UW News

September 27, 2007

Allen Center art is all in the (UW) family

UW News

The UW community no doubt knows the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering as a modern, even majestic building with pleasing lines and an attractive, light-filled atrium just right for studying and visiting.

But fewer, perhaps, know that the handsome building, home of the Computer Science and Engineering Department, also hosts one of the most splendid art collections on campus — one that boasts works by celebrated artists Jacob Lawrence, George Tsutakawa, Kenneth Callahan, Akio Takamori and Alden Mason, and photographs by Imogen Cunningham and Art Wolfe, among others.

Twenty-two artists are represented in all, each with a connection to the UW, though not all through their art. For instance, Cunningham, a legendary photographer, graduated from the UW in 1910 with a degree in chemistry.

The collection was curated by Hank Levy, chairman of Computer Science and Engineering, with some help from his friends — and it’s clearly a labor of love. Levy’s professional research delves deep into the world of computer operating systems and the Internet, but he also worked closely with the architects designing the Allen Center. “I have no artistic ability at all,” he confessed, “but I’ve always had an appreciation for art.”

Levy said the mission of the collection is twofold: “To make the building a very human-centered place by exposing students, staff and faculty to art in our highly technical environment” and, more simply, to celebrate fine UW-affiliated artists. In fact he describes the main theme of the collection as “All in the family” because of those Husky connections.

Levy also has created a series of Web pages presenting and describing the artists and their works with the tone of a true enthusiast. You can view them all online at http://www.cs.washington.edu/building/art/.

The images, ranging from abstract to representational, dot the hallways and stairways of the airy Allen Center, perhaps taken a bit for granted by the students and others passing by. Not far from dark, stern-looking tables and chairs on the sixth floor is a print of Lawrence’s NY Transit, I & II, a joyously busy, colorful scene of commuters reading and interacting. Down a hall are Tsutakawa’s quietly grand watercolor Hurricane Ridge and the only-slightly-controlled chaos of Callahan’s oil and tempura painting Menagerie. Another hallway hosts Cunningham’s vivid black and white photography celebrating exotic flowers, dancers and artist Frieda Kahlo.

Each floor has its own artistic offerings, with a featured work greeting visitors at the top of each open stairway. Those walking up to the fourth floor will see Studio Morning: Yellow Cup by Norman Lundin, emeritus faculty with the School of Art. Of this fine, dreamy scene of a studio window and the haze of buildings beyond, Levy wrote that it “demonstrates Lundin’s technical skill and artistic sensibility. It integrates two styles and perspectives — the still life and the landscape, the void interior and the city skyline — providing a unique sense of place and time.”

The idea for an Allen Center art collection came when the building was just being completed, Levy explained in an e-mail. “The building is really terrific, but as we moved in it felt a little sterile, given the large white walls.” When the center was finished in 2003, the architects, Seattle-based firm LMN, sent architectural photographer Lara Swimmer over to get a few shots, but one area in particular, the Silverberg Landing on the fifth floor, seemed a bit dark and gloomy.

Levy said Ed Lazowska, professor and former chair of Computer Science and Engineering, who was responsible for the fundraising for the Allen Center, suggested he bring in a colorful, abstract painting by Stephen McClelland (who earned an MFA from the UW in 1975) that Levy had in his dining room, to help define the landing area. (You can see Swimmer’s photos, and others, at http://www.cs.washington.edu/building/.)

“The painting looked so good on that wall, I thought I would see if there were any McClelland paintings available with a similarly colorful palette that we could buy for the building,” Levy said. He found the strikingly colorful work The Statuary in Certaldo at a Portland gallery, and it now graces the landing area.

Levy also purchased a couple of photographs from Wolfe, a well-known wildlife photographer, and noted that both Wolfe and McClelland had been UW students. “This led me to think about whether that would make a great theme for the building collection.”

Levy has been resourceful in gathering the art; he and Lazowska have used their own gift funds for some pieces and have obtained others from nonprofit groups or campus colleagues. He said the art on display is not expensive but it makes a good work environment. “People appreciate art by great artists.”

Still, he said, “I don’t expect everybody to like every piece in the building. I get e-mails whenever we put up a new piece.” There’s even one work, he said, that several people asked to be moved away from their offices. “I think that’s fine … everybody has a different favorite. I can expose people to different artists and artistic styles, but it’s not up to me to tell them what to like.”

Levy said he has gotten great advice from Kurt Kiefer, UW campus art administrator, and from a cousin, Susan Sollins, who is curator and executive producer of a PBS series titled Art in the 21st Century.

Kiefer explained that the Allen Center collection is one of several departmental or college collections on campus. Others are in the College of Architecture, at University Hospital, in the library at UW Bothell and in the Allen Library.

Clearly, Kiefer is a strong supporter of the Allen Center collection. “It’s pretty great,” he said. “Hank noted a deficit of art on campus by either alumni or emeritus faculty of the University, so it was sort of his vision quest.” He added, “Not every collection is to everybody’s taste, but Hank has a good eye, and many of the pieces are quite wonderful.”

Collecting the pieces for the Allen Center collection has been a joy to Levy, and showing them off in an art walk last November to the public and the participating artists themselves added an even more personal element to that pleasure.

About 130 people attended, he said, including artists Takamori and McClelland, sculptor Julie Speidel (who studied art at the UW) and photographers Wolfe and Josel Namkung (who earned a masters in music from the UW and worked 25 years as a medical photographer at the UW Medical Center). And perhaps most meaningful to Levy, Alden Mason, an extremely well-regarded Northwest artist and former UW professor of art, also came.

Referring to Mason as the likely “dean of Northwest painting,” Levy said the octogenarian, though frail, “wanted to see every painting and really loved what we’ve done.”

Best yet, at the end of his tour, the painter turned to Levy and asked where he had received his training in art history. “That was a special moment for me,” Levy said, “and made the whole process worthwhile.”