R ichard E Lang and Jane Lang Davis bought their first painting together in 1970, just four short years after marrying. As Richard Lang explained in a 1981 interview with Howard Droker, although the couple had initially envisioned a home that they described as having an “elegant simplicity”, without any art on the walls, a fortuitous decision to make an exception for “a painting over the couch in the living room... was the beginning of the urge to have only unusual... that means that it appealed to both of us”. The work acquired was a Franz Kline – a fitting start for what would become one of the most important private collections of 20th-century art.
The overwhelming narrative thread tying the Lang Collection together is a focus on Abstract Expressionism as well as the influence of the European Surrealists’ abstract style, which was an inspiration to so many artists of the New York School. Although based in Seattle, Washington, the couple quickly became a fixture within the New York art world in the 1970s and early 1980s. There is a specificity and confidence behind the collection that reflects Richard and Jane’s distinct taste and eye for quality, as well as their unwavering desire to surround themselves with objects they loved, filling their Seattle home floor-to-ceiling with art that brought them unbridled joy. Indeed, when a collector once offered to buy their Willem de Kooning painting for considerably more than its acquisition price, Jane Lang Davis declined, saying, “Where would I get another one?”
Richard and Jane’s commitment to the performing and visual arts extended well beyond their own private collection and into their broader philanthropic interests. In 1979, in addition to providing the funding to chair a professorship in law at Stanford School of Law, where Richard earned his degree, Richard and Jane donated Alexander Calder’s outdoor sculpture, Le Faucon (The Falcon), 1963, as well as a large painting by Robert Motherwell entitled, In Celebration, 1975.
Within the Seattle community, Jane was a founding member of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and was an integral figure in the recruitment of the celebrated choreographers and artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. Together, Richard and Jane contributed to the growth and development of the local opera and symphony, as well as the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington and the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Jane served as part of SAM’s Contemporary Art Council, which cultivated and supported many of the institution’s early exhibitions of contemporary art – such as the 1976 exhibition Andy Warhol Portraits for which Warhol included a double portrait of Jane. Richard and Jane were also instrumental in supporting the expansion of SAM to its current downtown location.
Today, the Lang Collection – which not only reflects Richard and Jane’s unified vision, but is a tribute to the art that has come to define the 20th century – belongs to the Friday Foundation, a private charitable organisation committed to working with its cultural partners to ensure the great works remaining in the collection will be enjoyed by the public, and to support key art initiatives that were important to the Langs. This May, a selection of works from the collection is being sold in Sotheby’s Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern Art sales, with the proceeds going to support the foundation’s mission, a fitting epilogue to the couple’s lifelong commitment to the arts.
Among the works is Francis Bacon’s powerful Study for Head from 1952, which is one of the most important works by the artist remaining in private hands. The piece captures a silent scream typical of his Screaming Popes series, which is among the artist’s best-known and most recognisable iconography. Alberto Giacometti’s Le Couple, 1927, is one of the very first sculptures the artist exhibited and a rare example from his Surrealist period that elegantly reflects the Langs’ passion for the movement. Also included are an outstanding group of Abstract Expressionist works, spanning from an early Surrealist-inspired drawing by Robert Motherwell, to a Hans Hofmann painting that Walter Darby Bannard pronounced one of the artist’s best late works, to an encyclopedic group of works on paper by Franz Kline.
Annikka Olsen is a writer and editor based in New York