From Planes to Brains to Outer Space and Ruscha: Paul Allen’s All-Embracing Aesthetic Fills His Newest Exhibition Space

Exterior view of Pivot Art + Culture, inside the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. COURTESY VULCAN INC.

Exterior view of Pivot Art + Culture, inside the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.


More than a quarter of the world’s top 200 art collectors maintain their own museums or exhibition spaces, according to ARTnews. Microsoft’s co-founder, Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, is now a member of this elite coterie. After his propitious launch of the international Seattle Art Fair in August, Allen announced the debut of his first exhibition space devoted to visual art, Pivot Art + Culture, which opens to the public this month.

Allen is already a founder of two Seattle museums, the Frank Gehry–designed Experience Music Project Museum and the Living Computer Museum, as well as the Flying Heritage Collection of historic, ready-to-fly aircraft in nearby Everett. His empire also includes the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the Allen Institute for Cell Science, SpaceShipOne (the first private effort to successfully launch a civilian into suborbital space), a rock band called Paul Allen and the Underthinkers, two professional sports teams, acres of real estate in downtown Seattle, and a private art collection including works by artists ranging from Jan Brueghel the Younger to blue-chip Impressionists to Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, Eric Fischl, and Damien Hirst.

Allen is notoriously reticent about his art collection and requires strict non-disclosure agreements from art dealers and his employees. The first public encounter with his eclectic holdings was a 2006 exhibition, “Doubletake: From Monet to Lichtenstein,” mounted in a claustrophobic space within the Experience Music Project. Curated by Impressionism scholar Paul Hayes Tucker, the show juxtaposed older and newer paintings from Allen’s collection, pairing, for example, Vincent van Gogh with Max Ernst and Edgar Degas with Eric Fischl. Critics groused about the exhibition format but not about the caliber of the artworks by major Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, as well as Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Nan Goldin, and Thomas Struth.

Allen has recently made several public revelations about his collection and collecting. Currently on view at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon is “Seeing Nature,” an exhibition of 39 European and American landscape paintings from the Allen trove, including canvases by Canaletto, J. M. W. Turner, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Gustav Klimt, Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, John Singer Sargent, Arthur Wesley Dow, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Gerhard Richter.


Paul Allen.


On the opening night of the Seattle Art Fair, Allen made on-site purchases of work by young local artists, including a landscape by Nathan DiPietro. According to the collector’s new video profile on his website, the Seattle Art Fair, the Pivot Art + Culture space, and “Seeing Nature” illustrate his current desire “to share and tour artworks and give a wide audience a chance to see them…. I’m excited to keep doing this in the future,” he says.

Allen has pledged to give away at least half his fortune, now estimated at $18 billion. Like many of his philanthropic ventures, the nonprofit Pivot Art + Culture project is supported by Allen and his company, Vulcan, which he co-founded with his sister, Jody. The new 3,500-square-foot exhibition facility adjoins the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, near Amazon’s Seattle campus. Vulcan has also sponsored more than a dozen public art projects in the formerly industrial neighborhood, executed primarily by regional artists.

Pivot’s inaugural exhibition, “The Figure in Process: de Kooning to Kapoor, 1955–2015,” displays paintings and sculptures from Allen’s collection, as well as loans from other Pacific Northwest and international collectors. Allen’s contributions include Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Self Portrait” (1979–80), Y. Z. Kami’s Untitled (Maryam), 2007, Lucian Freud’s Large Interior W11 (after Watteau), 1981–83, and Giacometti’s Femme de Venise III (1956).

The curator, well-known Abstract Expressionism scholar David Anfam, envisions the exhibition’s core theme as a microcosm of “the ways artists have addressed and reinvented the figure after Abstract Expressionism. This very process itself,” he writes, “mirrors the changing sense of self—from the abjection and desolation of the 1940s, through post-modern deconstruction to cyberspatial recreation—that we have witnessed culturally in the global upheavals of the past half century.” Among the artists represented, in addition to de Kooning and Anish Kapoor, are Cecily Brown, Lita Cabellut, David Hockney, Barry X Ball, John Currin, Julian Schnabel, Kehinde Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud, Ron Mueck, Mark Tansey, and Glenn Brown. Also on view is a new painting commissioned for the show, Gradually, a Pleasure, by 25-year-old Singaporean artist Ruben Pang.

