Pivot Art + Culture, Paul Allen’s new gallery, opens with a spectacular show — Willem de Kooning, Chuck Close, Alberto Giacometti, Roy Lichtenstein and more — but its future is unclear.
It's hard not to get a bit hyperbolic about “The Figure in Process,” the opening exhibition at Paul Allen’s new Pivot Art + Culture gallery on the ground floor of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in South Lake Union.
A concise survey of contemporary interpretations of the human figure, the show includes marquee names like Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti and Roy Lichtenstein — heavy-hitters right out of the gate for a small, alternative art venue. Of course, your typical startup space would not have access to a Microsoft co-founder’s resources and spectacular art collection (represented here by four key works).
Sharing space with the modern masters are several very strong younger artists, including Berlin-based painter Jonas Burgert, whose epic, 30-foot-wide panorama “Stück Hirn Blind” (2015) is a true showstopper, delivered to Seattle with its paint barely dry. In-the-moment artists like Kehinde Wiley (whose retrospective comes to SAM in February) and Anish Kapoor (of the giant reflective egg in Chicago) fill out the roster. The exhibition covers a striking amount of ground with just 21 works.
It’s hard to be as hyperbolic about the Pivot enterprise. Despite mounting one of the most impressive first acts in Seattle art history, Allen’s team is pointedly not announcing any exhibitions or events past Feb. 28, 2016.
Normally, a show this ambitious in a new venue would be mounted to generate momentum and publicity. But Pivot’s initial splash doesn’t seem to be leading to anything in particular.What gives? An official statement from the Vulcan art team includes the vague comment that “the initial model is being evaluated and long-term options other than a gallery space are being considered” — nobody there is forthcoming about how and when these decisions are being made.
None of this, presumably, is an issue for David Anfam, the London-based visiting curator who organized “In Process,” working with Pivot director Ben Heywood. Anfam has assembled a broad range of approaches to figurative depiction — stylistically, geographically and spanning the past 60 years. The earliest painting is a work from de Kooning’s landmark “Woman” series (“Woman as Landscape,” 1955), marking the moment when the leading abstract expressionist shocked the art world by returning to the figure. The Pivot canvas is a variation on de Kooning’s famous “Woman I.” Like its counterpart, its female subject is torturously caricatured and virtually buried in slashing paint.
Just alongside is a teeming canvas by de Kooning admirer Cecily Brown, whose world-of-flesh image “Tender is the Night” (1999) similarly embeds the body (or bodies) in what at first appears to be a complete abstraction.
More literal depictions of the figure hang on the opposite end of the room — examples from the comeback of representation in the ’60s and ’70s when movements like pop (Wayne Thiebaud) and eccentric figuration (Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon) allowed modern museums to hang figure painting without seeming old-fashioned.
This Freud is a classic, a modern-drag version of a Jean Watteau painting from 1712, with the artist’s son, wife and daughter as the main characters, all given Freud’s tortured-flesh treatment in a squalid London flat, with the sitters as awkward and vulnerable as Watteau’s are decorative and romantic. David Hockney’s double portrait of art world power broker Henry Geldzahler and his boyfriend Christopher Scott also calls back to historic predecessors, in this case a royal figure receiving a messenger — amusingly painted here in a deadpan-pop style, tricked out with modern furniture and a skyscraper background.
Of the lesser-known artists, Burgert is the most impressive, and his post-apocalyptic mega-painting that dominates the exhibition is, fittingly, the newest piece in the show, embodying the confusion and anxiety of current events. All manner of creatures and semi-humans wander around a toxic, debris-strewn swamp, like confused passengers after an airplane crash. Spotted with bright, cheerful colors, the painting is almost an end-of-days satire, too exotic and bloodless to threaten our own sense of comfort and stability.
Our pleasure in the strength of this exhibition has to coexist with our perplexity about Pivot’s future. Similar private art spaces in Seattle, like the now-closed Western Bridge, sponsored by Bill and Ruth True, and the Wright Exhibition Space, owned by Virginia and Bagley Wright, operated like small museums with regular schedules.
Paul Allen’s patronage is broader and more idiosyncratic. He is not beholden to any philanthropic model, and his projects are not as transparent as other arts organizations with nonprofit status and community-based boards.
The extent of Allen’s art collection is another mystery. From what the public has seen, like the current 39-work landscape exhibition in Portland, or the 2006 “Double Take” exhibit at EMP, Allen’s holdings are almost certainly the most significant in the Northwest, and of national stature. He also sponsored last year’s Seattle Art Fair, a widely praised event whose follow-up this summer promises to be bigger and better, with blue-chip galleries drawn to the Allen brand.
When an exhibition as good as “In Process” comes along, it’s natural to hope for more. But we’ll have to appreciate the mogul we’ve got, rather than the one we wish we had.