat say about you?

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Martha Black, Bella Bella: A Season of Heiltsuk Art, Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Royal Ontario Museum; Vancouver, B.C., Canada: Douglas & McIntyre; Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1997: 110-111.
Bent-corner chest, ca. 1860, Captain (Richard) Carpenter (Du’klwayella) (Heiltsukw, Waglisla, 1841-1931), yellow cedar, red cedar, paint, 21 1/4 x 35 3/4 x 20 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of John H. Hauberg and John and Grace Putnam 86.278, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Black pottery vase in shape of hu

SAM’s remarkable Black pottery vase in shape of hu is among the museum’s earliest acquisitions. The vase’s object number, 33.6, communicates that it was the sixth piece formally accessioned in the museum’s inaugural year of 1933, and of the objects added to the collection that year, the vase is the first to survive deaccessioning; sadly, 33.1 through 33.5 are no longer with us.

Dr. Fuller purchased this Warring States period ceramic jar for $150 from a New York dealer named Roland Moore. Roland, the son of a Chinese dealer named Rufus, continued in the family business, selling mainly snuff bottles and ceramics.1  The vase is just one of 259 items that Fuller purchased from Moore, and though not every one of these selections was a home run, Fuller did benefit from the connection, establishing the beginnings of a strong Asian ceramics collection that we enjoy today.

Dr. Fuller, who has been proven over time a very successful collector, was still developing his taste at this early stage. He landed on the Black pottery vase in shape of hu at a moment when he was moving beyond his initial collecting interest—snuff bottles—and looking to jades and ceramics. While expanding the art forms he considered for acquisition, he simultaneously became interested in adding Chinese works from various dynasties to increase the breadth of the collection. This vase, with its intriguing decorative designs, and its 3rd-century B.C. date, added new dimensions to SAM’s Chinese collection.

For me, the vase is a tour de force in imitation. Though ceramic, it imitates bronze by its burnished shade of brown-black, echoing patina. The taotie mask that adorns two sides of the vase is a typically bronze decorative motif, but here it is, carefully worked onto the body of an earthenware piece. At the historical moment when the vase was made, ceramic offered an economic alternative to costlier bronze; hence we see a ceramic dressed up as a bronze.

Fascinating geometric and animal designs adorn the vase. As our eye scans it, we notice that horizontal ridges attempt to organize the decoration into separate registers. On the neck and on the largest register of the body, scaly beasts look backward toward curling tails. Jagged vertical lines mark the first register below the neck; the second register features nesting triangles interspersed with sawtooth serrations; in another register beneath that, irregular diamonds run across the vase, linked together by script-like horizontal lines.

Throughout the vase, an interesting dialogue occurs between the potter and the decorator—maybe a conflict between a regimented and more freeform approach to artistic decoration. The indented bands that separate the vase into its various registers would have been formed when the vase was initially thrown, probably on a potter’s wheel; the incised decoration was added later. On the middle of the vase, notice how the legs and feet of the dragon creatures transgress the boundaries of their register, creeping over the horizontal bands. I liken this decoration to coloring outside the lines. It’s as if the dragon, mysterious and powerful, refused to be contained by the space allotted to it. Elsewhere, too, we see incised design overlapping the structuring horizontal bands and playfully interacting with the form of the vase, creating a final impression of an artwork that is, itself, a conversation.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Black pottery vase in shape of hu, ca. 3rd century B.C., Chinese, Warring States period (481-256 B.C.), black earthenware with incised decoration, 13 13/16 in.; girth: 31 1/4 in.; diam. top: 4 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.6, Photo: Paul Macapia.
1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 36-37.

Object of the Week: Crystal Math

Don’t do this, but. . . If you were to bring a stack of Marvel comics to the Seattle Art Museum, ride the escalator to the third floor, take a left turn, pass the video installation, and look up at the wall to your left, you’d find installed on that wall a custom-built box that fits your comics perfectly. However, it’s sideways, and it’s a museum artwork.

The piece you’d be looking at is sardonically called Crystal Math. It visualizes a collaborative effort between brothers Oscar Tuazon and Eli Hansen. As brothers do, they’ve worked together on projects since their childhoods and this piece represents the particular interests of Tuazon in architecture and Hansen in glass art. Their collaborative art takes on traditional views that separate “high” and “low” art forms into different contexts. Crystal Math thoughtfully, playfully mingles them all.

The humble material of plywood, simply arranged into a box, contrasts the precious blown glass, artfully made. The cerebral architectural theory that informs the glass geodesic domes, which are references to the visionary Buckminster Fuller, contrasts the world referenced by the pipe-like spout on the upper dome, recalling drug paraphernalia. Then there’s the fact that Tuazon and Hansen have incorporated a box fashioned by their father for holding their comic books into an art installation on the wall of a major museum. Thinking about this piece in terms of high or low art forms, fine art or craft, really leads us nowhere; thinking about it as a creative act brings us to all kinds of fun readings.

Tuazon, who won the Betty Bowen Award in 2007, is a local artist with international appeal. He and his brother were born on the Port Madison reservation on the Kitsap Peninsula, just East of Poulsbo and North of Bainbridge Island, and they attended high school in Port Townsend. Tuazon studied at Cooper Union in New York and also completed the Independent Study Program through the Whitney Museum of American Art before moving back to the Northwest and working in Tacoma. He moved to Paris, a biographical detail that reflects his many connections abroad, and has now settled in Los Angeles. Tuazon has exhibited work in Zurich, Brussels, Berlin, Geneva, Rome, Oslo, Paris, and Tokyo, as well as in New York and LA.

Both Tuazon and Hansen participated in the residency program at Pilchuck Glass School, and right now Crystal Math joins works by other Pilchuck students, most notably Dale Chihuly, in SAM’s galleries. It also offers a point of connection to Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb. Not only does Graphic Masters feature the art of a legend in comics, R. Crumb, who I’m sure would be pleased to hear of Tuazon’s and Hansen’s comic book box, but it also juxtaposes work that many would consider traditional with Crumb’s notably anti-traditional illustrations. Plywood and print works, Picasso and pipes—they’re all coming together at SAM!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Crystal Math, 2007, Oscar Tuazon (American, b. 1975) and Eli Hansen (American, b. 1979), blown, cut, assembled glass and plywood, 36 x 30 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Merrill Wright, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.69, © Oscar Tuazon and Eli Hansen, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Crown (Ade)

Delicate beadwork, strung together in pleasing patterns and color combinations, blankets the surface of a Yoruba crown, or ade, made to be worn only by a king, or Oba. The great care and effort applied by the crown’s makers remain evident for us to see and appreciate.

Minute beads are artfully arranged over every inch of its surface. The crown, standing about one and a half feet tall, has an imposing presence even on its own. It comprises three sections, or registers. On the lowest register, a circular face looks out toward the viewer. His countenance is marked by big, protruding white eyes; triangles and a prominent “V” that suggest his forehead; vertical and horizontal bands that make for decorative cheeks; and a black mound that forms a nose. On either side of the face, diamond patterning alternates between blue, beige, gold, blue-striped white, and turquoise beads. The patterning leads around the crown to a second, identical head on the back that we can’t see as the piece is installed.

Crown (Ade) (detail)

A rung of horizontal beads separates the lower register with the faces from a second, higher register, marked by the striking verticals of four peaks, or towers. Three outer towers originate, at their base, in horizontal bands, progressing upward in alternating chevrons of white, blue, and pink beads, capped by more horizontal bands—looking a bit like wine bottle necks. The three outer peaks encircle a central tower that bears lively color bands of gold, green, pink, sky blue, and navy blue, culminating in a half-dome of swirling, intertwined gold and green beads.

Atop the central tower, and the tallest feature of the crown, rests a figure of two birds fused together at their mid-sections, one head facing toward us, and the other facing opposite. The whole piece is visually remarkable and worth admiring at close range for a good while.

Crown (Ade) (detail)

Many years now after its completion, the crown continues to exude reverence—aimed by its makers at its wearer. For the Yoruba, the crown transcends its widely applied role as a decorative accessory: It embodies the essence of kingship, marking the king as a mediator between heavenly and earthly realms. Consider that if the king is absent, and the crown is placed on his throne, the king’s subjects observe the same strict level of protocol as if the king himself were there. That is a tremendous amount of respect to accord headwear, and it’s a level of respect that has driven artists to produce wonderfully crafted pieces like SAM’s Yoruba Crown.

It was not only meticulously but thoughtfully done. Symbolic meaning lives in the patterns, colors, and imagery. Certain colors are associated with certain gods in the Yoruba pantheon, while the frontal face may represent Ododuwa (Odua), the mythic father of the Yoruba. By donning this crown of fabric and glass beads, the wearer boldly, visibly communicated that he could trace his lineage back to the mythical founder of the Yoruba kingdoms.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Crown (Ade), Yoruba, 19th-20th century, cloth, glass beads, fiber, height: 17 in.; diameter: 8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb, 91.251, Photos: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: The Triumph of Valor over Time

As an arts institution situated in a once very isolated part of the country, the Seattle Art Museum grew and developed into the museum it is today only by the generosity and boldness of its supporters. Our co-founders, Dr. Richard Fuller and Margaret MacTavish Fuller, both played central roles in SAM’s success story. Another figure who became crucial to the museum in its formative years was Sherman E. Lee, who served as Assistant Director and Associate Director over four years at SAM, 1948–1952.

