With new space, Seattle Art Museum expands its vision

Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — When the Seattle Art Museum turns 75 next year, it intends to be not only the most important general art museum in the Pacific Northwest but to be nationally prominent too. It might just get its wish.

On Saturday, a newly expanded building, increasing exhibition space by about 70%, opens to the public. So does an enlarged, greatly improved collection, which is key to this ambitious effort to turn intentions into reality.

Seattle Art Museum: An art review in Wednesday’s Calendar section about the opening of the newly expanded Seattle Art Museum referred to two black, crystalline geometric sculptures in the museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park as the work of David Smith. The artist is Tony Smith. —

The museum’s regional rank has been secure for years, but mostly by default. The competition is slim.

Even now, if your idea of a first-rate general art museum is one that’s stuffed with European painting and sculpture dating from ancient Greece and Rome to the rambunctious launch of the 20th century, the Seattle Art Museum is not for you. Two of its long-standing strengths are African art and Northwest coastal Native American art. The small European collection is mostly mediocre and not remotely comprehensive. There’s great porcelain, but you won’t find a Picasso painting.


If you’re willing to shift conventional expectations, though, you’ll discover a museum that has been smartly rethinking itself in recent years. What’s new is this larger aspiration.

Judging from the inaugural installation in its new digs, the museum has looked to two productive sources. One is its historic strengths, which could be further enriched. The other is Seattle’s private collections.

Even if local collectors wanted to make important donations, they had no equally significant local place to go. Now they do.

Neo-Modern upgrade

In 1991, SAM — as the museum is known — opened a horrible Postmodern building designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, which was mostly a grand staircase cascading down University Street, just south of Pike Place Market, with some awkward galleries attached. (The clumsy design always seemed like practice for the architects’ wonderful Sainsbury Wing at London’s National Gallery.) The new, neo-Modern building by Brad Cloepfil offers straightforward, nicely proportioned, expandable gallery spaces, while deftly absorbing the older building.

Meanwhile, SAM has been collecting collections. About 40 have been tapped, all or in part, with the clever building program conceived as their shiny new container. The result is an almost textbook example of how to develop a major museum collection in tandem with functional gallery space.

SAM first opened during the depths of the Great Depression in a lovely 1933 Art Deco building in leafy Volunteer Park. There it built a widely admired historical collection of East Asian Art. SAM director Mimi Gardner Gates is a specialist in the field, and those screens, scrolls and sculptures are now gathered in the original building as the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

For the new downtown building’s inaugural, Asian art is acknowledged in a show of conservation problems related to five masterpieces. They include a monumental Korean Buddha scroll and a dramatic 12-panel Japanese screen showing flocks of black crows swarming on a gold ground. Both date to the 17th century.

This historical work has been brought into the modern era with the acquisition of two local collections. One features Ukiyo-e woodcuts by Hokusai, Hiroshige and other artists. The second focuses on Nihonga, the traditional Japanese-style painting done during and after the Meiji era, in conservative resistance to Western influences.

The new building’s entry takes one more very big step. Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese artist now living in New York, has installed his monumental 2004 sculpture “Inopportune: Stage One,” composed of nine white 1990s Ford Taurus sedans.

The cars, once the most popular American-made fleet automobile, rise and fall in an arc suspended from the 35-foot-high ceiling, as if careening through the city-block-long space. Flashing light-tubes explode from the tumbling vehicles, in silent fireworks patterns that illuminate the spectacular demolition derby.

White is the color of death in China. A dramatic Sino-American image of an industrial powerhouse cracking up, Cai’s discerning transformation of gutted Detroit automobiles into what is now a splendid chandelier for an art museum’s party space is grimly amusing.

It also underscores a burgeoning museum strength in Modern and contemporary art. The exceptional collection assembled locally by Bagley and Virginia Wright, which emphasizes New York art, has long been destined for SAM. (An exquisite 1944 Arshile Gorky painting, with its melting autumnal colors, was given in 1974 and by itself would make a curator giddy.) In an astute twist, the museum seems to have worked backward and forward from the Wrights’ planned gift of about 200 often stellar postwar works.

Going back, SAM has grown a modest but handsome American art collection, which now opens with John Singleton Copley’s witty, 1772 seated portrait of his friend, Dr. Silvester Gardiner. The difficult foreshortening in the left leg is clumsily handled, but no matter. Your eye lingers instead on the mysterious lump beneath Gardiner’s maroon wool coat, formed by a hand thrust Napoleon-like inside his vest at the center of an oddly empty canvas.

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.

The 19th century climaxes in Albert Bierstadt’s big, furiously operatic 1870 coastal landscape of Puget Sound, painted years before he ever set foot on the Pacific shore. (Imagine that.) Shortly thereafter, the chronology shifts into early Modern American art — with a focus that’s refreshing.

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”).

Inspired choices

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.