If you’re not careful, Abstract Expressionism can be dangerous business.
The art movement happened over a half-century ago, but the mere mention of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko can fire up people’s indignation engines, throwing off sparks of derision (“my kid could do that”), snobbery (“uncultured boob!”) and counter-snobbery (“elitist prig!”).
So imagine the gamble Jane Lang Davis took on her marriage in 1970 when she suggested to Richard Lang, her businessman husband of four years, that they go to New York and buy a fancy painting to hang over their couch. Lang Davis was a freshly minted member of the Contemporary Art Council of Seattle Art Museum — clearly, she wasn’t thinking of a Maxfield Parrish poster.
The couple had married in 1966 and by 1970 had a house built in Medina. The way Richard Lang used to tell the story, he was perfectly happy with the way its blank-white walls (stylish for the time) accented the water view. But off to New York they went and came back with Franz Kline’s “Painting No. 11” — a bold choice with its few, energetically fractured black lines on a smudgy off-white background by one of Abstract Expressionism’s virtuosos.
The Kline was a catalyst. Richard Lang joined the board of Seattle Art Museum and the couple became zealous collectors, more interested in quality than quantity. After their deaths (Richard Lang in 1982, Jane Lang Davis in 2017), the family’s Friday Foundation donated 19 works — estimated to be worth about $400 million — along with $14.5 million, to Seattle Art Museum.
Those works are now installed in “Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection” at Seattle Art Museum for any and all to view starting Oct. 15. It’s a chance to peek at the midcentury art movement not through the eyes of scholars, but the eyes of people who looked carefully and only bought what they loved.
Their collection wasn’t about pretty, explained Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, who recalled walking into the Langs’ home where visitors almost immediately had to square up with Francis Bacon’s large “Study for a Portrait” — which looks like a woman dissolving and not too happy about it, her teeth bared and bones showing through her flesh. (To Bacon, the human is mostly meat and teeth; he had a thing for butcher’s shops.)
“They were all about confrontation,” Manchanda said. “When they bought something new, they sent invitations to see and have lengthy conversations about the work.”
The Langs lived with these paintings and sculptures, looming over beds, desks and couches, giving us an extra invitation (if any were needed) to look with our guts instead of our intellects. How did Lang Davis feel in front of “Night Watch” by Lee Krasner, with its dozen or more abstracted eyes staring out of a roughly 6-by-8-foot canvas in brooding black and sienna tones, which Krasner painted during a long season of insomnia after several heavy losses, including the death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, in a car crash?
Or, more to the point, how do you feel in front of it?
The collection has plenty of moods to choose from: The ominous swirled ham of Bacon’s “Portrait of Man with Glasses I”; the lyrical, spring-colored gestures of Joan Mitchell’s “The Sink”; the not-unpleasant tension of Adolph Gottlieb’s “Crimson Spinning #2,” with its messy black void in the bottom half and deep red lozenge hovering above. The red, Manchanda pointed out, has its own dense, black splatter-cloud pulsing beneath it. Armed with that information, “Crimson Spinning” starts to look like a study in transcendence, or at least transformation: the malformed messiness of life below, and that mess incorporated, unified, harmonized above.
But truly, choose your own adventure. There are no wrong answers here.
A gift of conservation
The gift of art is great, but that $14.5 million doesn’t hurt. The majority of the gift, $10.5 million, is specified for conservation projects — study and care of the Langs’ 19 pieces, of course, but also to shore up the museum’s conservation-department infrastructure.
“For our department, the last 20 years has been a story of progress and pause and progress and pause, largely because of the economy,” said Nick Dorman, chief conservator at SAM. “This gift takes us up to a whole new level.”
The funds will allow SAM to purchase some new equipment, including powerful microscopes, and add a new conservator position, which will free Dorman to do more detailed studies of the Lang works, as well as hundreds of others that have come into the collection over the past decade.
“A lot of it is understudied and very important work,” Dorman said. “This will allow us to look at it, see what its needs are, share information with the public and scholars. The objective is to give us a strength and authority about the work that befits this collection.”
Increased capacity in the conservation department, he added, will also help speed the establishment of the Asian conservation studio being built at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
“Big ripple effects”
Beyond the $10.5 million conservation-specific gift, the Friday Foundation also donated $2 million for pandemic relief and $2 million to SAM’s acquisition fund, which the museum is deploying to purchase new work by women and artists of color, including Senga Nengudi, Dawn Cerny and Dana Claxton (Hunkpapa Lakota).
“Frisson” closes in November 2022, but Manchanda is already dreaming up ways to present the Lang works alongside other parts of the SAM collection.
“You can think of the Abstract Expressionists as a stone thrown into a pond,” she said. “They created big ripple effects.” Future exhibitions might pair Lang-collection works with artists who were inspired by Kline, Mitchell, Pollock and the others.
You could also pair the Lang-collection artists with the kinds of work that inspired their mid-20th-century inquiries. Some of them, for example, were heavily influenced by Asian calligraphy and brushwork.
“What if we show some of the paintings here in the Asian gallery?” Manchanda said. “That’s just one idea. As a curator, I want to create many and complex conversations.”