Lee was a specialist in Asian art, and Dr. Fuller brought him on board specifically to grow this part of the collection, but his impact would be felt in much broader ways. It was Lee who had the vision to convincingly lobby for Seattle to be included in a regional galleries program launched by the Kress Foundation during Lee’s tenure at SAM. The Kress Collection was a five-and-dime fortune converted into a nearly unmatched holding of European Old Master artworks. As a result of Lee’s ambition, Seattle and SAM became one of 18 regional sites selected to host pieces of the same prestigious collection that fills much of the Renaissance galleries at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

A full view of The Triumph of Valor over Time by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Not only was SAM chosen to receive some of the fine Kress pictures, but in a moment of plucky brilliance, Lee negotiated for an even better group of artworks than were originally intended for Seattle. In May 1950, Lee made his case to Kress Foundation art director Guy Emerson, writing that “our Ancient, Medieval, and Oriental collections contain many master works comparable to some of the famous paintings in the National Gallery and those in Mr. Kress’ marvelous living room. Consequently, we are interested in seeing our own Western tradition of painting represented by works which will bear comparison with the others.”1 His is a bold proclamation of Northwest arts pride, the fruits of which we’re still enjoying today, as the Kress artworks remain the core of SAM’s European painting and sculpture collection.

As good as Sherman Lee was for SAM, and for the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he would serve as director from 1958 until 1983, he and SAM almost missed big on one of the most memorable pieces in our collection. Looking over the original list proposed by the Kress Foundation, Lee was enthused about a sketch by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo but had reservations about the related ceiling fresco, transferred to canvas: “one or two of the proposed gifts are extraordinarily exciting, notably the Tiepolo sketch (incidentally, the ceiling itself is too large for us).”2

Too big?! Incidentally?! Thank goodness that wasn’t the end of the conversation. Imagine if we missed out on the remarkable Tiepolo ceiling The Triumph of Valor over Time because of its awesome dimensions. What a loss it would have been. In the end, accommodations were made, with SAM raising the ceiling height of its Kress-devoted gallery five feet in order to provide a suitably illusionistic viewing experience.

Installation view of SAM's Porcelain Room

Today, The Triumph of Valor over Time looms above the Porcelain Room, where its 18th-century aesthetic and pastel palette play well with the artfully arranged decorative objects filling the space. In a nearby gallery you’ll spot the masterful little bozetto, or painting sketch, that initially caught Sherman Lee’s eye.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: The Triumph of Valor over Time, ca. 1757, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, 1696-1770), fresco transferred to canvas, 200 x 90 in. Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.170, Photo: Paul Macapia. Installation view of the Porcelain Room at the Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Paul Macapia.
1 Quoted by Marilyn Perry in “The Kress Collection,” in A Gift to America: Masterpieces of European Painting from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, ex. cat., New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the North Carolina Museum of Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Seattle Art Museum; and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1994; p. 28.
2 Ibid., 29.

Object of the Week: Decorative Astrolabe

When SAM acquired a quiet and exquisite Persian Decorative astrolabe in 2009, it was enacting a throwback to the collecting philosophy of our founding director, Dr. Richard Fuller. A trained geologist who put great store in studying things closely—in practicing connoisseurship, to use a pretty untrendy word—Fuller aimed to detect the intricacies of art objects through time and attention. He was deeply interested in how things were made, a perpetual tinkerer. He also seems to have enjoyed discovering why things were made a certain way, and especially how they were first used. Many of us won’t think of an object’s function as particularly relevant to an assessment of that thing as art, but it definitely factored into Dr. Fuller’s deliberations.

In his memoir on the founding and growth of SAM, A Gift to the City, Dr. Fuller writes a straightforward apology for the museum’s collecting strategy: “Within our limited means we endeavor to acquire authentic items of high aesthetic quality and, if possible, functional interest. I strive for items that reflect the creative talent of each period and which, in geologic terms, serve as index fossils for their specific time and culture.”1

In sum, he looked for beautiful objects that told stories. In this framework it mattered significantly whether an object visibly reflected a certain people or time or place, and readily apparent signs of an original use or context were coveted. Functional objects were not only not avoided but embraced. There is logic to this: If we want to know something about people who are distanced from us, seeing their stuff and knowing exactly how it is, or was, used can be very helpful.

Decorative Astrolabe, Persian

I love the Persian Decorative astrolabe because it is an “index fossil” of the kind Dr. Fuller was always after, but it also has subtle and crafty ways of teaching us.

First, the ways that it falls into his categories: As the single most important astronomical tool of the Middle Ages, the astrolabe holds great functional interest. Astrolabes were, at one time, widely used by navigators, astronomers, mathematicians, and theologians to solve problems related to the motion of celestial bodies. The astrolabe stands as a symbol of the many scientific accomplishments of an era and the specific culture of medieval Islam. It’s also suitably small. Dr. Fuller bought many little things, maybe reflecting his reserved personality, but definitely reflecting his desire to leverage limited funds to the greatest effect. Finally, it has “high aesthetic quality,” to borrow Dr. Fuller’s geologic nomenclature. Precisely and carefully decorated, it would no doubt have passed this portion of the test. Calligraphic script dances across the surfaces of its interlocking discs, broken up by elegant decorative patterns.

In one clear way SAM’s Decorative astrolabe differs from Dr. Fuller’s expectations. It was likely never functional but always a decorative object. Other technologies began to replace the astrolabe for its functional use in the 17th century; this example, dating to the 19th century, was probably never needed for navigating the seas or charting planetary movements. It’s a vestigial tool, a once-functional object rendered obsolete.

So we look at this object, and it seems to, but doesn’t really, tell us how its original audience related to it. It’s cheeky, throwing us for a loop. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have stories. It just means the stories are different than what we expected to hear. It opens up so many new questions, like why, in the 19th century, in Persia, the memory of the astrolabe remained so strong that an artisan produced this fine example?

Decorative astrolabe, 19th c., Persian, Qajar period (1794-1925), brass, 4×3 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Jeff Strickler, 2009.65.1, Photos: Natali Wiseman.
1 A Gift to the City: A History of the Seattle Art Museum and the Fuller Family, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1993; p. 24.

Object of the Week: Elevator screen from the Chicago Stock Exchange

The unfortunate thing about clichés is that they disguise the nuance of truth. When we remember Louis Sullivan, we whip out the phrase “form follows function” and, by doing so, suggest the famed architect as a harbinger for a minimal style of building, one that came to define the modernist movement in architecture. SAM’s Elevator screen from the Chicago Stock Exchange shows Sullivan, instead, as a master of creative ornamentation. What gives?

Sullivan often gets the epithet “father of modern architecture.” His legacy might be a bit misunderstood by some. His most famous quote derives from an essay so drily titled that it’s a wonder anyone ever read it: “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” It’s actually very dramatically written. He spells out his purpose for the treatise in a masterful passage of overblown rhetoric, posing this rhetorical:

“Problem: How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions? How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?”1

In what follows, Sullivan lays out his philosophy on architecture. First of all, we find that, for Sullivan, “form” most closely meant ornamentation. So when he says “form ever follows function,” he means something like “ornamentation comes after use.” He is not saying that form (ornament) doesn’t matter—a misinterpretation that led many to understand him saying decorative elements were unnecessary. Sullivan’s approach was to address function first, and then get creative with the form, “to proceed step by step from general to special aspects.”2

Elevator Screen from the Chicago Stock Exchange by Louis Sullivan

How did he come to this conclusion? Everywhere in nature, he says, the essence of a thing is reflected by, and embodied in, its shape.3 Efficient shapes make for sensible things that work well and survive. Are we arrogant enough to go against what’s natural and sensible? For, Sullivan proclaims, “It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”4

First things first, Sullivan argues: Let’s get the use right, and then, working from that base, let’s have fun making it look good. With the Chicago Stock Exchange building, a fine example of a “tall office building” of the late 19th century, Sullivan brought his ideas to fruition. He saw the chief characteristic of skyscrapers, as we know them, as being “lofty”: “The force and power of altitude must be in it.”5 We see that power in the tall and commanding screen that has a strong presence in SAM’s American art galleries.

