Visual Art

Shock and Awe

The New Seattle Art Museum Blows the Old One Away

Shock and Awe

Photos by Curt Doughty

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The new Seattle Art Museum is so much better than the old Seattle Art Museum it's shocking.

A corridor of light stretches almost the entire length of its interior. Art fans out from it in every direction, visible through vast doorways. From the third-floor elevator doors, a John Singleton Copley painting of Sylvester Gardiner is straight ahead in the distance. It's thoroughly 18th century: his white wig, his long jacket with gold buttons, the patriarchal expression of a British loyalist who would later flee the Revolution for Nova Scotia. This painting has never before lived outside its ancestral home in the town in Maine named after him. Now it's sitting behind a stop sign made by an obscure 1970s Vancouver art collective called N.E. Thing. The stop sign reads "GO." To Gardiner's left is a large Warhol silk screen—silvery Elvises—and to his right, facing him, is a huge moose against a pink background by Mel Ramos.

Gardiner has shot full throttle into the information age, landing in an urban museum where no artwork, no culture, and no era is an island. Moving through the light-filled corridor, works of art in other rooms leap in and out of view in an exhilarating exchange of information that works like an iPod Shuffle, making the viewer consider which connections between works are noteworthy, and which are just coincidences.

A visual analogue between Gardiner's jacket with its delicate lace cuffs and the maroon-and-cream hues of a signature abstraction by Clyfford Still—visible but in another gallery—is a nice surprise. Each man is, after all, known for stubborn loyalty in the face of movements concerning American liberty: the Revolution and abstract expressionism, respectively. Also visible from the same spot—you still haven't moved—is a hand-embroidered canvas of pornographic goings-on with Still-esque streakiness by New York–based Egyptian artist Ghada Amer, and a used Ford Taurus tumbling through the air, tossing out light like a Fourth of July firecracker, by New York–based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. So much America in one panorama—and that's just a quick interpretation.

Brad Cloepfil, the Portland architect responsible for designing the $86 million new building, has an obvious gift for interior spaces. But the heroes of the new SAM are its curators: Chiyo Ishikawa, Pam McClusky, Michael Darling, Patti Junker, Barbara Brotherton, Julie Emerson, and Yukiko Shirahara. They've brought an entirely new vitality to the museum. This opening feels like the arrival of a general-interest museum in a city that never had one before.

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The best and most radical decision by the curators and director Mimi Gates: to devote the big, beautiful, central galleries of the new building to the permanent collection instead of to touring exhibitions. In the old SAM building, designed by Robert Venturi and built in 1991—and declared by New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp to be "a rancid piece of work"—the permanent collection was shunted to the atticlike upper floors while big-name blockbusters (usually touring shows) hogged the first floor of galleries. The old building ruined one of the most pleasurable relationships in art: the friendships, built over time, between the local visitor and the local museum's permanent holdings. Touring shows, along with changing exhibitions curated at SAM, will be relegated to the Venturi building, and the permanent collection will stay where it is.

The way the permanent collection is installed is brilliant, too. Each section is hung in its own way. Disparate collections are linked. Juxtapositions are playful—a taxidermied dog on a plastic chair by the contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan with a Dutch still life with cherries and a butterfly from 1617 by Balthasar van der Ast. Wall labels are opinionated. The whole place has an air of confident, conversational intelligence and in several spots, curators seem to be throwing out the question, "Why the hell not?"

A video is projected onto the floor beneath an abstract painting, because the painting was made on the dusty ground of the Australian outback, as the footage shows. In another room, a coffin made to look like a white Mercedes Benz, by Ghanaian artist Kane Quaye, sits on the floor. Above it, projected onto the ceiling, is a video of Ghanaian burial ceremonies in coffins like these. You can walk right underneath and miss it.

(As a bonus, suddenly the ceremony of Ghanaian burials seems to reference Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's immortalization of an 18th-century Italian landowner in his ceiling painting of angels and demigods in a nearby gallery.)

