“Even as pandemic restrictions ease and theaters and clubs start to re-open, choreographers like Graney, Gosti and many others are struggling to stay in Seattle. Graney charges that nobody at City Hall, or anywhere outside the dance community itself, seems concerned that artists are being priced out of the city. ‘There’s no one at the helm who has an interest in dance,’ Graney maintains. ‘People don’t care, they just don’t care.’”
“At a time when many Black artists are being recognized for figurative art, Halsey has been making large-scale sculptures and reliefs. And while her installations may allude to economic hardship, gentrification, or gang violence, they convey an explosive sense of joy.”
One of the thrills of working on Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Waterwas the chance to collaborate with my colleagues, Barbara Brotherton and Natalia Di Pietrantonio. Of the many outstanding photographs that emerged from a collection that Natalia was familiar with, Edward Burtynsky’s Oil Spill #5 is now on view with other efforts to document how our species is enacting the desecration of water. Here is Burtynsky in his own words:
“When I first started photographing industry, it was out of a sense of awe at what we as a species were up to. Our achievements became a source of infinite possibilities. But time goes on, and that flush of wonder began to turn. The car that I drove cross-country began to represent not only freedom, but also something much more conflicted. I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat.”
– Edward Burtynsky
This image is of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The colors of the red emergency vehicles, the orange flare of the well flame, and the arc of water sprays appear minuscule against the backdrop of a blackening sea.
One of the agonies of curating is the need to reduce an artist’s corpus to a short paragraph, so I’d urge you to move on to hear from this artist to learn more about his process and intentions. Oil Spill #5 is part of a series he narrates in this video, Water—Where I Stand: A Behind the Scenes Look.
On April 12, 2022, Edward Burtynsky was awarded a SONY World Photography Award in London. In his acceptance speech, he spoke as the son of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, and deferred his contribution to honor others, saying, “Photography is about light conquering darkness. And as we speak, Ukrainian photographers are conquering an unimaginable form of darkness. I can think of no more outstanding contribution to photography than that.” More about Ukrainian photographers that he is supporting can be found on his website.
– Pam McClusky, SAM Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African Art
“The exhibition…brings together different cultural expressions to demonstrate that water is our shared concern and necessary to our shared survival. In that way, the Indigenous voices are the most resonant in their respectful and deep understanding. But seeing their work and their voices placed among so many other cultures demonstrates the interconnectedness of everyone on the planet.”
“This idea of dynamic identity and reclamation are echoed throughout Embodied Change and are told through the lens of the human body, specifically the female form. One thing that I believe unites these works is the burden of inheritance. There are certain things that we inherit through our heritage without us making the choice to do so. What we do choose, however, is how we carry this inheritance.”
“We want to show the more soulful and heartful way of Ukraine. That it’s not destruction, that it’s not a ruin, that it’s actually a very rich and deep history that gets passed on and carried on through generations.”
“Extraordinary Monuments to the Mundane”: The New York Times’ T Magazine profiles sculptor Woody De Othello as he looks forward to his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial. As we’ve shared in the past, a sculpture by this rising art world star was recently acquired by SAM for its collection and will go on view later this year.
“As if the result of a solo game of exquisite corpse, these composite creatures are oddly proportioned and at turns alluring and unsettling. Thus, Othello highlights the thrum of spirituality he finds in everyday environments.”
By the time De Wain Valentine moved to Los Angeles in 1965, the artist was already working with plastics. He had been introduced to them by his junior high shop teacher after the then-recent military declassification of the material following World War II and had been working with them on a small-scale ever since. Now in California, Valentine began sharing his experiences while working as a part-time faculty member at UCLA.
Having spent most of his life until that point in Colorado, Valentine has explained how the move influenced his art: “In Colorado, you don’t notice the sky so much because it’s crystal clear: always blue and always so beautiful.” In fact, the Latin name for the Colorado state flower is coerulea, which translates to “sky blue.” But as Valentine continued in a 2011 interview with the Getty Conservation Institute, “you can’t see [the sky in Colorado], so you always forget about it. But the sky in LA is very different: You can really see that—the smog and the fog.”1
For folks from the California coast, the “fog” is really the marine layer, a coastal air mass, usually occurring in the morning, which creates overcast skies that “burn off” around noon. The smog, however, especially in 1960s Los Angeles, was not only something you really could see, but threatened its own weather in the region. A front-page news report in the Los Angeles Times from October 1964 notes that “[s]weltering temperatures helped produce another blanket of smog over the Los Angeles basin Tuesday and touched off lightning storms which started at least three fires in the mountains.” In the next column over, a weather brief states “Light to moderate smog today.”2
Valentine is quoted saying that his extensive series of large-scale polyester resin sculptures are “all about the sea and the sky” and that being in Los Angeles allowed him to see “a new avenue to make sculpture that was completely atmospheric or like a chunk of the ocean cut out.”3 The translucent circles, columns, curved slabs, and sometimes UFO-shaped disks, come in a wide array of colors, from warm rose and orange to more New Age-y lavenders and turquoise, and many are several feet tall or wide. For example, his massive Gray Column (1975–76), made with black pigment that grows transparent and smoky as it tapers at the top, is an impressive 12 feet, like a slab carved from a smog-filled sky.
Circle Blue, with its cerulean gradient, however, is the work that most clearly evokes the ocean and sky, and, with its round shape, the planet. Like the other tall translucent sculptures, Circle Blue is made from a proprietary blend of polyester resin. Working with the manufacturer Hastings Plastics in Santa Monica, California, Valentine produced Valentine MasKast Resin in 1966 that, unlike previous polyester resins, could be used to create large, thick objects cast in a single-pour rather than in thin layers, without cracking or overheating.
After polyester resin’s initial use in the military and aerospace arenas, the cheap, sturdy, and durable material was quickly adopted by the automotive and maritime industries, but also used for small common objects like buttons and bowling ball cores. Polyester resin has a highly complex chemical structure that requires “curing” to transform the liquid resin to a solid. This part of the production process is probably the most toxic, as the most common agent used for curing is styrene, which the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services has listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”4 Polyester resin is also a plastic, and therefore made from fossil fuels.
Despite the material’s industrial applications, Valentine never really outsourced the production of his sculptures to a fabricator, a common practice for artists using industrial materials, including his peers in the Light and Space movement and in other Minimal Art groups. Pictures of him and his studio assistants clad in PPE (personal protective equipment) show the very hands-on process taken: weeks of sanding and buffing with hand-held machines usually found in an auto-body shop. Citing health concerns, Valentine later turned to using glass for some of his sculptures, but mainly so he could install his works outside: UV light and the potential for surface scratches could destroy the polyester resin sculptures.5 What the material afforded him, however, was a way to examine not just the surface of sculpture, but the (light and) space in between. “[T]he interior of the sculpture is so essential.”6
Reflecting on Circle Blue’s origins in 1960s and 70s Southern California’s smog, sea spray, and glittering oceans against today’s heightened climate crisis, the piece becomes not just an imaginative chunk of the sky, but also a transparent, precious, and conflicting sample of our world. It is both beautiful and a little toxic, strong but also fragile. At almost six feet in diameter, we can see ourselves in its surface, but we also see in and beyond it. Now on view in Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water at SAM, Circle Blue—in addition to many other works on display—prompts questions about our relationship to the planet: How might we preserve a chunk of the sea or sky today? How might we look beyond today and imagine our blue planet in the future?
– Mia C. Ferm, Project Manager, SAM Historic Media Collection
1 Tom Learner, Rachel Rivenc and Emma Richardson, “From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column” (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2011), 7.
2 “Heat, Smog, Lighting and Fires Pile Up Southland Weather Woes,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), Oct 7, 1964.
