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Seattle Art Museum

Kehinde Wiley and William Morris

My different art experiences are colliding this week in an unusual way. This past weekend I went and saw the exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the Seattle Art Museum. And then, just today I taught my students about some of the designs that appear in William Morris’s wallpaper. When I got home this afternoon, I began to think about how some of William Morris’s work is referenced in a few of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings that I saw on display.

Kehinde Wiley, "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness," 2013

Kehinde Wiley, “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” from “The World Stage: Jamaica series 2013

For example, the background design in Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness is clearly referencing a William Morris print of birds and irises. As someone who loves William Morris’s designs, I would have liked to have seen this references explored a little more clearly. A review of this same exhibition from last year (when it was at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) also suggested that mentioning the origins of the backgrounds in Wiley’s paintings would strengthen the show.

Kehinde Wiley, "Mrs. Siddons from the series 'An Economy of Grace,'" 2012. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘An Economy of Grace,'” 2012. Oil on canvas

The reference to William Morris was most clearly pointed out to me in the portrait of Mrs. Siddons; the pattern is clearly inspired by the Blackthorn block-printed wallpaper that Morris designed in 1882.

IMG_1882

Kehinde Wiley, “Mrs. Siddons from the series ‘An Economy of Grace,'” 2012. Oil on canvas

It seems like there are several reasons for why Kehinde Wiley chooses to reference William Morris’s designs in some of his paintings. On one hand, Wiley’s compositions and designs are trying to draw awareness to the realm of history and art history, not only with the decorative motifs but the way the figure is represented (the female figure’s position which looks away from the viewer reminds me of depictions of the penitent Magdalene by George de la Tour).

In past centuries, fine art was typically associated with white Europeans and refinement. Wiley wants to challenge the idea that fine art and statements of cultural refinement are limited to a specific race; he does this by referencing European artistic traditions in his portraits of black people. To help emphasize his point, Wiley draws inspiration from Morris’s wallpaper designs, since they are associated with taste and the high-quality production surrounding the Arts & Crafts movement. In the exhibition catalog for this show, Annie Paul explains that Wiley creates “decorative backgrounds [which are] inspired by the English designer William Morris, who wove images from botany and zoology into intricate patterns signifying taste and discrimination.”It seems like Wiley occasionally uses Morris’s designs to reference English history and colonialism, too. For example, the inclusion of a Morris print in St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (shown above) references the past colonial presence of the English in Jamaica.

So, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of black figures, which contain visual references to European history and European art, call for attention and help to create a new vision of contemporary black identity and presence. Holland Cotter, in reviewing a 2005 exhibition of Wiley’s work, asserted as much by saying that Wiley “is a history painter. . . . By this I mean that he creates history as much as tells it.”2

And what would William Morris think about his imagery being utilized in this way? I think that he would be quite pleased: Morris was a socialist who wanted to bring about a change in the art world and society. William Morris felt like the arts, particularly the decorative arts, “were ‘sick’ as a consequence of the split between intellectual and mechanical work that occurred during the Renaissance.”3 Perhaps in a similar vein, Kehinde Wiley seeks to bind together racial divides and “heal” stereotypical assumptions about what constitutes art and portraiture.

So when Wiley’s paintings are considered in terms of social unity, Morris’s designs are very appropriate. Art historian Caroline Arscott has analyzed Morris’s designs in relation to the social climate of his day, finding that the designs “imagine an overcoming of social contradictions in an allegory performed ‘through the twists and turns of plants.’ In this way his aesthetic stands as a powerful equivalent for the recovered wholeness of men and women, of their relations to their fellows and to nature.”4 In many ways, Wiley is also suggesting similar themes of “wholeness” by binding different cultures together within his paintings. It isn’t surprising, then, that Wiley is inspired by designs of plants which repeatedly interconnect, wind, and bind themselves to each other.

1 Holland Cotter, “Art in Review: Kehinde Wiley,” New York Times, December 9, 2005.

2 Eugenie Tsai, ed., Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2015), 146. 

3 Steve Edwards, “Victorian Britain: From Images of Modernity to the Modernity of Images,” in Art and Visual Culture 1850-2010 by Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, eds. (London: Tate Publishing 2012), p. 81.

