We never treated right the Sam Francis painting that got away

Like too many works of public art in Seattle, the Francis painting was very hard to see and appreciate. The list goes on.
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The Sam Francis painting dominated its lobby setting before it was removed in June.

Like too many works of public art in Seattle, the Francis painting was very hard to see and appreciate. The list goes on.

Llew Pritchard is sad about Bank of America removing a Sam Francis painting from the old Seafirst building on Fourth Avenue and shipping it to B of A's new hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. So should all Seattle art lovers be sad.

But I doubt that Francis, who died in 1994, would be shedding any tears. Visitors to Charlotte's Mint Museum will at least be able to see the 36-foot-long abstract Seafirst commissioned from Francis, which is something Seattleites never have been able to do.

Unlike Henry Moore's magnificent sculpture "Vertebrae," which stands on the plaza outside the atrium where the Francis once hung, there was no viewpoint from which Francis's assemblage of mighty bars and beams could be contemplated without (from outside) architectural elements getting in the way or (from inside) crick-in-the-neck physical discomfort due to the painting's awkward position in the building's long narrow lobby fronting the elevator banks of the 45-story tower.

Yes, I hear you say, but Francis knew where his painting was going to end up. But artists don't always know, or act, for their own best artistic interests when a juicy commission is in the offing. Tony Smith accepted Bagley and Virginia Wright's offer to fabricate his "Moses," currently dawdling on the lawn at Seattle Center, at two-thirds scale, even though he must have known it would look more like a Core-Ten steel armchair for a kiddie playground than the monumental "portrait bust" of the stern Old Testament lawgiver he envisioned. "On the Cheap" could be Seattle's cultural motto.

But I digress. Goodness knows our city is not richly seeded with fine and accessible large art works; losing the Francis hurts. ("Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?") But I have a suggestion to ease the pain for Pritchard and his fellow fans of public art. Why not campaign to rediscover another mural-size work, and this one a masterpiece: Mark Tobey's gigantic collage "Journey of the Opera Star"? In its present location at McCaw Hall (which might as well be undisclosed, considering its obscurity and awkwardness) it's effectively "lost" as a painted-over fresco. It took me a while to track it down, but the city Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs finally found it: "The location is the first balcony level of McCaw Hall, situated near the elevator lobby and the entrance to the donor room. The artwork is viewed from the length of the foyer and balcony level entrances."

Once "Journey" is out and glowing again (and Robert Rauschenberg's "Echo" is rescued from its impossible-to-see position in Benaroya Hall's lobby), we might consider buckling down to work acquiring some new members of a sadly sparse class: public works to match "Vertebrae," the UW's "Broken Obelisk" (Barnett Newman), and Claas Oldenburg's gloriously goofy "Typewriter Eraser" (at the Sculpture Park). We could start by asking for bids from sculptors for the First Avenue plaza at SAM, and help fund the project by auctioning off "Hammering Man" to the highest-bidding shopping mall or theme park.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Roger Downey

Roger Downey is a Seattle writer interested in food, the arts, the sciences, and urban manners. He is currently working on a book about the birth of opera in 1630s Venice.