3 Tom Learner, Rachel Rivenc and Emma Richardson, “From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column” (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2011), 7.
4 National Toxicology Program, “Report on Carcinogens, Fifteenth Edition” (report, Research Triangle Park, NC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 2021).
5 Dorothy Newmark and Dewain Valentine, “An Interview with Dewain Valentine, Sculptor of Plastic,” Leonardo 4, no. 4 (1971).
6 Tom Learner, Rachel Rivenc and Emma Richardson, “From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column” (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2011), 12.
Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Waterdocuments the stories and histories of water in our world. Pulling exclusively from local loans and works in SAM’s permanent collection, the expansive exhibition features paintings, sculptures, textiles, and multimedia works by over 70 artists from around the world. Over the next 10 weeks, we’ll be talking with some of the contemporary artists involved with the exhibition about their artwork and the importance of water in their lives.
Born in 1963, Claude Zervas is best known for his light and video installations focusing on the topography and topology of the Pacific Northwest. In the 1980s, Claude attended Western Washington University to pursue a degree in geology and moved to Paris, France following his graduation. Although he spent many years working as a software engineer, Claude eventually decided to return to Washington and fully commit to his art practice and art production. Discover the story behind Claude’s 2005 sculpture, Nooksack, now on view in Our Blue Planet at SAM below.
1. What is your name and where are you currently based?
My name is Claude Zervas and I am based just outside of Bellingham, Washington.
2. What is the title of your artwork and how does it fit in with the themes explored in Our Blue Planet?
The title of my work is Nooksack. It’s a part of SAM’s permanent collection and has previously been on view in a couple of exhibitions at the museum. When piecing Our Blue Planet together, I think the curators thought to include my work because of its connection to one of our local waters. After deciding to include my work, I worked a bit with SAM’s conservation team to give the sculpture new life. We had to replace all of the lamps which proved difficult because the tiny little fluorescent bulbs I used are now, more or less, obsolete technology. Back in the day, they were used in scanners and back light for video displays but they’re not used so much anymore and are getting harder to find. But, I really like the delicate and thin light that they put out—nothing else really puts out that kind of light.
3. What thoughts, ideas, and/or perspectives do you want visitors to take away from your artwork in Our Blue Planet?
Nooksack stems from this really personal relationship to the Nooksack River that I had as a kid growing up near the water. And for some reason, as an adult, I still feel a kinship to it. I’m not totally sure why, but it’s a beautiful river. And this piece is an ode to the river based on my memory of it and acts as a sort of ‘thank you’ to it. In seeing my work, I want visitors to consider the bodies of water which exist around us and thank them for all that they do for us.
4. What other artworks in the exhibition stood out to you?
All of the works in this exhibition are incredible, but what really stood out to me was a quote I saw on the floor of the exhibition by Abby Yates. I don’t know why her words so deeply affected me, but they did. Just to see a voice representing the Nooksack people and the river I care about so much was a beautiful experience.
5. How do art and activism intersect? Why do you think it’s important for museums like SAM to curate exhibitions around environmental and societal issues such as water?
I’m not much of an activist but I think we can all agree on the importance of water on Earth. It’s hard to overstate considering we’re 90% water and without it we’d all be dead. It’s essential for us to continuously investigate and discuss the role it plays in our lives. Overall, I’m just pleased SAM thought it important to publicly acknowledge and highlight the various ways water impacts all of our lives—and I’m honored they decided to include my work in the exhibition.
At first glance, this might look like a typical trophy head found in a mountain lodge, but Sherry Markovitz has turned the conventional idea of a hunting trophy on its head in the creation of Sea Bear.
“I am after beauty, with an edge of uncertainty, vulnerability, and power,” she says of her artistic process. “I use animal metaphors to explore issues of intimacy, closeness, and separation.”1Sea Bear’s tranquil and inquisitive stare is a powerful celebration of peace and gentleness, highlighting a species historically honored as a dynamic part of a balanced ecosystem.
As the subject matter of countless forms of creative expression, polar bears may have appeared in art as early as 17,000 years ago in the Paleolithic cave of Ekain in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Below, two outlines resembling an adult and juvenile can be seen on the ceiling. Their elongated bodies look remarkably like polar bears. Perhaps they drifted south with pack ice off the coast of England during the icier years rounding out the Pleistocene.2 What we can be sure of is that they’ve been depicted in art and lore ever since.
Among the shared spiritual beliefs of the Inuit, polar bears are a living representation of resilience and determination, imbued with souls and regarded as brothers in a time when we did not take pre-eminence over other animals. Nanook, an almost man-like master of bears decided if hunters deserved success in their endeavors or punishment for violating taboos.3
This bear, crafted of wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, and papier-mâché, is the culmination of intertwined memories and experiences the artist had with nature and her loved ones.
“Emotionally, Sea Bear is circular, all the stuff on it is traceable to significant walks. Walks with my mother in Florida, walks in Port Townsend with Peter (during which time her son Jake was conceived), walks alone to find the ‘root’ pieces at Discovery Park. Walking on the beach is such a drifting and wonderful activity.”4
From a distance, Sea Bear offers up the impression of a familiar creature. Its intricate and subtle beadwork appears at first to be deceptively monochromatic. A step closer, however, reveals an otherworldly figure clad in the ocean’s bounty emerges. The beads are revealed to be six or seven shades of color, like gentle eddies of ermine pebbles undulating over sand. The eye is drawn towards the shadows cast by exhibition lighting on the bear’s outstretched neck and jaw, flowing into the sinuous curves of its pelagic collar.
“I see the ‘collar’ as directional—the wood shape and the bear shape working in tandem was the key (formally) on this one. I think the large pearls pulled the shape back to the bear. It’s funny, as I get further away from a piece, it is, in fact, the abstract concerns that remain the most visible to me.”5
Seattle is treasured for the water which surrounds it. From Lake Washington, fed by so many vital creeks and rivers, to the misty solitude of salt-scoured beaches along the Olympic Peninsula. Water inexorably affects our physical and cultural landscapes, it sustains and determines our way of life, and shapes our histories slowly over time like glaciers carving mountains. Sea Bear is an opportunity to reconnect to this life-giving force, to step outside of our immediate reality and transport us to the shores of our minds choosing where we can know the peace of our own walk along the water’s edge.
– Danelle Jay, SAM Curatorial Division Coordinator
1 Sherry Markovitz, quoted in 50 Northwest Artists: A critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in the Pacific Northwest, ed. Bruce Geunther, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1983, pages 80–81.
2 Digitized interior of Ekain, courtesy of the Society of Sciences Aranzadi.
3 C.R. Harrington, The Evolution of Arctic Marine Mammals, ed. A. Berta, Ecological Applications, Volume 18, Issue sp2, 2008, pages S23–S40.
“I think the hotel [as a museum] has the opportunity to somehow unveil or interpret the former Japantown area and the vibrancy that it used to have, leading all the way up to 1942,” [Karen] Yoshitomi said. “It provides the stage for all these other stories to be told.”
“To look at American art — and thus America — they sensed there was value in stepping just outside. The generative alchemy of a border town might offer clues for fresh thinking about other divisions: between racial or gender categories, the material and the spiritual worlds, the living and the dead.”
The Stranger’s Jas Keimig has an exit interview with Emily Zimmerman, as the director of the University of Washington’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery heads to the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery.
A long read from Noema Magazine: “Over a hundred miles southeast of Los Angeles, alongside the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach is a stretch of mud and sand wracked by hazardous dust storms, trash-filled lots and the smell of fetid algae. Its shores are also home to a burgeoning, surrealist art hub.”
