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Poke in the Eye: Art of the West Coast Counterculture

Jun 21–Sep 2 2024

Seattle Art Museum

Simonyi Special Exhibition Gallery

“It was almost like anti-art . . . a rebellion.”

This exhibition celebrates an alternative and oft-overlooked story in art history: the aesthetic practices that emerged in the West Coast in the 1960s and ‘70s as counter to the New York-centric avant-garde.

Reacting against the sleekness, formality, and coldness of Pop Art, minimalism, and other dominant modes of artistic production, artists based on the West Coast (and particularly centered in Seattle and the Bay Area) began making work that was intentionally more off-beat. Utilizing traditional craft techniques (especially ceramics), centering figuration and narrative, using bold (and at times garish) color, and often employing an irreverent sense of humor, these artists organically crafted an aesthetic that curator Peter Selz described in the pivotal 1967 Funk exhibition catalogue as “senselessness, absurdity, and fun” and “loud, unashamed, and free.” Subsets of artists working in this mode have been categorized as California Funk artists, Bay Area Figurative Painters, and Northwest Studio Ceramicists. However, this antiestablishment aesthetic had roots up and down the coast and encompassed a much greater diversity of artists than is typically recognized by these categories, and this exhibition will draw primarily on SAM’s permanent collection to present a broader, more inclusive view of these overlapping countercultural art movements.

Presenting Sponsors

Generous Support
Kreielsheimer Exhibition Endowment
Herb and Lucy Pruzan

Additional Support
Contributors to the SAM Fund

Image: Red Hot Pot, 1969, Patti Warashina, American, born 1940, ceramic with glaze, 11 x 19 1/4 x 19 in., Gift of Lucy and Herb Pruzan, 2023.23.3 © Patti Warashina, photo: Scott Leen.
Skull Doggery, 1989, Howard Kottler, American, 1930-1989, ceramic, 22 x 22 1/2 x 13 1/2 in., Gift of the Howard Kottler Testamentary Trust, 91.75 © Howard Kottler, photo: Scott Leen.

Can you dig it?

A reclining boar, an unflushed toilet, a turkey-shaped Airstream, and a pile of dirty dishes—the artworks in Poke in the Eye are as eccentric as they are varied. Although artists participating in this anti-establishment aesthetic have been categorized alternatively as California Funk artists, Bay Area Figurative Painters, and Northwest Studio Ceramicists, Poke in the Eye presents a holistic and diverse view of this mode that has roots spanning up and down the coast. From Robert Arneson’s sculptural Pool with Splash (1977) to Bruce Nauman’s neon Double Poke in the Eye II (1985)—from which the exhibition draws its name—the ceramics, sculptures, paintings, and drawings on view are loud, unashamed, and beautifully bizarre.

West Coast, Best Coast

Poke in the Eye is the first major exhibition curated for SAM solely by Carrie Dedon, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Working within the museum’s collection, Dedon brought together compelling examples of these works that together shed fresh light on art movements distinct to the West Coast and its artistic community. Poke in the Eye incorporates works by renowned Northwest artists including Patti Warashina, Fay Jones, and Howard Kottler, whose innovative and playfully garish creations provided the foundations of this alternative movement, as well as more recent artworks by Jeffry Mitchell and Woody De Othello, whose contemporary sculptures have revived a global interest in craft and ceramic art.

Bibliography for Poke in the Eye: Art of the West Coast Counterculture

Double Poke in the Eye II, 1985, Bruce Nauman, American, born 1941, neon and aluminum, 24 x 36 x 6 1/4 in., Gift of Byron R. Meyer, 91.260 © Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Scott Leen.
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Now on view at Seattle Art Museum

1300 1st Ave., Seattle, WA 98101

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Discover even more stories of counterculture art

How did a bunch of West Coast counterculture artists push back against the mainstream art world and kind of win? Learn all about the bold bravery of Funk art in this 20-minute podcast.

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SAM Soundtracks

Dig this playlist of everything weird, offbeat, and irreverent. Just as West Coast visual artists create counterculture aesthetics that diverge from the East Coast mainstream, musicians in the region always explore new sonic frontiers. Turn on and tune in to tracks ranging psychedelic, funk, novelty, prog, and acid rock while you take in the bold color, craft traditions, and playful humor of the artists of Poke in the Eye. It’s how the West was fun.

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