“In a 1952 portrait, the sculptor Ruth Asawa holds one of her celebrated wire sculptures in front of her head, forming a rough square. The Seattle show will include a video of a Graham performance and a number of Asawa sculptures. Cunningham formed a close friendship with Asawa that lasted decades, and Carrie Dedon, who curated the exhibition for Seattle’s presentation, notes her ability to connect with fellow artists.”
“It’s no exaggeration to say the Langs assembled a world-class collection with a keen eye, particularly for artists who have only recently been getting their due, including Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston.”
“Artists move where it’s affordable. So finding places that are affordable so you can live in Seattle eventually again, whether it’s through programs where it’s a multigenerational household or friendships that can acquire property and hopefully build equity, it might be the way…. I really want to see the artists and musicians and creatives find places here. That’s it. I hope we can have places to be.”
“To root the exhibition in the reality of specific historical erasure, the curators created a space that embraces the memory of Seneca Village, a thriving 19th-century New York City community of predominantly Black property owners and tenants. It was situated not too far from the Met, on what is now the western perimeter of Central Park, or what remains the unseated lands of indigenous Lenape peoples, potentially representing multiple displacements and migrations.”
Every painting, drawing, and sculpture at Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Asian Art Museum, and Olympic Sculpture Park is thoroughly inspected and cleaned by our conservation department before being put on view. These supremely talented individuals are dedicated to maintaining the aesthetic and structural health of SAM’s vast and, in some cases priceless, collections.
Watch this video from Seattle Channel’s Art Zone to get to know the leader behind this department, Jane Lang Davis Chief Conservator, Nicholas Dorman. Nick discusses his upbringing, explains how he ended up at SAM, and walks viewers through how he and his team care for every work of art at all three locations. All the works featured in this video can be seen on view in Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at SAM through November 27, 2022.
In honor of National Ask a Conservator Day on November 4, we reached out to our Instagram community to see what questions they had for SAM’s conservation team. Nick, along with Senior Objects Conservator Liz Brown and Associate Conservator Geneva Griswold, took the time to answer them and give a bit more insight on their favorite memories at SAM—read their responses below!
What are some of the most time-intensive projects for SAM conservators to tackle?
Liz Brown (LB): Conservation treatments are time-intensive by nature! Small artworks treated in the studio take hundreds of hours to clean, treat, and document. Large, outdoor works such as those at the Olympic Sculpture Park get cleaned once a week, and then receive in-depth treatments, like a refreshed coating, each summer.
What background, formal education, and training is required to become an art conservator?
Geneva Griswold (GG): Paths into the conservation field can be circuitous, but many of us studied art history, chemistry, or are artists ourselves—conservation combines all of these interests! Formal entry into the field often includes the completion of a three-year graduate degree in art conservation with a specialty in objects, paintings, paper, textiles, books, or works on paper. Additional experience is gained through internships and fellowships.
What is your most cherished memory of working on SAM’s conservation team?
GG: One of my favorite memories is installing Yves St. Laurent: The Perfection of Style because it required teamwork from everyone in the department, plus local conservators who work in private practice, and conservators from France who travelled with exhibition. These collaborations are always the most fun because I learn a lot from my colleagues!
What has been your favorite artwork to restore/preserve while working at SAM?
LB: My favorite object is frequently what I am working on in the moment as each new work presents an opportunity to explore. Right now, I’m investigating cold cathode lights with artist Claude Zervas to prepare his artwork Nooksack for an upcoming exhibition.
How do you ensure you don’t change an artist’s intent when doing conservation?
Nick Dorman (ND): This important point is the subject of much concern and discussion. Treatments may be discussed with living artists directly, and conservators may collaborate with an artist’s foundation, community members, and others who are close to the work. We carefully research and document all work, and design every treatment to be reversible.
What aspect of conservation is misunderstood or overlooked?
LB: The title “conservation” can cause confusion it is often seen as rooted in a tradition of attempting to keep an object from changing. Sometimes this is a goal, but when considering treatment, we always consider the intangible aspects of the artwork. Thus, in conversations with stakeholders, we are looking to manage, change, and look to how that artwork lives best in a museum.
What is your favorite conservation tool?
LB: This is always changing, but one I come back to all the time is the very simple, yet versatile bamboo skewer. It’s wonderful in that it can be easily shaped to suit a variety of purposes. The wood box my father made for my small tools is also a favorite.
What’s the most interesting attempt you’ve seen a previous owner make to conserve an object? What did you have to do to correct/modify their attempt?
