The Legacy of Four Collectors
By Matthew Kangas
Since the heyday of classic Northwest art (1935 - 1965) the entire Northwest art scene appears to have changed. Instead of the monolithic presence of the Big Four -- Guy Irving Anderson (1906 - 1998); Kenneth Callahan (1905 - 1986); Morris Graves (1910 - 2001); and Mark Tobey (1890 - 1976) -- the region's art history now seems more diverse, more populated, and more complicated.
"Stewards of the Northwest Vision: The Catterall and Blair and Lucille Kirk Collections" (Museum of Northwest Art, April 9 - July 19) is an important addition to our area's art history. MoNA curator Susan Parke worked with Robert Catterall (1927 - 2004), Lois Catterall (1929 - 2004), Spencer Blair Kirk (1912 - 2004) and Lucille Kirk (1913 - 2001) before their deaths to provide a smooth transfer of cultural treasures to the important art repository that the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner is becoming.
Just as our grasp of how Northwest art developed is changing, so is our assessment of the shifting roles played by local art museums. While the Seattle Art Museum played a pioneering, pivotal role in displaying and acquiring the area's artists in the 1915 - 1975 period, today other art museums have opened and evolved into institutions that make historical and contemporary Northwest art their primary commitment. At the top of the list today are Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Northwest Art and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, along with the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington.
The two couples, the Kirks and the Catteralls, had long ties to the Puget Sound area. Mrs. Kirk worked as a manager at the Foster/White Gallery for many years; the Catteralls filled their home in Issaquah, Washington with their many cherished artworks. As they grew older, they were impressed by the efforts made in La Conner (Skagit County) by MoNA to preserve the visual arts heritage of the region. Each couple, Lois and Robert Catterall and Lucille and Blair Kirk, had different strengths according to their respective tastes and affinities for certain artists over others.
With over 1,000 objects already in the MoNA collection, curator Parke's task is to discern which works strengthen the museum's existing holdings and where gaps can be filled. In both cases, weaker areas in the museum's permanent collection are being filled handsomely by these generous gifts.
For example, the role of Asian-American modern artists in the development of Northwest art is a timely and crucial issue. With Tobey, Graves, Callahan and Anderson all so enamored of Japanese, Chinese and East Indian art, it's important to display examples that may have influenced them but which were not seen in such a light before. Thanks to the Catteralls and the Kirks, several works by Paul Horiuchi and George Tsutakawa are entering the collection.
It was Paul Horiuchi, a self-taught Japanese-American painter, who revived an ancient 15th-century torn-paper collage technique and was subsequently hailed and feted by museums in Japan and the U.S., in addition to having numerous shows in Seattle and New York where his work came to the attention of David Rockefeller.
Tsutakawa taught at the U.W. for many years and became well known internationally as a bronze fountain designer and sculptor. Due to the generous hospitality of Tsutakawa and his wife, Ayame, Tobey and his friends were invited to Sunday-evening sumi painting parties at the couple's home. The exuberant, improvisatory ink technique helped Tobey to loosen up his brushwork, leading to important later paintings by the older artist. The Catteralls donated several of the Japanese-American artist's sumi ink paintings to make this point.
Stewards of the Northwest Vision:
Museum of Northwest Art
Paul Horiuchi, Remembrance in Blue (c. 1965), casein-painted collage on canvas, 60" x 52". The Catterall Collection, Museum of Northwest Art. Photo: C.B. Bell.
Alden Mason, Aphrodite (1976), acrylic and tempera on paper, 18.5" x 20". The Catterall Collection, Museum of Northwest Art. Photo: C.B. Bell.
Guy Anderson, Fishing Boat--Evening, 1962, oil on board, 7" x 24Ó, Blair and Lucille Kirk Collection, Museum of Northwest Art. Photo: C.B. Bell.
Windsor Utley, Wheels of the City (1948), oil on board, 21" x 29". The Catterall Collection, Museum of Northwest Art. Photo: C.B. Bell.
Northwest art today seems less "Northwest" and more international, in fact more European. Despite the apparent rift between the University of Washington School of Art faculty and the Big Four after the celebrated LIFE magazine article, "Mystic Painters of the Northwest," was published in 1953, we must remember how chummy they all were in the 1920s and 1930s. The Kirks donated some beautiful examples by the university moderns, including Gray Interiors (1962) by longtime U.W. dean Walter F. Isaacs, as well as a bronze by sculpture department chair Everett DuPen (Lot's Wife), a 1965 etching by controversial painter Michael Spafford, and a sculpture by Charles Smith.
The Catteralls also refused to draw lines between the "mystics" and the university moderns. A middle-period Alden Mason, Aphrodite (1976), is tremendously fresh and spontaneous-looking. The Acrobats (1949) by Australian Post-Impressionist and co-founder of the U.W. art school Ambrose Patterson is remarkable in that it suggests Callahan's influence with its dark tones and massed figures. Obviously, there was more give and take than has been previously credited.
The addition of the Horiuchis from the Catteralls not only strengthens MoNA's holdings--their first folding screen, Remnants of a Cultural Past--but will become part of an ambitious retrospective for the artist in 2006. Artists drive collections; collections drive museums; museums drive significant exhibitions. The symbiosis between all three groups is important for stocktaking, dues-paying and institutional recognition.
Another cluster of gifts from both couples comprises a self-contained collection-within-a-collection of smaller tabletop or pedestal sculptures along with maquettes and preparatory studies. Building on an important set of smaller-scale works given by artist Doris Chase to MoNA, the Catterall and Kirk sculpture accessions include comparably sized examples by Lee Kelly, DuPen, Tsutakawa, Tom Hardy, Manuel Izquierdo and Hilda Morris.
And then there are the artists who could neither be called "mystic" nor modern but whom, by force of their own individuality and age, could fit comfortably into both groups. John-Franklin Koenig was a close friend of the Kirks who lived in Paris for many years and was co-founder of the most important postwar art magazine in France, Cimaise. Fourteen of Koenig's paintings and collages are entering the MoNA collection.
Similarly, encaustic artist Joseph Goldberg, and eccentric satellites to the Big Four, Windsor Utley and Leo Kenney, all have major additions thanks to the two couples.
Despite or because of such riches, MoNA is also undertaking a major capital fundraising campaign to add more climate-controlled storage space. Gifts of such size require care and long-term planning. They are often accompanied by cash bequests from the donors to assist in conservation, restoration, repair and reframing. Estate donations to museums should not just be about tax deductions.
Parke confessed that, while gifts are welcome, money for acquisitions by living artists is necessary, too. MoNA has no annual acquisition fund at all. She noted, "We'd love to have such a fund, but some younger artists like Steve Jensen, Joseph Rossano and M. J. Anderson have already made gifts for which we are very grateful."
When asked what advice she has for new collectors, young people with a love of art just getting started, Parke said to "look, look, look. Buy what you love, not what will appreciate in value. Develop an eye. Financial gain should not be a factor. If you love it, acquire it. There's art out there that is affordable for the young collector. And there's a good chance that some of it will be in the museum collections of the future."
Parke concluded the interview with, "The more you look, the more you refine your eye."
MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor for Art Guide Northwest, is the author of a new collection, Epicenter: Essays on North American Art (Midmarch Arts Press) published in New York this spring. He also writes for the Seattle Times, Art in America and numerous other publications.
Copyright © Matthew Kangas, 2005
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