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Unwrapping Tacoma Art Museum

A behind the scenes look at the joy of opening crates full of art

Design by Justin Crockett

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Above the busy port waters of Tacoma, just between the train tracks and the commotion of Pacific Avenue, a gem rises from the concrete, its two-story glass entrance beckoning sleekly at an inviting angle, the Tacoma Art Museum

Hidden within that gem is a magical place, a place where appearances can be deceiving, where masterpieces masquerade as wooden crates, the Tacoma Art Museum receiving dock.  Jessica Wilks, TAM's registrar, has the enviable job of overseeing these seemingly generic packages as they are carefully opened, revealing the true heart of what is inside.

Last month, Wilks had the special experience of supervising the unwrapping of a gallery's worth of the work of Andy Warhol for the museum's Warhol's Flowers for Tacoma exhibit. On this, the 30th anniversary of Warhol's vision for the Tacoma Dome, the exhibit has special meaning.  Warhol's bright yellow flower design for the Tacoma Dome joined a handful of others in a Call for Artists.  One need only drive along I-5 and glance to the west to see that Warhol's design was not chosen.

Still, the idea that this iconic artist had his eye trained on Tacoma is compelling. With Tacoma's reputation as a blue-collar lumber and paper town with an offensive aroma, what made Warhol see something in Tacoma that others didn't?

"With his background in advertising, Warhol had a sharp awareness of how images had the potential to manipulate the viewer," says Rock Hushka, TAM's director of Curatorial Administration. "He played with that concept."

In Warhol's celebrity portraits, on display in TAM's exhibit, the viewer will find a recurrence of bouquets, the focus intentionally neither on the celebrity nor the bouquet. The viewer gets to decide which is of importance. What is more noteworthy?  A simple bouquet of flowers or a Hollywood star?

Did Warhol's appreciation for the commonplace inspire his vision for something that would raise Tacoma's reputation above the aroma?   

An interesting question as, these days, one might view some of Warhol's images as almost commonplace at this point in their mass-reproduction. But one of Wilks' responsibilities as registrar, condition reporting, gives her a special insight into the core expression of the original pieces that are the impetus of these pop-culture iconic images.

"I mean, come on, you can go buy a purse with Warhol's Campbell Soup can on it. The images become white noise after a while," admits Wilks. "But when I'm alone in the gallery, with my magnifying glass, I see the individual brush strokes, I see where a piece of tape was laid down and then pulled off.  I'll see a bend in the paper and wonder how it happened. I get to see the process behind the image."

And, with the up close and personal view the exhibit offers, the individual behind the artist becomes a little more evident.

"That's what we bring to the visitors, the opportunity to really look at the art as coming from the inspiration and handiwork and expression of an individual, and to see how that understanding of these images might change your perception of the piece."

A black and white photograph of Warhol posing beside his mother reveals, on close inspection, a set of kitchen chairs with flowered seat covers. The pattern makes an appearance in another personal photo. And another. Step back from these diminutive photographs and take in the over 100 lithos, prints, sketches and paintings of flowers that echo what was, it seems, a familiar pattern for Warhol. Was this familiarity the spark behind Warhol's fixation on the flowers? 

Questions such as these are raised where, in the mass production of these iconic masterpieces, perhaps there were no questions before.  Seeing all the pieces, putting together the puzzle of their incarnation, and appreciating the handiwork and effort toward self-expression behind them makes exhibits such as this truly singular experiences. Each of these pieces has a history and, even in the face of the strict care that is taken to keep them in their original state, there is a sort of fingerprint of history on them that can't be denied, which makes them real in spite of all the processes available to coldly reproduce them.

There is something thrilling in seeing these pieces large as life.

"When I first see the images, they're little thumbnails on a list, with their stats and other cold information about them.  But then there are these really magic moments in the receiving area," says Wilks with a night-before-Christmas kind of grin.

"We were all looking forward to unwrapping the Thomas Eakins' piece for the Hide/Seek exhibit last spring. Once we got the piece out of its packaging, we found a sticker on the back stating that it had been exhibited at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.  Someone pointed out that it was the 50th anniversary of that event. It was this great moment of realization that our area has always been a special place for art and culture.  There is an appreciation out there."

While Wilks, though not an artist herself, has an Art History background, admits that she doesn't love every single image she sees in her line of work, she does point out that her studies and the unique opportunity of her position to take a very personal look at art affords her an appreciation for the urge of expression and craftsmanship behind the pieces.

Meanwhile, the Tacoma Art Museum continues to draw more of a variety of guests than ever, from tourists who come to take advantage of Tacoma's ever-growing museum district, to the diverse groups of locals who came out in droves to gather, for example, at this year's madly crowded eighth annual Dia de Los Muertos Festival at TAM.

So Tacoma didn't get its Warhol flower, but beneath its industrial reputation beats the heart and soul of a city aware of and appreciative of the culture behind the concrete and pulp. Much like a masterpiece in a wooden crate waiting to be opened up and examined for wear and tear.


LINK: Art critic Alec Clayton reviews Andy Warhol's Flowers For Tacoma

LINK: Diving deeper into Andy Warhol's Flowers For Tacoma

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