This, ideally, is what curators do. They make these same old African masks, modern paintings, ancient Greek fragments, majestic Asian scrolls, spotless rare silver, humble furniture from rural America, and French Revolution–era dishes with the profiles of unpopular royals hidden in tree designs look as if you're seeing them for the first time. It was headline news when SAM was promised nearly 1,000 works of art to its collection of 23,000 objects recently. But bigger news is that SAM is prepared to make the most of them. I'd say this is one of the best-installed museums anywhere.

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The land deal for the new SAM—an arrangement unprecedented in the museum world—was hatched in a car. The people in the car were Washington Mutual developer Matt Griffin and SAM trustee Charlie Wright.

Here's what they came up with: SAM would sell half the city block it owned, between Union and University streets and First and Second avenues, to WaMu, which would provide construction loans to SAM. WaMu would build a 42-story world headquarters, and SAM would build a 16-story tower abutting WaMu headquarters on the west side. (The arrangement has earned SAM's building the unfortunate nickname "the goiter.")

By renting eight floors in the SAM building that the museum eventually would move into, the bank—in a handsome and deceptively slender-looking tower by NBBJ—would cover SAM's mortgage until the museum was ready to expand. This expansion increased the museum's overall square footage from 150,000 to 268,000, and doubled its gallery space.

When the museum takes over all 12 floors it owns (the bank owns the top four outright), it will have 450,000 square feet.

In return, the bank got prime land for cheap—without having to compete for it—and the city removed certain zoning restrictions so the tower could be larger, because of the bank's association with the museum.

From the outside, SAM's new building is more of a business statement than an architectural one. It projects conflicting messages: hip to hip with that jumbo corporate tower, it seems strong and secure and global, but it also looks like a needy little parasite stuck to the side of a money depository. It is barely distinguishable from standard corporate architecture, and in the skyline, makes no statement at all.

Aside from the architecture, will there be any substantive consequences to SAM's close financial affiliation with an international banking concern, or does the alignment just have an uncomfortable veneer? After all, many corporations with strong R&D departments do what artists do: They experiment, they push. And the boards of museums are packed with businesspeople.

But SAM doesn't have much of a record of experimentation when it comes to showing art. Whether the museum will be as brave and ambitious in its exhibitions as it has been in its capital campaigns remains to be seen. The museum has raised $179 million of the $180 million it needs to pay for the Olympic Sculpture Park, the downtown expansion, and renovations to the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

SAM director Gates and Cloepfil say any blandness in the building is a vote for humble structures that serve the art rather than upstaging it. (Judging by the opening displays, I'm not so sure how serviceable the adjustable sunshade on the façade of the building is.) And I'll take Cloepfil's almost digital-looking exterior any day over Venturi's all-over-the-place postmodern façade.

But there is plenty of room between, say, the "look-at-me" exterior of Daniel Libeskind's recent Denver Art Museum, and SAM's anonymous-indistinct-corporate-chic-dom. Both Gates and Cloepfil have repeatedly used the word "timeless" to describe the building, which seems at once suspicious and presumptuous. Compare Carl Gould's art deco Asian Art Museum to this corporate hulk, and you get a shiver.

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Then again, maybe the vertical museum of the future is all on the inside. That's where Cloepfil triumphs—except, poor guy, where he had to work with Venturi's dead-end galleries.

The interlocking, double-height galleries in the new core create a profound sense of being in a unified vertical space at all times. Cloepfil talks about the vertical museum as a new organism; Yoshio Taniguchi's Museum of Modern Art in New York is its prototype. Where that building's tall, airy core dwarfs art and visitors, SAM's center is surprisingly warm and human scaled. Even the supersized contemporary gallery is soft, its white ceiling resembling sewn-together fabric.

Or take the edge of the new lobby, overlooking the former lobby, where the limestone columns have been extended. If there is another interior public gathering space as grand and as unpretentious as this, I don't know it.

The galleries in the Venturi building remain drab. There's still no natural light, and although the artificial lights are turned to nearly blinding levels, the feeling in those rooms has nothing on the new galleries. Plus, the layout is as confounding as ever. (The grand "Staircase to Nowhere" still leads nowhere, though thanks to installations by Jason Puccinelli, you have a better time on your way.)

The new galleries, meanwhile, flank the central corridor of the big new facility along a single axis, as an enfilade, which brings symmetry and clarity to the experience.