GG: I am currently working on a black lacquer wood sculpture. In areas where the black lacquer is missing, someone has colored the bare wood with a Sharpie marker to hide the unsightly loss. While well intentioned, this will be challenging to remove, if at all possible. Someone also used carpenter’s wood glue to reattach elements of the sculpture, however this type of adhesive has damaged the fragile lacquer. My treatment seeks to remove this adhesive and replace it with a more appropriate choice.
Any strange conservation stories to share?
ND: When I went to Italy in 2006 to research the original location of SAM’s Tiepolo ceiling fresco with former Chief Curator Chiyo Ishikawa, we found what seemed to be a very similar painting on the ceiling of the painting’s original home in Vicenza. The current custodian of the home said, “We have the Tiepolo, I don’t know what you have.” Turns out, we both have the Tiepolo! The surface of the original painting had been removed from the underlying fresco layers and attached to a new canvas support, eventually traveling across the world to grace SAM’s Porcelain Room ceiling. The remaining under-paint was left in place and was eventually retouched by a prominent Italian restorer.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in art conservation?
GG: Review the American Institute For Conservation and the Emerging Conservator Professional Network for resources. Informational interviews with conservators and conservation students can give a window into what the job entails on a day to day basis. Our roles vary immensely from museum to museum, and from institutional settings to private practice. Find a mentor who can provide sustained guidance—SAM conservators are happy to connect with you, get in touch with us!
Behind one of the most significant private collections of Abstract Expressionist and post-war art is a love story for the ages.
It started with a chance meeting between Jane Davis and Richard E. Lang at the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra. Within a year, the two were married and moved to Seattle. With a shared passion for the arts, Jane and Richard collected abstract works from artists across the United States which they showcased in their modest waterfront home.
Watch this video by the Friday Foundation to see how Jane and Richard’s extensive collection came together and how their legacy lives on in Seattle and its cultural community. Then, see 21 works from their personal collection in Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at SAM, on view through November 27, 2022. These exceptional artworks now live at SAM thanks to a gift from the Friday Foundation in honor of these local collectors. The recent Lang Collection gift is comprised of 19 outstanding artworks that transform SAM’s holdings of postwar art, making it the most significant collection of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.
“Rather than choose between abstraction or realism, Lawrence deftly navigated between the two. ‘He found narrative to be very important. That act of storytelling and reviving history and really thinking about events of the past and how you communicate those in a very modern way—it was really central to his practice and his process as an artist,’ [curator Theresa Papanikolas] said.”
“The Langs were intentional in collecting art, he said, listening to friends and dealers but ultimately making independent decisions about what they liked. They lived with these paintings and sculptures; everything they owned was up on the wall or on display. And in a similar spirit, this donation is intended for the public good—these babies need to be seen.”
“‘It was amazing how many people recognized me the first couple of years I was here,” said Turner. “While walking down the street, I would often get asked the question was I the chief librarian.’ That appreciation was a pleasant and welcome surprise, but it didn’t put more pressure on Turner. Rather, it increased his awareness that it was more than just library staff and the board of directors keeping tabs on his performance. The Seattle community would also be a vocal stakeholder.”
“[Curator Lydia] Gordon is pinning her hopes on the huge community of Lawrence’s former students and supportive gallerists and curators in Seattle, where the painter lived for the last three decades of his life after leaving New York. ‘Oh, we’re totally going to find them!’ she said firmly.”
Last week, the Seattle Times announced some major news for SAM: The museum received a gift of 19 artworks and dedicated funds for their care and conservation from the Friday Foundation, which celebrates the legacy of two exceptional, art-loving philanthropists. The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at SAM features significant examples of Abstract Expressionist and post-war European art and will be on view later this fall.
“Now the Bellini has been isolated in a room of its own, in a gallery bare as a monastic cell. Light falls, from the same angle as in the painting, through a small Breuer window that the Whitney and Met often obscured. As I sat in that empty room, the cold February sun streaming in, it felt like a space worth a pilgrimage.”
The Friday Foundation has gifted 19 significant Abstract Expressionist artworks from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection to SAM. In recognition of this occasion, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda, sat down with Lyn Grinstein, President of the Friday Foundation, to discuss the gift’s impact, her late mother and stepfather Jane Lang Davis and Richard Lang, and their love for Seattle and the Seattle Art Museum.
Catharina Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about the history of Jane and Richard Lang’s collection.
