I’ve written twice about the Elles: Pompidou exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, in October after we attended the opening and in December after we took a tour with SAM curator of modern and contemporary art, Catharina Manchanda. Featuring more than 130 works by women drawn from the permanent collection of the Pompidou Center in Paris, it closed a couple of weeks ago.
In parallel with Elles: Pompidou, the museum mounted an exhibition called Elles: SAM, which runs until February 17. We had the pleasure of visiting it two days ago under the guidance of Patricia Junker, SAM’s curator of American art. More on our visit in a moment, but first here are excerpts from the Elles: SAM description drawn from the exhibition webpage and written by Manchanda.
To expand on the Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris survey on the Fourth Floor of SAM Downtown, the curators at SAM have organized a series of exhibitions in the Modern and Contemporary Art Galleries on the Third Floor that build and react to each other. Through diverse media, these installations and exhibitions offer a glimpse of the startling innovations attained and a reminder that these achievements were often hard fought for in a cultural landscape that was not always welcoming to women. Fully aware that many artists question or reject the label “woman artist,” we focus on them as a group not to segregate but to recognize them as seminal artists whose contributions collectively yield a whole greater than its parts.
Nine interrelated shows and installations in the Modern and Contemporary Art Galleries constitute Elles: SAM and highlight some of the connections and breaks in artistic developments during the last 50 years.
The installations begin with a look at key works by Georgia O’Keeffe and her spiritual kinship with photographer Imogen Cunningham. A room of paintings by the female founders of the American Abstract Artists Group follows.
Yayoi Kusama: A Total Vision brings together drawings, paintings and sculptures from key moments of the artist’s career. This will be the first museum exhibition in Seattle of the radical and mesmerizing works by Kusama, celebrated today as an art world superstar.
Modern Masters: Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler features three American heavyweights who work in the context and aftermath of Abstract Expressionism. Exhilarating and tough, these soaring paintings from Seattle collections pay homage to three visionary painters who developed distinctive painterly styles. Celebratory and ironic, “modern masters” bestows this much-deserved designation upon them, in recognition of their hard-won accomplishments in what was a male-defined domain.
Abstract Currents and Countercurrents shows the constant push and pull between abstraction and figuration with surprising visual affinities among artists of different generations. Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Elizabeth Murray, Agnes Martin, Ellen Gallagher, Ghada Amer and others are shown here in an intense dialogue.
The curatorial tour we took Thursday is one in a series that typically draws twenty guests. This one drew only six, with a seventh arriving late, making for an unusually intimate experience. There were us, a couple back in Seattle from a year abroad, a woman who lives in our daughter’s building and has been on several of these tours with us, and an older man who—based on the curator’s enthusiasm on seeing him—is prominent in the local arts community. Plus two museum staff members to keep us organized, not difficult with such a small group.
Patti led us up the escalator to the threshold of the show, then gave us an overview: mounting of Elles: Pompidou, the decision to organize a parallel show of US women artists drawn from local collectors, the joint efforts of Catharina Manchanda and Patti in preparing it, Patti’s own expertise in US art history, the consequence that on this walk she would emphasize what she knew, a contrast drawn with Catherina, who would give a very different tour.
Then we entered a gallery with a large canvas in view on the far wall, a cow skull against an abstract background of, perhaps, a cross. Patti asked us who the most famous American female artist of the twentieth century is. Gosh, I don’t know. The first one to come to mind (without benefit of the text above) was Helen Frankenthaler. No, that’s probably not who Patti was aiming for. Oh, I know. Santa Fe. Photographer husband. Um. Um. I’ll get it. The one with a museum to herself. The museum that we didn’t get to visit, because when we were in Santa Fe in 2008, we managed to put it off to Tuesday morning, only to find that that’s the day each week that the museum is closed. Her. Her.
Well, before I pulled the name out of memory, Patti said Georgia O’Keeffe. And we have the good fortune, Patti explained, to have here in Seattle this extraordinary example of O’Keeffe’s work, owned by a local collector, a work unseen publicly in at least two generations, lent for this show. Anonymous collector, I should add, no name being listed on the identifying wall card. Off to the left, another O’Keeffe, this owned by Barney Ebsworth, prominent collector of American modern art, O’Keeffe friend, and SAM trustee (who spoke with Patti about his friend Georgia at a museum event in November).