And the congruence and architectural rhyming emphasizes that certain works occupy the same position on different floors. In a striking example, a pair of 14th- and 15th-century saints toil directly above Catherine Opie's giant photograph of a man bearing dozens of chandelier crystals embedded in his skin and a stomach tattoo that reads "DIVINITY."

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The art has never looked better, and there has never been so much of it. Anyone expecting to see all the promised gifts announced in March should keep in mind that many are bequests, and not yet at the museum. But who could complain about a hallway bookended by Brancusi's Bird in Space, given by Jon and Mary Shirley, and Sandro Botticelli's egg tempera painting on wood panel Madonna of the Magnificat, circa 1482, loaned by the Allen Family Foundation? (Strange fact: Neither Paul Allen nor Bill Gates, director Gates's stepson, have ever given art from their personal collections—incredible collections—to SAM.)

Almost all of the museum's porcelain, around a thousand pieces, takes over the walls of a single room. Whole sets are displayed, not just single taxonomic examples. They're arranged by color and separated by mirrors so the room flashes and glints. This is total, deliberate aesthetic overload on an almost carnal order, paired with the newly restored Tiepolo ceiling painting and its luscious study on the wall.

The African collection is another knockout experience. William Kentridge's shadow puppets and a series of masked and costumed figures are arranged like a processional on its way to the special-exhibitions galleries nearby. The installation is a send-up of the stereotypical visitor's beeline for blockbusters, which causes them to overlook collections such as this one.

The lure of the first two special exhibitions, SAM at 75: Building a Collection for Seattle and Five Masterpieces of Asian Art: The Story of Their Conservation, is strong, with highlights from the Edo-period Japanese crow screen to a large room with seven Gerhard Richter paintings in his gloriously divergent styles. But there's an equally interesting experience through the other doorway out of tribal Africa—a troubled connection between Europe and Africa.

"I will protest like a gentleman," the contemporary African-English artist Yinka Shonibare says in a wall label, in a statement directed toward the West. "You won't even know. You'll invite me into your museum." In front of the label are Shonibare's headless mannequins outfitted in Victorian fashions made from African textiles. The nuclear family stands between tribal costumes from Nigeria and William Hogarth's 18th-century satirical prints of a decadent European married couple. In the European galleries, there's a single portrait of an African, a 19th-century painting of a man positioned so that his glance is directed, longingly, toward the African collection.

The splashiest of the art is Cai Guo-Qiang's Inopportune: Stage One, the nine Ford Tauruses that fly through the free entry area along First Avenue. SAM has plastered this purchase on all of its publicity materials, and understandably so—it is a spectacle. In its original incarnation in a dark, huge hall at MASS MoCA, the shooting lights sparkled and the cars lined up like unbroken film frames from a crash. Here, regrettably, the architecture interrupts their line and their explosions pale in the flood of natural light from outside.

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What I love best about the new SAM is its dark heart, the thing that will save it from the complacent festivalism of capital campaigns and grand openings even at the height of the parties. It's in several places at the juncture of the African and the European galleries, and it's even in the slightly sinister explosions and rusted underbellies of the Ford Tauruses. In a quiet way, SAM is using its multicultural arsenal to articulate something about where the feel-good multiculturalism of the 1990s has gotten us. In one corner of the giant, soaring contemporary gallery, several dark works are gathered to form something like a visual wail.

Do-Ho Suh's stiff, terrifying robe of military dog tags spreads out like a warning already gone unheeded. Same goes for the unstretched, skin-like canvas of Leon Golub's enormous 1982 portrait of one man about to shoot another. And for Anselm Kiefer's pile of ashy clothes in a thick mural of pure aftermath. Glenn Ligon's sparkly black monochrome is actually a coal-dust and oil-stick transcription, black on black, of a James Baldwin story about being the first black man ever to set foot in a Swiss town. Next to that is Ed Ruscha's 1993 gray-scale acrylic, a piece that reads, in big letters from an oil-drunk time, "AN EXHIBITION OF GAS-POWERED ENGINES."

In other words, the art museum asks: Where are we as people, besides in an art museum? recommended

jgraves@thestranger.com

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