When you get to Gardiner's merry eyes and slight smirk, he seems to laugh at your presumption that a portrait can truly reveal what's hidden inside. As a physician, he's been there.
Rather than stylistic links to Europe, such as Fauvism or Cubism, we're shown the Symbolist origins of American abstraction. In this savvy telling it's an almost straight shot from Bierstadt's Hudson River School religiosity, in which the New World's ancient trees and mountains symbolize a raw new Eden, to nature as a light-specific spiritual experience in abstract paintings by Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe. Then come the postwar Pacific Northwest Mystics — most notably Mark Tobey and Morris Graves — now neatly stripped of their usual alien status (alien meaning "not New York School artists").
From the Barney A. Ebsworth collection, a magnificent Marsden Hartley abstract Symbolist portrait of his lover, a German military officer killed in World War I, merges seamlessly with the Wright bequest, as does the Northwest painting and sculpture from the abundant Marshall and Helen Hatch collection. The places usually assigned in Modernism's canon to Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock shift accordingly in your mind. It's an inspired installation.
As if that were not enough, in January SAM opened the 9-acre Olympic Sculpture Park, a dynamic outdoor space a mile away that zigzags across a highway and railroad tracks down to the Elliott Bay shoreline. The flora still needs time to grow, and the 21-sculpture collection is a bit thin. But highlights include a terrific roaring fountain by Louise Bourgeois at one port-side entrance, offering a wholly unexpected memorial to male loneliness and isolation. Two coal-black, crystalline geometric sculptures by David Smith are tucked surprisingly inside a delicate aspen grove nearby, like diamonds in the geological making.
The knockout, though, is not the excellent if rather pedestrian wavy-steel walls commissioned from the ubiquitous Richard Serra. It's Alexander Calder's monumental red "Eagle" (1971), which alights gently on a wind-swept hillock like some industrial-strength prehistoric bird.
As playful as it is powerful, the sculpture is the garden's centerpiece — and the best-sited Calder I've seen. It dates from a period when monumental public sculpture was being widely written off as ignominious "plop art."
Here it suggests that the elusive combination of a great artist and a sensitive curatorial eye is hard to beat. If SAM keeps up this kind of momentum, it seems destined to get its 75th anniversary wish.