IT TOOK VIRGINIA AND BAGLEY WRIGHT almost 50 years to amass the wide-ranging art collection currently on view at the Seattle Art Museum and at the Wright's new private exhibition space on Dexter Avenue. Given that, you could expect that the pair of shows would tell a story about American artmaking over the last 50 years, which they of course do. What's more interesting, though, is how the shows also tell a different story, one about the uses to which a large collection can be put, the ends it can serve, and ultimately, about a vast new resource which the Seattle Art Museum will be given.

Virginia Bloedel bought her first artworks in her 20s, fresh out of college. One of the first was a great Rothko. As a couple, the Wrights collected abstract expressionists (Pollock, Kline, Motherwell) in the '50s, and began collecting Pop Art in the '60s before coming under the influence of powerful art critic Clement Greenberg, who'd argued himself into the conclusion that just about the only worthwhile art was what was then dubbed post-painterly abstraction, or hard-edge abstraction, and which now makes up a minor, interesting cul-de-sac in the history of art. Surprisingly, given their long association with him, the Wrights' collection did not mirror his rigid prescriptions; they collected post-Pop painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, minimalists Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Ellsworth Kelly. As the schools and styles that governed early post-war American art broke down in the '70s and '80s, their collecting broadened: Californian artists Ed Ruscha and Robert Irwin, '80s art stars Robert Longo, Jeff Koons, Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel, large-scale sculptors Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero, photographer Cindy Sherman, installation artists Robert Gober and Bruce Nauman. They also began collecting Europeans, after following for decades the conventional wisdom that only American art was truly interesting after 1950. Recently, they've collected with the Seattle Art Museum in mind, looking to fill gaps in its collection by, say, selling a Pollock (SAM already has a decent one) to buy several other works the museum could better use.

In many cases, they bought only one piece by a particular artist, which could give one worry that their collection would merely be an expanded version of the didactic history of modern art which used to gather moss in the museum's fourth-floor galleries: one Pollock, one Warhol, one Johns, one Rauschenberg, one Segal... a stultifying Reader's Digest view of art history which simply throws history's winners into a couple of rooms and claims to tell a complete story thereby. (The museum was hampered by its own history of disdain for modern art, which lasted up until the '70s.) Fortunately, this climactic note late in the Wright's careers as collectors--they still have years of collecting left, of course--coincides with Trevor Fairbrother's ascension to the position of modern art curator at SAM.

Fairbrother is a curator who uses art objects instead of simply displaying them. One of his early acts at the museum was to re-hang the fourth-floor galleries, replacing their pat history with an almost intuitive arrangement of objects, major and minor, by famous names and almost unknown ones, holding conversations back and forth across the galleries. In his installation of the Wright Collection, Fairbrother again eschews history: his hanging is liberated from chronology or schools. A long low platform for sculpture juxtaposes Donald Judd's minimalist box with a taxidermized dog (by Maurizio Cattelan), a Claes Oldenburg slice of pie, and a tangle of barbed wire and neon by James Rosequist. This riot of approaches to sculpture is less a conversation than a party, but one I was happy to be invited to.

There's great mid-century work here, but I for some reason (personal taste, most likely) gravitated toward the contemporary work. Here, the Wrights' personalities, which don't make a big show of themselves anywhere else, completely disappear. I have no idea what a plutocrat developer and a timber heiress found compelling about Robert Gober's Urinal, a large, oversized, lovingly hand-built object which has everything and nothing to do with Marcel Duchamp's art-prank from early this century, and also has a fair amount to do with homosexuality--I'm just glad they bought it, and that SAM will have it.

In back, a campy gilded Jeff Koons sculpture of John the Baptist points up at a Jack Pierson wall work, where the artist spells out Kurt Cobain's name in a variety of 3-D sign letters, dramatically lit by a tilted rectangle of bright white light. This tongue-in-cheek hagiography has everything to do with the joy of installing shows, and has very little to do with such bugbears as "the artist's original intent," or "the meaning of the artwork." And thank god for that.

So this show, which could serve as a period at the end of a very long sentence, is instead a semicolon, which an even longer sentence is meant to follow. This collection reads not as an abstracted self-portrait of the collectors, but as something from which their influence, and ownership, will gracefully fade away. This, ideally, is something of which the collectors should be proud. This is a useful collection, a collection which can tell the story of a certain stretch of time in American artmaking, but which also can tell innumerable other stories, in other times and by other hands.

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