4 Ibid., 81.

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Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Inopportune: Stage One”

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004). Current display at Seattle Art Museum

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004). Current display at Seattle Art Museum

Last Friday, when I heard about the terrorist attacks in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One (2004) which is on display in the Seattle Art Museum. Guo-Qiang first created this installation in 2004 for the Mass MoCA (it also was displayed at the Guggenheim in 2008). Nine Ford Taurus cars are laid out in a sequence, but the overall effect is to give the suggestion of one car that is flipping through the air (although time is standing still, so the viewer sees “freeze frame” shots of the car suspended). The first and the ninth car are placed on the ground, suggesting the beginning and end of motion, as well as the beginning and ending of an event: the exploding of a car bomb.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004). View of 2004 installation at MASS MoCA

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004). View of 2004 installation at Building 5 of MASS MoCA

Lights emanate from most of the cars, but the colors change as the cars flip through the air. The first few cars have lights from all different colors, which have been compared to fireworks.1 (As a Chinese artist, perhaps Guo-Qiang is connecting to his heritage by alluding to Chinese fireworks.) However, the last few cars (numbers seven and eight in the sequence) emanate different colors: blue, indigo, and purple. (I actually prefer the Mass MoCA installation setup for this reason, because you can best see how the colors of the lights change.) These colors suggest that the impact and heat of the bomb are dying out, as the explosion ends.

Guo-Qiang is a New Yorker, and he was deeply impacted by the terrorist attacks September 11, 2001. Inopportune: Stage One is a reference to 9-11 and also a reference to the world as it exists today (as the result of the events of 9-11).2 So, when I heard about the attacks in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of how this installation embodies the turmoil and upset that is still taking place because of terrorism. I also feel like this installation also can embody an element of hope and perspective too, since the cars and lights are suspended and presented in a beautiful and lyrical way:

“We live in a world full of terror, of discussion and fear of terror. However, if you present only that, you are not providing a perspective. What if it is also something that is very beautiful and dreamlike? Does that reflect something? I always come back to this point: that art ought not to just restate what we know and how we live, it must provide a perspective, a distance.”3 – Cai Guo-Qiang

Ironically, I received notification just this afternoon that Inopportune: Stage One is going to be taken down from its permanent installation in the Brotman Forum at the Seattle Art Museum, starting soon after the beginning of the new year (January 2016). I’m torn about this decision, especially since I feel like the sentiment behind this installation, both in referencing terror and spreading beauty, is more poignant and needed than ever.

This evening, though, I wondered if maybe the visuals of this installation need to be altered to fit with today’s situation. I heard a segment on the radio saying that in years to come, we may look back and say that “The War on Terrorism 1″ began in 2001 with an American initiative, and that “The War on Terrorism 2″ began right now, in 2015, with the European response. Sadly, time will tell if this is the case. But this makes me wonder if a new installation of Inopportune would be appropriate, with perhaps Renault or Citroën cars suspended in the air.

1 Seattle Art Museum, “Inopportune: Stage One.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www1.seattleartmuseum.org/eMuseum/code/emuseum.asp?style=single&currentrecord=1&page=search&profile=objects&searchdesc=Number%20is%202006.1&searchstring=Number/,/is/,/2006.1/,/0/,/0

2 Ibid.

3 Guggenheim Museum, “Cai Guo-Qiang, I Want to Believe.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/school-educator-programs/teacher-resources/arts-curriculum-online?view=item&catid=727&id=93

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Chuck Close and Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock, "Sea Change," 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm). Seattle Art Museum

Jackson Pollock, “Sea Change,” 1947. Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm). Seattle Art Museum

Tonight I learned an interesting connection between Chuck Close, Jackson Pollock, and the Seattle Art Museum. In a 2008 interview, Close explained that at an early age, he was influenced by Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Close said, “I went to the Seattle Art Museum with my mother for the first time when I was eleven. I saw this Jackson Pollock drip painting with aluminum paint, tar, gravel and all that stuff. I was absolutely outraged, disturbed. It was so far removed from what I thought art was. However, within two or three days, I was dripping paint all over my old paintings. In a way I’ve been chasing that experience ever since.”1

I can’t find an indication of which Jackson Pollock painting Chuck Close saw, but I think that there is a chance that it might have been Sea Change by Jackson Pollock (1947, shown above). This painting was acquired by the Seattle Art Museum in 1958, but previously it was exhibited in 1955 at the SAM in a show called “Contemporary Trends in International Art” (April 7 – May 1, 1955). Since there is some uncertainty as to Chuck Close’s exact age when he saw a Pollock painting in the Seattle Art Museum (see first footnote), I want to propose that Sea Change is a viable possibility for the painting that influenced Close so much, even though Close would have been almost fifteen years old at the time (not eleven).

