Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 1, Issue 20
As summer comes to an end, we ventured out west to Seattle, Washington. Amidst mountain hikes and verdant gardens and good food galore, the newly-reopened and re-imagined Seattle Asian Art Museum called me back.
Summer Asian Art Interlude (Continued)
Nestled among inspiring trees that breathe life into the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) sits perched in Volunteer Park northeast of downtown.When the art deco building, then known as the Seattle Art Museum, opened in 1933, it was due to the driving energy of founder, collector, and to-be longtime director Richard E. Fuller (1897-1976). Fuller was a Seattle legend and a man of action with a passion for Asian, mostly Chinese, art.
When I first visited in the mid-1990’s, SAAM had been open as a dedicated Asian art museum for one year in the refurbished original museum building (a new location downtown became the home of its sister, Seattle Art Museum).
As I began the counterclockwise loop through the two connected sides of the building, I encountered selected art of each country in specific order – Korea, Japan, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Mughal India, Qing China, and finally China generally. Each country and its art had their respective place in a geographic and mostly chronological circuit. This remains how most art museums present their collections.
The SAAM of today, by way of contrast, presents a radically redesigned story of its Asian Art.
The counterclockwise loop remains. However, visitors now first enter the Spiritual Journeys room (pictured above), followed by Awakened Ones, Divine Bodies, Sacred Places, and Bringing Blessings. Each room has a theme, and genres of art of various countries that correspond to the theme are presented together. It is a more holistic experience of the arts of Asia, reflecting and encouraging connections, pathways, and transitions.
While an installation of Ai Weiwei colored vases is juxtaposed with an immense, flowing Korean robe sculpture made of military dog tags in the contemporary rooms (see end), more traditional are representations of the life and teachings of the Buddha, Guanyin, and Bodhisattvas across cultures throughout Asia.
Hindu and Persian art also tell stories ranging from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. There are rooms devoted to writing, textiles, nature, clay, and the hereafter. The last room examines what various countries determine to be “Precious.”
Richard Fuller and his mother started as collectors – snuff bottles and then jades were his initial focus. Though well-off, they were nowhere close to the level of a Freer, Rockefeller or Morgan. Fortunately, Fuller had an eye for rarity and quality, a sense of economy, and a nose plus luck on affordability, purchasing many objects, often smaller pieces, for good to great prices from known and lesser-known sources.
Once the Fullers decided to go the public collection route, the Museum branched out to include exquisite ceramics, bronzes, stoneware, lacquer, and paintings. The latter, however, are not the strong suit of SAAM. Fuller was an objects man and was not as interested in two-dimensional paintings. For many of the best Chinese and Japanese paintings in the current collection (plus many Chinese ceramics and Japanese arts), Fuller benefited greatly from hiring a young, future famed (at the Cleveland Museum of Art) director named Sherman Lee as curator after World War II.
An art-based biography of Fuller and the Museum’s Chinese art notes that “[he] appreciated the subtleties in art that can be savored time after time. By the same token, he suggested that works of art do not simply dazzle but stimulate the viewer to ask questions and seek answers for the objects.”He gravitated to overlooked objects, be they large or small. True to his roots as a private collector, SAAM records demonstrate a high level of accessions and deaccessions as well as trades over the decades.
Fuller knew his town and his audience. He wrote that “’it would seem logical that the Oriental field should hold predominance because of the near proximity of Seattle to the Far East.’”As Fuller transitioned from a private to a public collector, he always had as a goal to “…provide a broader, more comprehensive account of Chinese civilization for the public.”
Richard Fuller was a twentieth-century force of nature who I believe would be proud of the new, thematic direction of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It deepens the story of Asia and focusses on being a bridge among the cultures of the East as well as between East and West. These were his goals as well.
I am happy to share more detail on these photographs and further photos of sculptures, ceramics, bronzes, painted screens, and more upon request.
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Except as noted below, all photographs are by the author:
The Museum and Seattle from the Air -- https://inspire.site.seattleartmuseum.org/
Album Leaf of “Buffalo and Herder Boy” -- https://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/16090/buffalo-and-herder;jsessionid=42F5AA34F7A71BDBDB87C04AE7C45CB4
For further reference, see Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China: Chinese Art in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, 2014 and Noelle Giufrida, Separating Sheep from Goats: Sherman E. Lee and Chinese Art Collecting in Postwar America, University of California Press, 2018.
Yiu, Page 24
Yiu, Page 45
Yiu, Page 49