Elevator Screen from the Chicago Stock Exchange by Louis Sullivan

In ornamentation, too, we see Sullivan’s philosophy at work: The geometric shapes that decorate the grill, futuristic-looking circles and spheres, were actually made to represent seed germs for this, the nation’s largest agricultural stock exchange. There’s an important place for ornamentation in Sullivan’s design. The details just had to be smart, and they had to fit.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Elevator screen from the Chicago Stock Exchange, ca. 1893-1894, Louis Sullivan (American, 1856-1924), Lintel, columns and kick plates: cast iron electroplated with copper; Grilles: cast and wrought iron protected with a Bower and Barff finish; Decorative T-shaped elements: electroformed copper; 114 x 165 x 6 in. Seattle Art Museum, The Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff Endowment for the Decorative Arts, the Gates Foundation Endowment, the General Acquisition Fund, and an anonymous gift in honor of Julie Emerson, 2008.81
1“The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” in The Western Architect XXXI (January 1922): 3
2 3
3 10
4 11
5 4

Object of the Week: Untitled

“After many years in my studio I found that the light from the surface was my predominant media. The interface of light and surface . . . . While ‘light and surface’ is a rather technical triptych of words, my emotional concern is how it feels to make the art.”
—Larry Bell

In 1960s Los Angeles, a loosely-affiliated group of artists began working not with paint and canvas, clay and wood, charcoal and pen, but with two less concrete mediums: light and space. The so-called (perhaps unimaginatively) Light and Space artists were responding to new ideas about viewer perception in art, and experimenting with new materials that were suddenly widely available from Southern California-based industries: polyester resin, coated glass, Plexiglas, neon.

While artists in New York were working with similarly industrial materials and playing with the viewer’s perception of space, the emphasis on light as a medium became unique to the L.A. group. This seems to have been no accident, but a response to the place itself—there’s a certain quality of radiant light that exists in Southern California, where the sun always shines, reflecting on the waves and cars and surfboards and refracting through the immutable smog. Say what you will about L.A., but they don’t make light like that anywhere else.

So it stands to reason that Larry Bell in his Venice Beach studio, immersed in California light and with direct access to newly available materials, would become interested in the emotive potentials of light and surface. Bell began his career as a painter, but soon became fascinated with the properties of glass after working at a picture framing shop. He experimented simultaneously with abstract painting and small constructions of cracked glass, and it wasn’t long before the two parallel practices began to merge—until he added glass onto a painting itself:

“Adding glass [to a canvas] was totally intuitive. I liked the work’s feeling of simplicity, and the fact that the imagery now included the wall behind the canvas. This led to incorporating the light in front of the canvas in an ‘unpainterly’ way. I chose mirrors to replace the clear glass. I scraped away the silvering so that the reflected light and the transmitted light created the shape of a tesseract, which was also the shape of the canvases.

Representing volume, created with light, reflected and transmitted, was now part of my process. . . . Unconsciously, I had become a sculptor.”

Bell’s Untitled of 1967, on view in SAM’s Light and Space exhibition, is the result of this unconscious metamorphosis. A perfect cube made of coated glass, the work is a pure expression of volume, space contained and revealed. The thin, metal film which coats the glass allows the light filtering through the material to reflect and refract in unique ways. The edges emerge and disappear, and the sides darken and lighten as you move around the work. Though all six sides of the cube are identical, no two people will experience the same view of the whole—everything depends on your position in relation to the object, and its position in relation to a ray of light.

For many of the Light and Space artists, an artwork only reached its full potential when it was engaged in this relationship with a viewer—an object in an empty room without anyone to look at it is, in essence, not doing its job. Bell was no exception to this belief: “In my opinion all artwork is stored energy. The art releases its power whenever a viewer becomes a dreamer.” Dream on, friends, and come see what kind of energy this enigmatic box releases for you.

—Carrie Dedon, Modern and Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant

Image: Untitled, 1967, Larry Bell, American, b. 1939, silicon-monoxide-coated glass and chrome-plated metal, 59 x 22 x 22in. Gift of Anne Gerber, 2000.168, ©Larry Bell, Photo: Natali Wiseman.
All quotes are excerpted from Larry Bell, Zones of Experience, exh. cat. (Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Museum, 1997).

Object of the Week: Pike Street, Seattle

“The Market will always be within me. Established back in 1907 by the farmers themselves—not for the tourist trade, but as a protest against the high prices paid to commission men—it has been for me a refuge, an oasis, a most human growth, the heart and soul of Seattle. . . .

For me every day in the Market was a fiesta. But, alas, wars came: the old men I had learned to know died; more and more stalls were empty; the Japanese were sent away. Mrs. Morgan, who ran a flower stand, said, ‘Mr. Tobey, the Market ist deadt’ The years dissolve, and I return to visit the Market. A few old friends remain—the brothers of the fish stall, but the interesting sign above their heads has been stolen. The chairs that ascended the incline directly below them, upon which tired shoppers used to rest, have been torn out. But the main part of the Market is still active, still varied, exciting, and terribly important in the welter of overindustrialization. There is the same magic as night approaches: the sounds fade; there is an extra rustle everywhere; prices drop; the garbage pickers come bending and sorting; the cars leave the street which reflects the dying sun. The windows are all that remain of light as the sun sets over the Olympics. A few isolated figures appear and disappear, and then the Market is quiet, awaiting another day.”1

Mark Tobey, Breaker of Art Traditions – Seattle Times, 1946

The Seattle Times published this bio sketch on Tobey on March 17, 1946. Author Margaret Callahan links Tobey’s penchant for working in the public market to the difficulty he faced in finding an affordable private studio.

ark Tobey and the Public Market

The Seattle Art Museum hosted an exhibition on Mark Tobey and the Public Market in August, 1963, leading to the publication of a book on the same topic: Mark Tobey: The World of a Market (1964). The back cover features this image of Tobey, at home among the papayas.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Pike Street, Seattle, 1941-1942, Mark Tobey (American, born Centerville, Wisconsin, 1890; died Basel, Switzerland, 1976), opaque watercolor with pastel on paper mounted on paperboard, 28 1/4 × 21 3/8in. Gift of the Marshall and Helen Hatch Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2009.52.111 © Mark Tobey / Seattle Art Museum
1 Mark Tobey, Mark Tobey: The World of a Market, Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1964, introduction

Object of the Week: Basinjom mask and gown

In one gallery of the Mood Indigo show at the Asian Art Museum—and you’ll know it when you find it—Basinjom presides. He’s an intimidating presence, often stopping folks right in their tracks. My wife insisted she couldn’t look too long at him, or else she would have nightmares.

Basinjom mask and gown

Here in the U.S. most of us have no problem understanding that a name is significant. Baby name books and websites and blogs are an expansive directory, allowing parents to match a name that means something with a vision for their child. Basinjom, literally meaning “God’s Medicine,” carries a purposeful name. He is not just a mask or costume, but a healing masquerade, appearing in Ejagham civilizations in Nigeria and Cameroon, where he acts as a powerful restorative force in his community. He has a spiritual aura that gives clear reason for the first part of his name, but the second part is more esoteric. It’s hard to conceive of him as a “medicine.”

Basinjom mask and gown

SAM curator Pam McClusky explains that “Medicine, in Ejagham terms, is a knowledge of plants and herbs that God provided to fight witches and criminals. Medicine can be manifested in the form of a mask or be located in a container or even a person.”1 When Basinjom is called upon, he acts as detective, judge, and healing agent. He points out the root of witchcraft, which is the seed of discord and ruin in the community, and then banishes it.

Like any medicine, Basinjom is made of many essential ingredients:

  • A knife (isome), an iron instrument whose blade has been perforated with eyes to enable Basinjom to see the place of the witches.
  • A rattle made of wicker to hear the sound that evil makes.
  • Blue feathers of a very strong “war bird,” or touraco, that cannot easily be shot by a gun.
  • Porcupine quills, which prevent intrusion from strong elements, even thunder and lightning.
  • Eyes that act as mirrors to see into other worlds, especially at night.
  • A snout like the mouth of the crocodile, which can speak for the people about controversial things. Eggs are broken over this snout to feed Basinjom.
  • Inside the mouth, a piece of the King Stick, the most powerful tree in the forest, used to protect bodies.
  • On the back of the head, many herbs that have been collected and pounded together with liquids to serve as a medicinal protection. On top, a mirror enables Basinjom to “see behind,” and a small upright peg with an amulet serves as a bodyguard.
  • Deep black and blue cloth, a color that will “not hold death,” because in darkness no human or witch can perceive you.
  • Raffia used for hair and a hem as an element from the forest, a dangerous realm that weak men should avoid.
  • A genet cat skin, invoking the spirit of an animal familiar who snatches fowls and shields Basinjom from harm. Next to Basinjom, eyes of the owl, alluding to enhanced vision in the deep forest and the bird’s long, strange legs.2

Basinjom is unforgettable. There’s a great chance to engage with him tonight at the Art Globally: Indigo Allure event, where there will be plenty of people around to make sure he’s on his best behavior and no nightmares are had!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Basinjom mask and gown, Ejagham, Nigeria and Cameroon, collected 1972, cotton cloth, wood, feathers, porcupine quills, mirrors, herbs, raffia, cowrie shells, rattle, eggshell, knife, genet cat skin, indigo dye, height: 85 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1977, Photo: Stephanie Fink. Basinjom mask and gown (detail), Photo: Natali Wiseman. Basinjom performs in Cameroon, 1973.
1 Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, p. 218.
2 Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, p. 220.

Object of the Week: Self-portrait

One day here at SAM I received a phone call from a visitor who had enjoyed her time at the museum and who had felt particularly attached to a couple of the paintings here, and who was sorely wishing she had written down the name of the artist because his work was really touching. There was one, in particular: It was a portrait (a self-portrait, she wondered?), and the man had a moustache (our van Dyck, I wondered?), and she thought she remembered there were other portraits of the same guy in that room. Ah. Morris Graves.