When Chuck Close was eighteen, Sea Change (1947, shown above) entered the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection as a gift from Peggy Guggenheim. A fascinating side note: As was relayed to me by the Seattle Art Museum curator, this gift from Peggy Guggenheim was the result of a dinner party. A curator from the Seattle Art Museum was having dinner with Peggy Guggenheim and some other guest (or guests). Apparently one of the other guests at the dinner party was obnoxious, so Peggy focused her attention on the not-annoying person: the SAM curator. She essentially ended up pulling the curator aside and said in effect, “Just wait to see what I’m going to send home with you!” The curator was invited to choose a painting out of a group of works of art, and he chose Sea Change.Perhaps the curator was drawn to selecting this Pollock, since it had just exhibited in Seattle a few years before? It seems likely to me.

Even if Sea Change wasn’t the painting that influenced Close as an adolescent, it is certain that Chuck Close would have seen this Pollock when it entered the museum collection. Close went to college in the Seattle area and even exhibited at a show for Northwest artists at the SAM in 1959.3

I feel like Jackson Pollock’s influence perhaps wasn’t keenly present in the middle of Close’s career, when he focused on creating hyperrealistic portraits like Mark (1978-79). However, I think in more recent decades the painterly quality of his portraits, which include swaths and swirls of color, could perhaps tap into Close’s early interest in Pollock:

Chuck Close, "Emma," 2000. Oil on canvas

Chuck Close, “Emma,” 2000. Oil on canvas

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about Close’s change in style during his later years, which in some ways can relate to the fact that he is now bound to a wheelchair and suffers from a partially-mobile painting hand. And now, while considering Close’s interest in Jackson Pollock, I like to think that Close is somehow indirectly inspired by his predecessor’s “action painting” more than ever, despite his own recent limitations in physical mobility. Go Chuck!

1 Phong Bui, “Chuck Close with Phong Bui,” The Brooklyn Rail, July 7, 2008. Available online: http://brooklynrail.org/2008/06/art/chuck-close-with-phong-bui. Elsewhere, another online source indicates that Close was fourteen (not eleven) when he saw the Pollock paintings, whereas another biography indicates Close probably saw the Jackson Pollock in 1953 (when he was thirteen).

2 Interview with Catarina Manchanda, Modern Art Curator at Seattle Art Museum, November 15, 2014.

3 Robert Storr, Chuck Close, Kirk Varnedoe, Deborah Wye, Chuck Close (New York: The Museum of Museum of Modern Art, 1998), p. 203. Available online HERE.

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Book Review and Giveaway: “The Art of the Con” by Anthony M. Amore

This is certainly the summer for new publications on art crime – and the summer isn’t even over yet! When I learned that Anthony M. Amore wrote a new book called The Art of the Con, I was in the middle of reading another recently-published book on art forgery by Noah Charney. I was curious to see if Amore’s book would be similar in content to Charney’s fantastic book.

For the most part, there wasn’t too much overlap between the content of Charney and Amore’s books. Both authors do discuss the forger Wolfgang Beltracci, but Amore goes into more detail in his book. (Amore dedicates essentially a whole chapter to Beltracci, whereas Charney dedicates a few pages to Beltracci within his broader discussion how forgery relates to different types of crime schemes.) Amore also elaborated on a lot of art cons and schemes that were unfamiliar to me, so I found a lot of the subject matter to be new and riveting.

Before reading this book, I was already familiar with Amore’s previous publication, Stealing Rembrandts (see my review HERE). Like Stealing Rembrandts, this new book The Art of the Con is an engaging read. I quickly read this book within a matter of days, not only because the subject matter was interesting to me, but because Amore’s writing style is accessible and entertaining. My critiques of this book are very minor: there were a handful of sentences in which pronouns were used in a confusing way, and I also disagreed with Amore mentioning that Cezanne was a Cubist (although the artist influenced Cubism, I would say that most art historians typically refer to Cezanne as a Post-Impressionist).1

All in all, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in art crime, particularly in connection with scams relating to the buying and selling of art. I want to highlight a few things from this book which were of interest to me:

Caravaggio (?) or Circle of Caravaggio, "Apollo the Lute Player," c. 1597. Private Collection, USA (Ex-Badminton copy)

Caravaggio (?) or Circle of Caravaggio, “Apollo the Lute Player,” c. 1597. Private Collection, USA (Ex-Badminton copy). Image courtesy Wikipedia

Since I own a copy of Clovis Whitfield’s book Caravaggio’s Eye, I was interested to learn in Amore’s book about how Whitfield worked to curate a show, Caravaggio, with another art dealer named Larry Salander. The centerpiece of the show was a painting called Apollo the Lute Player (shown above), which Whitfield and Salander believed to be an autograph version by Caravaggio.2 In fact, Salander appraised the painting at $100 million, which was about one thousand times its previous sale price of $110,000!3 However, due to Salander’s unethical and criminal behavior in the art market scene, which Amore explores in detail, Whitfield ended up pulling this star component of the exhibition on the afternoon of the show’s opening! Despite Whitfield’s apparent lack of involvement in Salander’s misdoings, the show never mounted as originally planned (although some pictures were shown elsewhere), which led the Telegraph to call the exhibition, “The Star Show that Never Was.”

