Visual Arts: Creating the New Northwest at TAM

The Tacoma Art Museum shows off new gifts among a half-century of Northwest art.

The Wrights and the Shirleys are renowned as Seattle’s biggest collectors, but if you take a step down the tax brackets, how many have heard of Herb and Lucy Pruzan? The Seattle couple recently promised nine works to TAM, which is in turn displaying a large slice of their art collection, called Creating the New Northwest. Over 100 pieces are on view (some also promised to SAM), which doesn’t even represent the Pruzans’ entire holdings.

The Pruzans were on a budget as a young couple in the late ’50s, but they were determined to shop local. That means their collection lacks premium names like Tobey, Callahan, or Graves, which makes this show a Northwest survey of a different sort. Not second-rate—it’s more a reminder of depth over time, proof that our postwar art scene had more than Tobey, Callahan, and Graves to offer. Regionally, culturally, we’ve always suffered from the mossy insecurity that—apart from planes, software, and coffee—we don’t create anything. This 50-year selection argues otherwise, and it’s notable that the Pruzans kept acquiring new works by emerging Northwest artists, instead of going back later to buy proven, investment-grade painters.

“All these things trace the evolution of Northwest art,” says TAM curator Rock Hushka, and most of the names here are familiar. We see works by Guy Anderson, Paul Horiuchi, Norman Lundin, Gaylen Hansen, Fay Jones, James Martin, Alden Mason, Ginny Ruffner, Whiting Tennis, Akio Takamori, and so on. There are no discoveries to be made, since the Pruzans work with established Seattle galleries— including William Traver, Greg Kucera, and James Harris. (They’re also still very much an active presence at First Thursday openings.)

The show’s grouped more by affinity than according to a strict timeline or division of styles. But as the Pruzans’ tastes changed and evolved—from landscape paintings to glass works, for instance—you’ll see what Hushka terms “a subtle chronology as they trained their eyes.” He calls the Pruzans regionalists “who wanted to support the local culture.”

The very first painting they bought, Louis Hafermehl’s abstract Alluvion, was displayed as part of our 1962 World’s Fair Northwest art exhibit, where the Pruzans also saw work by artists they’d later collect—including Horiuchi, William Ivey, Carl Morris, and Louis Bunce (1907–1983). The latter, based in Portland (where the Pruzans regularly visited), is an interesting example of lesser-known talent that caught the Pruzans’ eye. TAM’s showpiece painting here, promised to the museum, is Bunce’s 1968 Apple, a striking red and orange still-life with bold colors that almost push it into Pop Art. It’s on the edge of abstraction, held within tradition partly by the blue, L-shaped table edge­—a relatively late canvas by an artist who started as a figurative painter in the 1930s. So, liking his later work, the Pruzans looped back and bought his 1934 Nude With Seated Woman (also a promised gift), which shares an affinity of color and softened lines. You can also see the apple’s shape echoed in the bare breasts—or vice versa, since there’s no necessity to take anything here in chronological order.

Rather, there are occasional benchmarks in time, like a 1990 Ruffner glass work (made just before her career-interrupting car accident). A late, lesser Horiuchi from 1981 reminds us how long and prolific his career was. A very recent Nathan DiPietro landscape of an Elwha River dam being removed is almost like journalism, an image ripped from the headlines. With some prior knowledge of career trajectories and gallery histories, you can see when various artists came into vogue, passed from early to late career, or transitioned from one medium to another.

There’s also a sense of family history, exemplified by one of my favorite paintings on view: Michael Burns’ 1970 portrait of the Pruzans and three young sons. Painted from a photo, Hushka explains, the work was initially rejected by the family as being “too conservative” (!)—not usually what a disappointed patron says. So Burns went back to the studio and dressed the family in bright colors and boldly patterned clothing (not what they originally wore), almost like a Warhol makeover. It’s a cheeky Pop Art redo of a traditional portrait sitting.

Naturally, the Pruzans loved it.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

TACOMA ART MUSEUM 1701 Pacific Ave., 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org. $9. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wed.–Sun. Ends Oct. 6.

 
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