A review of two exhibitions — "The New Old" and "The New New" — in which Seattle Asian Art Museum shows off recently acquired paintings, vintage and modern. With the acquisitions, SAAM beefs up its slender holdings of Asian paintings.

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The Seattle Asian Art Museum is currently boasting (and rightly so) about its newly acquired works, currently on view in two exhibitions: “The New Old” features Chinese paintings and calligraphy dating back to the 17th century, and “The New New” presents a variety of contemporary work.

For any museum, the acquisition process is time-consuming and complicated, marked by curators’ preferences, donors’ desires, varying art markets, shifting art-producing cultures and economic highs and lows.

Since it opened in 1933, the Seattle Art Museum (now the umbrella institution of the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park and the newer building downtown, as well as the Olympic Sculpture Park) has owned and augmented a strong collection of three-dimensional work from Asia, mostly ceramics and sculptures.

Its holdings of two-dimensional works have been, as a museum statement puts it, “historically modest.” I think it’s fair to replace “modest” with “weak.” This has been a shame, particularly since Mimi Gardner Gates, who was SAM’s director from 1994 until last June, was trained as a historian of Chinese painting.

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But clearly, over the last several years, there has been a huge effort to buy and ask for donations of key works. The recent acquisitions of Chinese painting and calligraphy, created between 1629 and 2007, are stunning and several of them were given in honor of Director Emerita Gates.

According to John Stevenson, former acting curator of Chinese art at SAM, “the acquisition helps round out SAM’s limited collection of Chinese paintings, especially the eight monumental scrolls hung on the east wall.” There are some choice pieces here. Stevenson states that “acquiring any large work by Bada Shanren and Ren Bonian is a big deal these days.”

Bada Shanren (1626-1705) was one of the most eccentric and influential painters in Chinese history; the two ink-on-satin paintings, which SAM bought with a blend of donations, are wonderful examples of his expressive style.

A painting by Ren Bonian (1840-1895), the most influential painter of the “Shanghai school” in the late Qing period, features several figures flanked by a beautifully painted forest and provides an example of Bonian’s ability to blend popular subjects with an elite style.

There are a few contemporary pieces mixed in the with old, which threw me off at first, but Josh Yiu, curator of Chinese art, has carefully chosen works that demonstrate the continuation of “old-fashioned” modes of creating: ink and color on paper, woodblock prints, expressive use of line.

“The New New,” co-curated by Michael Darling, curator of modern and contemporary art, and Catherine Roche, interim curatorial associate for Asian art, faces “The New Old” across the lobby, reinforcing the way that tradition and innovation communicate across time.

The curators have pulled together some splendid contemporary work, a difficult task these days. According to Cynthea Bogel, University of Washington professor of Japanese art, “acquisitions in Asian art are becoming an increasingly messy affair, with the predictably unpredictable fashionability of the Chinese contemporary art scene, the relative inaccessibility of Korean contemporary art — the real sleeper treasures in the world-art scene — and the shifting fortunes of Japan the past decade.”

The new acquisitions don’t reflect the most radical art that’s being made in Asian countries (Cai Guo Qiang’s car-crash installation in SAM’s entry way, for example, is on the tamer side of the region’s current output). But they do represent a spirit of diversity (digital photography; cigarette butts; a paper tree cut out of a paper bag) while occasionally touching on traditional motifs and media (landscapes, hand scrolls, ceramics).

Taken as a whole, the nearly 40 works reflect a strong future for the Asian collection and an admirable commitment to bringing the past and present together.

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