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SAFECO Collection Treasures and Holocaust Art on View at Frye

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Where to see the art from this article:

Northwest Views: Selections from the SAFECO Collection
closed Nov. 2, 2001
Witness & Legacy: Contemporary Art About the Holocaust
October 6, 2001 - January 13, 2002
Frye Art Museum

By Matthew Kangas

Two important exhibitions on view this fall and winter at the Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum in Seattle provide vivid contrasts for artlovers. "Northwest Views: Selections from the SAFECO Collection" (to Nov. 4) spotlights the best of local artists in the area's top corporate art collection, and "Witness & Legacy: Contemporary Art About the Holocaust" (to Jan. 13, 2002) raises issues about how artists cope with and respond to the genocide of World War II European Jews and others.

"Northwest Views: Selections from the SAFECO Collection," is a perfect fit for the Frye's conservative aesthetic. Frye exhibits curator Debra Byrne worked closely with SAFECO corporate curator Jim McDonald to select only works that have readily identifiable images and are safe within the "no-abstract art" zone of comfort on First Hill.

There are 2,400 works of art in the SAFECO collection, including ample examples of abstract modernist art by Mark Tobey, William Ivey, Francis Celentano and other estimable painters of our region. Begun in 1973 by an employee committee and cultivated by professional curators Lynn Basa, Tracy Savage, Julie Anderson, and McDonald, the SAFECO collection is housed in all major company buildings from coast to coast, including the corporate headquarters on Brooklyn Ave. N.E. in Seattle's University District. Examples are frequently loaned out to museums.

The decision to collect Northwest art followed similar choices by other Seattle financial institutions such as Seattle-First National Bank (now Bank of America) and Rainier Bank (now US Bank; both collections have been reduced in size.) Nearly three decades after its inception, the SAFECO collection is overseen by McDonald who has strengthened the grouping with works by younger artists such as Gloria DeArcangelis (Hand Study, 1996) and older artists like Jacob Elshin.

At the Frye, landscape is a uniting theme, both of the permanent collection of 19th-century German, Central European and American art, and of the pieces from SAFECO. Viewers can compare new landscapes like those of Victoria Adams, and Michael Brophy to older works by Richard Gilkey and Theodore Waddell whose Snow Angus (1981) conveniently matches the many cattle and livestock paintings in the permanent Frye collection (Remember, the Fryes owed their wealth to butcher shops.).

Other animal scenes to be enjoyed are by Alden Mason, Glen Alps, and William Cumming, along with a carved stone woodpecker by Tony Angell. A few American modernists, like Mason and Alps, have crept into the survey, along with their respective teacher and colleague, Walter F. Isaacs (1886 - 1964), director of the University of Washington School of Art for 37 years. His Horses in Paddock (1945) was probably inspired by the old Longacres racetrack. It is a masterful composition with strongly foreshortened space indebted to Cubism, as are its closely valued colors of brown, red, tan and blue.

Perhaps the most important work on view is Resilient Young Pine (1944) by Morris Graves, long-time Seattle resident during the 1940s and 1950s, who died last summer at the age of 91 in California. The windswept tree resembles those that grow near ocean beaches. It may be a self-portrait of sorts; then, again, it may allude to valiant survivors of World War II. (Graves was an interned conscientious objector.)

With the abstract treasures missing, "Northwest Views" still offers a welcome, if tempered, glimpse at Northwest art from 1935 to the present. The 42 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures give us a picture of only one side of American art in the 20th century, the side that was considered less important than abstract art, but the one that, with the passing of time, looks better and better.

Curator Stephen Feinstein of the Minnesota Museum of American Art has said of "Witness & Legacy," "It is our intention with 'Witness & Legacy' to announce a contemporary movement, the phenomenon of American artists of various experimental perspective, using various multimedia strategies to bring the Holocaust into our cultural dialogue."

Rena Grynblat, b. 1926, Warsaw Poland, by Jeffrey Wolin

Rena Grynblat, b. 1926, Warsaw Poland, Jeffrey Wolin, 1993, photograph, toned gap with silver marker, 16" x 20"

Cowboy by William Cumming

Cowboy, William Cumming, 1992, tempera on board, 48" x 36"

Resilient Young Pine by Morris Graves

Resilient Young Pine, Morris Graves, 1944, tempera on laminated paper, 58 14" x 31 18"

Last Movement by Samuel Bak

Last Movement, Samuel Bak, 1996, oil on linen, 55" x 63", Collection Pucker Gallery, Boston

Kaddish #8 by Mauricio Lasansky

Kaddish #8, 1976, Mauricio Lasansky, Intaglio print, 4538" x 2358" Courtesy of the Regis Foundation.

This show is a huge stretch for the formerly staid old Frye, but one in keeping with the welcome changes throughout the museum. The exhibit has been on tour for seven years, so the Frye is your last chance to see this often moving and harrowing art.

"Witness & Legacy" includes survivor artists, along with others who respond to the terror of the ghettos and the horror of the death camps. It should be required viewing for every high school student, but younger children may be too immature for the graphic images and powerful message. Twenty-three artists have made 63 works that include installation art, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design and crafts, all addressing Holocaust-related themes.

This exhibit dovetails with the Frye's mission, too: showing and commenting upon the art and cultures of Central Europe, especially Germany. With Jewish artists like German Impressionist Max Lieberman on view in the permanent collection galleries, visitors are reminded what a significant role Jews played in German art before the Holocaust. It's starting to look like the well-informed art lover can no longer afford to ignore the Frye. "Northwest Views" and "Witness & Legacy" will provide much visual pleasure, along with plenty to talk about over lunch at the museum's fine cafe.

MATTHEW KANGAS, frequent contributor to Art Guide Northwest, curated a three-part survey of UW faculty and artist graduates, "School of Art 1920 - 1988" in 1988 at SAFECO. His latest book is Robert Willson: Image-Maker (University of Washington Press).

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