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Worth the drive

Head north for the dazzling Seattle Art Museum and Olympic Sculpture Park

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The first thing they taught us in Art Snob 101 was that to find real art you have to drive up to Seattle, since Tacoma’s just an overgrown mill town with none of the real stuff — except for the one-eyed glass guy. And now the real art has not one but two brand-spankin’-new homes: the expanded and remodeled Seattle Art Museum and the Olympic Sculpture Park.

The new Seattle Art Museum is a soaring, 118,000-square foot, glass-fronted building with an additional unused 332,000 square feet for future expansion. Out front, Jonathan Borofsky’s 48-foot-tall “Hammering Man” still swings his tool with metronomic regularity. Inside, the spacious design is built around what is called a “continuous ribbon of space” that allows for natural lighting. Much of this natural lighting comes from the brise soleil, or sun break, alternating moveable and permanent panels of ribbed steel that let sunlight in or can be closed to protect light-sensitive art.

The new entrance at First Avenue and Union Street spills into an open space with numerous contemporary installations and the redesigned grand stairway. The ground floor features new public gallery spaces and an expanded restaurant and gift shop with entrances to the gift shop from First Avenue or from within the museum.

Highlighting the second floor is the 5,000-square-foot Brotman Forum, a free public gathering space and site for contemporary installations. Currently installed is “Inopportune: Stage One” by Cai Guo-Qiang, a soaring and mind-boggling installation consisting of nine Ford Taurus cars and sequenced multichannel light tubes. The cars hang from the ceiling in a variety of positions as if thrown to the sky by some horrendous whirlwind, and the light tubes radiate like bolts of energy thrown by Thor.

Other contemporary installations include three works by Seattle artist Jason Puccinelli that can best be described as sculptural murals. They are Surreal-Pop images that appear strangely distorted unless looked at from a specific point of view.

The third and fourth floors house much of what we’ve come to know from the old SAM: modern and contemporary American, Mesoamerican and Andean art; Native American; Australian Aboriginal and Oceanic; Asian; textiles; African; European painting, sculpture and decorative arts; ancient Mediterranean and Islamic art and more.

Thousands of artworks have recently been donated to SAM. Among the many new works that can be seen are Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Music — Pink and Blue No. 1.”  One of the greatest treats in the new museum is the Barney Ebsworth gallery, which, at 35 feet tall, contributes to the feel of soaring verticality. Showing in this gallery are great gritty works by Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol.

And as if all of this splendor was not enough, on the nearby waterfront is the marvelous new Olympic Sculpture Park, one of the largest in the world. Have a seat on Louise Bourgeois’ startling “Eye Benches I, II, II,” actual functional benches in the shape of menacing black eyes. Or watch death by water in “Father and Son Fountain,” also by Bourgeois — a traditional figurative sculpture of a man and a boy who are engulfed by water from the fountain. Other outstanding works include “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and “Split” by Roxy Paine, a life-size, stainless steel tree.

But the most astounding thing of all in this fantastic park is Richard Serra’s giant steel sculpture “Wake” — 10 concave and convex plates, each 48 feet long and 14 feet tall. Visitors can walk around and between these and experience sensations of space expanding and contracting. Warning: for some people the effect may be intoxicating or disorienting.

[Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle, 206.654.3100,; Olympic Sculpture Park, open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, Broad Street between Western Avenue and Alaskan Way, Seattle]

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