“Working in the decades between Hiroshima and the American buildup in the Vietnam War, Giacometti portrayed an emaciated, uprooted, and pock-marked humanity living in a world on the brink — a precarious state of existence at least partially reprised by the biggest land war in Europe since Hitler.”
“I find the body an interesting repository for different changes,” Di Pietrantonio said. “Many artists are really thinking about … [the] emotion of the body and expanding the body as part of the landscape or rethinking the parameters of the body. I felt that the body and thinking about emotions was very important to connect to activism.”
“To me, this opportunity comes in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of API (Asian Pacific Islander) hate, you have January 6,” he says. “It is about ‘what are you going to do in this moment?’ The cultural capital, the social capital (of the Wing Luke) is the Batmobile. What is going to happen in the next year? It is going to take strong institutions like Wing to get through this.”
“It focuses particularly on modern contemporary artists that are activist artists that are emboldened and trying to change norms within society,” Di Pietrantonio explained. “I decided upon the theme based on current events, and what I thought Seattle audiences would be drawn to during this particular time.”
Grace Gorenflo of the Seattle Times on 10 years of “creative aging” programs at the Frye Art Museum “that allow individuals living with dementia to foster friendships and community through art.”
“Randy Rowland participated in multiple Creative Aging classes with his wife, Kay Grant Powers, before her death in 2019…‘My wife declined for a long time, and I hadn’t seen her operate at that level for a while. And then all of a sudden, there she was, kind of waxing poetic and talking about the painting that we’re looking at,’ he said.”
“Chief Curator Asma Naeem, one of the people who came up with the idea of security/curators, says they pick up lots of insights, and pass them along to visitors. Naeem remembers her early days of museum-going. ‘For me, walking into a museum for the first time was something very intimidating.’ Guards helped. ‘I felt like I could go up to one of the guards and hear their observations and comments, and just ease into being a visitor.’”
In celebration of Black History Month this February, we gave our Instagram followers an up-close look at artworks in Lauren Halsey, on view at our downtown location through July 17. Check back next month, as we choose a new SAM gallery to walk through as part of our live #SAMSnippets series and appreciate art from any location!
Highly attuned to growing gentrification in her neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, 2021 Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Award winner Lauren Halsey, who studied architecture and art, celebrates Black culture by making space for representations of the people and places around her as a method of creative resistance. In her installation at SAM, the artist shows works in which proud declarations of Black-owned businesses intermingle with images of Egyptian pyramids, the Sphinx, pharaohs, and queens, all drawn from a personal archive Halsey has developed through research and community interactions.
The tour begins with a look at four carved gypsum relief panels which line the perimeter of the gallery. These four works—all untitled and created between 2019 and 2022—are reminiscent of temple walls. Each of these panels features fictional advertisements for local Black-owned businesses in South Central Los Angeles.
The final work shown in the video acts as the centerpiece to the gallery. This large-scale sculpture of colorful boxes stacked atop one another represent the metaphorical building blocks for future architecture while resonating with imagery from the past.
Through her archive and daily life, Halsey strives to record the unique expressions of her neighborhood before the forces of capital erase them. Placing these hyperlocal portraits, signs, and imagery in the context of real and imagined histories, the artist remixes ancient and contemporary cultures into a unifying vision.
“On a recent Sunday afternoon, three art critics sniffed, prowled, jumped and climbed their way through a new exhibit. Khione gravitated to a colorful installation featuring cloth orbs and plastic linked chains. Oliver climbed on top of an austere, spiraling sculpture made out of 4x4s, plywood, masonite and carpet. And Luna sat in a small separate room, processing her impressions.”
Via Artnet: Another Super Bowl “friendly wager” of art sees a Robert Henri painting from the Cincinnati Art Museum heading to LA’s Huntington Library. SAM’s adventures in Super Bowl-ing in 2014 and 2015 are mentioned.
Tatler names “4 Power Couples of Design” from history, including the architects of the 1991 Seattle Art Museum building, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi.
“Halsey said it was one of her dreams in life to design a stage for Clinton to perform on that would match the scale of the maximalist P-Funk concerts of the 1970s. And why not? If nothing else, Clinton’s career has been an ongoing argument that anything is possible. He has a handful of live performances on the horizon, and when asked if he was planning to ever go back on tour, Clinton responded, ‘Oh, hell, yeah.’”
The SAM Research Libraries strive to develop digital collections that represent our unique holdings. Here, volunteer Kirsten Painter, discusses her efforts to digitize a unique set of slides that represents the 18th century French porcelain collection of two local collectors, Dr. Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche, and features objects now on view in SAM’s Porcelain Room. Digitization is a key method of preservation for unstable photographic media, and, in this case, preservation was especially necessary as this slide collection is the only visual evidence we have of the collection prior to it being dispersed to museums throughout the world.
A new digital exhibit from the Seattle Art Museum Research Libraries offers an illustrated introduction to the world of eighteenth-century porcelain. The exhibit showcases the Dr. Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche Collection of eighteenth-century works from the Vincennes and Sèvres Porcelain Manufactories, including several objects now in the Seattle Art Museum.
The exhibit offers a fresh view of collecting itself, including Dr. Fritzsche’s philosophy of art collecting and illustrated anecdotes about several of the pieces in his collection. In Dr. Fritzsche’s view, the collector is merely a “temporary guardian” of the art: “You live with the artwork for a while, you preserve it, then you pass it on. It doesn’t belong to you forever.”1
With high-resolution images of several dozen exquisite porcelain pieces, accompanied by explanations of décor, style, color, marks, and historical context, the Fritzsche Porcelain Exhibit also serves as a useful digital guide to anyone wishing to learn more about porcelain history or terminology.
With high-resolution images of several dozen exquisite porcelain pieces, accompanied by explanations of décor, style, color, marks, and historical context, the Fritzsche Porcelain Exhibit also serves as a useful digital guide to anyone wishing to learn more about porcelain history or terminology.
Dr. Fritzsche’s journey as a collector began by chance in 1974, when he happened upon a small tea set in a Seattle antique store run by the artist Jay Steensma; Dr. Fritzsche credits Steensma for inspiring him to become a collector.2
From then on, Dr. Fritzsche aimed not just to assemble a significant collection of porcelain, but also to conduct extensive research about each piece: his philosophy of collecting involved “chasing a piece down and finding out everything about it that I could.”3
It was on Dr. Fritzsche’s initiative that the French Porcelain Society was founded by Kate Foster (Lady Davson) in 1984.4 Read more about Dr. Fritzsche’s experience as a collector here.
Among the items highlighted in the Fritzsche Porcelain Exhibit are seven objects in SAM’s collection, on display in the Porcelain Room, such as the magnificent blue Flower Vase (cuvette à fleurs Courteille), which originally belonged to Madame de Pompadour, and is notable for its painting of the maritime Battle of Solebay. Julie Emerson credits Dr. Fritzsche himself for unearthing this object’s relation to Madame de Pompadour’s inventory, while the vase was part of his collection.5
More easily overlooked, but exquisite in its minuteness, is the Three-Legged Teapot(théière à trois pieds), located in the “Early Porcelain” case on the left (northern) wall of the Porcelain Room.6 Its white body, gilded with a fanciful bird design, stands on paw-like feet with gilded toes. Its surprisingly tiny size could be due to the eighteenth-century custom of brewing a small, concentrated amount of tea, to be later diluted with hot water,7 a custom still prevalent in Russia, among other places. Dr. Fritzsche tells the colorful story of how he acquired this rare teapot in Paris here.
