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a museum triple play

by N. F. Karlins
Seattle Art Museum
Seattle Asian Art Museum
Venturi's grand stairway
at the Seattle Art Museum
Native American Art Galleries
at the Seattle Art Museum
Tsimshian Soul Catcher
African Art Galleries
Crocodile headdress
Mirror case
ca. 1330-60
The Judgement of Paris
Lucas Cranach the Elder
ca. 1516-18
Sea Change
Jackson Pollock
Exalted Monk
(Moment of Enlightment)

China, Yuan Dynasty
ca. 1650
Japanese, Edo period
Dancing Girl
ca. 11th century
Franz Stuck
ca. 1900
Alexander Max Koester
A Wooden Basket of
Catawba Grapes

William Michael Harnett
Frye Art Museum
Completed facade

The Microsoft millionaires are notoriously indifferent to art -- despite Bill Gates's high-profile purchases of the Leonardo Codex and a $30-million Winslow Homer. Yet their home base, Seattle, has a good number of knowledgeable and generous art collectors. The result is that the city boasts not one but three impressive art museums.

The Seattle Art Museum
The most important museum in the Northwest is the Seattle Art Museum, which has been ensconced since 1991 in the heart of downtown in a postmodern building by Richard Venturi. The museum was founded in 1931 by geologist and Asian art aficionado Richard E. Fuller, who scraped together $325,000 to build the museum's first home. A lovely Art Moderne structure, it opened in 1933 in Volunteer Park (to the north of downtown on the crest of Capitol Hill near the center of the city).

The Volunteer Park building recently reopened as the Seattle Asian Art Museum, housing the extensive Asian collection assembled by Fuller and his mother, Margaret E. MacTavish Fuller. A single admission fee allows visits to both museums. (Both are open free of charge one day a month and the Asian Museum is free on an additional day as well.)

Fuller headed the museum as its first (and initially unpaid) director, overseeing its growth for 40 years until his retirement in 1973. The Fullers, more humble than many of today's masters of the hi-tech universe, declined to have the museum named after their family.

The Seattle Art Museum is in the shape of a "D" and runs a full city block, down the steep grade on a hill only a few blocks from Seattle's bustling waterfront. Venturi's design splits the museum facade into three horizontal bands. Street level is mock Moroccan, with arches of granite and marble accented with colored terra-cotta tile. The massive body of the building is faced with limestone with vertical fluting. The top level is `50s moderne, with a flat roofline that fits snugly in with the surrounding high-rises. All in all, the design seems a little tarted up and gratuitously decorative.

Toiling away out front is Jonathan Borofsky's kinetic, 48-foot-tall Hammering Man, marking the museum as a place for contemporary art. Inside, the high-ceiling galleries are spacious and inviting. And Venturi's grand stairway to the second floor exhibition galleries is truly magnificent. Here, arches don't seem gratuitous, and the massive 16th-century Chinese stone funerary sculptures arrayed on the steps are appropriately imposing. A pleasant café, just off the stairway, is a popular local meeting place.

The permanent collection, displayed on the third and fourth floors, is more uneven. The curatorial staff has done an excellent job in installing the works to make the most of what is available, however.

The Northwest Coast galleries are chock full of great material. One standout is the Tsimshian Soul Catcher from mainland British Columbia. A shaman would have used this pendant of bone, abalone shell and buckskin in curing rites. Other exciting items include a Chilkat robe of mountain-goat wool and yellow cedar bark and the rare pattern board on which its design was based, and an elaborately painted Tlingit house partition from the 19th century.

The museum also has impressive holdings of African art, much of it from the collection of Katherine C. White, which came to the museum in the early 1980s, partially as a gift and partially as a purchase made possible by Boeing. A huge display of masks from many tribes is unforgettable. Videotapes provide a context for how many of the ritual paraphernalia were actually used. Fabrics and jewelry, musical instruments and game boards, plus hundreds of carvings merit plenty of looking.

While the number of European works is limited, a Mirror Case (ca. 1330-60) in ivory, probably from France, is a marvel. A lively jousting scene is surrounded by four wyverns, fanciful dragon-like animals. Lucas Cranach the Elder's oil The Judgment of Paris (ca.1516-18) and Luca Giordano's gloriously swirling The Triumph of Neptune (ca. 1697-1702) are both memorable. And, after not having made an addition to the European painting collection since 1961, the museum purchased this year a portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck.

A large collection of china, including Meissen, Sèvres, plus English, Dutch and Russian examples, along with silver coffee and tea serving pieces, is presided over by the delightful Portrait of Madame Brion, Seated, Taking Tea (1750) by Jacques-André Joseph Aved. Her plump and affable figure is enough to make anyone relax and want to pull up a chair.

Local artists have worked at the Seattle Art Museum since its founding and their works make up one important grouping within the museum's huge modern collection. Oils and works on paper by Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, sculpture by the late George Tsutakawa, and photographs by Imogene Cunningham are outstanding. This summer, a series devoted to Northwest artists presented a retrospective of the glass art of Richard Marquis, which ranged from funky to elegant.