Lyn Grinstein: My mother had always been a visual arts person, but we had lived overseas most of our lives and moved a lot, so she didn’t have the chance to collect art. Dick cared deeply about Seattle and about the Seattle Art Museum, a critical pillar in the cultural community. When they married in 1966, my mother could finally settle down and Dick was about to discover contemporary art.
In 1968 they bought a house in Medina and spent the next two years completely remodeling it. By 1970 they were in a new house, with a new living room, and a new couch with a big empty wall above it. And Mom said to Dick, “I think we should get just one really good painting to put above the sofa.”
Dick had graduated from Stanford University and had made great connections there, so they went to his friend, Dr. Al Elsen, an eminent art historian in the Stanford Art Department. With his guidance, they ended up with their first acquisition, the 1951 Franz Kline masterpiece, Painting No. 11. The exhilaration of learning, selecting, negotiating, and acquiring that first painting was addicting, and they were hooked, eventually filling their house with art.
Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about watching the house gradually fill up with art. What was it like from your perspective?
Grinstein: Mom and Dick had a wonderful time with it. We would all gather when a new crate arrived, and I remember particularly when the Adolph Gottlieb was delivered. It came shortly before Christmas, and when I saw it, I said, “It looks like a great big Christmas decoration with that beautiful red burst.” Mom gave me this, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that” look.
Her office—where that ferocious 1960 Lee Krasner, Night Watch, and the brutally self-confrontational 1976 Philip Guston, The Painter, were facing each other—had been converted from a two-car garage, so the ceilings were low, and the room felt compressed. She enjoyed the tension between these two floor-to-ceiling tough paintings.
She created a mood of peace for the bedroom. Joan Mitchell’s The Sink was installed over the bed and dominated the room, flanked by Helen Frankenthaler’s contemplative Dawn Shapes. My mother and I sat on that bed, in front of that Mitchell and discussed every important decision in my life from the time I was 33 years old.
Manchanda: The Alberto Giacometti always looked so gorgeous in the living room near the windows.
Grinstein: Giacometti’s slender Femme de Venise II looked exactly like my mother. When they acquired it, she had that same hairstyle, and she had those long hands and legs and elongated body. I have a photo of her with her hair just like the Femme, standing in that living room in that same spot when the house was first completed.
Manchanda: What attracted Dick and Jane to these artists?
Grinstein: Abstract Expressionist art is so profoundly raw. When you think about the artists who were producing it, they were part of a community comprising intellectuals, many of whom had fled the most awful horrors in Europe. In America they had found a place where they could continue their rigorous inquiries without fear. That whole community—writers, architects, musicians, visual artists—met and exchanged ideas, each intensifying and clarifying the concepts of the other.
I think that was what attracted Mom and Dick to it. Neither one of them was a sentimental person. They were both smart, thoughtful, gutsy, and had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They were strong people and the art they loved was created by equally strong people.
Manchanda: Dick and Jane were longtime SAM Trustees and it’s extraordinary that this collection is coming to SAM at this time. What do you think their hopes were for SAM and the city of Seattle?
Grinstein: When they were collecting in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Northwest was considered a young, quickly-evolving region. Some people really cared about experiencing and sharing art, like Jinny Wright and Mom. And some, like Dick, cared especially about the civic progress and had high aspirations for the city. He knew that a world-class museum would be essential to Seattle’s evolution.
As trustees of the Friday Foundation, our assignment is to consider all the expressed intentions and indications of the benefactors throughout their lives, and work to realize them today. Those intentions had to then be transformed through significant gifts to fulfill their vision. And the big vision was that Seattle would be a globally important player, and the visual and performing arts would be critical contributors, attracting international recognition.
The Langs hoped that the most significant artworks in their collection would join others already at SAM, and those yet to be given from the region’s premiere collections. They knew that the extraordinary quality of these works together would enable SAM to mount internationally significant exhibitions, for SAM as well as in partnership with their peer institutions around the world. If we do a good job, these works will provide an emotional and intellectual escape from the noise of everyday life.
Let’s bring everyone in and invite them to get inside themselves. That’s what these paintings can do for us if we give them time and quiet attention. They will talk back to you. Find the fire of the Clyfford Still, the calm of the Mitchell, the twilight of the Mark Rothko. These are powerful human emotions, and they are just under the surface of these objects. But it takes time, and it takes the commitment of the viewer to linger and absorb the emotions within these works. We hope everyone who passes through the galleries at SAM will give themselves the precious gift of lingering with these distinguished and profound objects.