Seduced in Seattle

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Have you ever traveled to Seattle in the month of April, when all the trees sport the freshest shades of green and each blade of grass salutes the spring? I went there twice, and -- as luck would have it -- both times in April. It's easy to fall for this city given the picturesque quality of its waterfront and unhurried pace of its sophisticated urban center. What I find especially attractive about the city is its deep commitment to the visual arts, fully evident last week during the gala opening of the dramatically expanded Seattle Art Museum.

The architects opted for a decidedly low-key, functional design, appropriately described in the museum brochure as 'sensitive.' One of the difficult tasks was fusing the new building with the old one, and it was achieved through an easy flow of the gallery spaces between these two structures. Mercifully, it was the art, not the architecture that stole the show, starting with the jaw-dropping flock of nine cars flying through the air, courtesy of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.

Everyone in the city affectionately calls this museum SAM, which is the actual acronym for Seattle Art Museum. And next year SAM celebrates its 75th birthday. More than $200 millionwas raised for the expansion, though this is the least impressive part of the story. What's remarkable is the generosity of Seattle collectors, resulting in an enviable exhibition of artworks donated or promised as gifts to the museum in honor of its birthday. From the iconic Bird in Space by Brancusi to felt suits by Joseph Beuys; from stellar works by Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein to the unsettling if not outright frightening torture image by Leon Golub. And dominating it all is the nightmarish vision of a gigantic black mouse sitting on top of a sleeping man as imagined by German artist Katharina Fritsch.

Journalists, collectors, and museum professionals who descended on Seattle from all over the world were invited to visit private homes and enjoy the collections which impressed me with their depth and focus. A number of first-rate paintings by Anselm Kiefer and de Kooning, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon are juxtaposed on occasion, to great effect, with Old Master paintings. My heart started pounding when I saw some of Philip Guston's best works, which were included a few years ago in his traveling retrospective. To my surprise, neither the museum nor private collectors were seemingly interested in pouring millions into acquiring French Impressionists or Matisse and Picasso. And that is okay, but the absence of works by such seminal figures as Diebenkorn and Ed Kienholz, among others, is rather difficult to explain.

I wish I had more time to talk about the newly built Olympic Sculpture Park that the museum created on nine acres near the waterfront, transforming the unsightly industrial area into an elegant and sophisticated oasis punctuated by monumental sculptures by Calder, Richard Serra, and Mark di Suvero at their absolute best. That and much more can be seen along the half-mile path zigzagging down the hill. If not for my undying love for LA, I would move to Seattle tomorrow.

Banner image: Olympic Sculpture Park. Photo by Paul Warchol