Impressionist Blockbuster at Experience Music Project until September 24, 2006
By Matthew Kangas
This summer's surprise art exhibition is "DoubleTake: From Monet to Lichtenstein" at the Experience Music Project (325 5th Ave. N., Seattle Center), a sampling of artworks from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen. Drawn from the holdings of the Mercer Island billionaire's numerous collections, the 28 works on view give us a good idea of how Allen stacks up to the region's prior wealthy art connoisseurs.
The Pacific Northwest has a long history of millionaire (and now billionaire) art collectors and museum patrons. Railroad magnate James J. Hill built the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, WA, near the Columbia River in the 1920s. Seattle financier Horace C. Henry paid for a building to house his 19th-century American landscape paintings. It became the state's first public art museum in 1927, the Henry Art Gallery, now at the University of Washington. And Harvard-educated geologist Richard E. Fuller and his mother gave the City of Seattle a building in Volunteer Park to house his top-flight collection of antique Asian art. It became the Seattle Art Museum, now Seattle Asian Art Museum. After that, Virginia Bloedel Wright, a timber heiress, subsidized SAM's Modern Art Pavilion at Seattle Center before later opening her and her husband Bagley's Wright Exhibition Space to better display their collections of postwar American art and to host periodic temporary exhibitions of related works. It's a short walk from EMP.
All this puts in context Allen's decision to display a tiny fraction of his art at his privately funded popular culture center, the Experience Music Project. Allen is perhaps the wealthiest art collector to do this so far in Seattle. "DoubleTake: From Monet to Lichtenstein" (April 8 - September 24) is our first peek at Allen's hoard of treasures which he has been assembling through dealers and auctions for the past 20 years.
The riches are substantial -- Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, Pop Artists -- and the 28 works chosen were selected by distinguished art historian and top Impressionism expert Paul Hayes Tucker of the University of Massachusetts -- Boston for their relations to each other. He has found a way of highlighting art-historical similarities across several centuries, enhancing individual works by pursuing an old professor's trick: compare and contrast.
Don't worry; there will be no examinations at "DoubleTake." Instead, with Tucker's audio tour, visitors can listen to him explain why Breugel's 1625 Five Senses: Sight is displayed next to Seurat's and Picasso's groups of female nudes. Tucker and his EMP colleagues have made considerable efforts to combine the sheer visual entertainment value of the eye-popping masterpieces with an appealing, accessible educational component.
Four Bathers, Picasso, 4" x 6", 1921La Liseuse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 25.625" x 21.375", 1877
The Kiss, Roy Lichtenstein, 80" x 68", 1962. ŠEstate of Roy Lichtenstein
Tucker, a renowned Monet expert, curated two of the most highly attended (560,000 each) exhibitions ever at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, "Monet in the 20th Century" and "Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings." The four Monets on view are sure to be a huge draw. Of them, a 1919 Waterlilies and an 1894 Cathedral of Rouen are, according to Tucker, in the "top ten percent of Monets," painted before his cataract operation and typical of the gorgeous, blurry vision he experienced and crafted into art. In addition, Tucker commented "the Monet Cathedral is absolutely first rate, the Seurat (The Models, 1888) is off the charts, and the Signac (Concarneau: Morning Calm, 1891) just doesn't get any better."
Tucker worked first with architectural firm The Rockwell Group which helped re-design the space for the show and then "established pairings and sequences of paintings. Everything is up to American Association of Museums standards: lighting, climate control and security."
"Our challenge," he stressed, "is to make people more comfortable with abstract art." As an example, he hung a 1975 de Kooning abstract next to the Waterlilies. And viewers can also "compare and contrast" the thick paint texture of the Cathedral to the extraordinarily rare cast-aluminum sculpture, Numbers (1978), by Pop artist Jasper Johns. "The Johns is one of the most mesmerizing objects. It's a single color, a mute grey. The zero to nine numbers look stamped out but it's a fascinating piece in its mixture of simplicity and complexity."
For Impressionism die-hards (and who isn't one?), there's a charming 1877 Renoir, The Reader, which is paired with the comicstrip-like Kiss (1962) by Pop Art giant Roy Lichtenstein. Among Post-Impressionist works, it will be hard to beat Cézanne's Mt. Ste. Victoire (1888 - 90), the two Gauguins and (drum roll, please) van Gogh's Orchard with Peach Tree in Blossom, painted two years before the painter's suicide.
Professor Tucker has tried hard to give meaning to a disparate mix of treasures assembled with little sense of system other than personal taste. The 55-year-old graduate of Williams College pointed out how "it's a personal collection. It's utterly Paul's. He buys what he likes. He has catholic taste. My other challenge was to re-invigorate examples of artists whom the public has seen many times. Since there are correspondences between the older and newer art, I decided, let's go with that as a theme. I hope this approach will encourage people to look at them more carefully. And I hope people will find something new."
To help understand what shaped Impressionism, Tucker has added a Venice scene by the greatest British artist, J.M.W. Turner, to show how the French were influenced by Turner's depiction of light, water and air. It's near douard Manet's 1874 View in Venice so visitors can note the links easily.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the contemporary works by photographers Eric Fischl, Kenji Yanobe and Thomas Struth pale a bit next to the undisputed masterpieces. The photos' crisp color and cold ambience are a great contrast to the cozy, luscious French paintings.
"DoubleTake: From Monet to Lichtenstein" is this summer's blockbuster art show. With the big downtown Seattle Art Museum closed for expansion, locals and out-of-town visitors are already clamoring for admission ($8 adults; $7 seniors and children over six). To accommodate the crowds and allow ample elbow room in the galleries, entrance is by reserved, timed tickets. The price of admission includes Tucker's audio tour.
MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor at Art Guide Northwest, is the author of a new book, his second essay collection, Craft and Concept: The Rematerialization of the Art Object (Midmarch Arts). He lives in Seattle. Copyright ©Matthew Kangas
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