Just to the right of the little Teapot in the “Early Porcelain” case is the elegant Sugar Spoon(cuillière à sucre), whose dual gilded handles are intertwined like sinuous vines. Such spoons, designed most likely by Jean-Claude Duplessis, the artistic director at Sèvres, were exceedingly rare due to the fragility of the handle.8 Stella Fritzsche notes that this spoon was one of her favorite pieces in their entire collection. Read more about Stella Fritzsche’s memories of their collecting years here.
Another inherently fragile structure is the footed eggcup on a narrow stem; like the spoon, it is rare because easily breakable, so this style was later replaced with a more durable footless eggcup model.9 Two such footed Eggcups (coquetiers à pied), on slender stems, each adorned with colorful painted flowers, are in the “Botanicals” display case, on the right (southern) wall of the Porcelain Room.
The Litron Cup (gobelet litron), delicately painted with Chinoiserie décor, is an eye-catching embodiment of the eighteenth-century fad for the Chinese style. It stands prominently at the center of the “West Meets East” display case in the Porcelain Room (left/northern wall). This teacup shape, the Litron Cup(gobelet litron), was the most frequently produced at the Sèvres factory; its straight-sided, cylindrical form was modeled after a traditional wooden measuring cup for salt and grains.10
The Fritzsche Collection contains several examples of the litron teacup style. Read more in the exhibit about other shapes of teapots and teacups (Calabre Teapot, Bouillard Cup), and eighteenth-century tea-drinking habits.
Aside from the objects from the Fritzsche Collection now in SAM’s Porcelain Room (read the complete list here), the Fritzsche Collection contains almost 100 images of porcelain now residing in museums and collections worldwide.
The rich histories of selected distinctive pieces, such as the Catherine the Great Service, are highlighted in the exhibit. Some objects have unexpected backstories. The hunting scene on the pink Wine Bottle Cooler was likely inspired by Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s tapestries, and may represent King Louis XV on a stag hunt.11 Read more in the exhibit regarding the way scenes of hunting parks underscored Louis XV’s domestic agenda and persona as the “hunter-king.”12
The Fritzsche Collection contains a rich variety of bird imagery, from the scientifically inspired Buffon birds on Dodin’s Partridge-Eye Plate(assiette, œil de perdrix) to the fantastical, extravagantly plumed birds on pieces by Thévenet and Chappuis.
Delving back into the forgotten lives of the porcelain painters and gilders who decorated these objects, the exhibit also attends to life within the factory community itself. Some of the artists arrived at Vincennes or Sèvres as apprentices, as young as age nine, and stayed there for their entire lives; their wives and children often worked at the factory as well.13 The exhibit includes biographies of these little-known figures and an illustrated sampling of the evocative, mysterious painters’ marks that have fascinated porcelain scholars for generations.
The Fritzsche Porcelain Digital Collection was created between 2017 and 2020. The project included digitization of Dr. Fritzsche’s slides, interviews of the Fritzsches from 2018–19 about their lives as collectors, research into the historical context and style of pieces in the collection, and creation of an exhibition website meant to provide broader context to this magnificent collection, both within the eighteenth century when these objects were made, and within the twentieth century when they were most recently collected.
– Kirsten Painter, SAM Volunteer, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library
1 Ulrich Fritzsche, interview conducted and transcribed by Kirsten Painter, Seattle Art Museum Bullitt Library, November 12, 2019.
4 “Inspired by the collector Ulrich Fritzche of Seattle, who organized a first informal dinner, our founder’s goal was to bring together collectors, museum curators, dealers, auction specialists and enthusiasts so they could enjoy each other’s company, share their passion for French porcelain, and promote its study” (“Our History,” The French Porcelain Society, 2021, https://www.thefrenchporcelainsociety.com/about-us/our-history/).
5 Julie Emerson, “Victory at Sea: A Vincennes Cuvette Painted with a Battle-Scene,” French Porcelain Society Journal 3 (2007): 66n19; Ulrich Fritzsche, “Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche Collection of Vincennes–Sèvres Porcelain,” unpublished manuscript, Seattle Art Museum Library Archives/Special Collections (Seattle, 2018), 7, https://samlibraries.omeka.net/items/show/2991.
7 Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie (1757–80), cited in Rosalind Savill, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain (London: Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 1988), 2:490.
8 Svend Eriksen, Davids Samling: Fransk porcelæn/The David Collection: French Porcelain (Copenhagen: Davids Samling, 1980), 66; Svend Eriksen and Geoffrey de Bellaigue, Sèvres Porcelain: Vincennes and Sèvres 1740-1800, trans. R. J. Charleston (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 275.
9 Eriksen and De Bellaigue, Sèvres Porcelain, 305.
10 Rosalind Savill, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain (London: Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 1988), 2:501.
11 Ulrich Fritzsche, “Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche Collection of Vincennes–Sèvres Porcelain,” unpublished manuscript, Seattle Art Museum Library Archives/Special Collections (Seattle, 2018), 14, https://samlibraries.omeka.net/items/show/2991; The Huntington Art Museum Catalog Online, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens (San Marino, CA), no. 27.52, accessed August 2021, http://emuseum.huntington.org/collections.
12 Julie Anne Plax, “J.-B. Oudry’s Royal Hunts and Louis XV’s Hunting Park at Compiègne: Landscapes of Power, Prosperity and Peace,” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 37, no. 2 (2017): 102–19, doi: 10.1080/14601176.2016.1169709; Colin Bailey, “A Long Working Life, Considerable Research and Much Thought: An Introduction to the Art and Career of Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755),” in Oudry’s Painted Menagerie: Portraits of Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. Mary G. Morton (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007), 10.
Imogen Cunningham often took photographs of unsuspecting strangers on the street. Uncomfortable with confrontation, she found beauty in capturing daily public life without interference. At times, she used windows, spun around, or bent over and pretended to be searching for something in her purse to distract from the sound of her camera’s click. She called these surreptitious photographs “stolen pictures.”
Double Image, Sutter St. and Fillmore marks a stark contrast from Cunningham’s typical street photographs. In this image, her subject—a Black woman dressed in a long coat, stockings, and heels—has spotted Cunningham. Waiting for the bus, her right eyebrow is raised as she looks directly into the camera.
The woman’s stare is intensified as the image is cleverly reflected off of a storefront window, dividing the composition down the center, and creating a “doubled” illusion. Cunningham was fascinated with this effect and often used mirrors or glass to create this perspective.
In this audio recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Chris Johnson, chair of the photography department at the California College of the Arts, discusses Cunningham’s “stolen pictures” and the changing dynamic shared between Cunningham and her subject after being spotted. Tune in to all 13 recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location through February 6.
Double Image, Sutter St. and Fillmore, ca. 1940
Narrator: Taken in Cunningham’s San Francisco neighborhood, this photograph captures two figures waiting for a bus. On the right, a man wearing a hat holds a paper bag. In the center, a woman stands dressed in a winter coat with her purse at her feet.
Chris Johnson: She’s giving Imogen a very strong direct gaze and there’s nothing reticent about that gaze and I think Imogen liked that because she was a strong outspoken woman herself.
Narrator: The image is doubled in the reflection of the storefront window on the left. Cunningham was fascinated with this effect, something she first encountered in the compositions of eighteenth-century Japanese prints. She often used mirrors or glass to create this perspective. The doubling effect places the woman in the center of the image and creates a dynamic between individuals, including the photographer.
Chris Johnson: The implied relationship between the photographer and the woman who’s giving her that gaze… between the black woman and the white man who is presumably ignoring both of them,Imogen and this black woman are in their own world. The white man is in his other world. He has his back turned to us. So Imogen is affirming her allegiance to this black [woman] and I really think the meaning of the image resides there.
