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Originally published Friday, August 17, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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A return to open-plan design for the renovated Frye

Seattle's Frye Art Museum celebrates its 60th anniversary with a renovation that enhances the flow between galleries, and two exhibits that highlight the strengths and eccentricities of the museum's permanent collections.

Seattle Times arts writer

Exhibition review

'Ties That Bind: American Artists in Europe' and 'The Perfection of Good-Nature: Frye Founding Collection'

11 a.m. — 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, open until 7 p.m. Thursdays, through Sept. 23, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or www.fryemuseum.org).
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The space is flowing at the Frye.

After renovations that have opened up long-concealed doorways between its galleries, the museum suddenly makes a seductive, ebb-and-flow common sense.

Fresh coats of plaster and paint, plus a sanding and clear-coating of the red-oak floors, add to the airy feeling of the building. In addition, the crowded, salon-style display of the museum's back gallery (paintings blanketing the walls like wallpaper) has been dropped to give the selected artwork "breathing room" and let the choicest items make a bigger impression.

All in all, the refurbishments are a swell way to celebrate the museum's 60th anniversary.

In that same birthday spirit, two new exhibits drawn from the museum's permanent collections emphasize exactly what we've got with the Frye: some eccentricities, some indubitable treasures and, with museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker's championing of this offbeat collection, a bracing re-evaluation of where some of the vital action was in European and American painting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Ties That Bind: American Artists in Europe," curated by Birnie Danzker, strikes the more familiar notes. Here you'll find an elegant portrait by John Singer Sargent ("Mrs. Frederick William Roller"), a grandiose Western landscape by Albert Bierstadt ("Rainbow in the Sierra Nevada") and an experimental fusion of color and portraiture by William Merritt Chase ("Portrait of a Lady against Pink Ground," in which the artist's sister-in-law is all but suffused in the hues that surround her).

Other items in the show feel like fresh discoveries. Thomas Eakins' 1898 work "Maybelle (Mrs. Henry Walter Schlichter)" gives us a woman of unconventional looks and formidable character. It's hardly a flattering portrait — she looks entirely incapable of smiling — but it's penetrating. Robert Henri's "The Stoker" (1910) is similarly impressive, imbuing a rugged character (sober stare, drooping mustache, big ears) with a near-regal dignity.

Several key items in "Ties That Bind" are landscapes. Chase's "Coast of Holland" (1884) takes in the fragile, resourceful human presence on a sand-dune shoreline vulnerable to the churning North Sea.

A smaller gem is John Henry Twachtman's impressionistic oil-on-canvas "Dunes Back of Coney Island" (ca. 1880). True, this is an "American Artist in America," but the view is fascinating. This isn't a city scene, as it would be now, but a bucolic seaside vista with a few fairground amusements on the horizon dwarfed by the foreground's dune grass and sand hollows.

Birnie Danzker delves into the origins of the Frye's founding collection with "The Perfection of Good-Nature: Frye Founding Collection," a companion exhibit to "Ties That Bind." "Perfection" highlights how the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago shaped Charles and Emma Frye's Germany-focused art-collecting.

The Fryes' devotion to German art later proved problematic, as anti-German sentiments during World War I undermined their attempts to create a museum around their collection. In an essay in a new Frye catalog, "Beloved: Pictures at an Exhibition," Birnie Danzker helpfully retraces how in 1915 Seattle lost the opportunity to have a generously funded public art gallery that could have joined the Fryes' holdings with Horace C. Henry's mostly French and American collection under one roof.

Henry went his separate way with the opening of the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus in 1927. The Great Depression, the rise of Nazism and horrors of World War II, along with changing tastes in art fashions, put the Fryes' collection in limbo until years after their deaths.

So what to make of their holdings, which finally found a home on First Hill in 1952?

They're eclectic, to be sure. Franz von Stuck's fabulously lurid "Sin" is, rightly, the signature painting of the collection. Franz von Lenbach's "Voluptas" and "Ecstasy," however, feel cheesily over-the-top, no matter how technically accomplished they are.

Straight portraiture, as opposed to feverish allegory, brings out the best in von Lenbach. His 1896 portrait of Otto von Bismarck is a subtle take on a knowing and canny if worn and battered character. And the artist's 1902 portrait "Countess Leoni Wedel" is downright Sargent-worthy.

Other portraitists — Hugo von Habermann, Max Slevogt and Anselm Feuerbach — stand out too, parlaying jazzy brush strokes into singular captures of mood and personality, while on the landscape front the works of Ludwig Dill and Théophile Emile Achille de Bock have a strong neo-Impressionist appeal. Half a dozen oil paintings by Gabriel von Max disclose some but not all of his painting prowess and eccentricity. The biggest news, here, is the change to the building itself.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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