The facial hair was a helpful descriptor, but so was the defining characteristic this woman singled out when describing the painting: vulnerability.

Graves’s Self-portrait of 1933 is a rare subject for the artist, who most figured was too private a man to put himself out there by painting himself much. Against a soft abstract background, his form emerges, defined by a rhythmic, undulating outline. His head is perched upon an impossibly long neck. He gazes sidelong out of the canvas with a look that wants to tell us something, and many have thought they knew exactly what.

Graves, though, was a hard character to pin down. He was interesting. Frederick Wight, who was director of the Art Gallery at UCLA, met Graves and later described him as “an exceedingly tall thin figure, with large transfixed, rather alarmed eyes . . . He is shy and self-aware to a degree, aloof yet (you suspect) ruthless in his self-determination . . . In short he is very birdlike: receding, private, mobile, and migratory . . . he has the willful steely quality of a bird—its fierce capacity to survive.”

Nancy Wilson Ross, a friend and confidant of Graves’s, called him “mysterious,” saying he carried moods redolent of changing seasons. Ross ended on the same comparison as Wight: “Like the birds Graves knows so intimately, he is a migratory creature; not so much willfully nomadic as purposefully so.”

Author Margaret Callahan attached some curious distinctions to Morris Graves when publishing the photo in The Seattle Times in 1948.

No doubt Graves’s seasons of mood meant that he left different impressions on the many who encountered him. Besides, perceptions vary: “steely” and “birdlike” to one might look like unapproachable and withdrawn or even admirably stoic to another. We might get a totally different animal to fill the metaphor.

Theodore Wolff, an art critic who produced a catalogue essay on Graves, was struck by his encounter with the artist—so moved that he typed up the following letter:

Dear Morris:
Just a word to say how very happy I am to finally have met you. I am most particularly pleased at the extraordinary quality of strength and sturdiness you radiate; you resemble your Joyous Young Pines much more than you do any of your birds (!!).¹

Bird? Pine?

One would think that going to the source would provide clarity, but Graves’s own letters produce more questions, revealing more quirks and intricacies of character. He is alternately kind and sensitive, harsh and resentful. There are moments of resolute pride and of defeated self-doubt. At times Graves is fully convinced of his importance and the value of his art. On December 5, 1932, at an early stage of his career around the time he produced his Self-portrait, he boasted in a letter to his intimate friend Merita Mills:

I know I can paint in all the violent color and draw all the magnificent lines I want to someday, and be thrilled with the results; smug as it sounds, I just am unavoidably sure I can do it.²

The verve with which he began his career finds a sad bookend in the self-deprecation that shows up in some of his last letters. In 1997, Graves wrote to SAM curator Vicki Halper, saying

My painted images have, somehow, only been very minor Shinto haikus trying to communicate my mind’s range of humanitarian, rational, and irrational experiences and ideas.

I’m a fifth-rate rural American painter of the 1930s and 40s. I gladly surmise that you have all along been aware of this.
–Morris³

What makes the Self-portrait so fascinating and magnetic is that it seems to reveal something of how Graves saw himself. But what’s in a self-portrait? Are we really learning anything? As a description of oneself, is it any more truthful than another’s description—or any more complete? For me, a self-portrait does reveal; it just doesn’t reveal everything. No one picture, in paint or in words, could convey all the complexity of Morris or of you or of me, and to think we know him from this painting can’t be quite right.

The Self-portrait doesn’t say everything there is to say about Morris Graves. Gladly, we get more doses of the artist’s self-reflection in the third floor PONCHO Gallery. Hanging right next to Self-portrait is Morning, a painting where the figure, a slender shirtless man, squirms uncomfortably on his bed, a voyeuristic display in front of us. Across the room from these hangs the solitary Moor Swan, a painting Graves exhibited in the 1933 annual show of Northwest artists at SAM, in which it won the big $100 purchase prize. A period photo reproduced here captures Morris with his winning piece, and Morris, it must be said, is looking very birdlike, indeed.

Some have read the Moor Swan as a symbolic self-portrait. I’m okay with that, as long as we remember: He is the bird and the pine; He is the moustache and the swan.

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: Self-portrait, 1933, Morris Graves (born Fox Valley, Oregon, 1910; died Loleta, California, 2001), oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Florence Weinstein in memory of Max Weinstein, 85.268, © Morris Graves Foundation. Photo published by The Seattle Times, 1933, 1945, 1948.
¹Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, p. 97.
²Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, pp. 254-255.
³Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, pp. 316-317.

Object of the Week: The Mom Call

Eyes gravitate toward Brian Jungen’s work. On the surface, unexpected combinations make us wonder at the artist’s creativity. Looking more deeply, we find Jungen exploring identity in a way that resonates and challenges.

Jungen’s sculptural work The Mom Call acts like a stage where the forces of artistic choice and influence collide. The artist’s choices are unique. They also make very clear references to the life experiences that have shaped him. A combination of family and artistic heritage helped to bring about these choices, and in Jungen’s work, we see the artist physically molding a multi-faceted identity for himself.

In The Mom Call, Jungen has appropriated a chair produced for a notable 1940 design competition. By sampling the winning chair, he brings into his work the exclusive, European, bourgeois connotations linked to high-end design. The chair, though, is swallowed up in American elk hide, which is drawn taut by tarred twine according to traditional Native methods, forming a funny-looking—but functional—drum. Jungen was born in Fort St. John, British Columbia, to a Swiss-Canadian father and a Native mother of the Dane-zaa Nation. That dual heritage plays out in fascinating ways in Jungen’s work, where we can see him navigating his ancestries and finding a place among them.

A defining characteristic to his work is the clever re-use of objects. The creative vision Jungen displays when transforming Nike Air Jordans into Native-inspired masks, or when constructing whale skeleton replicas from petroleum-based plastics, is the meat and potatoes of his artistry, and he traces that habit of re-appropriating back to his mom. As a child, he would watch his mother and her family use objects outside of their original purposes to get stuff done. This “improvisatory recycling,” as Jungen calls it, was driven by necessity, but it also reflected a habit of looking at things for their potential, rather than their intention. Jungen learned from his mother how to be resourceful, how to deconstruct a known thing and create a new meaning for it.

Back to The Mom Call: The clean lines and the industrial, artificial quality of a modern piece of designer furniture give way to a sloping, organic form. The elk hide covers the chair, hiding its details but revealing its form, and changing its use, but not in a one-to-one transition. When we look at The Mom Call, we’re several steps removed from the item’s original function—chair as chair becomes chair as art object becomes chair-drum as functional art object (and museum exhibit, and so on). Influences, uses, interpretations, contexts, and perspectives all come into play. In this piece, Jungen displays original thinking about forms and how they communicate to us.

Tragically, Jungen lost both his parents in a fire when he was just seven. Through his art, the legacy of both his folks, but especially that of his mom—a woman who he says was “always trying to extend the life of things” 1—remains.

P.S. Brian Jungen’s mom made a difference—as moms do! Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and all our SAM Blog-reading moms!

Image: The Mom Call, 2011, Brian Jungen (Canadian, born 1970), Organic Chair by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, American elk hide, tarred twine, steel, granite, 80 1/4 x 33 x 29 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2014.34, © Brian Jungen, Photo: Natali Wiseman.
1 Source

Object of the Week: Country Ball 1989-2012

In 2013 SAM acquired a video work by contemporary artist Jacolby Satterwhite that would later feature in the SAM-organized exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art (an iteration of which has just opened at the Brooklyn Museum to wide recognition). Though Disguise was still in the planning stages, Satterwhite’s video, called Country Ball 1989-2012, had so much eclectic visual interest, and it was displayed with such a distinctly digital vision, that it was chosen early on as a representative piece for the Seattle show.

"Country Ball 1989-2012" by Jacolby Satterwhite

Country Ball 1989-2012 is a maelstrom of dancing figures and neon elements, a wild ride for its nearly thirteen minutes of running time. Here’s the artist himself talking through his thoughts and creative process:

Using the whole computer-generated landscape and the various vignettes that appear throughout the video, the artist brings together different modes of communication to create a new way of expressing that is distinctly his. Dance comes to the fore as a versatile language with meaning in a range of contexts. As the artist narrates, the genus of the work lies in a Mother’s Day cookout in the park (by the way, thank you to all the moms!), enlivened by choreographed dance. The artist himself performs dance in eccentric dress to add his own movement and personality to the work. Even the viewer’s perspective seems to dance as it meanders through this dynamic virtual landscape.

Re-presenting a home video and introducing the artist’s original dance performance, and itself being a museum-owned artwork, Country Ball 1989-2012 illustrates what a wide spectrum of contexts and environments feature dance as an act of importance and value.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: Country Ball 1989-2012, 2012, Jacolby Satterwhite, HD digital video with color 3D animation and sound, running time 12:39 mins., Seattle Art Museum, Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.3, © Jacolby Satterwhite.

Object of the Week: Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound

How great is SAM’s painting by Sanford Robinson Gifford of Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound?

