We don’t know yet what kind of mark Catharina Manchanda will make as the latest modern and contemporary art curator to step through Seattle Art Museum’s revolving door. She was hired by SAM last summer and the first real indication of her curatorial sensibilities—Elles:SAM, the museum’s response to the Pompidou's Elles exhibit—will open to the public this Thursday. But last week the Wright Exhibition Space debuted another exhibition by Manchanda, A rose Is a Rose Is a Rose, which offers a taste of her taste, as well as a nice succinct sample of her writing in the exhibition brochure. My first take: very impressive.

Manchanda chose a sophisticated, minimalist sample of the Wright’s collection that spotlights just a dozen works dating from 1960 to 1999 with lots of room around them for our imaginations to roam. What better place for this new Seattle curator to show her chops than in the elegant Wright Exhibition Space, working with an extensive private collection gifted to SAM and the cornerstone of the museum’s post-World War II holdings?  

In the title of the show Manchanda alludes to a Gertrude Stein poem and the heady era of early 20th-entury modernism, and then anchors her imagery around Andy Warhol’s 1984 Rorschach painting and the visual, intellectual, and psychological ripples it sets off. (I like to think that includes a punning homage to SAM’s incoming director, Kimerly Rorschach.) In her essay Manchanda talks about finding synergy among the artworks and wow, does she.

On a purely visual level the show crackles, with the artworks also sparking an interchange of ideas and associations. Much of the palette is restricted to black and white, and playing off the Rorschach-test notion, opaque references to sexuality and the body abound. (Wait a minute: Is that just me?)  

Tim Hawkins’s seven-foot-tall dripping candle sculpture does look kind of phallic, especially positioned opposite Robert Gober’s sleekly crafted 1984 rendition of a urinal, his ode to Marcel Duchamp, the high priest of conceptualism. It’s easy to keep the body references going with the suggestions inherent in fruits, flowers, and vessels, and by the time you enter the gallery with Tom Wesselmann’s 1967 Pop painting Great American Nude no. 66 the sexual theme bursts into full flower and color. Nipples, lips, oranges, and daffodils speak their own language of desire.

For me the most piquant grouping is the gallery with Warhol’s looming 13-and-a-half-foot-tall Rorschach painting, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s deceptive and disquieting mid-size photographic portrait of Henry VIII’s wife Catherine Parr, and a small Robert Mapplethorpe orchid photograph printed on a plate. Each has its own wall. The placement is high drama. All three are artists who like to subvert and stretch the bounds of beauty. That Manchanda connects them for us with such wit, sensitivity, and a fine-tuned aesthetic bodes well.

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose
Thru Jan 17, 2013, Seattle Art Museum

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