Narrator: These “stolen pictures”, as Cunningham called her street scenes, were sometimes taken without the subject’s knowledge and represented a stylistic departure for her. But in this case, the central figure directly confronts Cunningham, and us.
Chris Johnson: Isn’t this a clear example of photographic seeing, you know, the way that the camera sees differently than the way eyeballs see?
“Imogen was always after capturing a moment in time. It wasn’t a perfect moment—it was just a moment that spoke to her.”
– Meg Partridge
Hear Meg Partridge, Imogen Cunningham’s granddaughter and Director of the Imogen Cunningham Trust, discuss one of her favorite Cunningham photographs, Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture. Capturing Asawa at work in her studio with her young children beside her, the photograph, explains Partridge, illustrates the close relationship Cunningham shared with the Asawa family and marks a contrast from many of the major themes Cunningham explored throughout her career.
Accompanying this image in the exhibition are seven sculptures created by Ruth Asawa herself. On view for the first time in Seattle and exclusive to this venue, the works demonstrate the inextricable link between these two artists as Cunningham’s photos of Asawa’s sculptures gained widespread attention for the artistic pursuits of both women.
Hands play a prominent role in the work of Imogen Cunningham. Many of her most recognizable photographs focus on the movement of hands and their connection to the body. In Hand Weaving with Hand, the shadow of a hand with spread fingers protrudes from the lower left side of the image. Although the majority of the photograph is composed of a thin, rumpled fabric with vertical stripes, it is the ambiguity of this shadowed hand which captures the viewer’s attention.
Tune in to this audio recording to hear nonbinary Black transfem choreographer and dancer Randy Ford explore Cunningham’s use of hands throughout her work and relate it to her own dance production, Queen Street. Hear this and other audio recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectivewhen you visit the Seattle Art Museum.
Hand Weaving with Hand, 1945
Narrator: While the right side of this photograph is dark, filled with billowing folds of a draped cloth, the left portion is backlit, and the fabric hangs flat. Behind the weaving, a light silhouettes a hand with fingers splayed. This hand is what first caught the eye of Seattle native Randy Ford, a dancer and choreographer.
Randy Ford: So I just think the hands are very interesting. You know, we create a lot of things with our hands. You know, we draw. We open doors. We close doors. We celebrate with our hands. They just play a really huge part in our lives and choreograph what we do every day. I don’t think of dance as just something that you do with your legs and your body and your torso. You know you can do a lot of expressing with just your hands, which is probably just why I again gravitated toward this shadow of a hand on this masterpiece of a sheet. The hands really kind of direct us a lot of places.
Narrator: In her portraits, Cunningham often zeroed in on hands—tickling the keys of a piano, delicately playing a violin, or shaping the rim of a clay pot. This singular, open palm appears to almost clap the suspended weaving. Is this the hand that made it? Is it presenting the cloth proudly… lovingly? As with so many of Cunningham’s photographs, the layering—in this case of fabric, lighting, and shadow—and ambiguity allow for multiple interpretations. Randy Ford, who recently told her own complex transition story in her dance production, Queen Street, can relate.
Randy Ford: I love making work that, is definitely visually appealing, but I also want people to realize what they’re looking at or maybe where their feelings are coming from. There’s definitely just a lot of depth within this simple-looking image and that’s why I chose it. It was very simple but still complex. It had like a little bit of a story. It invoked something about creation for me as a choreographer and director and an artist myself. I always kind of just wonder what are the beginnings of things? You know, things aren’t just the way they are just because they appear to us.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Photo: Hand Weaving with Hand, Imogen Cunningham, 1945. Gelatin silver print, Image: 13 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. Collection of The Imogen Cunningham Trust.
“‘The thing that’s interesting is because this uncertainty is still in place, we still don’t know what those changes are going to be,’ Cruz said. ‘We have learned that we have to be nimble, and we’re learning to be nimble.’”
“It’s exceedingly common for artists’ output in popular, ephemeral contexts—cartooning, illustrating, advertising, and the like—to be taken less seriously than their endeavors in more traditional artistic media. In this case, that needs to change, and Bearden’s images should be kept in mind as the conversation about Guston continues to play out.”
In June 1920, Imogen Cunningham’s husband, Roi Partridge, accepted a teaching position in the art department at Mills College, a private liberal arts school for women in Oakland, California. With their three young sons, Cunningham and Partridge moved from San Francisco to an old house situated near campus which initially had neither plumbing nor electricity.
While in Oakland, Cunningham established herself as a well-educated woman and progressive role model in the community. She offered Mills College students uncensored advice about their professional aspirations and her home came to be recognized as a safe haven for private discussions about sexuality and family planning.
One important stream of income for Cunningham at this time was photographing Mills College student portraits, dance performances, and campus architecture. Her photograph, Mills College Amphitheater (ca. 1928), captures the curved concrete design of the college’s outdoor auditorium. The image, likely inspired by the work of American photographer Paul Strand, plays with abstract geometric forms created by sunlight and shadows.
In this audio recording from the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveat the Seattle Art Museum, nonbinary black transfem choreographer and dancer Randy Ford discusses the significance of this image within Cunningham’s larger body of work. She points out Cunningham’s decision to forgo photographing the amphitheater’s stage, opting instead to play with the shadows and sunlight of the empty audience.
Mills College Amphitheater, ca. 1928
Randy Ford: My name is Randy Ford. I use she/her and goddess as pronouns, and I’m a nonbinary Black transfem, just out here trying to live and make art that’s going to change the world.
Narrator: Imogen Cunningham’s photo of an outdoor amphitheater reminded Randy, a choreographer and dancer, of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle where she staged her first full-length performance, Queen Street.
Randy Ford: I’m also a Greek drama nerd, and so this just looks like a Greek amphitheater like back in the day. It looks like a coliseum.
Narrator: The photograph was actually taken at Mills College, a women’s liberal arts college in Oakland, California, where Cunningham’s husband taught. She often photographed architectural elements on campus, including the amphitheater. There is no stage in Cunningham’s abstract interpretation. Instead, we see only curved concrete rows and rectangular steps highlighted by sunlight and shadows.
Randy Ford: Cunningham was very much just like, yeah, you know, the audience is the show. It’s not always about what’s on stage. It’s kind of like what’s the environment? What’s the tone? What time of day is it? Was this right before the performance? Was this an empty show where no one showed up? Audience plays a huge role in live performance. As a live performer, I live for an interactive audience. Just let me know you’re here. Let me know you feel me because, performers are also humans.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Photo: Mills College Amphitheatre, Imogen Cunningham, ca. 1928, Gelatin silver print, Image: 8 1/8 x 12 1/4 in, Collection of Gary B. Sokol.
In 1950, Imogen Cunningham’s son Randal introduced her to Japanese-American artist Ruth Asawa. Despite their 43-year age difference—Asawa was 24 and Cunningham was 67 at the time—the two artists quickly developed an unbreakable bond.
“Asawa and Cunningham placed a priority on relationships and refused to choose between the life of family and their art,” explained art historian and curator Daniel Cornell of their friendship. “They shared a similar fate as the critics who labeled their work feminine as a way to suggest its inherent inferiority to the work of male artists.”1
Over the next two decades, Cunningham and Asawa’s careers regularly intertwined. For the cover of the June 1952 issue of Arts & Architecture magazine, Cunningham photographed a few of Asawa’s wire sculptures, developed four individual prints, and mounted them on a single board. In 1964, Aperture magazine used a photograph Cunningham had taken of another of Asawa’s sculptures on the cover of its winter issue.