We spent quite a bit of time in that room, learning about O’Keeffe, then about some photographers. Imogen Cunningham, of course. A northwest native, she attended the University of Washington, where she studied the chemistry behind photography, then went on to work with Edward Curtis at his Seattle studio. And Ella McBride, who also worked with Curtis, and whose handful of photos exhibited in the show are breathtaking. But, as explained in the piece about her at HistoryLink, and as Patti related to us to our horror:
Following her death and the closing of the McBride & Anderson studio, her archive of negatives, dating from 1916 through the 1950s, were stored at 6303 Roosevelt Way NE and then to 1752 NW Market in Ballard. In 1972, the photography studio holding the negatives offered to donate the entire collection to any interested institution.
Unfortunately, all declined except for a selection retained by Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. The remaining tens of thousands of negatives, which essentially documented the important social and cultural events of that period in Seattle’s history, were destroyed.
On to the next room, featuring work of women who painted on the side—unable to sustain careers as artists—while pursuing other careers. Women Patti suggested we were unlikely to have heard of, as artists anyway. Esphyr Slobodkina. Wait. You’ve heard of Esphyr Slobodkina? Yes, she is the author of the children’s literature classic Caps for Sale. Suzy Frelinghuysen. A prominent soprano in New York after World War II, descended from nineteenth-century Frelinghuysens that included a New Jersey senator and a US secretary of State. Patti talked about the artists in this room, their work, their plight as women artists.
Back out to the third floor’s extended open gallery. Jutting into the entrance hall below, it serves as a comfortable home for the large canvases of Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell. Next, a gallery with less familiar artists. At this point, I realize that my memory is failing me, in terms of which artists were in this room and which in the second room we saw. Perhaps this is where we saw works of Charmion Von Wiegand and Alice Trumbull Mason. Mason for sure, with Patti pointing out the genetic implausibility of a descendant of John Trumbull painting such abstract works.
Patti ended our walkaround with the work of Yayoi Kusama, which fills the large northwest gallery space. Polka dots and more polka dots. Patti was clearly a fan, and made fans of us as well. On moving to the US from Japan, Kusama spent her first year in Seattle. From the SAM website, we learn:
Beginning in the 1950s, the largely self-taught Japanese artist created a startling visual universe. Her early drawings suggest microscopic cell structures or clusters of stars in exuberant colors, whereas her Infinity Net paintings of the 1960s adopted an all-over matrix that covers a canvas like a tight web. Kusama had her very first solo exhibition in December 1957, at Zoe Dusanne’s Gallery in Seattle. Only a few years later an ARTnews review called her work “stunning and quietly overwhelming,” a description that remains appropriate to this day. Kusama’s work has an obsessive intensity that sets her apart. She gained early recognition in New York where she moved in the late 1950s but also came to the attention of the European avant-gardes.
In the early 1960s, Kusama developed a radically new approach to sculpture. She began to cover household objects—pots, pans, shoes, chairs, sofas, and increasingly larger objects—with phallic protrusions as though some foreign organism had taken over. These works opened the door for a new and more psychologically charged conversation about the body and the self. Kusama grew up in hard times in Japan during World War II. Her outrageous nude performances in New York in the 1960s, which sometimes included examples of her sculptures as props, must have been an enormous leap for the artist who grew up in a society where adherence to the norm—especially as a woman—was paramount.
Plagued with hallucinations since childhood, she has repeatedly stated that painting pictures has been an inspiration and a form of therapy for her. Over the last six decades Kusama has turned these psychological challenges, the push and pull between self and outside world, or what she might term the threat of self-obliteration, into a dizzying, limitless vision that is as exhilarating as it is unsettling.
After discussing Kusama, Patti thanked us for our time and left us to explore on our own.
Gail and I wandered around the Kusama room, taking a closer look at some of the works. Then Gail led me back to a room Patti had passed over, in order to show me a work she had enjoyed on a previous visit. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who the artist was. Also on the unfortunate front, as you have noticed, I didn’t take any photos, so I have nothing with which to illustrate this post other than what I’ve taken off the SAM website.
If you live in the area, be sure to get to the show before it closes on February 17. By then, SAM’s newest show, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, will have opened. I’ll report on that next month.