Two parallel yet contrasting trends emerged in American art in the first half of the 20th century. Abstraction prevailed within the avant-garde, while realism reigned in art aimed at popular audiences. The paintings and sculpture on view in this gallery serve as case studies in American abstraction and realism. Abstract works operate on the margins of material appearances, reflecting artists’ highly personal visual codes for responding to the external world and expressing internal emotions. Realist works prioritize recognizable subjects and literal narratives focused largely on the human form and designed to be easily accessible.
Many of the works exhibited here were created by Seattle artists, and they reflect both the distinctiveness of this region and the duality between American realism and abstraction. Abstraction was slow to emerge in Seattle, where success as a painter typically required clear focus on a set of recognizable forms: shore birds, fir trees, loggers, fishermen, landscapes, and notable places. By the middle of the century, however, this had begun to change, and many local artists gravitated toward deploying identifiable motifs as catalysts for the abstract modes now associated with the Pacific Northwest.
Rummage, 1941, Mark Tobey, American, 1890–1976, transparent and opaque watercolor on paperboard, 38 3/8 x 25 7/8 in., Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, © Mark Tobey / Seattle Art Museum.