In a drafted letter recommending Asawa for a Guggenheim Foundation grant, Cunningham wrote of her friend: “However remote and obscure Ruth Asawa’s project may seem to most of us, I have very strong reasons to believe that she can achieve a real improvement in building ornament by carrying it out… To me, she is what I call an unfailingly creative person and there are very few of them.”2
Listen to this audio recording to discover the backstory of one particular photograph Cunningham took of Asawa and her family in 1957. Produced by the Seattle Art Museum, this recording includes a discussion by Japanese and Chinese Canadian photographer Kayla Isomura on the significance of Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture and its influence in her own work. Learn more about this image from SAM’s personal collection and Ruth Asawa’s legacy here, then see it on view alongside Ruth Asawa’s sculptures now in Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at SAM through February 6.
Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957
Narrator: Photographer Kayla Isomura.
Kayla Isomura: I really enjoyed this image actually because of how candid and sort of natural it is, and it’s so every day in a way, but there’s also this interesting juxtaposition of just the art that takes up so much of the space. I’m not even sure if I should be looking at the sculpture or the kids, but I think just all of that put together, for me it just seems very intriguing as an image.
Narrator: Cunningham often photographed Asawa’s sculptures, but this image incorporates the domestic studio. Beneath the central sculpture sits a baby drinking from a bottle and a girl with a stick. Partially hidden by the suspended work, a third child watches as his mother pulls wire from a spool to begin another looped sculpture. A fourth child crouches on top of a low table.
Kayla Isomura: It doesn’t feel like the family or the kids are necessarily aware that the camera is there. They’re just kind of doing their own thing.
Narrator: Like her sculptures, in which open weaving reveals forms inside the forms, multiple facets of Asawa’s life are on view. You can see several of Asawa’s sculptures in this gallery. Asawa, her parents, and five siblings were among approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent incarcerated during World War II. In her work, The Suitcase Project, Kayla, a fourth-generation Japanese and Chinese Canadian, asked Japanese Americans and Canadians what they would pack if they were forced into an internment camp. The process raised questions about the complex relationships among artist, subject, and identity.
Kayla Isomura: Something that in recent years that I’ve really come to consider is this sort of question of who is allowed to do this work. Do you have that connection, or do you feel this as part of your identity if this is what you want to do? Or can you work with somebody who has a closer connection if you do not?So is it enough that the subjects in their work, are maybe being represented? Or, does it matter equally as much that the person behind the work, you know, has that direct connection, to whatever it is that they’re documenting? And I think those are the questions that I have.
“Folding, wrapping, layering, and weaving are part of some of life’s most important events in Japan: birth, marriage and death. At such significant times in one’s life, the care taken to fold, wrap and layer shows respect and consideration. This carefulness, and astounding craftsmanship, is on full display at the exhibition.”
“This is so, so, so important for giving voice to people who might not have a voice in our society,” [Shunpike Executive Director Line] Sandsmark said. “I’ve been in many situations where I’ve been able to see how impactful the arts are in really supporting a healthy society. It’s a wonderful way to make the space available and accessible to people, to artists, who have lost so much space, who have been displaced because of gentrification, to focus on and create more opportunity for those who have had less opportunity in the past.”
The lede from Artnet’s Sarah Cascone: “A year ago, before the smoke had fully cleared after a group of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building, curators and historians were already grappling with the complicated question of how best to preserve the historical record.” Read the rest about the rapid-response collecting for January 6 artifacts.
“The 717-gigapixel photo allows viewers to zoom in on Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and see how the 17th-century master put the tiniest of white dots in his eyes to give life to the painting’s main character. It also shows the minute cracks in his pupils, brought on by the passage of time.”
“The story that’s happening right now is we are in a struggle to be more human.”
– Barbara Earl Thomas
For more than a year, SAM visitors were mesmerized by the intricate and detailed cut-paper artwork of Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas in The Geography of Innocence. On the final few days of the installation, SAM sat down with Thomas to discuss how her breathtaking installation came together.
Watch this video to learn about the importance Barbara placed on bringing light into her work, her experiences working with children as models, the story behind the catechism in the installation, and the lessons she hopes her portraits impart.
In Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse, Imogen Cunningham captures a moment of joy with two of her young grandchildren, Joan and Loren, as they experiment with the effects of a warped mirror. Despite the playful nature of the image, Cunningham remains stoic in photographing herself. Her face points down as she looks into the viewfinder of her black and silver-lined rectangular camera which she steadies with both hands. She is small in comparison to her grandchildren, whose elongated arms stretch the entirety of the image, but identifiable by her white hair, gemmed cap, and metallic glasses.
Tune in to this audio recording to hear Imogen Cunningham’s granddaughter, Meg Partridge, discuss Cunningham’s relationship with her grandchildren. Produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Partridge describes how this image came together and emphasizes Cunningham’s signature artistic style. Listen to this and other audio recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectivewhen you visit the exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum through February 6, 2022.
Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse, 1955
Narrator: An outing with two of her granddaughters and a fun house mirror provided Imogen Cunningham with an irresistible subject. Meg Partridge, granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham.
Meg Partridge: Imogen was really being very playful as she always was with photography.
Narrator: Partridge was only two when this photograph was taken, and too young to tag along. Instead, we see her older sister Joan, in the middle with both hands raised, and her cousin Loren, on the right with a hyper-elongated arm.
Meg Partridge: Imogen did not spend a lot of time taking grandchildren places and doing grandmotherly-like things. She enjoyed children once they became, as I would say, of interest to her. They could be articulate. They could have opinions. They could share thoughts.
Narrator: Cunningham worked while raising her three sons, and continued to do so once their children came along.
Meg Partridge: Looking at her work, you can see some of the same subjects coming in again and again. So we see many photographs of Imogen looking into her camera and photographing herself in a reflection or often in a shadow as well.But another is a very sort of surrealistic view that she took with her camera.
Narrator: Unlike the distorted versions of her granddaughters, her reflection in the self-portrait remains relatively true. We get just a glimpse of her grey hair beneath an embroidered cap and one-half of her eyeglasses, as her hands adjust the dials on her ever-present rolleiflex camera.
Meg Partridge: She was able to capture great shots that were unexpected because she had a camera around her neck and she just always wore it.
When talking about biblical studies, Rabbi Emily Meyer once said, “every translation is a commentary.” This is true, not only for verbal and written languages, but also for the language of visual art, particularly when it comes to biblical interpretation, where artistic design choices can change the context of the narrative. Alessandro Algardi’s Early Modern Italian relief sculpture, The Sacrifice of Isaac, is a prime example of how art can act as its own biblical commentary, both through image alone and in conjunction with verbal interpretation.
The Sacrifice, or Binding of Isaac narrative, is found in Genesis, the first book of Torah, also called the Hebrew Bible, chapter 22. In the chapter, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, but he is stopped at the last moment by an angel, who tells Abraham he has proved his fear of God, and he instead sacrifices a nearby ram (or lamb in some interpretations).
In the original narrative, the angel calls out to Abraham as he is about to strike.1 Abraham simply responds, “Here I am.” Yet, in Algardi’s visual interpretation, the angel grabs onto the knife mid-swing, as if needing to physically halt Abraham’s actions, removing some of the sense of agency Abraham may have had in the original text; it is not Abraham’s choice to pause in his actions, but a result of forceful intervention by the angel. This compositional choice therefore acts as visual biblical commentary, adding to, and expanding upon, interpretations of the original text.