Consider:

1. It’s been made into a cake. In 1990, when the museum acquired the painting, we celebrated its arrival with a cake that sported a frosting facsimile.

It's a cake with a painting on it!

2. It features “the original Tacoma Dome.” In 2011, SAM’s awesome marketing team (still awesome, by the way) produced a pithy billboard with a reproduction of the Gifford painting, beckoning Seattleites to come see the Beauty and Bounty exhibition in which it starred that summer.

"The Original Tacoma Dome" billboard

3. Its artistic merits, of course. Gifford had an immaculate sense for atmospheric light and color that gave rise, in later scholarship, to the very appropriate term luminism.

4. The vision it provides of life in the Puget Sound at a time when natives lived here in harmony with the land.

Here’s the story. Gifford traveled to the Washington Territory in the summer of 1874, and he was clearly moved by the imposing view of Mount Rainier from Commencement Bay in Tacoma. He sketched out several different compositions in pencil from various vantage points across the bay. We even know the day when he produced the drawing that inspired this painting: September 1. Later, in the winter of 1875, he worked up the full painting in his New York studio.

You can see Gifford's pencil lines demarcating the horizon line and dome of Rainier due to a thin paint layer that has become even more transparent with age.

You can see Gifford’s pencil lines demarcating the horizon line and dome of Rainier, due to a thin paint layer that has become even more transparent with age.

Gifford, like his rough contemporary Albert Bierstadt, excelled in producing romantic visions of the West that appealed to East Coast and, increasingly, international audiences, for whom the rugged terrain and the different lifestyle of the natives here carried the appeal of the exotic. Gifford’s Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound is a romanticized view: He would have seen more evidence of the lumber industry beginning to transform the landscape around the time he visited. Still, the artist communicates a sense of awe and discovery that seems entirely genuine. His painting helps me see the true beauty of Mt. Rainier and the diverse landscape of Puget Sound with fresh eyes and a greater sense of appreciation. Gifford reminds us that in the Pacific Northwest, as much as anywhere, we have an abundance of natural beauty for which to be thankful, that we might appreciate it, enjoy it, and always aim to take good care of it.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images:  Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound, 1875, Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, born Greenfield, N.Y. 1823; died New York City 1880), oil on canvas, 21 x 40 in. Seattle Art Museum, Partial and promised gift of Ann and Tom Barwick and gift, by exchange, of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Brechemin; Max R. Schweitzer; Hickman Price, Jr., in memory of Hickman Price; Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; Mr. and Mrs. Norman Hirschl; and the Estate of Louise Raymond Owens, 90.29, Paul Macapia. Photo: SAM Archive. Photo: SAM Archive. Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound (detail).

Object of the Week: Italian Room

A powerful quality exclusive to older objects is their ability to spark our imagination as we reflect on where in the world these things have been before they arrived in front of us. It can be totally captivating. The display of historic artworks in our galleries at SAM is only the latest chapter in a long story for each of these pieces. The period room installed on the fourth floor—called the Italian Room a bit anachronistically but not without reason—is a great case study in the life of an art object.

The wood panels hang in a metal stud framework erected during SAM’s expansion in the 2000s, but they are installed at the exact angles and dimensions of the historic room’s specifications. About 145 original pieces comprise the installation. How and why did they come here?

Details of the Italian Room at Seattle Art Museum

An Italian art dealer named Renato Bacchi acquired the room in the 1920s from its original installation in a building scheduled to be remodeled, perhaps “saving” it. The building was located in Chiavenna, a town in northern Lombardy, in a breathtakingly beautiful mountainous region. In the mid-1930s the room, in boards, passed from Bacchi to the German-born antiques dealer Adolph Loewi, who installed it in a Venetian palazzo that served as his gallery space. The Jewish Loewi was persecuted by the Fascist Italian government and moved, with his paneled room, to the U.S. in 1939. Loewi had become one of the most successful international dealers in period rooms, and he proved successful once again, finding a buyer in the notable Northwest architect John Yeon, who had encountered Loewi and his paneled room in Los Angeles. The room enjoyed another interesting chapter as Yeon’s dining room in the architect’s San Francisco flat. This custom installation was a highlight of Yeon’s renovation of the once-rundown building that housed it. Ed Hardy later rented that apartment.

After Yeon passed away in 1994 the building was sold, but Yeon’s partner, Richard Louis Brown, saw that the room was professionally de-installed that it might have another life somewhere else. From his own home in Portland, Brown set about finding a new home for the paneled room, and with SAM, he had a taker. The timing was just right; the museum, in plans for its expansion, would finally have the space to consider a permanent display for such a period room. In 2000, Brown officially donated the Italian Room, doing so in memory of John Yeon. Folks were invited to view the conservation and installation of the room in progress, and since the grand reopening of the expanded SAM in 2007, the Italian Room has been a focal point of the collection.

Italian Room at Seattle Art Museum

In the same year that he brought SAM’s Italian Room to the U.S., dealer Adolph Loewi imported another of the period rooms he would end up dealing: the Gubbio Studiolo now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See, old things have wonderful stories—not just about where they’ve been, but about who and what they’ve encountered along the way.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Italian Room, ca. 1575-1600, spruce, willow, and fir, 171 9/16in. x 200 5/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Richard Louis Brown in memory of John Yeon, 2000.218, Photo: Nathaniel Willson. Photo: Collin Shulz. Photo: Collin Shulz. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

Object of the Week: Buddha

Celebrations of spring are happening all around us. It’s opening week for baseball and Masters Tournament time in golf. Here in Seattle, the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and all of a sudden it’s like we live in a populous city. You never have a sense for how many people live (and vacation) here until the sun comes out!

Flowers outside of the Asian Art Museum

Flowers bloomin’ outside of the Asian Art Museum

As wonderful and anticipated as these developments are, today we’re focused on another springtime celebration: It’s Buddha’s birthday!

To be precise, it’s Buddha’s birthday in the Japanese tradition; the same event is remembered on various dates in spring across the world. Many Asian countries commemorate Buddha’s birth on the first full moon of the 4th month in the Chinese lunar calendar (which falls in May). Japan adopted the Gregorian, or Western, calendar in the 19th century and moved its celebration of Buddha’s birthday up to April 8, about a month earlier.

Thankfully for both our regular visitors and out-of-towners, we have a bevy of fine Buddhist art at the Asian Art Museum to help everyone celebrate appropriately. The new installation Awakened Ones: Buddhas of Asia highlights some of the finest representations of Buddha in the museum’s collection, including this stunning wood sculpture coated with gold lacquer. Called an Amida Buddha for its symbolic form, the figure was crafted during the late Heian period (794-1185) in Japan. Its maker used the yosegi-tsukuri technique, carving wood blocks, hollowing them out, and then assembling them together. The Buddha strikes a meditative pose that exudes total peace.

Installation view of Awakened Ones: Buddhas of Asia

In Japanese Buddhist traditions special connections exist between Buddha and the flower that make celebrating him in the springtime especially appropriate. Hana-Matsuri, the Floral Festival, is a memorial service performed at temples throughout Japan on Buddha’s birthday. Those who make pilgrimages to the temples bring offerings of fresh spring flowers and libations of tea. For its original installation in a Kyoto temple, this Buddha sculpture would have been seated on a lotus pedestal.

Installation view of Awakened Ones: Buddhas of Asia

The company he keeps in Awakened Ones, where he is surrounded by sculptures and paintings from China, India, Korea, Nepal, and Pakistan, leaves one with a sense for the wide reach of Buddhist teachings and the many ways Buddha is pictured and remembered.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: Buddha, ca. 1130, Japanese, wood with gold lacquer, 37 1/4 x 27 x 17 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Monsen Family, 2011.39, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Photo: Natali Wiseman. Installation view of Awakened Ones:Buddhas of Asia at Asian Art Museum, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Installation view of Awakened Ones:Buddhas of Asia at Asian Art Museum, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Stranger Here

I’m a stranger here
I’m a stranger everywhere
I would go home
But I’m a stranger there.

 I’d rather drink muddy water
I’d rather sleep on a hollow log
Than to stay here in this city
Being treated like a dirty dog.

 That’s why I got up this mornin’
And I put on my walkin’ shoes
I’m goin’ down the road, down the road
Cause I got them walkin’ blues

One of the newest works in the Seattle Art Museum collection is Whitfield Lovell’s Stranger Here. Lovell’s piece was inspired by a police mugshot, circa 1910s, depicting a sharp-dressed man of color, and its title comes from an old blues song, whose lyrics we share above. Stranger Here pays homage to a man whose story has been forgotten but whose image remains.

This three-dimensional portrait uses charcoal on found wood, fringe fabric, and an antique lantern to evoke the spirit of the time when the sitter’s picture was taken. The fringe, draped around the man’s bowler hat like drawn curtains, gives the piece a theatrical presence and also creates a sense that something significant is being revealed. In the theater, it’s a dramatic, expectant moment when the curtain is finally drawn and some anticipated spectacle unveils itself. Here, the curtain frames the image and encourages us to pay notice to what we find behind it.

