'Masterworks' at Seattle Art Museum: a look at the future? - Published in Seattle Times, November 14, 2014.
Make that two shows that SAM has mounted in the past year in the category of “Preview of Coming Attractions…. We Hope!” Both exhibitions (“European Masters: Treasures of Seattle” in 2013, and “American Art Masterworks”, now on view) spotlight heretofore-unsuspected works by A-List artists that turn out to be quietly biding their time in Unnamed Local Collections, the type of show that is typically one of the steps in the complicated mating dance that museums employ towards being gifted art they could never afford to acquire on their own. (To put things in perspective, there are 26 privately-owned older American paintings in the current show; in past few decades, SAM has purchased perhaps a half-dozen similar pieces.)
I don’t know how the glowering, life-sized Thomas Eakins 1905 portrait “Professor Forbes” has managed to keep its local presence quiet - it’s 7 feet tall - but it was a pleasant shock to see it on the typically Eakins-free walls of SAM’s American Galleries. Considering that he and Winslow Homer are regarded as the two most important 19th Century American artists, it’s a potential collection lynch pin. Eakins did not suffer fools gladly, and his portrait subject – a prominent physician – seems a kindred spirit, caught in the flash of unsparing light that is Eakins’s trademark.
And did I mention Homer? Given pride of place at the show’s entrance, Homer’s grey-on-grey “Lost on the Grand Banks” seascape is a set piece of existential dread (fishermen in trouble) and visual panache – the thick, almost abstract strokes he uses for the whitecaps looking forward to the painterly freedom of the next generation. Although only 60 years separate this grim 1885 Homer from the achingly Romantic, sharp-focus Thomas Cole “Falls of the Kaatterskill” of 1826 hung nearby, much more has changed than simply the painting style. Cole’s tiny figure is a lucky interloper in a technicolor Eden, while Homer represents a post-Civil War view of nature as overwhelming, and indifferent.
My perfect museum would also have a George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, and Childe Hassam as exemplars of the “modernizing” style of the turn-of-the-century set (fellow traveler Edward Hopper is already covered by a promised gift), and I’d be fine with the works included here. No one would mistake these utterly distinct artistic personalities for each other, with Bellows “Polo Crowd” an undulating vision of high society as a fantasy in white – more a set than a collection of individuals, while Kent dispenses of humanity entirely in favor of etching a menacing cliff in granitic black and brown in his “Ocean Headland”. By contrast, Hassam manages to channel both Renoir and Vuillard in his Victorian cottage interior “Room of Flowers”, an excuse to indulge in thick paint and molten colors – with his female protagonist amusingly hidden in plain sight, like Waldo.
Catch this tantalizing preview of a bigger-and-better American collection while it lasts, and then root for savvy curator Patti Junker as she continues to make the case (this exhibition being part of an ongoing series) for this becoming a more permanent arrangement.