Similarly, Algardi chose to portray Isaac as an older adolescent kneeling on the altar with his head hung low, as if resigned to his fate. Much religious commentary has been written about Isaac’s age, as the story found in Torah does not mention any detail about Isaac, his thoughts, or his actions. Some interpretations portray him as an innocent young boy who is complacent and oblivious to his fate, others as a young man, aware and accepting of his fate. These varying interpretations can change the meaning of the narrative for different religious groups and are reflected in visual depictions across almost 2,000 years. Algardi’s Isaac falls closer to the “aware and accepting” interpretation. This tracks with Christian interpretations of the narrative, in which the character of Isaac is viewed as typological, a precursor or prefiguration to the sacrifice of Jesus. Considering that this object was undoubtedly made in and for a Christian setting, this compositional choice is no surprise.
It is a worthy endeavor to look at different portrayals of the Sacrifice of Isaac from across different religious groups, geographical backgrounds, and time periods to understand how the same original text may change—or maintain—meaning, representation, importance, and impact depending on its context. Each visual translation of the story, from contemporary versions like the painting by Marc Chagall, to late antique portrayals like the mosaics found in the 6th century CE Beit Alpha Synagogue in Israel and Basilical of San Vitale in Italy, truly is its own commentary.
– Abby Massarano, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art
1 10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11The angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham, Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” Jewish Publication Society, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 40.
Image: The Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1638-39, Alessandro Algardi, Terracotta with white paint, 31 1/2 x 22 1/4 x 4 in., Overall h.: 33 in., Overall w.: 24 in., Overall diam.: 6 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.109.
In this soft-focused black and white photograph, a woman is visible from the waist-up. She sits in three-quarter profile and wears a loose, white robe which emphasizes her pale skin. This woman, who glows in contrast to the dark, hazy background which surrounds her, is miniaturist painter Clare Shepard.
Imogen Cunningham photographed her friend, Shepard, at the peak of the pictorialist movement. This movement saw photographers approach cameras as a tool—similar to a paintbrush—that made an artistic statement. Rather than capturing the real, pictorialism emphasized the beauty of a subject and an image’s composition.
In this audio recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Chris Johnson, chair of the photography department at the California College of the Arts, considers the pictorialist approach Cunningham took in creating The Dream (Nei-san-Koburi)and the romantic feelings it relays. Listen to this and the rest of the audio tourwhen you visit Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at our downtown location as part of the exhibition’s free smartphone tour.
The Dream(Nei-san-Koburi), circa 1910
Chris Johnson: It’s a kind of a classic, romantic, pictorialist image of a young beautiful woman.
Narrator: Chris Johnson, chair of the photography department at the California College of the Arts.
Chris Johnson: You can see that Imogen is very sensitive to the falling of light and shadow over this young woman.
Narrator: The atmosphere around her, seems to glow. Diffused light falls on her headscarf and the folds of her painter’s smock. Her eyes are half closed, as if in a trance. The close framing of the portrait keeps the background abstract. The subject is Clare Shepard, a friend and miniaturist painter.
Chris Johnson: Imogen, in her heart of hearts, was really a romantic and a romantic takes her feelings very seriously so her feelings as she was projecting them on to this young woman are pretty clear.
Narrator: The otherworldly portrait hints at Shepard’s rumored abilities as a clairvoyant. The image exemplifies pictorialism, an approach that prioritized beauty and expressiveness, composition and atmospheric effects. The movement rejected the realistic, documentary nature of photography and instead looked to painters as artistic influences.
Chris Johnson: One of the ideas behind the pictorialists was that you would use the soft-focus technique as a trope to indicate dreamy, romantic, ethereal, spiritual qualities. She’s catching this moment when Claire is lost within thought and it intends to try to draw us into the mood space that she’s occupying using pictorialist soft-focus as a formal strategy.
Narrator: When Cunningham took this portrait around 1910, Pictorialism was at its peak. Cunningham had recently opened her own studio in Seattle after studying photographic chemistry in Germany. The photograph marked a specific, early period in her career.
Chris Johnson: All of her photography subsequent to this phase is in marked contrast to the visual effects of this image.
“But [Cascadia Art Museum curator David F.] Martin…said he’s had issues getting major museums to accept Nomura’s work, always getting the same response: that the paintings would better fit in a Japanese historical museum. This bothers Martin, who views Nomura as an American artist. ‘He was integrated in the art society here,” he says. “Why should I separate him by his ethnicity?’”
“Although each shop shares its sensibility—and its profits—with the larger institution it is attached to, many of the smaller and funkier museum shops stuff their shelves with eccentric trinkets that echo the museum’s aesthetic more in spirit than in substance.”
Striations animate this mask to help us see the moon as a benevolent star that connects us to the world of benign dead. In simplified terms, it is said, “to chase away, or put in flight, death.” Now’s the time for it to allure Robert Farris Thompson (1932-2021), as he cartwheels his way into the cosmos, looking for a good cosmogram, as a hero of African art history should.
I first saw Bob appear at an academic conference whose schedule said a Yale professor would give a summation. When the doors to the quiet auditorium opened, a wave of people swarmed in. A Black family took seats next to me—a grandmother and her grandson—whose excitement was contagious. Once the place was packed, Bob began walking toward the podium and yelled, “Turn the lights down so they can’t see how white I am!” Then he gave a talk like none other—filled with call and response, drumming, dancing, parables in multiple languages—and the crowd cheered, laughed, and collectively sighed. Here was someone whose love of art had put him in touch with Africa and transformed him into an oracle for recognizing the depth of its teachings.
A few years later, he came to Seattle for a press conference when the museum announced its acquisition of the Katherine White Collection, which he knew well, having curated and written African Art in Motion. He admired Katherine enormously, yet he launched into revelations about the art she collected as a tribute to her, and told me, “small people talk about people, big people talk about ideas.”
He became a constant source for guidance on exhibitions and books, such as Praise Poems and Long Steps Never Broke a Back. Whenever I need a boost, I reached for research notebooks filled with his drawings and cryptic commentary, and considered another one of his sayings, “with African art, the evidence machine of Western thinking doesn’t work.”
SAM hosted his exhibition, Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of the Black Atlantic World. We cared for live altars, recreated a beach altar with tons of sand, placed a cosmogram on the floor, involved priests and priestesses, and got to revel in his unpacking of iconography. We also took walks in the Central District where he would find yards that impressed him and knock on doors to say, “Hi, I’m Bob, and I’d like to talk about your artistry.”
So, if you haven’t come across his name before, I hope this might nudge you to look into his writing and thinking. We’re also reviewing recordings of his appearances in Seattle, including one about his book Tango: The Art History of Love. For now, here’s a quote from an interview he did with Rolling Stone to demonstrate his way with words. Ashe, Master T.
“[The people of Africa] stand like giants in teaching us how to live. There is a moral voice imbedded in the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic that the West can’t grasp. They don’t see the monuments, just barefoot philosophy coming from village elders. But the monument is a grand reconciling art form that tries to morally reconstruct a person without humiliating him.
These are the canons of the cool: there is no crisis that cannot be weighed and solved; nothing can be achieved through hysteria or cowardice; you must wear and show off your ability to achieve social reconciliation. Step back from the nightmare. It is a call for parlance, for congress and for self-confidence.”1
– Pam McClusky, SAM Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art
While teaching at the California School of Fine Arts in 1957, Imogen Cunningham overheard her friend and co-worker Dorothea Lange give her students an assignment: photograph something you use every 24 hours. Inspired by the simple prompt, Cunningham returned to class the next week with a new photograph she had taken titled The Unmade Bed.
Listen to an interpretive analysis of the work from Cunningham’s close friend and collaborator Judy Dater. From the perfectly rumpled sheets to the spread out piles of bobby pins, Dater discusses how this image acts as a self-portrait of the artist and explains the reason why Cunningham often gifted a print of this image to newlyweds.
