$ 400 million prized art collection donated to Seattle Art Museum on display this week

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If you’re not careful, Abstract Expressionism can be a dangerous business.

The art movement happened over half a century ago, but the mere mention of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko can spark people’s outrage, sparking sparks of derision (“My child could do that. “), Snobbery (” uncultivated boob!) And counter-snobbery (“elitist prig!”).

So imagine the bet Jane Lang Davis took on her marriage in 1970 when she suggested to Richard Lang, her businessman husband of four years, to go to New York and buy a fancy painting to hang. on their sofa. Lang Davis was a freshly minted member of the Seattle Art Museum‘s Contemporary Art Council – obviously she wasn’t thinking of a Maxfield Parrish poster.


The couple married in 1966 and by 1970 built a house in Medina. The way Richard Lang told the story, he was perfectly satisfied with the way his white and white walls (elegant for the time) accentuated the view of the water. But in New York, they went and returned with “Painting No. 11” by Franz Kline – a bold choice with its few energetically fractured black lines on an off-white background stained by one of the virtuosos of Abstract Expressionism.

The Kline was a catalyst. Richard Lang joined the Seattle Art Museum board of trustees and the couple became avid 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 at around $ 400 million – with around $ 14.5 million, at the Seattle Art Museum.

These works are now installed in “Thrill: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection” at the Seattle Art Museum for everyone to see starting October 15th. It’s a chance to take a look at the mid-century art movement, not through the eyes of scholars, but the eyes of people who watched intently and bought only what they liked.

Franz Kline's 1951 artwork, “Painting No. 11,” seen here above the sofa in the Lang family home in Medina, was the first artwork purchased by Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang for their collection.  (Spike Mafford / Zocalo Studios)


Their collection was not pretty, said Catharina Manchanda, curator of modern and contemporary art at SAM, who recalled entering the Langs house where visitors almost immediately had to face the great “Study for a portrait ”of Francis Bacon – who looks like a woman dissolving and not too happy about it, her teeth bared and her bones showing through her flesh. (For Bacon, humans are mainly meat and teeth; he had a weakness for butchers.)

“They were all focused on confrontation,” Manchanda said. “When they bought something new, they sent out invitations to see and have long conversations about work.”

The Langs lived with these paintings and sculptures, overlooking beds, desks and sofas, giving us an additional invitation (if any) to look with our guts instead of our minds. How did Lang Davis feel in front of Lee Krasner’s “Night Watch”, with his dozen or more abstract eyes gazing at a canvas measuring about 6 by 8 feet in shades of black and his, which Krasner painted for a long time. long sleepless season after several heavy losses, including the death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, in a car accident?

Or, more precisely, how do you feel in front of her?

The work


The collection offers many atmospheres to choose from: the ominous swirled ham in Bacon’s “Portrait of a Spectacled Man I”; the lyrical and springtime gestures of Joan Mitchell’s “The Sink”; the unpleasant tension of Adolph Gottlieb’s “Crimson Spinning # 2”, with its messy black void in the bottom half and a deep red diamond hovering above it. Red, Manchanda pointed out, has its own dense black splash cloud pulsing below. Armed with this information, “Crimson Spinning” begins to sound like a study of transcendence, or at least transformation: the malformed mess of life below, and this incorporated, unified, harmonized mess above.

But really, 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 donation, $ 10.5 million, is for conservation projects – studying and maintaining the 19 Langs rooms, of course, but also to strengthen the infrastructure of the museum’s conservation department.

“For our department, the past 20 years have been a story of progress and pause and progress and pause, in large part because of the economy,” said Nick Dorman, chief curator at SAM. “This gift takes us to a whole new level.”

The funds will allow SAM to purchase new equipment, including powerful microscopes, and add a new curatorial position, which will allow Dorman to make more detailed studies of Lang’s works, as well as hundreds of others that have entered the collection over the past decade.

David Smith's 1965 stainless steel “Cubi XXV” contrasts with Adolph Gottlieb's 1959 “Crimson Spinning # 2” (on the back wall).  Both works are part of SAM's


“A lot of it is poorly studied and very important work,” Dorman said. “This will allow us to examine it, see what its needs are, share information with the public and academics. The goal is to give us strength and authority over the work that befits this collection.

The increased capacity of the curatorial department, he added, will also help speed up the establishment of the Asian curatorial studio being built at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

“Great ripple effects”

Beyond the specific conservation donation of $ 10.5 million, the Friday Foundation also donated $ 2 million for pandemic relief and approximately $ 2 million to the SAM acquisition fund, that the museum is deploying to purchase new works 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 considering ways to showcase Lang’s works alongside other parts of the SAM collection.

Catharina Manchanda, curator of modern and contemporary art at SAM, describes the artist's intention in “Untitled” by Jackson Pollock, 1951, one of the works in the “Frisson” exhibition.  (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)


“You can think of Abstract Expressionists like a stone thrown into a pond,” she said. “They created big ripple effects.” Future exhibitions could pair works from the Lang collection with artists inspired by Kline, Mitchell, Pollock and others.

You can also associate the artists in the Lang collection with the types of work that inspired their research in the mid-20th century. 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?” Said Manchanda. “It’s just an idea. As Commissioner, I want to create many and complex conversations.

‘Thrill: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection’

15 October 2021-Nov. 27, 2022. 10 am-5pm Wednesday-Sunday; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; suggested appetizer $ 12.99 – $ 19.99; masks required for those over 2 years old, and from October 25, for those aged 12 and over, proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of the visit also required; 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org

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