Art Guide Northwest

Sam's New Home:
It's What's Inside That Counts

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by Matthew Kangas

From the the surreal spectacle of artist Cai Guo-Qiang's nine cars catapulting through the air, to the huge new escalators (like those at the new Museum of Modern Art, New York), the lobby of the new Seattle Art Museum downtown visually makes the "wow" case for the new addition and hints at the visual delights to come.

Despite media hoopla surrounding Allied Works' rising star Brad Cloepfil (he's also designing the renovation of the Museum of Arts & Design, New York), it's what's inside the building that counts. With the doubling of floor space in the $86 million Seattle Art Museum expansion, curators have dusted off forgotten treasures and highlighted new gifts from the city's growing community of high-end art collectors.

The first two floors contain a café, lobby display, shop, and cloakrooms. But it's the third floor where the new SAM starts to really shine, thanks to efforts by curators Patricia Junker and Michael Darling. New gifts of paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley are near other early 20th-century masters like Alexander Archipenko (who lived in Seattle briefly) and Marcel Duchamp. These lead into a room of early surrealism (with long-buried treasures by John Covert, Malcolm Roberts and Leonora Carrington) that wends, in turn, into a stunning display of New York School artists, mostly donated by Virginia and Bagley Wright. Paintings like Jasper Johns's Thermometer (1959) and Arshile Gorky's heartbreakingly beautiful How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life (1944) hang near sculptures by David Smith and Richard Stankiewicz.

Nearby, artists of the Northwest School are seen adjacent to the New Yorkers. While Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Guy Irving Anderson are shown in depth, shockingly, curator Junker omits the fourth member of the group, Kenneth Callahan. Covering for such a gaffe, Junker hastened to add, "We intend to show Callahan in focus in a separate installation."

Next, viewers can stroll through a hallway where photography is displayed around the theme "Social Studies." Darling spotlights major figures from Edward S. Curtis and E.F. Bellocq to Diane Arbus and Tina Barney.

Walk around the corner past an entire room of Jacob Lawrence into a room of Pilchuck glass. Darling has juxtaposed blown glass by Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra with more sober sculptural works by Josiah McElheny, Nancy Mee and Christopher Wilmarth. Like the Northwest School room, Pilchuck glass now has its own changing permanent-display area.


Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage One, 2004. Cars and sequenced multi-channel light tubes, dimensions variable. Gift of Robert M. Arnold. Cai Guo-Qiang. Photo Credit: Eduardo Calderon

Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, 1926. Bronze, with wood and marble base. 115.35"h. Partial and promised gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2000.

John Singleton Copley, Dr. Silvester Gardiner (1708 - 1786), ca. 1772. Oil on canvas. 50" x 40".

Befitting the cool minimalist style of architecture -- lots of glass, stainless steel and black stone -- Darling chose a mixture from SAM's minimal art holdings, a style that flourished between 1962 and 1973. Pale delicate drawings by Agnes Martin are joined by a fluorescent-light sculpture of Dan Flavin's and other subtle pieces by Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Jo Baer.

Since there are much higher ceilings in these rooms, Darling found space for a giant metal sculpture by Do-Ho Suh and huge paintings by Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer and Leon Golub. Coming right up to the present, American and Japanese pop art share an area near the escalators.

Upstairs, on the fourth floor, European art (the collection's weakest point) jostles with African art (its strongest). Here respective curators Chiyo Ishikawa and Pamela McClusky find common ground in an area dealing with the intersection of European and African art. "We've heard a lot about the influence of African art on European art like cubism," McClusky said in an interview, "but I wanted to examine the opposite, how European art influenced African art."

Sculptures and paintings by Yinka Shonibare, Kane Quaye, Sheiri Samba and Marita Dingus (a Seattle artist) are seen near prints by William Hogarth, for example, and the Europeans in galleries next door.

With vast holdings from the acquisition of the Katherine White collection in 1978, McClusky has carefully installed African art and artifacts to show SAM's greatest strengths.

Curator Ishikawa has tried to bolster the original S.H. Kress collection of minor European Renaissance and Baroque paintings, sculptures and decorative arts. Perhaps of more interest is the new Italian Room, an entire 17th-century period room reconstructed and installed; a spectacular European and Chinese porcelain gallery with a Tiepolo ceiling; and a sensitive and timely survey of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic and Persian objects.

With their greatest holdings in African, Asian and Northwest Coast Native art, SAM is an upside-down museum empowering the Third World and putting Western civilization in perspective from that point of view. A special mixture unique among world-class art museums can now be seen in all its still-evolving glory in the new building.

Unlike San Francisco's new de Young Museum, the new SAM is not a stand-alone structure. Allied Works Architects of Portland has seamlessly blended the original $62 million, Robert Venturi-designed 1991 building at 100 University St. to the first four floors of the new WaMu Center that now covers the entire north half of the block. Thanks to a special arrangement with Washington Mutual, SAM has options to expand to the fifth through eighth floors in 2017 and to the ninth through twelfth floors in 2027. The fact remains that the project is among the first art museums anywhere to become part of an office building. Although offset slightly at the corner of First and Union, the exterior of the new museum looks more commercial than cultural.

Administrative offices and library are still on the fifth floor of the old building, but the entire fourth floor of the 1991 structure is now a 14,500-square-foot temporary exhibition area. Finally, Seattle will get some major blockbuster shows like "Roman Art From the Louvre" (opens Feb. 21, 2008). In the rest of the 1991 wing, there will be the only permanent art museum display of Australian aboriginal art outside Australia. Elsewhere in the old building, examples of more Asian art and lacquerware, Northwest Coast Native art, and 18th- and 19th-century American art are on view.

MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor at Art Guide Northwest, also contributes regularly to Art in America and Sculpture, among numerous other publications. His latest book, Camille Patha: Geography of Desire, is available from bookstores and Copyright Matthew Kangas, 2007

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