The dust has finally settled from the Seattle Art Museum’s Annus Mirabilis, the triple unveiling in a single year of the reorganized and renovated Asian Art Museum, the brand new Olympic Sculpture Park, and finally this month, the greatly expanded downtown SAM. Adding further icing to the cake, the museum recently announced the acquisition of hundreds of new artworks donated by local collectors and now on public view for the first time. Our art critic Gary Faigin has been among the throngs exploring SAM’s new art and architecture, and he joins us now to share his thoughts.
The shock was due in large part to the element of surprise, which characterized the project from beginning to end. Who knew, for example, that SAM was about to double (and eventually quadruple) in size until the project and the architect were announced, and it was already a done deal? Who knew exactly which private artworks were lurking on local walls, waiting for a suitable venue to emerge? Who expected the spaces completely hidden inside the metallic corporate façade of the new building to feel quite so vast and intriguing? Who could imagine our wallflower local museum, always in the shadow of its larger counterparts elsewhere, re-emerging as such a powerhouse?
Not me, and not many other people besides the ambitious Board and curators of the museum itself. Ambition, in fact, is the operative word to describe the entire enterprise, Seattle’s own entry in an ongoing national and international effort – competition is more like it - to erect major cultural monuments as a boost to local pride and enlightenment, and to enhance a region’s urban stature.
Art museums as a phenomena have a relatively short history, with the first ones dating back only to the early nineteenth century, and the history of the museum as flashy civic showpiece is briefer still, with most of the action on the Can you Top This? front taking place after the debut of Frank Lloyd Wright’s still-controversial Guggenheim spiral in 1959.
Seattle took a conscious step backwards from the temptation to hire a flashy architect to design a signature building, and as a result the new structure by Allied Works is self-effacing to a fault. So colorless and corporate is the museum’s light-filled new lobby, in fact, that one local wag (me) joked that it had been intended for the bank next door but was delivered to SAM by mistake. Alas, the array of flying cars by Cai Guo-Qiang, a gigantic sculptural installation purchased by the museum expressly to animate the cold, grey spaces of the entranceway, are hung too high and surrounded by too much daylight to quite do the trick.
Animation is not a problem, however, once one ascends the escalator to the gallery level, where any reservations one has about the architecture drops away before the sheer excitement of the visual stimuli, with room after room of art and artifacts from various eras and cultures visible all at once. The design has given the highest priority to openness and dramatic sightlines, and the curators have responded by assembling a very satisfying array of thematic groupings with purposely provocative juxtapositions, like those between the African and European, and America and Native American collections. SAM’s collection is wide but not deep, and promoting interchanges between unlikely works across cultural divides is one way to build on existing strengths.
There is a modest grouping of objects located deep on the fourth floor that is particularly revealing as to the current museum’s prospects and limitations. In one corner installation, two diminutive Dutch still-lives from the early 17thcentury hang next to two contemporary works, a taxidermy dog on a side chair assembled by Maurizio Cattelan, and photographic self-portrait by Cindy Sherman in the costume (and beard) of a Renaissance nobleman.
All four works are promised gifts belonging to local collectors, and like many of the new “acquisitions”, the timing of their reappearance is uncertain, with their exact future status being negotiated on a work-by-work basis. Now you see them, now you don’t.
The Dutch works themselves are wonders to behold, worthy of a focused museum show in and of themselves. Their appearance is also a tantalizing reminder of the sort of museum SAM will never be, for unlike its older counterparts elsewhere, SAM has emerged as an institution too late in the game to acquire the sort of European masterworks that form the core of the permanent collection in places like Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. With even small Cezanne watercolors on paper now changing hands for nearly the cost of a Boeing 737 (on top of tightened cultural export laws), we’re not going to see our walls lined with significant groupings of Van Gogh or Manet any time soon, and short of a plane ticket or travelling show, forget about spending quality time with artists like Titian, Bellini, Chardin or Watteau, their treasured works now unattainable, short of a commando strike.
Those older European works that do grace local museum walls tend to be good works by lesser artists (SAM has its fair share - Jan van der Straet, anyone?), or lesser works by great artists, like the late, perhaps unfinished Van Dyck ambassador portrait currently on display, which, while competent, shows little of the verve and swashbuckling manner that made him the darling of European aristocracy, especially the British contingent.
All of which makes the William Claesz Heda still life on the fourth floor particularly notable, for not only is it painted by a major master of the Dutch Golden Age, it also represents the artist at the very top of his form. And what a form it is – Heda and his fellow still life pioneers forever changed the way we look at the world of inanimate objects, giving mere foodstuffs and tableware the sort of attention previously reserved for royalty and saints, and leading the charge that decisively changed the focus of art from the sacred to the secular. Heda’s rich, nearly monochromatic close-up of a breakfast table is weighted with atmosphere, a world within a world, delighting in the act of seeing in and of itself. Painting scholar Seymour Slive writes that the paintings of Heda and his fellow traveler Pieter Claesz are “among the most satisfying Dutch paintings made during the century”. Thanks to SAM’s newly-expanded collection, we can compare the 1631 Heda with the adjacent 1619 van der Ast (which appears almost naïve by comparison), and also with a Van Beyeren from 1655 (a few galleries away), by which late date a period of decadence and conspicuous consumption had begun to set in, with the tabletop groaning under the burden of super-abundance and superficial glitter.
The Dutch paintings are also precursors of their contemporary neighbors, since Sherman assumes our familiarity with painting of the Old Masters in her dishy send-up, and Cattelan continues, in his own subversive way, the ordinary-made-exceptional conversation that Heda and his still life contemporaries started. Too bad that the opportunities SAM will have for connecting contemporary art to its earlier sources are likely to continue to be so limited.
Which brings us back to the Heda. His painting, it turns out, includes a particularly fascinating detail. Though the entire breakfast ensemble has been set slightly off- kilter, with some of the dishes and glass tilted or pushed over and the oysters and nuts half-eaten, something else is going on entirely with the glittering metal plate in the foreground, its weighted half perched precariously, even impossibly, over the edge of the table.
Once one becomes aware of this instability (a device often repeated in the works of other Dutch still life artists, including the SAM van Beyeren), the painting takes on another, more ominous edge. The Dutch were all too aware of the fragility of their charmed present (though it didn’t put too much of a damper on their feasting and festivals), and intimations of mortality like the Precarious Plate are a recurrent motif of Golden Age art.
In the stimulating collision of euphoria and anxiety we recognize a peculiarly modern condition. One has to look no further than that arc of exploding cars in the SAM lobby – an image both threatening and celebratory - for a contemporary echo, the cliffhanger lurking at the margins of our own Golden Age.