Francis Bacons Portrait of Man with Glasses I is an absolute mood.
Francis Bacon's "Portrait of Man with Glasses I" is an absolute mood. Courtesy of SAM
Last week, Seattle Art Museum announced that they were ready to receive a big-ass gift: 19 excellent 20th-century abstract expressionist and European masterworks from the Lang Collection. The works are courtesy of the Friday Foundation, an organization dedicated to the philanthropic legacy of the late, prolific, Seattle-area collectors Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis.

This big-ass gift also comes with $10.5 million in dedicated funds to support SAM's post-war and contemporary art conservation programs, purchase technical conservation equipment, and maintain the works. The Friday Foundation previously gave $4 million to SAM: $2 million for COVID-19 relief and $2 million for a contemporary art acquisition fund, primarily for young artists and artists of color.

"This is no exaggeration—we now, all of the sudden, have one of the best public collections of New York School painting," said SAM CEO and director Amada Cruz during a recent phone interview. "We also have three extraordinary examples of two very important post-war European artists. If you want to teach kids what the New York School was all about, you can come to SAM and see it in this collection.”

Collectively, the works have an estimated value of $400 million and include abstract expressionist giants like Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline, as well as acclaimed British artist Francis Bacon and Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Notably, the gift also includes three crucial works from three crucial female artists of the era: Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell.

Joan Mitchells The Sink is nearly 10 feet long.
Joan Mitchell's "The Sink" is nearly ten feet long. Courtesy of SAM
The Langs were longtime supporters and board members of the SAM; that relationship made the museum an instinctive choice as the main recipient of their collection (six additional works from the Lang's arsenal were donated to the Yale University Art Gallery). Pablo Schugurensky, a representative for the Friday Foundation, recently told me that these 19 artworks represent "the best, the core, the heart of their collection."

The Langs were intentional in collecting art, he said, listening to friends and dealers but ultimately making independent decisions about what they liked. They lived with these paintings and sculptures; everything they owned was up on the wall or on display. And in a similar spirit, this donation is intended for the public good—these babies need to be seen.

From post-war Europe to post-COVID America

Viewing these paintings and sculptures in a pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 500,000 Americans and 2.55 million worldwide makes them resonate differently. The isolation, angst, and somberness experienced by these artists reacting to the destruction of World War II mirrors the isolation, angst, and somberness we're experiencing right now. And while we haven't quite reached the "end" of this anguish, there's something in Rothko's bleak colorfields and Mitchell's frenetic, caustic brushstrokes that feel like a balm on an open wound.

Cruz also thinks there's a through-line between the post-war moment these artists were creating in and now. She believes many of the pieces will speak to a population that's (hopefully) on the other side of the pandemic and eager to really experience art in person.

Alberto Giacomettis Femme de Venise II is all of us in quarantine.
Alberto Giacometti's "Femme de Venise II" is all of us in quarantine. Courtesy of SAM

"One of the works that I keep thinking about is the Giacometti sculpture, because it is a lone figure. It's very much a reaction to the horrors of World War II," said Cruz. "To me, that figure is very much reflective of this particular moment, this extreme isolation we've all been in—the sense of loneliness and existential angst. I really think that piece is so much of this moment, even though it's such an old piece."

Giacometti's sculpture, the tall, attenuated "Femme de Venise II" is lonesome and powerful. The slightly abstract figure cast in bronze is craggy and earthen in color, seemingly more cave-dripping than woman. The subject is rooted to her pedestal, with no distinction made between where she ends and the base begins. "Femme de Venise II" was exhibited with ten other similar silhouettes for the French Pavilion in the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956 and is the artist's first work to enter the SAM's collection.

Cruz also highlighted Lee Krasner's "Night Watch" and the two Francis Bacon works as being standouts in a group of standouts. "'Night Watch' is one of those paintings that you are not going to really be able to appreciate it until you get in front of it—in terms of the scale, the hand of the artist's brushwork, you will be able to see the eyes that are looking at you all over the place," she said.

The 1960 painting references Rembrandt's monumental painting from 1642, depicting a militia in action. Krasner's interpretation gobbles up all the bodies and soft light in the original piece, reducing the figures down to their eyes, painting them in creamy neutral tones. It plays on the literal title of the piece, but also adds a level of paranoia to the scene. The work speaks to the heightened state of political surveillance of the time. It's a feeling that easily translates to today, especially as everything around us monitors our bodies for signs of coronavirus.

"I think at a visceral level, it'll communicate a lot to people coming out of COVID," said Cruz.

Both Cruz and Schugurensky emphasized the importance of seeing these works IRL. The museum plans to share the art with the public this fall (fingers crossed) in a comprehensive show called Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection. The exhibition will include photomurals showing the artworks' original context within the Lang home. SAM will also release a 200-page catalog of scholarly essays about the collection.

Take a gander through all the donated works here. Hopefully we can come together and look at these tremendous works in-person, on the other side of this pandemic. I'll see you there.

Night Watch by Lee Krasner is based on Rembrandts 1642 painting The Night Watch.
"Night Watch" by Lee Krasner is based on Rembrandt's 1642 painting "The Night Watch." Courtesy of SAM