Anfam conceived the north and south sides of the gallery as “expressive axes, with at one extreme the grotesque/metaphoric/even horrific [Glenn Brown, Ball], and at the other the beautiful/ideal/inviolate [Wiley, Thiebaud].” Mounted on the west wall is German artist Jonas Burgert’s mural-scale tableau Stück Hirn Blind (2014). “This work is especially appropriate because Burgert himself talks about the self in process,” Anfam explained. “His work also revives, post-Auschwitz, the ancient idea of ‘theatrum mundi,’ which of course Shakespeare translated into the ‘all the world’s a stage’ metaphor. I think it’s a good basis for the exhibition.”

Jonas Burgert, Stück Hirn Blind, 2014, currently on view at Pivot Art + Culture.  LEPKOWSKI STUDIOS/©JONAS BURGERT

Jonas Burgert, Stück Hirn Blind, 2014, currently on view at Pivot Art + Culture.


Given his scholarly investment in abstraction, Anfam was a counterintuitive choice for this meditation on reinventing the figure. “I’ve always been deeply interested in figuration,” Anfam admitted, “not least because the figure is, perhaps paradoxically, one of the roots of Abstract Expressionism. After high modernism, you might say figuration represents the welcome return of the repressed, both for me personally and the history of art more generally.”

Although Anfam’s exhibition will launch Pivot Art + Culture in Seattle, “The Figure in Process: de Kooning to Kapoor,” on view from December 5 to February 28, may turn out to be a relative anomaly among the institution’s programs. Ben Heywood, Pivot Art + Culture’s new director, emphasized, “We want this space to be very public-facing and have a broad popular appeal. It won’t be a space for the contemporary-art cognoscenti. Far back in the genesis of this project,” he explained, “there was an interest in creating a space that would, by and large, show the art collection of Paul Allen. Over time it became something much broader that would be responsive to different kinds of exhibition making. We will continue to work with guest curators, but I’m probably more interested in artists as guest curators than academics or art historians.”

A former deputy director of the Henry Moore Sculptural Trust in Leeds, England, Heywood also served as a lead officer for artists’ commissions and public art at Arts Council England before moving to the United States in 2002. Prior to joining Allen at Pivot, he was director of the Soap Factory, an alternative art space in Minneapolis known for promoting active engagement with artists’ experimental projects and performances. “Popular alternative programming can be combined with traditional museum practices,” he pointed out. “At Pivot we want to build relevant connections between these two worlds. In naming the space Pivot Art + Culture, we wanted to send a message to laypeople that we are involved in a project that is not just about painting and sculpture,” he said. “We’ll support projects commissioned specifically for the space as well as performances and collaborations that look at art and culture in a very wide sense.”

Although the new Pivot gallery adjoins the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Heywood added, “one of the things we want to do in our first year is to differentiate ourselves from the science organizations. We are emphatically not an MIT-style art-science collaborative space, and I want to make sure our audience understands that we will have a different identity. This doesn’t mean we won’t do art-science or art-brain projects in the future, but they will be presented in a broader cultural context.”

“Pivot,” one might argue, is a term that applies to the idiosyncratic range of Allen’s passions. He’s a serious collector of high-status art, a founder of a museum now devoted to rock and roll, science fiction, and horror films, and a philanthropist who has donated over $2 billion to support the arts and innovative scientific research. The development of his new visual-arts space could be as eclectic and unpredictable as Allen himself. “There’s no one standing over us saying ‘you can’t do that,’ ” Heywood observed. “The opportunities are not only exciting—they’re huge.”

Patricia Failing is a professor emerita, Division of Art History, University of Washington, Seattle, and an ARTnews contributing editor.

A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 50 under the title “From Planes to Brains to Outer Space and Ruscha.”

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