This audio recording is part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveat the Seattle Art Museum. Tune in to all 13 recordings when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
The Unmade Bed, 1957
Narrator: A rumpled sheet and blanket are thrown back to reveal a pile of hairpins and another of bobby pins. Subtle gradations vary from the crisp white sheets exposed by sunlight, to the grey wool blanket with a shimmery trim, to the completely dark background.
Judy Dater: I can’t look at that photograph and not think of it as a self-portrait, a very personal self-portrait.
Narrator: In 1957, Dorothea Lange, best known for documenting the Great Depression, was teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Cunningham was also teaching there when she heard her friend and fellow photographer give her students an intriguing assignment.
Judy Dater: And the assignment that, apparently, that Dorothea Lange, gave the class that day was to go home and photograph something you use every twenty-four hours. And so Imogen went home and made that particular photograph. And then when she came back the following week, she brought that in as her example.
Narrator: Did she intend it as a self-portrait? After all, those are her hair pins. Do they signify the letting down of one’s hair or one’s guard? Cunningham never said as much, but she did ascribe one message to the image.
Judy Dater: She sometimes would give that photograph to people as a wedding present so that the husband would know that the wife was going to be busy, that she had things to do, and not to expect the bed to always be made.
Narrator: Cunningham may have deliberately arranged the sheets and hairpins, or perhaps she happened upon the unmade bed exactly as she left it. For photographer Judy Dater, that’s irrelevant.
Judy Dater: She saw it and she was at the right angle at the right moment, and she knew what to do with it.
“As a woman artist on the cutting edge of her field, Cunningham’s story is an important one to tell,” says Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. “She undertook artistic collaborations with Ruth Asawa and Martha Graham, and I hope viewers leave not only with an understanding of Cunningham’s innovation and experimentation, but also her collaborative and charismatic spirit.”
“‘There’s so much evidence that she embodies the ethos of a Seattleite—being adventurous, being a free thinker and really embracing nature. And being such a gutsy woman so early on,’ says Elizabeth Brown, an expert in the history of photography, UW lecturer, and former chief curator of the Henry Art Gallery.”
“‘Contributing to the rise and the presence of African American choreographers, to me that is the big legacy. Dani worked tirelessly. I don’t know what’s going to happen with all of that now that dani’s not here,’ said Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater.”
“As a Black artist, I want that freedom and liberty for people to experience my painting on their own terms, with or without having a built-in, overly structured narrative of the Black plight attached to it.”
Computer-generated liminal spaces and objects are familiar to video gamers—and maybe more so to those who are just not very good at video games, flailing halfway between a corner, or punching through a character that is more background than plot. These virtually possible in-between spaces become perceptible at the moment a player engages with the limits of a game’s designed environment. In Seattle-based artist Gary Hill’s video installation series Liminal Objects, however, it is within the absence of a designed environment where the computer-generated objects themselves interact, and with disregard for each other’s limits.
Each work in the series shows two black-and-white unrelated computer-generated objects on a 14-inch Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor that has had its housing removed. One object is still, while the other moves back-and-forth and around, indiscriminately slicing the stationary object. In Liminal Objects #5 (1996), it is a stationary tree and a swinging chandelier. Through these shadowless animations, “Hill has avoided the spectacle of computer art and instead embraced the simple fact that the ‘program’ doesn’t care if objects penetrate each other’s solidity.”1 It’s a bit absurd, and in the case of #5, perhaps a touch romantic.
Placing the work among other video art and time-based media of its era, Liminal Objects’ sculptural presence stands out. During the 1990s, contemporary art saw a “cinematic turn,” with a proliferation of large-scale video projection within the gallery space. Video art “forged a link with cinema and its giganticism” as projected images began to engulf entire walls.2 This was a departure from the previous decade, where CRT monitors—the small boxy televisions so different from today’s large flat LCD screens—were the norm (and sometimes only option) for displaying video art. But in the 1990s, many artists sought to loosen video from default connections to sculpture and the domestic in favor of the more immersive experiences that newer technologies could support.
Hill’s Liminal Objects series doubles down on the sculptural qualities of the CRT monitor while also disengaging it from connotations with the domestic: first, by removing the monitor from its casing, thereby “exposing the circuit boards and cathode tubes, and rendering them dangerous and vulnerable sculptural objects;”3 and second, as in Liminal Objects #5, by placing the monitor vertically atop its small steel table. All of these works would originally use laser disc to play the video loops, a common format for video art at the time due to laser disc’s accuracy for synchronization and potential higher quality as compared to tape-based formats.
Engaged in a silent loop, the tree and chandelier of #5 act as ghost-like semaphores: “a compositional practice of electronic linguistics.”4 But in thinking through the considerable questions for how to continue to display such time-based artworks in the future, another riff on ‘liminal’ comes to mind. “[L]iminal or borderline states are anywhere that something is about to undergo a phase transition or turn into something else.”5 As we all know, formats will become obsolete and technology will fail (just look to your smart phone). CRT monitors are not as easily sourced today and the laser disc has long been eclipsed by the digital file.
That time-based artworks can potentially inhabit future hardware, software, and display mechanisms without losing their inherent meaning, highlights a certain liminality too. How will artists like Hill and tomorrow’s conservators imagine the “phase transition” of these works into the future?
– Mia Ferm, SAM Project Manager, Historic Media Collection
1 Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Gary Hill: Selected Works and Catalogue Raisonné (Cologne: DuMont, 2002): p. 196.
2 Laurenson, Pip, “Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media with Reference to Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2001, pp. 259-266: p. 261.
3 Laurenson, Pip, “Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media with Reference to Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2001, pp. 259-266: p. 261.
4 Quasha, George, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009): p. 90.
5 Quasha, George, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009): p. 219.
For nearly a decade of her 70-year career, Imogen Cunningham focused on capturing the beauty of botanicals. Having studied chemistry and worked in the botany department at the University of Washington, she wrote her thesis in 1907 on the chemical process of photography while employing a variety of plants as her subjects.
Magnolia Blossom is perhaps Cunningham’s most well-known botanical image. The close-cropped photograph of the flower reveals the cone of stamens and pistils hiding between the petals. Taken as a whole, the image represents a transfixing study of light and shadows within the history of black and white photography.
In this audio recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Meg Partridge, the granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham, discusses the significance of this photograph within Cunningham’s larger body of work and provides insight on the photographer’s fascination with botanicals. Tune in to this and twelve other recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectivewhen you visit the Seattle Art Museum.
Magnolia Blossom, 1925
Narrator: This close-cropped image of a magnolia flower fills the entire frame. The petals have completely opened revealing the cone of stamens and curlicue carpels.
Meg Partridge: It’s really a beautifully sharp, focused, large-format image that is a simple subject, but it’s very powerful.
Narrator: For roughly a decade, Cunningham focused her attention on botanical studies. This is perhaps her most well-known example. She had an extensive knowledge of plants—as a chemistry major in college, she worked in the botany department, making slides for lectures and research.
Meg Partridge: She knew the botanical names of all of the plants that she had photographed and all the plants that she gardened with. She spent a good bit of time in the garden. So I think it was more about the relationship she had with her subject—be it a person or a plant—that we really see and respond to.
Narrator: There was a practical aspect to these botanical works as well. Cunningham once explained: “The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small. I photographed the plants in my garden and steered my children around at the same time.”
Meg Partridge: And she would do it in moments where she had children underfoot, but also a moment to focus. She always used natural light and she often took photographs either inside with a simple backdrop or she even took simple backdrops, a white board or a black cloth, out into the garden to photograph.
Narrator: Cunningham’s full-frame botanicals such as this one were groundbreaking in early modernist photography.