Modern art icons get a permanent home at the Western Gallery

'Works on Paper' includes some of the biggest names in 20th century American art
Story by Mary Gallagher

In 1975, five museums in Washington cobbled together a total of $200,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Wright Fund to create and share a collection of contemporary art.

Wright, a prominent art patron in the Pacific Northwest, set out for New York City on behalf of the newly formed Washington Art Consortium to acquire dozens of works by important 20th century artists such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, and Helen Frankenthaler.

The collection, “Works on Paper: American Art 1945-1975,” has long been housed at the Western Gallery and owned by the Washington Art Consortium’s member institutions. When the consortium disbanded earlier this year and divvied up its collections, “Works on Paper” got a permanent home at the Western Gallery.

The collection has 97 works by 48 artists, including 10 prints of Warhol’s famous “Chairman Mao” series and work by Mark Rothko, Jo Baer, Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning.

Wright selected many of the works herself with the help of her friend, the late Richard Bellamy, a New York art dealer whose Green Gallery launched the careers of many iconic avant-garde artists; Bellamy’s biographer Judith E. Stein called him “The Eye of the 60s.”

Together, Bellamy and Wright had a good eye and access to the art community, Western Gallery Director Hafþór Yngvason says. They were able to amass the collection for about $355,000 before the market for American contemporary art exploded. Today, the collection is worth millions of dollars.

It’s hard to pick a favorite piece, Yngvason says, but he’s captivated by “Untitled,” a delicate, perfectly aligned grid drawn in 1965 by Agnes Martin, ’37. Martin earned a teaching certificate at Western decades before she became influential in the minimalist and abstract expressionist art movements.

The pieces have traveled to other museums, too. A 1967 sketch by Bruce Nauman, “Wax Template of My Body Arranged to Make an Abstracted Sculpture,” is on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

And Pollock’s 1951 drip painting, “Number 3,” was included in “Blind Spots,” an exhibition of Pollock’s controversial black-and-white work at the Tate Liverpool museum in the U.K. in 2015 and the Dallas Museum of Art in 2016. For decades, critics had maligned Pollock’s black drip paintings as evidence of the super-star artist’s decline, perhaps due to alcohol consumption. But bringing 31 of the paintings together gave viewers a chance to see that Pollock was in fact striving to explore new ground in the painting technique that made him famous.

The collection includes works on paper by artists whose sculptures can be seen on Western’s campus, including Mark di Suvero, Nauman, Rauschenberg and Richard Serra. (A sculpture by Donald Judd is being restored.)

The Western Gallery has also begun offering a series of summer exhibitions that bring drawings and prints from the “Works on Paper” collection together with the Campus Sculpture Collection, which Wright also helped shape through donations of funds and major artworks.

“ ‘Works on Paper’ gives a good background for the outdoor sculptures by providing an overview of American minimalist and post-minimalist art,” Yngvason says.

A selection of abstract expressionist work from the collection will be shown at the Western Gallery in spring 2018.

is editor of Window magazine