Category Archives: Seattle Art Museum

There are no rules….


…..that is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen.
Helen Frankenthaler


The artist Helen Frankenthaler spoke from experience.  She was one of the first artists to explore the stained painting technique – a process wherein she poured thinned paint onto raw (unprimed) canvas.  Mountains and Sea (1952), considered a breakthrough painting, shows the transparency and delicacy possible with this technique. Here is a very brief interpretation of the painting from the National Gallery of Art.  (Curiously enough, there is a Canadian connection to this work.)

Mountains and Sea, Helen Frankenthaler, 1952 National Gallery of Art image

Mountains and Sea, Helen Frankenthaler, 1952 National Gallery of Art image

I recall being impressed by large canvases of her work in Modern Masters: Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler at the Seattle Art Museum. The Museum called them …three visionary painters who developed distinctive painterly styles. SAM also recognized  …their hard-won accomplishments in what was a male-defined domain.

Pace Prints reminded me of Frankenthaler’s printmaking work in a recent exhibition. In Her Mind’s Eye was a show of  woodcut prints she completed  from 2001 to 2009 with master printmaker Yasu Shibata.  She was really demanding for each project he said, in a recent interview for In Her Mind’s EyeShe knew exactly what she wanted.

 He points out the connection between her early stained paintings and the process she used in the Pace printshop with the plywood:  It’s really abstract just like Helen made in (the) early ’60s or ’50s – that she did the same thing on unprimed canvas –  that she poured the oil paint that makes (it) bleed and the edges of the shapes are really soft.

Snow Pines, Helen Frankenthaler, 2004, Pace Prints image

Weeping Crabapple, Helen Frankenthaler, 2009, Pace Prints image

In the 10 minute video  Helen Frankenthaler: OK to print  she says I don’t confuse – or try not to – working on prints with working on painting.  They are totally different mediums. She likens her creative process in a printmaking studio to cooking a meal from an unfamiliar icebox:  You mix your own magic – whatever you’re given to work with…..because you are confronted with things that are forcing you to make something wonderful.

Madame Butterfly, Helen Frankenthaler, 2000, publisher Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe, New York image

Madame Butterfly, H. Frankenthaler, 2000, publisher Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe image

When collaborating and working at different print shops like Pace, Tyler Graphics, ULAE, Frankenthaler knew that she had a reputation as a demanding artist. The word is that I am so fussy….so particular…..such a perfectionist.  She explains her attitude to the work:  In order to have something to really move and work and be beautiful it takes a lot of time and effort and being explicit and being demanding and being controlling and also knowing when to allow…and such.

Gateway Screen, Helen Frankenthaler, 1988, Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe, New York image

Gateway Screen, H. Frankenthaler, 1988, Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe image

Gateway Screen, Helen Frankenthaler, 1988, Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe, New York image

Gateway Screen, H. Frankenthaler, 1988, Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe image

I am struck by how these ideas, specific to Helen Frankenthaler’s art making practice,  are applicable to our current local, national and global challenges.  If we want a more peaceful, inclusive society we need to break some of the old rules, routines and ways of being.  It will  take time,  hard work, and dedication.  We may not be popular or welcomed, as we demand and adapt to  the changes necessary to create a world that moves and works and is beautiful.  

Perhaps we take her analogy about the icebox to heart?  We are experiencing problems and situations that require creativity to  make something wonderful.




Modernism in the Pacific Northwest

Forms Follow Man

Forms Follow Man

I have to say I was a little skeptical about this show at the Seattle Art Museum.  It’s not that I doubt the quality of the shows at SAM, but I have a little bias against Mark Tobey.  In her book, Art of Emily Carr,   Doris Shadbolt  says of Tobey:  ” American artist Mark Tobey claimed credit for inspiring Carr’s “great swirling canvases, [and] wonderful tree forms,”

Never mind.  Emily was above all the fray.  Her comment on Tobey:  “He is clever, but he has no soul.”

We can forgive the hubris.  The man’s contribution to modernism is significant.  The art critic, Clement Greenberg, gave Tobey credit for inventing the overall gestural painting style….not Jackson Pollock!  As was the case with the artist Robert Irwin in California, and Emily Carr in Victoria, Tobey’s location in Seattle prevented him from becoming a household name like Jackson Pollock. The abstract expressionists in New York got all the buzz.

Modernism in the Pacific Northwest also highlighted the work of Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson.  The art is strong, and rooted in deeply held personal philosophies.

The curators at SAM did an excellent job of explaining the historical significance of the these painters.  They made it clear how the art was firmly rooted in the political and philosophical movements of the time.


Here is a short list (shortlist*) of reasons why I like the Seattle Art Museum….

Inopportune: Stage One

Inopportune: Stage One

-the art (of course)  It begins outside the building, with the Impressive Hammering Man sculpture. In the foyer is the attention grabbing installation, Inopportune: Stage One by Cai Guo-Qiang.  It never ceases to amuse, thrill and entertain me.  All this wonderful art work, and you haven’t even paid for your ticket…..

reasonable membership rates   An annual membership (couple, or family, or individual) is under $100.

Perfectly garnished for the Miro exhibit!

Perfectly garnished for the Miro exhibit

the cafe   Taste features delicious food, and very good service, in an attractive room.

a gift shop (SAM Shop) AND a separate book shop (SAM Books)

Across the street from the SAM

Across the street from the SAM, viewed from Taste cafe

-location  It’s right downtown, with easy access for visitors, and, apparently, neighbours with a sense of humour

the name  Just like the WAG (Winnipeg Art Gallery) or the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art), SAM is a comfortably familiar name to toss around…..”Goin’ to the SAM”


*the short list (shortlist) inspired by Jian Ghomeshi in his memoir 1982


Joan Miro at the Seattle Art Museum

I finally made it to the Joan Miro exhibition, The Experience of Seeing, at the Seattle Art Museum.  Very soon after entering the gallery, I unexpectedly ran into a colleague, who remarked, “I am strangely moved by the show.”   She voiced my feelings exactly.  Maybe it’s being in the presence of genius that moves us?  (I don’t know, but I do know I felt the same way when I visited Monet’s home and gardens in France.  So much beauty….but that’s a blog for another time.)

The Experience of Seeing deals largely with the last two decades of Miro’s life.  The numerous sculptures were a highlight for me.  They are engaging, and often whimsical creations of ‘found’ objects that are then cast in bronze, using lost wax casting . I wasn’t the only one walking around with a smile on my face….and I’d bet the creators of ET were familiar with Miro’s works.