Matisse, Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque), 1928. Private Collection

Matisse, Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque), 1928. Private Collection

Amore mentions in his book about how the Seattle Art Museum was involved in a law suit in 1998, in which the museum which sued the Knoedler Gallery in New York. The museum, in turn, was being sued by the heirs of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg. The Seattle Art Museum had received Matisse’s Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque) (shown above) as a gift from Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. The Bloedels had bought the painting from the Knoedler Gallery about forty years before donating the painting to the SAM. However, the Knoedler gallery gave false information to the Bloedels about the provenance of the painting, failing to admit that the painting had been looted from Paul Rosenberg during the Nazi era.After returning the painting to the Rosenberg family, I know that the SAM and Knoedler Gallery settled out of court: I’m inclined to think that the gallery gave cash to the museum, since the other option from the agreement was to give the SAM one or more works from the Knoedler inventory, and I currently can’t find any mention of the Knoedler Gallery in the online collection.5

Glass art falsely purported to be by Dale Chihuly, as sold by Michael Little

Glass art falsely purported to be by Dale Chihuly, as sold by Michael Little. Image via U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Amore dedicates a chapter of his book to dealing with the art con and fraud which takes place online. I was intrigued by the story of Michael Little, a man from Renton, Washington, who purported to sell works by Dale Chihuly on eBay (one example of such fraudulent glassware is shown above). Even after eBay pulled Little’s listings after being alerted to the fraud, Little continued to sell the fraudulent glassware online, in person, and through a Renton auction house! One collector was swindled out of thousands of dollars, after he bought pieces that he intended to donate to Gonzaga University’s Jundt Art Museum.6 Little was sentenced to only five months in prison. I later found out, after finishing Amore’s book, that the judge sentencing Little commented that he wished he could also order Little to attend basic training in the Army!

I’ve learned a lot from reading The Art of the Con. I’m very glad that I read this book, and I’ll be sure to continue to use it as a resource in the future. I’m happy to announce that I can share this book with someone else, too! One lucky reader can win a free copy of this book! Local and international readers are equally encouraged to enter. I will be randomly selecting one winner (using this site) on August 17, 2015. So you have seven days to enter this giveaway! You can enter your name up to three times. Here are the ways you can enter:

1) Leave a comment on this post!

2) Tweet about the giveaway (be sure to include my Twitter name: @albertis_window in your tweet, so I can find it).

3) Write about this giveaway on your own blog or website, and then include the URL in a comment on this post.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for generously providing a review copy and giveaway copy of The Art of the Con.

1 For Cezanne reference, see Anthony M. Amore, The Art of the Con (New York: Palgrave MacMillan Trade, 2015), 114.

2 Ibid., 64-65. Other scholars contest Whitfield’s findings that the painting is autograph. For one example,  see footnote 3 in Florian Thalmann, Irony, Ambiguity, and Musical Experience in Caravaggio’s Musical Paintings (University of Minnesota, 2013), p. 4.

3 Ibid., 64, 66.

4 Ibid., 54.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 214.

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The World Fair and Datsolalee’s Baskets

Photograph of Datsolalee (also spelled "Dat-so-la-lee")

Photograph of Louisa Keyser, called Datsolalee (also spelled “Dat-so-la-lee”)

It’s always interesting to me when art historical worlds collide. Just yesterday I was writing about how Anna Alma-Tadema, the daughter of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, exhibited the watercolor The Drawing Room at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chacago. And then today, in a tour of an exhibition of American Indian art curated by David W. Penney, I learned that the Washoe basketweaver Louisa Keyser (called “Datsolalee”) exhibited her basketwork at this same exhibition! In fact, Penney said that this exhibition helped Datsolalee to achieve more fame and renown for her basketweaving.1

Louisa Keyser (Datsolalee), Basket bowl ("Morning Lights" style, as dubbed by the artist), 1907. Willow shoots, redbud shoots, bracken fern root.

Louisa Keyser (Datsolalee), Degikups (“day-gee-coops”) basket bowl (“Harbor Lights” design, as dubbed by Keyser’s dealer), 1907. Willow shoots, redbud shoots, bracken fern root.