The idea of anonymity, and being disconnected from one another, is especially important to Lovell’s work. Does it bother us that we don’t know the man? That we are denied his story? That we don’t understand all of what we are seeing or truly grasp its significance? In case we might have passed by, missing this quiet figure softly modeled in charcoal, the artist gives us a lantern by which to see.

One floor above Lovell’s piece, in our special exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, hangs another stranger’s portrait inspired by a mugshot. Kehinde Wiley’s Mugshot Study from 2006 pictures a young person of color, his anonymity emphasized by the case number printed below his image. In life, these two men were separated by a century, but here at SAM they share more similarities than differences: both gaze out of their frame resolutely, meeting the viewer’s eye, embodying strength, yet expressing a sad tiredness from their life’s walk.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Stranger Here, 2000, Whitfield Lovell (American, born 1959), charcoal on wood, with fabric and lantern, 42 x 29 1/2 x 8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Norman and Constance Rice, 2016.1, © Whitfield Lovell, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Camel

Of the nearly 24,000 objects in SAM’s collection, two sculptures have probably had the broadest impact on visitors’ experience of the museum since it opened in 1933. They have proven a popular attraction for visitors of all ages, newcomers and regulars alike. For a long time, though, they weren’t even physically in the museum. They’re the greeters, the guardians. They are: the camels.

Writing in 1968—35 years after the arrival of our Chinese camels and the opening of our doors—SAM founding director Dr. Richard Fuller proclaimed the camels “unquestionably the most popular items” in the museum’s collection. No doubt this was partly because he enthusiastically encouraged kids to have a go at riding them.

Riding the Camel

Kids on the Camel

Standing on the Camel

Chosen specifically by Dr. Fuller and his mother, SAM co-founder Margaret MacTavish Fuller, to be the symbolic guardians of the museum, they were installed on either side of the front entrance. Former SAM curator and historian Josh Yiu reflected on their significance: “They were the first works of art that children and adults alike experienced at the Seattle Art Museum. The camels achieved an iconic status because they introduced art, the museum, and China to the general public.”1

Asian Art Museum Exterior in 1933

Dr. Fuller also clearly saw in the pair of marble bactrians an impressive aesthetic achievement, one that complemented the striking Art Deco design of SAM’s original building in Volunteer Park and echoed the cultural focus of its artworks. In his personal correspondence from 1933, Fuller wrote the following justification:

“Granting that the sculptor had made no attempt to achieve lifelike forms, I think that there is no question but that his results are great works of art…Viewed purely from the view-point of artistry, I personally think that it would be almost impossible to have modern sculpture designed that could have coincided more perfectly with the spirit that we endeavored to attain in the design of the building, and it seems especially fortunate that they should, at the same time, emphasize our interest in Oriental art.”

Camel

In 1986 conservation concerns won out, and the camel-riding tradition came to a sad, but necessary end (hundreds-of-years-old marble sculptures, folks). We no longer sanction it, at least! The Chinese camels journeyed downtown for the inaugural installation here in 1991, and today replicas flank the front doors to the Asian Art Museum.

Camel replica being installed

You can still see (not ride) the originals in our grand stairway.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 46.

IMAGES: Camel, Chinese, late 14th-mid-17th century, marble, each 101 1/2 x 56 x 36 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.814.1, 33.814.2, Photo: Jasmine Boothroyd. Photos: SAM Archive.

Object of the Week: Les Années 90 (The Nineties)

Congolese artist Chéri Samba has said that he likes to incorporate text into his narrative paintings because it keeps the viewer’s eye on the art longer. For visitors who find Samba’s acrylic painting of The Nineties in our Emblems of Encounter installation, it’s not just the French text that needs deciphering. Untangling what’s happening in the picture—as well as thinking about how the text informs the scene—all takes time and effort. Samba has created an image rich with symbolism and relationships for sorting out, and there’s plenty to delve into before even getting to the language.

Most clearly, the scene shows us two men. In the lower left, a figure in a blue suit, sleeves rolled up, lounges passively. His pocket is stuffed with cash, while the chest next to him is noticeably empty. His brown skin contrasts the fair skin of the second man. He looks and gestures toward this figure, who stands near the center of the composition, donning green pants and a white jacket, and gripping a briefcase in his left hand. He’s not looking back at the seated figure to receive the gesture. Instead, he gazes outward purposefully, toward the portion of the canvas where threatening clouds have lifted just a bit.

Les Années 90 (detail) by Cheri Samba

There’s a ground in a burnt sienna color very nearly connecting them both, except for a path of moody blue water. The scale of the figures—the man in the blue suit fills about twice as much of the canvas as the other man—also communicates to us that there’s distance between them. Our view of the water ends as it comes to what looks like a grey stone wall, its edge jagged like the irregular coastlines of the two land masses on which the figures stand. With the rough wall, forming a barrier between the men, there’s further separation where connection seems more natural.

The man in the blue suit is seated on a grassy green surface. Above and behind him, we see the outline of the continent of Africa, filled in with the same fertile green, composed of many short marks, as blades of grass in a field. The artist has laid a symbol onto the map, and because of its shape and function we’d expect this to be an “x”–only one arm of this symbol is significantly longer than the others, so the shape more closely resembles a cross.

Samba’s painting offers a biting satire of hypocrisy and greed, in a scene reflecting on corrupt leadership and rapacious opportunism. Judging by the work’s title, The Nineties, we imagine the artist is reflecting on a specific time period and likely responding to certain wrongs. That he painted this only in 1991 adds even more weightiness to the picture; it seems to be a dark vision of what he foresaw unfolding as much as a rebuke of events he had already witnessed.

Emblems of Encounter installation at Seattle Art Museum

In Emblems of Encounter, Samba’s thoughtful critique joins a group of objects that chart 500 years of the complex and difficult history of European-African interaction. Considering The Nineties, even without the specific narrative laid out, I’m reminded that our understanding of nuanced histories depends, to a large extent, on what side of the shore we stand as we perceive them.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Les Années 90 (The Nineties), 1991, Cheri Samba (Congolese, born 1956), acrylic on canvas, 59 x 77 x 1 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 93.81, © Cheri Samba. Les Années 90 (The Nineties) (detail). Salt cellar, ca. 1490-1530, Sapi culture, Sierra Leone, ivory, 6 3/4 x 3 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck, 68.30.

Object of the Week: Head of a Woman

Our mission statement here—“SAM connects art to life”—truly guides much of our work and many of the decisions our leadership team makes. We see art as a response to life and as something that should be accessible to everyone in their different journeys. Believing our art is relevant, we want to show people how it’s relevant. It’s why we have a blog series where we talk about our collection objects!

In the museum space, we also connect art to art. When SAM expanded in 2007, the curators made a point of bringing their permanent collection displays together in thoughtful ways. We published a book at the time, called Bridging Cultures, which outlined the curators’ thinking. If art connects to life, and if all of us who share life are interconnected, then all art is somehow linked too. Finding those points of connection can be difficult. I love wandering our permanent collection galleries because these connections across people and across time become clearer and more meaningful to me.

Mexican American artist Emilio Amero was born in Ixtlahuaca in 1901. He trained at the Fine Arts School of San Carlos, and in 1924, he worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera on a mural project at the Ministry of Education Building in Mexico City. In 1955 Amero finally realized his own mural, not in his native Mexico, but in Norman, Oklahoma, where he had taken up a teaching post at the university about a decade earlier. He worked in a wide range of materials over his career, but his work in lithography was particularly significant. So, why are three Amero paintings, including this striking Head of a Woman, hanging in our gallery of Pacific Northwest Modernism, alongside works by Mark Tobey and Guy Anderson?

From 1941-1947, Amero brought his talents to Seattle. Invited to teach at the University of Washington on a Walker-Ames Fellowship, Amero established a reputation as a skilled artist and teacher. A 1942 advertisement for a print shop Amero ran quotes Walter F. Isaacs, then director of the School of Art at the University of Washington, who calls him “one of the most able and versatile art teachers in this country.” In 1943 Amero moved to the faculty at Cornish School of the Arts. For the school’s 30th year, opening of September that year, he served as director and instructor of painting, drawing, commercial and graphic arts—joined on the faculty, as he is today in our galleries, by Guy Anderson, who taught children’s art. Not to brag on us, but we have an important collection of Amero paintings that is a monument to his time here.

Amero Ad in Seattle Times

Like other notable artists working in Seattle at the time, many of whom grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Amero was geographically far from the forms of Modernism developing in New York. His vision was essentially different because it was rooted in Mexico. There, Modernism developed after the Social Revolution of 1910, as artists like Amero and Rivera shrugged off what had become an oppressive European influence, looking instead to ancient indigenous Mexican art. The heritage of Amero’s native Mexico inspired his form of Modernism much like the land and peoples of the Pacific Northwest inspired Tobey and Anderson.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Head of a Woman, 1947, Emilio Amero (Born Ixtlahuaca, Mexico, 1901; died Norman, Oklahoma, 1976), tempera on panel, 18 1/4 x 15 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 47.134, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Caption for ad: Seattle Daily Times, August 9, 1942, p. 30.

