Seattle's New Nudes
Gift to bring first outdoor nude to city
By Sheila Farr - Seattle Times art critic
September 28, 2005
In January, the citizens of Seattle found out they had received a gift.
In his will, the late Stu Smailes, a retired computer analyst for Safeco and fan of the arts, left about $1 million to the city. He wanted to commission a new public fountain. And he wanted the artwork to include at least one realistic nude male figure.
The Mayor's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs accepted the gift — then handed it off to the Seattle Art Museum. Seattle has no nude sculptures in its outdoor art collection The question was raised: Could this be some kind of joke?
If it was, it has been beautifully turned around: The city has a new public fountain in the works. This week, with the complexities of Smailes' will and probate settled, SAM announced that his bequest will fund a commission called "Father and Son" by acclaimed New York artist Louise Bourgeois. The 15-foot-high stainless-steel fountain will be installed next summer for the opening of SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park on the Seattle waterfront. Bourgeois has also donated six functional granite benches to the park from her surreal "Eye Benches" series of 1996-97.
In Bourgeois' proposal for the sculpture, the life-sized figures face each other but are obscured from each other by a cloak of falling water that, at hourly intervals, will shift to reveal first one figure, then the other, at the ringing of a bell. The artist described the figures as "held in the air on a column which will serve as a feed to create the two mounds of gushing water that will hide the naked figures. The boy's hand reaches up and out to embrace the father. The father in turn reaches out to embrace his son."
Bourgeois, 94, is an almost legendary figure in the art world: canny, bold, utterly original. A native of France, she dropped her study of mathematics at the Sorbonne to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and went on to other art schools and apprenticeships. She moved to the United States in 1938 with her husband, art historian Robert Goldwater, and turned from painting to sculpture. She represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1993, and in 1999 received the Gold Lion Prize in Venice, awarded to a living master of contemporary art.
Over the decades, she has produced an eclectic array of sculptures and installations, many based on the human form, but not all realistically rendered. Bourgeois doesn't have a reputation for decorative art. Her sculptures can be unsettling. They are known for a strong foundation in ideas or metaphors, a tendency to look deep into the psyche. "Father and Son" is no exception.
"Nudity in this work is a symbol of emotional nakedness," said SAM's outgoing chief curator Lisa Corrin in a prepared statement. "[T]he two figures stand before each other but cannot touch; they try to see each other, but never see eye to eye; they are separated by bell jars of cascading water, which prevents any contact between them."
Corrin says the theme of mother and child is a classic for artists, but "Father and Son" is especially relevant today, with fathers playing a more active role in their children's lives.