It’s striking to me how a Western taste for “the exotic” can be found in just these two examples that I have been thinking about this week, although the “exotic” looks to two different non-Western cultures. Anna Alma-Tadema’s watercolor contains textiles, tilework, and laquered furniture which are Eastern and/or Eastern-inspired in style. The inclusion of Datsolalee’s baskets in the 1893 fair is one way that Westerners were interested in American Indian cultures. This fair also was the first to include a live exhibition of American Indians (see one photo HERE).2

It seems to me that such live exhibitions and displays could help to disseminate an understanding of American Indian culture on some basic level, but the sheer spectacle and to-be-looked-at-ness of these displays suggest an “exoticization” and Other-ing on part of the Westerners to who organized and attended the fair. Although I realize that this Western interest in (and exploitation of!) the exotic can be found at many other of the World Fairs that were held during the 19th century and beyond, I think that this particular fair is somewhat-wryly appropriate, since the Columbian Exposition celebrated the 400th year that Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492. Given this context, it seems fitting that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show performed at the exposition, just outside the main entrance to the fair!3

Datsolalee is an interesting artist to me, especially since she was able to be successful, due to and in spite of the Western culture which encroached and superimposed itself on her people. Datsolalee’s people, the Washoe, are from the area in the United States called northwest Nevada. She married a man of mixed blood, Charlie Keyser, and made her living as a camp cook and laundress, but her skills at basketweaving were soon recognized by Amy and Abram Cohn. The Cohns became Datsolalee’s art dealers (in fact, they gave her the “Datsolalee” nickname, perhaps as a marketing strategy) and promoted her work.4 She wove baskets for Cohn’s Emporium for thirty years until her death. (Read more details of her biography HERE and an article written in the Reno Evening Gazette just after her death in 1925.)

Abram "Abe" Cohn with baskets by Datsolalee

Dealer Abram “Abe” Cohn with baskets by Datsolalee

One of the reasons why Datsolalee is well-known today is not just because she achieved exposure through Cohn’s Emporium or the Columbian Exposition, nor just because of her impressive craftsmanship (her best work is recorded to be baskets that had eighty strands to an inch!), but because of the cataloging of her baskets that was done by her dealer, as well as the bill of sale that was given with her baskets. The Cohns wrote these bills of sale to include several detailed bits of information: a description of the basket, stitches to the inch, the design of the basket, the amount of time it took to create the basket, and Datsolalee’s handprint. Datsolalee used her handprint, which was copyrighted, as a signature! As a result, these baskets were easily identified and connected back to her, which wasn’t always the case with American Indian weavers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the Cohns were known to fabricate and exaggerate elements of Datsolalee’s biography, as well as include incorrect information on the bills of sale, these bills still helped to connect the baskets to Datsolalee as a specific, unique individual.5

On one hand, the “exoticizing” of American Indian culture and craft at Western venues like the 1893 Columbian Exposition likely spread some inaccurate information or perceptions of American Indians to those who visited the fair. At the same time, though, this Western venue helped to promote Datsolalee and her basketweaving. And, thanks to the the detailed bills of sale written by Datsolalee’s art dealer, we know about Datsolalee today (although, admittedly one needs to separate the truth from myth). I think these points help illustrate that the dissemination and preservation of knowledge, especially accurate knowledge, is a tricky thing when it comes to cross-cultural interactions.

What do you know of other ways in which Westerners helped to preserve the information about American Indian craftsmen and artists? Do you know anything else about Datsolalee which interests you? I learned today that she requested to be buried with one of the last baskets she made, which I thought was fitting.

1 Tour with David W. Penney, Seattle Art Museum, February 10, 2015.

2 Elizabeth Hutchinson, The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890–1915 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 43. Available online HERE.

3 Marsha C. Bol, “Defining Lakota Tourist Art,” in Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, by Ruth B. Phillips, Christopher B. Steiner, eds. (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 1999), p. 200. Available online HERE.

4 The name “Dat-so-la-lee” means “Big Hips” in Washoe. However, I also found elsewhere that the nickname was actually due to “Dr. S.L. Lee,” the first white man to admire and take an interest in Datsolalee’s baskets. See HERE.

5 For more information on the myths that were propagated by the Cohns, see Christopher Ross, “Datsolalee and the Myth Weavers” in The Historical Nevada Magazine: Outstanding Historical Features from the Pages of Nevada Magazine by Richard Moreno, ed. (Reno, Nevada; University of Nevada Press, 1999), 86-94. Available online HERE.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.