Object of the Week: Seated Figure with Conch Shell

Some historic cultures have made learning about them easy for us by producing the things they did. The size and significance of their monuments or the influence of their visual art and literature make sure that these people are known and remembered. Other cultures have left a quieter presence that requires investigating, digging, researching, and lots of thinking about relatively few objects. To me, these cases are all the more amazing because they show us how much we can learn with only a little bit to go on.

SAM’s Seated figure with conch shell (ca. 300 B.C.–A.D. 400) hails from one of these materially quiet cultures: early Colima, in West Mexico. The state of Colima, with its capital city also called Colima, lies straight West of Mexico City, and its landscape is dominated by the Volcán de Colima—or the Volcán de Fuego—one of the most active volcanoes in Central America.

Scholars in Pre-Columbian (before Europeans arrived) Mesoamerica (a region and grouping of indigenous cultures in what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America) have learned much of what they know about cultures in West Mexico from figures like this one. Unlike other regions of Mexico that are visibly marked by Aztec temple complexes and monumental stone sculptures, West Mexico has left today’s art historians much smaller mementos. In Colima, specifically, ceramic figures are the most common form of material culture to survive. A lot of these were found in burial tombs, so they likely had a significant place in the Colima people’s vision of the afterlife.

In SAM’s figure, the forms are essentialized and rounded. The facial features are simple shapes: a long, angular nose; oval, protruding eyes with slits across the middle that look a lot like coffee beans. Triangular ears point outwards from the sides of his head. The circular holes at their centers seem primed for functional use; maybe he once donned a pair of colorful earrings? He has a small mouth with lips turned down slightly, suggesting the seriousness of his role. The figure’s coloring comes from a slip with red pigment applied to the figure by its maker, and the black spots are patina. The all-over smoothness was accomplished by rubbing a stone along the clay surface.

Seated figure with conch shell

The conch shell has special importance to our understanding of this figure and to early Colima, where shell trumpets would sound to mark special ceremonies and community events. The conch also seems to have symbolized wealth and status, and that might have developed from people associating it with these important happenings.

Oh, and that’s a big damn shell! It’s enormous compared to the figure. It matches the length of his torso and has significantly more volume. Why is it so big? Maybe the people in early Colima found really huge conch shells. Maybe the scale is meant to emphasize the importance of the conch shell in the life of the community, with its role extending from important moments in life to the eternity of death. I wonder, too, if the scale suggests something about the size of the figure, meaning that this was a small person—even a child? Personally, I like that reading because it fits with the figure’s relaxed, kind of undignified pose. Imagine he’s just learning to play his shell trumpet, and he’s the figure someone picks to accompany you to the afterlife!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Seated figure with conch shell, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 400, Mexican, West Mexico, Colima, ceramic, 14 1/4 x 12 5/16 x 9 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 64.103, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Colored Vases

“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” –Ai Weiwei1

“At different times I’ve worked in different mediums. For me, the variation is not an artistic judgment, but a necessary choice. It’s just as normal to eat with chopsticks, as it is to eat with forks or hands. Different circumstances call for different tools. I try to express ideas with the most appropriate available materials and forms.” –Ai Weiwei2

“Making choices is how the artist comes to understand himself. These choices are correlated to one’s spiritual predicament, and the goal is a return to the self, the pursuit of spiritual values, and the summoning of spirits. These choices are inherently philosophical.” –Ai Weiwei3

Ai Weiwei is super active in the world of contemporary art, posting to his Instagram, posing as a drowned Syrian refugeedecorating Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 life jackets. Not all of the commentary about him is positive, and I’m sure that’s as he would like it. He’s stated in the past that he desires uneasiness; that he deliberately moves away from the self-indulgent comfort of creating things to use his skills or to get praise. He wants to think critically and to act on his convictions. He wants to unsettle and to motivate. Definitely from his own perspective, he is a conceptual artist, a political activist, and an advocate for self-discovery.

Ai’s art still depends—in a really essential way—on its visual impact. The striking visuals he’s able to concoct are the rhetoric he uses to promote his provocative agenda. He may not think of art as a “highly aesthetic practice,” but the work speaks for itself. Just think of his Sunflower Seeds. The work is less than compelling as a printed phrase: “One hundred million hand-sculpted, hand-painted porcelain beads, made to look like sunflower seeds.” As a realized artwork, it captivated people.

Ai thinks about the forms as a means to an end—his end is pointing others to self-consciousness, sparking in us a challenge to accepted systems of belief, provoking critical responses and inspiring action—but they’re still necessary means. They are his way of communicating. He can’t even be sure that his art will communicate what he wants it to do. All he can be sure of is that viewers will experience the physical artwork. Many of us who look at his works will come away with different conclusions; such is the open-endedness of art, politically-driven or otherwise. All we have is the thing, so I say, let’s look closely at it.

SAM’s one work by Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, is on view at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. It delivers what it promises. Nine ceramic vases are arranged in a pattern much like a bowling pin setup—there are three rows, with four vases in the back row, three in the middle row, and two in the front row—only the headpin is missing. The artist has applied a base coat of industrial paint in a bold hue—such as yellow, pink, lime green, or plum—to each vase. A second color in high contrast to the base layer covers the lips and shoulder of the vase, then drips down the body. Some vases have long drips like the tendrils of a plant, while others are shorter, like polychrome stalactites. The paint drips are irregular, and they seem natural.

Contrast is especially important to this work: there’s contrast between the traditional form of the ceramic vases and the bright and contemporary paint colors applied to them; contrast between the two colors on one vase, and contrast in the range of colors among the whole group; contrast between the normally grainy texture of a ceramic pot and the flatness of industrial paint. There’s probably contrast, too, between what Ai Weiwei thought of and what you take away.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Sources:

“Reconsidering Reality: An Interview with Ai Weiwei.” In Ai Weiwei: According to What? Edited by Deborah E. Horowitz. Prestel Verlag: Munich, London and New York, 2012. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in association with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2012-February 24, 2013; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 5-July 28, 2013; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, August 31-October 27, 2013; Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami, Florida, November 28, 2013-March 16, 2014; and Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, April 18-August 10, 2014.

“Making Choices.” Translated by Philip Tinari, from The Grey Book, November, 1997. Reproduced in Ai Weiwei. Phaidon Press: New York, 2009.


i. According to What, 38
ii. According to What, 39
iii. Ai Weiwei, “Making Choices,” 128

Image: Colored Vases, 2010, Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), ceramic with industrial paint, approx. 17 x 22 in. each. Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from the Estate of Robert M. Shields, 2013.33, Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

Object of the Week: Salad Days

Giving tours to young people through our big Jane Lang Davis Gallery in the Modern and Contemporary collection can be difficult. It’s impossible to avoid the fact that there’s a really large painting of a naked woman on the wall! Even if, as the tour guide, one forgets about it momentarily, kids will always bring the attention straight to that piece. Their stifled laughter, or even outright laughter, will probably derail conversation about anything else happening in the gallery. Once my focus is drawn to it, I feel simultaneously uncomfortable and totally compelled by the image. I get why they’re staring and pointing.

There’s a name for the painting with the naked woman: Salad Days. She’s just one half of a two-panel piece that measures seven by fourteen feet, rendering relational discord on a huge scale. The artist is contemporary American painter Eric Fischl. He has been creating uncomfortably naked paintings since the early 1980s, and there are few artists out there who do it better, or with more unsettling creep factor.

Fischl has described himself as a storyteller, an artist who aims to create scenes that are full of meaning. Whether that meaning is positive or negative does not matter to him; whether the viewer’s senses are offended does not matter either. Instead, he’s interested in radical openness and honesty. Many of Fischl’s paintings focus on awkward territory: enduring down time in an unhappy relationship, singing in the shower, or lounging unceremoniously in the buff. Over and over, he confronts viewers with scenes that are unusual for their bare honesty.

Of course there’s a very long history of naked people in art, and Fischl is hardly the first, last, or only artist to engage the subject. Most of these artists are working in one of two traditions: nude art, or naked art. The nude is an idealized figure, on display for the viewer, situated in a context that justifies, or makes more art history appropriate, the lack of clothes. Nakedness is all about the lack of clothes and flying in the face of propriety. Fischl fits squarely in the naked camp.

Venus and Adonis by Paolo Veronese

SAM’s collection has great examples of the nude genre too…

Salad Days pictures a private moment, and in doing so, turns it into something highly public. The woman’s physical nakedness comes to represent a psychological nakedness, where her private thoughts and actions come to the surface. This, like much of Fischl’s work, is a voyeuristic, intimate vignette—not an idealized display set up for our consumption. Imagining two sides of a conversation happening over the phone, he invites us to imagine how others act when we can’t see them. You’ll be thinking about it the next time you’re on a call…

IMAGE: Salad Days, 1984, Eric Fischl (American, born 1948), oil on linen, two panels, 84 x 168 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, © Eric Fischl. Venus and Adonis, 1570s, Paolo Veronese (Italian, 1528-1588) and workshop, oil on canvas, 88 3/8 x 66 ¼ in. Seattle Art Museum, Samuel H. Kress Collection, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Mosaic from the House of Menander with Zeus

One of the things we sometimes say around here about Dr. Richard Fuller, SAM’s founding director, is that he liked to collect things he could hold in his hand, and that maybe this had something to do with his love for rocks and geology. Even while he was planning for the museum’s opening in 1933 and then seeing it through its first years, Dr. Fuller pursued his second passion at the University of Washington. He studied geology through the whole of the 1920s, first earning his bachelor’s, then his master’s, and finally his doctorate, in 1930. Beginning in 1926 he also taught part-time at UW, and that led to his being named research professor in 1940. His connections in the world of archaeology brought him a fortuitous letter that same year.

