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By MATTHEW KANGAS

Virginia Bloedel Wright, Art Collector, Educator,
Rebel – Big Picture: Art After 1945

Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA – Jul 23-ongoing

Critic Harold Rosenberg, Virginia Wright and artist Barnett Newman aboard Washington State ferry, Seattle, 1964. Photo: Annalee Newman

Critic Harold Rosenberg, Virginia Wright and artist Barnett Newman aboard Washington State ferry, Seattle, 1964. Photo: Annalee Newman

“We have concluded that if a painting is easy to like, we probably should be suspicious of it. A good painting should shake up at first,” noted Virginia Bloedel Wright in a 1962 Seattle Times interview, part of a heated controversy she and her husband Bagley (1924–2011) found themselves at the center of, defending the American art section at the Seattle World’s Fair.

Curated by art critic Sam Hunter, the survey brought huge amounts of the New York School to Seattle for the first time. To be so defiant in defending the avant-garde in stuffy old Seattle took courage. The public response was outrage, parroted by the newspapers.

Fifty-five years later, Virginia Bloedel Wright is having the last laugh. The artists she championed now comprise the undisputed pantheon of mid-century modern art. She smiled as she recalled that Jasper Johns’s masterpiece, Thermometer (1959) “was the only one that hadn’t sold (at Johns’ second Leo Castelli show) so I had to have it, a no-brainer, sort of ‘Let’s do it!’ very much on impulse.” Wright slowly adds sotto voce, “and it was twelve hundred dollars …” Back in 1962, she said “we’ve had it in the dining room for several months now, and we wouldn’t be without it.”

Thankfully, visitors can share the warmth of Thermometer and other examples of the Wrights’ generosity.

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