Tacoma Art Museum Celebrates Its 75th with Two Lively Shows
by Matthew Kangas
Since its humble beginnings in 1935 in Jones Hall at what is now University of Puget Sound, Tacoma Art Museum has come a long way. The current building, a magnificent structure designed by world-class architect Antoine Predock opened May 3, 2003. Over 500,000 visitors have attended exhibitions and events since that day, finally bringing together exhibition space, collection storage and maintenance, administrative offices, library and an education wing.
Celebrating their 75th anniversary in 2010, TAM is part of a cultural renaissance -- along with the new Museum of Glass, Washington State History Museum and the new Hotel Murano, filled with glass -- that the city is experiencing in fits and starts. TAM has led the way in efforts at community outreach to disadvantaged families.
With tough times facing all art museums, TAM's birthday focuses on two aspects of the permanent collection, impressionist art and Northwest art. In lieu of a blockbuster import, Movement of Impressionism: Europe, America and the Northwest and A Concise History of Northwest Art show off considerable strengths that should appeal to a broad public. And they're much cheaper to produce in-house.
While Charles and Emma Frye in Seattle collected stodgy German art during the same turn-of-the-century period, TAM's impressionist collection shows how sophisticated Tacoma's collectors like Eulalie Wagner, Hilding Lindberg and George Weyerhaeuser were by comparison. Unlike the Frye Art Museum, no one has to explain or defend the significance of the TAM treasures on view: Renoir, Pissarro, Degas and Mary Cassatt. Though the paintings, prints and sculptures highlighted give a fine, brief introduction to the most popular art movement of all time, visitors should be prepared for new surprises of less well-known artists. This is part of the exhibition's charm and appeal. You thought you'd seen it all before? Just wait until you go to Tacoma.
What is it about impressionism that so appealed to Tacoma's well-heeled timber elite? Scenes of forests, for one thing, attracted them, along with meltingly comfortable and affluent interiors, well-dressed young people at a party or boat-ride, and glistening maritime vistas. And it could all make a rainy Northwest winter bearable, too.
Not seen together for 20 years, TAM's impressionist holdings contain prominent also-rans as well. Spanish and Dutch impressionists and their forerunners join British and American followers, including East Coast masters like Childe Hassam and Ernest Lawson, as well as expatriate John Singer Sargent. These artists trained in Germany rather than France and have a stronger underpinning of solid drawing than their French rivals. Whether or not the local Northwest practitioners of impressionism uncovered by curator Margaret Bullock measure up -- C. C. McKim, John Butler and Abby Hill -- remains to be seen. To include them at all is daring, and reinforces one of the museum's missions: to relate world art to Northwest art when possible.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Heads of Two Young Girls (also known as The Two Sisters) 1890. Oil on canvas, 23.625" x 27.125" x 3". Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W. Hilding Lindberg.
Imogen Cunningham, On Mount Rainier 9, 1915. Gelatin silver print, 6" x 8". Tacoma Art Museum, Promised Gift of Shari and John Behnke.
Michael Brophy, January, 1997. Oil on canvas, 78" x 95". Tacoma Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds from the Dr. Lester Baskin Memorial Fund.
Yvonne Twining Humber, Carnival, 1946. Color silkscreen, 11.5" x 13.875". Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of David F. Martin, Dominic Zambito, and the artist. Photo: Richard Nicol.
The moist, gleaming light, cozy middle-class scenes of leisure, and the frankly thick application of bright colors without the gloomy "study in brown" that characterized most Victorian-era art are the qualities we admire most in impressionism. Scholars have revealed darker sides -- the initial public outrage, the later decline of Renoir, the final flowering of Monet--but it's saying a lot that these are artworks which, 150 years after their creation and 75 years after TAM began collecting them, still bring such pleasure.
From sunlight to cloudy darkness, early scenic views in A Concise History of Northwest Art are the perfect complement to the breezy impressionists. Here Bullock and her colleagues have summoned up a radically different view of Northwest art, more postmodern, in that it is all fringe figures and marginal examples, with no expected hard core of the Big Four (Anderson, Callahan, Graves and Tobey). This occurred before in Tacoma, with their 1989 One Hundred Years of Washington Art: New Perspectives, but it's been ages since TAM's deep Northwest acquisitions have gone on view, or been displayed in such a helpful, decade-by-decade way.
To be fair, the Big Four are represented by interesting, atypical examples. Oregon artists (many of whom developed before the Puget Sound groups) are given their due. Ceramics, glass, photography and jewelry are placed on an equal footing with painting and sculpture, as they should be. There's even a video projection by Claude Zervas.
More tantalizing than comprehensive, A Concise History forces us to re-examine shibboleths like the primacy of the Northwest School and see that, the 1970s, for example, were dominated by abstract modernists such as Alden Mason, Joseph Goldberg, Robert C. Jones and, above all, William Ivey. Or that the 1940s and 1950s paved the way for this phenomenon through European-influenced artists like Walter F. Isaacs and Spencer Moseley in Seattle, and Louis Bunce and Carl Morris in Portland. Bullock connects artists with common themes across the years. Thus, Imogen Cunningham's black-and-white photo of Mt. Rainier (1915) talks to Michael Brophy's 1997 January, a huge clear-cut forest view in oil. For every bright and shining impressionist vista on view in adjacent galleries, Bullock has found dark and somber counterparts that also deal with nature.
Besides Asian art and antiques being acknowledged influences on local art historically, Asian-American artists had a comparable, if less recognized, impact on art hereabouts. Before Horiuchi, there was Kenjiro Nomura whose life was sadly shortened because of his World War II internment. His Puget Sound (1933) predates his final, greater abstract period. Horiuchi's Untitled (c. 1959) epitomizes his revival of a 14th-century Japanese torn-paper collage technique. Akio Takamori and Roger Shimomura are also represented by strong, socially driven works. And a rare and important bronze by celebrated fountain-designer George Tsutakawa lends support.
Numerous other 20th-century art movements are reflected, like the surrealism of Camille Patha's The Conductor (1975), the cheery regionalism of Yvonne Twining Humber's Carnival (1946) and the example of found-art assemblage sculpture by Native American artist Marie Watt.
Could one single exhibition ever tell the whole story of Northwest art? Probably not, but until then, we'll have to be content--and grateful--that TAM's commitment to the art of this region remains strong for the past, present and future. Here's hoping the museum's next 75 years will help it to fulfill its mission and destiny. Who knows? By 2085, the direction of Northwest art may seem much clearer and obvious than it does now.
MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor at Art Guide Northwest, writes for numerous publications, including Art in America and Art Ltd. His latest essay collection is Relocations: Selected Art Essays and Interviews (Midmarch Arts Press). A new monograph, Maria Frank Abrams: Burning Forest, appeared this winter.
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