The letter, reproduced here, came from Charles Rufus “C.R.” Morey, a distinguished professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University. He had recently published a volume on excavation findings at the ancient city of Antioch (The Mosaics of Antioch, published by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1938), a book that would be one of his many contributions to the field of art history. He was also a founding member of the College Art Association, which still remembers C.R. with its annual Charles Rufus Morey Book Award.

Letter to Dr. Fuller from Charles Rufus Morey

Writing on behalf of the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and its Vicinity, Morey offers Dr. Fuller and the Seattle Art Museum its pick of recently excavated mosaics. As Morey explains, they’re offered at bargain prices—25% to 50% off! Now, one of the reasons I feel a real kinship to Dr. Fuller is that he was always looking for a deal. He was wealthy, but not so wealthy, he figured, that he didn’t need to be smart with his resources and to push them as far as they would go. Thankfully for SAM, Dr. Fuller saw in Morey’s letter a great opportunity to build the museum’s collection of antiquities.

Dr. Fuller responded in a letter dated May 27, 1940, that the museum would like to purchase one item, the “fragment of the Sea God,” adding that he wished to “express our appreciation of the generous opportunity which you present for our participation in the extremely important excavations of your committee.” In SAM’s annual report for 1940, Dr. Fuller describes the chosen mosaic as a “very vigorous portrayal of Neptune.” This is the mosaic now hanging in our ancient art galleries on the fourth floor, titled Mosaic from the House of Menander with Zeus.

Later scholars have identified the main figure as Zeus, and not Neptune, but I would say that he’s very vigorous, indeed. He is seated on a throne, grasping a scepter in his left hand and reaching outward with his right. A halo or nimbus encircles his head and symbolizes his divinity. Almost unbelievably, SAM’s mosaic once formed part of the floor of a luxurious urban villa, about five miles outside of Antioch. Because they were durable and allowed for color and decoration, mosaics were actually used quite often as pavements in former provinces of the Roman Empire. I’ll speak for myself here, but my feet are totally unfit to tread on this, and I’m glad it’s hanging on the museum’s wall instead.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Right: Mosaic from the House of Menander with Zeus, 3rd-4th century, Roman, limestone and marble tesserae, 38 11/16 x 32 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 40.181.1; Left: Mosaic from the House of Menander with Figure, 3rd-4th century, Roman, limestone and marble tesserae, 15 x 23 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 40.181.2, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Letter to Dr. Fuller from Charles Rufus Morey.

Object of the Week: Anthony of Padua

You simply can’t miss the eye-catching posters and banners all over Seattle advertising our next special exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. When you come for the free opening celebration this week—and do come!—you’ll see huge paintings from private and public collections across the world, including a gem from SAM’s own collection.

Anthony of Padua, a painting in the very traditional method of oil on canvas, measures six feet tall by five feet wide. The figure is imposing, the decoration bright and busy. His is an empowering posture borrowed from the aristocratic patrons of art history and conferred to a young person of color. The rococo frills that surround him speak of the joy of excess.

He brings together, as Kehinde Wiley’s work often does, two worlds of swagger. The original swagger portrait (a real term in art history used even by stuffy academics) developed in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the time, those who had the funds to do so might pay an artist to paint them in a very flattering pose, wearing elegant and expensive dress, accompanied by symbols of their knowledge or power. The idea was to show off your status, wealth, and noble character. You wanted to impress those around you and those who would see your painting long after you were gone.

More recently, swagger has been mostly informed by looks, attitudes, and language developed in street culture. Kehinde Wiley’s work picks up on both points of reference, which, when we think about it, are not so different. Urban Dictionary’s top definition describes swagger as “How one presents him- or herself to the world. Swagger is shown from how the person handles a situation. It can also be shown in the person’s walk.” The way to attain it has changed across cultures and across time, but swagger has always been about getting respect by portraying self-confidence. It’s always played out through language, body language, and dress.

To build his new swagger portraits, Wiley has developed a practice of “street-casting” to choose the models for his portraits. Wherever he might find himself looking—and Wiley has taken subjects from places as diverse as Brooklyn and Brazil, India and Israel—he strolls the streets, more or less living his life, but also waiting for a moment of connection with another individual. He’s allowing chance to play a role in selecting who makes it into these paintings, and then onto the walls of a gallery or museum. The models come to the artist’s studio with the instruction to wear everyday clothing and express their personal style. That’s just how the model for Anthony of Padua posed and is portrayed here: with his own coat and patches, teal pants, and octopus necklace.

Anthony of Padua in Seattle Art Museum's European Galleries

Anthony of Padua arrived at SAM in 2013, shortly after he was painted. Here, he was not destined for the Modern and Contemporary galleries, but found his home right away in the European Baroque galleries, surrounded by the likes of Veronese and Anthony van Dyck—one of the most successful to ever do a flattering portrait.

The historical figure who informs the title of SAM’s Kehinde Wiley painting is Anthony of Padua, who lived 1195-1231, and who was canonized in 1232. I like to think that SAM’s painting, if only because it shares his name and a resemblance to another artist’s depiction of him, carries some of the presence and virtues of the saint. In life, Anthony of Padua became known as a devoted student, one with a remarkable memory, and as a convincing, charismatic orator. In the Catholic tradition, he cares for, and hears prayers from, the poor, the elderly, expectant mothers, travelers, and seekers of lost things. Fittingly for us here in Seattle, he is also the patron of fishermen, domestic animals, and mariners.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8, © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Robert Wade.

Object of the Week: The Judgment of Paris

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery,
serving something beyond me.

– “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes

Why do I visit museums and what do I hope to encounter there?

There are as many answers to that question as there are people to answer it, and actually more, because I would respond differently depending on the day. I might want something challenging and make it my goal to find something like that, or I might want to be awed by something made with otherworldly skill. But why would I go to the museum? What’s so significant about what’s here, and does it matter that I have to be here—and nowhere else—to see it? On some days I make the case for the museum by saying that the art in our galleries tells important stories in the history of the world, including ones that are still unfolding today.

Standing face-to-face with an original and unique artwork can be a deeply moving experience. I remember vividly when I “met” Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. I would argue, though, that the uniqueness—the idea that this thing is one-of-a-kind, and that only when I am standing with my two feet here, at this specific spot in the world, can I know it this way—is only part of the specialness of the museum. What completes it is the network of art-making across the whole of human history. It wouldn’t matter much to us if this were the only David by Michelangelo if not for the artist’s role in shaping the visual art of his time and managing to influence artists hundreds of years after his death. That entire conversation is what makes this moment of emphatic punctuation so gripping.

SAM’s painting of The Judgment of Paris by Lucas Cranach the Elder is not exactly notable for its uniqueness (though it is a pristine original). It’s a great painting because of its place in the story.

A highly productive artist and one who was especially drawn to this theme, Cranach produced at least ten similar paintings. There are wonderful examples in the collections of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the St. Louis Art Museum; and several European museums. Cranach has sometimes been criticized for the very fact that he was so productive. He established a studio and could be seen—from one perspective—as churning out pretty pictures, maybe investing less in the paintings, and making the artworks less remarkable.

The Judgment of Paris (detail)

From another perspective, he was a trailblazer: a skilled and highly successful artist. Cranach was a pioneer for the nude painting in Northern Renaissance art. In The Judgment of Paris, he’s couching his sexy idea in a scene from classical mythology that made it culturally acceptable. He paints the goddesses in three different, seductive poses. As the story goes, Paris, who is represented in the picture by the dozing fellow in armor, was on a hunting trip in the woods when he got lost, tied up his horse, and fell asleep. Mercury, here shown as an older man with an elaborate plumed costume, came to him in a dream to present him with Juno, Minerva, and Venus. His task: to choose the fairest. Maybe Cranach was remarking on the difficulty of rating goddesses when he painted these three almost indistinguishable nudes. That they are anatomically a bit awkward reflects the newness of the nude in Northern European art when Cranach was working.

The Judgment of Paris (detail)

While there are others like it, there are certain charms to this painting one can only enjoy in person. Cranach painted it on an unusually thick piece of oak that has gone back to its original curvature, as panels tend to do over time. The flat frame around the curved panel creates a quirky and interesting viewing experience. The intimate size of the painting and the precision of its detail are other features one can really only appreciate in the gallery. Apparently the painting is also magnetic to fingers: SAM conservators have had to care for it multiple times after folks put their grubby paws on it. If you feel so compelled, just think: it might be your last opportunity to see the original.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: The Judgment of Paris, ca. 1516-1518, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Wittenberg, 1472-1553), oil on wood, 25 x 16 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, LeRoy M. Backus Collection, 52.38.
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