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William Cumming: The Image of Consequence

August 20, 2005 - January 1, 2006


William Cumming: The Image of Consequence brings an unprecedented body of work to the Frye Art Museum. Part exhibition and part art history scholarship, Image of Consequence is the largest museum retrospective organized for a Northwest artist in many years and the first Cumming survey since 1983.

The Image of Consequence is an authoritative survey of the last living artist associated with the Northwest School. Now 88, Cumming, the former instructor at Cornish College and current teacher at Art Institute of Seattle, is an extraordinary eyewitness to the art history of the Pacific Northwest who not only was involved in many of the central cultural and social events of the 20th century but who also wrote the definitive study of an era, Sketchbook: A Memoir of the 1930s and the Northwest School .

Guest Curator Matthew Kangas, distinguished art critic and art historian, assembles more than 130 paintings, prints, sculptures, and photographs, from 1935 to the present, in the Greathouse and Graphics Galleries. Kangas positions Cumming within American and Northwest art history of the mid-twentieth century.

Cumming's exposure to the deprivations of the Depression, followed by his 13-year membership in the American Communist Party forged a deep commitment to subjects that ordinary people relate to and that have social resonance. The lifelong subject matter of his art became the image of consequence, serious pictures of people that were accessible, dignified, and sympathetic. Eventually, his mastery over color, line and form combined with the image of consequence to lead to an overlooked conversion to modernism through the application of pattern, his characteristic broken-line brushwork, and the triumph of composition over anecdote.

In the Graphics Gallery, visitors are treated to a mini-retrospective of Cumming's works on paper that introduce his command over the figure in motion and at rest. Cumming's art produced in Seattle during the dark years of the Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy era are in the Greathouse Galleries and feature major loans from collectors and regional art museums. The artist's commitment to serious yet accessible themes -- the female nude, the working man, the urban scene -- is demonstrated in pictures of brooding color and somber gravity and beauty. Kangas presents a radical revision of the artist's achievements and restores Cumming's "lost years" (from 1944-61 when ill health, membership in the Communist Party, a blacklisting, and three wives and four children took center stage) with twelve works from this time.  The "Cowboy Alley" section is dedicated to Cumming's popular Western-scene oils, drawings, and paintings on paper.

The retrospective ends on a celebratory, triumphant note with vibrant works in glorious colors. His post-1984 period, revealing a renewed sense of daylight and hope, is a significant and evolving one (Cumming is still actively working in his studio) in which he merges his passion for figure with increased focus on color, shape, and form. It is period that defines Cumming's unique contribution to Northwest art history-the productive mix of representation and abstraction.

It is particularly gratifying to the Frye Art Museum that this exhibition exemplifies a long championing of Northwest artists. Cumming's works were shown at the Frye every year from 1959 to 1963. In 1960, he was awarded First Prize at the Museum's First Invitational Puget Sound Area Exhibition.

Accompanying the exhibition is a fully illustrated comprehensive publication, William Cumming: The  Image of Consequence, co-published by the Frye Art Museum and the University of Washington Press. In this catalogue, available in the Museum Store, Kangas charts the evolution of the artists work from socialist realism, a representational art created in service to political ideals, to a socially relevant but less instrumental art that Kangas terms "figurative formalism."

Also accompanying the exhibition are curator-guided tours and a rich array of cultural programs in film, music, history, and politics that celebrate the extraordinary life and accomplishments of one of our region's most significant cultural and artistic figures.




Curator Talk
Matthew Kangas on Rediscovering William Cumming: Greatest Living Northwest Artist?
Followed by a book signing with William Cumming
Saturday, August 20, 2 pm
Frye Art Museum, Auditorium
Free with tickets available beginning 1 pm at the information desk
Curator Gallery Tours
Matthew Kangas on William Cumming in the Post-Communist World
Sunday, September 18, 2 pm
Frye Art Museum
Curator Gallery Tours
Matthew Kangas on William Cumming: From Marxism to Modernism
Saturday, October 15, 2 pm
Frye Art Museum
Curator Gallery Tours
Matthew Kangas on William Cumming: Artist of the People
Thursday, December 15, 7 pm
Frye Art Museum
Echoes: Sounds of Seattle
Inspired by the art and life of William Cumming, the Cohan-Shangrow Duo performs works by Northwest composers, acquaintances of Cumming, including: Mark Tobey; Robert Kechley; Huntley Beyer; William O. Smith; William McKay.
Jeffrey Cohan, flute; George Shangrow, piano
Sunday, September 25, 2 pm
Frye Art Museum
Theatre and Art
Grapes of Wrath: The Image of Consequence
Intiman Theatre and the Frye co-host a night of Steinbeck and Cumming, with a reading and discussion of a selected portion of The Grapes of Wrath and a self-guided tour of the exhibition.
Thursday, September 29, 7 pm
Frye Art Museum


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