Certainly no mention of the Seattle's many modern works is complete without noting Jackson Pollock's 1947 Sea Change, a luminous oil encrusted with small pebbles. A local art dealer persuaded Peggy Guggenheim to donate several pieces, and the Pollock was among them. Lucky Seattle!

Many other less well known modern collectors have donated pieces, and the museum displays small groupings of works they have contributed in the past, like the gifts from Anne and Sidney Gerber that were featured this summer. The Gerbers have given the museum everything from Haitian folk paintings to pieces by Kandinsky, Leger and de Kooning. The museum wisely showcases other modern works that remain in private collections -- at least for the present. A selection of works from the Collection of Jon and Mary Shirley contained top-flight pieces by Franz Kline and Joan Mitchell.

A number of Australian aboriginal paintings made a lively addition to the many small exhibitions presented this summer.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum
While a selection of Asian pieces can be seen downtown, including the recreation of a Chinese scholar's studio, the Seattle Asian Art Museum contains more, much more. The entire history of Chinese ceramics is surveyed in a collection that embraces many unique pieces as well as superb examples of established types. A whole day could easily be spent just in these three galleries.

A selection of Tang (7th century) glazed pottery funerary figures allows the viewer to trace the evolution of various foreign military styles of dress and weaponry, while another gallery contains large Buddhist statuary that are decidedly more introspective. Concentrations of early bronzes, carved jades and snuff bottles are other highlights.

Oddly, one of the most emotionally complex works in its Chinese area depicts someone who isn't Chinese. The polychromed wood Exalted Monk (Moment of Enlightenment) from around the 14th century (late Yuan or early Ming dynasty) captures a man whose broad, non-Chinese features are as mobile as his fluttering robes when he catches site of the ineffable.

The museum's Japanese collection is almost as extensive as its Chinese. Ceramics for the tea ceremony and textiles are especially wonderful. If I had to select a single favorite work, I think mine would be a pair of six-panel screens of Crows from around 1650 (Edo period). In ink on gold backgrounds, the birds are so lifelike that Alfred Hitchcock would have been wild about them, too. They are too fragile, unfortunately, to be exhibited very often.

A huge central hall is the place to see Indian and other sub-continent pieces, like a marble Dancing Girl from 11th-century Rajasthan. Other rooms show off Korean fine and folk art, with a handful of pieces from Southeast Asia, including several impressive Thai and Cambodian stone sculptures, rounding out the Museum's displays.

With so much to see, either during or just after a visit, most people head for the lower level where the Kado Tea Garden can provide an individually brewed pot of one of 55 teas and a snack to go with it, if you choose.

You will not be able to take along a catalog to thumb through, however, because there isn't one available. With so much wonderful material, this is a situation that needs to be remedied as soon as possible. Meanwhile, a Selected Works catalog of the Seattle Art Museum as a whole does feature photos and descriptions of about 50 pieces from this enormous collection. (Some parts of the collection are the focus of smaller publications, too, like "East Asian Lacquers.")

The Frye Art Museum
After seeing so much, there is still more to discover in Seattle. One other museum, relatively small and largely unsung, is the Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum, a totally free public museum with a permanent collection of primarily German 19th- and early 20th-century art. A gift to the city, it was founded on money from Frye's successful meat-packing business. His German background led him to Europe and to amassing the mostly academic work of the Munich School, but he and his wife also bought a smattering of all types of German painting along with a few pieces by artists from other nations. Three galleries display the mainly German works with a couple of others reserved for changing exhibitions.

Since the death of the Fryes, the Frye Foundation has concentrated on acquiring representational works by American artists. A 1997 expansion to the original 1952 building now provides the Frye with an educational wing, small café, a shop, but not enough room to show the American pieces, which include a Mary Cassatt pastel and oils (some relatively small) by Copley, Stuart, Inness, Harnett, Homer, Eakins, Sargent and Sloan, among others!

Visitors are in for a treat anyhow. It is not often that one gets the opportunity to see so much German art. It ranges from rather dreary though technically well executed academic oils, like Gabriel Cornelius Max's Christian Martyr to Franz von Stuck's dark and sexy Sin from around 1900, an important work by this most famous artist of the Munich Secession. Along the way there are first-rate pieces by second-rate artists, like Ducks (ca. 1900) by Alexander Koester, an artist who specialized in these creatures, and an exciting Portrait of Bismarck (1896) by Franz Seraph von Lenback.

The permanent collection galleries also contain two Bouguereaus, a pleasant Boudin seascape and a Childe Hassam garden scene. Hassam was a member of the Munich Secession as well as the National Academy of Design.

The Frye provides a pleasurable viewing experience, if offbeat, in a lovely setting that is welcoming and not vast or overpowering. It's a perfect way for people to get hooked on art. It's another reason to be grateful for Seattle's generous artistic benefactors. And who knows? Maybe in time, today's techies will take the hint.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.