A surprise invitation to come to Seattle to lecture about the contemporary art scene arrived via email from a total stranger, who introduced himself as a big fan of KCRW. He wrote that a few years ago, while staying in Los Angeles for a few months, he became, and continues to be, an avid listener of our radio station. Would I consider giving a lecture at the Seattle Art Museum as a guest of the Contemporary Art Council? I said "Yes," but considering that I'd never been there before, I asked them to set aside time for me to see the city, museums, artist studios and private collections.
Ironically, Seattle greeted me with perfect sunny weather that we, in Los Angeles, were deprived of this winter. Irresistibly charming newlyweds, Patrick and Melissa, picked me up at the airport and, not skipping a beat, whisked me off to the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery. Though the gallery was closed, for the installation of new works by Maya Lin, the artist famous for her Vietnam Memorial, we were met by the Chief Curator who gave us a tour of the Museum. Maya Lin, from what I was able to see, continues to be at the top of her game.
From there we drove through this attractive city whose scale and rolling hills reminded me, in many ways, of San Francisco with the exception that Seattle felt much less pretentious and precious about its image. I had never heard about the Frye Art Museum, founded by private collectors with a passion for German and Austrian painting of the 19th century. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. There are a couple hundred of pleasant, if not particularly distinguished, paintings there--all in elaborate gilded frames--installed in the most original and thought-provoking fashion, which made me think about how infrequently museum curators excel not only in their scholarship but in the fine art of art presentation.
The next day, when I went to the opening of an exhibition from the private collection of billionaire Paul Allen, I thought how sorely this fine art of presentation was missing. Inside the cavernous museum designed by Frank Gehry a few years ago, and known under the tongue-twisting name of Experience Music Project, there was a rather awkwardly shaped gallery space built to showcase a small portion of Mr. Allen's large art collection, which has never been seen publicly before. It's difficult to say whether this impressive sampling of his collection--from a 17th century canvas by Brueghel, to a mouth-watering Venetian landscape by Turner, to a rabble-rousing abstract composition by de Kooning--is the absolute best of the whole collection or only the tip of the iceberg. The interesting curatorial idea of pairing Old Master paintings with 20th century artworks has not been persuasively worked out in this exhibition. For example, Gauguin's sublime composition of three Tahitian women looks rather silly next to a color photograph of three alien-looking creatures in spacesuits walking through the desert landscape. And still, in spite of the shortcomings of the exhibition, I left this hospitable city with a lasting memory of the golden glow emanating from a large Mark Rothko canvas and a sense of wonder left by the dancing dots of color in the tiny sketch by Georges Seurat.
Lucky Mr. Allen. Lucky city of Seattle.
Henry Art Gallery
University of Washington
15th Avenue NE and NE 41st Street
Seattle, Washington 98195
Frye Art Museum
704 Terry Avenue
Seattle, Washington 98104
Experience Music Project
325 5th Avenue N
Seattle, Washington 98109