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Originally published February 10, 2012 at 8:10 PM | Page modified February 11, 2012 at 11:49 AM

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Art critic, 90, can't complain about this show — it's hers

To mark its 60th anniversary, the Frye Art Museum is staging three new shows, one of them co-curated by a 90-year-old woman who visits the Frye every day.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Frye Art Museum

Founded in 1952 at 704 Terry Ave. on First Hill, the Frye Art Museum's founding collection was gifted in perpetuity to the people of Seattle by Charles and Emma Frye, who moved to Seattle in the late 1800s and made a fortune in the meatpacking industry. The Fryes were patrons of the arts and specified that their estate be used to build a free public art museum. The Frye is celebrating its 60th anniversary with three shows:

"Beloved: Pictures at an Exhibition": Co-curated by daily museum visitor Frieda Sondland, 90, it will be on exhibit through April 15.

"Susie J. Lee: Of Breath and Rain": The first solo museum exhibition by the Seattle artist opens next Saturday and runs through April 15.

"Li Chen: Eternity and Commoner": The exhibit features a monumental wooden figure titled "Eternity" by a renowned sculptor who works in Shanghai and China. It opens next Saturday and runs through April 8.

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Frye Art Museum art curator Frieda Sondland, age 90, has strong opinions about art. Consider her thoughts on nudity in paintings:

"Naked people are usually very interesting. Some are naked because they're promiscuous, but some are naked for the pure joy of being naked."

She has no formal training in art, but Sondland has so much love for the Frye's founding collection of 19th- and 20th- century art that she has visited it every day for 10 years. Last year, Sondland was invited by the museum to help curate a small exhibit of paintings.

The resulting show, "Beloved: Pictures at an Exhibition," chosen with the help of Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, features 23 works from the original collection of its founders, Charles and Emma Frye.

For Birnie Danzker, having a devoted visitor pick the paintings in a show raises provocative questions about whether there is a single "correct" interpretation of a work of art, and whether an art lover with an untrained eye can have as much to say about what a painting means as a well-trained expert.

"The thing that interests me about Frieda is that she has a very specific knowledge, from looking at paintings every day," Birnie Danzker said.

If she lacks a formal arts education, the diminutive Sondland — who walks with the aid of a walker and calls everyone "sweetheart" with a German accent — is nevertheless a highly vocal critic of the museum's collections, shows and operations.

When she and her husband, Günther, retired from their West Seattle dry-cleaning business and moved to a First Hill retirement home about 10 years ago, the two began making daily visits to the nearby Frye, which is known for its collection of German paintings, but has more recently begun showing contemporary works as well.

Every day, Frieda and Günther — and later Frieda alone, when Günther died in 2004 — took a one-mile round-trip walk from their retirement home to the Frye, paying homage to the galleries where the older paintings lived. And they never grew tired of them.

"Günther sat here for hours," Sondland said. "We would look at the paintings, and we loved every minute of it."

Museum workers got to know the couple, especially Frieda, who always told them what she liked and didn't like.

Sondland is no fan of modern art, and in 2008, the Frye changed its mission statement, allowing the curatorial staff to show contemporary works as long as pieces from the founding collection are always on view.

Strolling through the museum one afternoon this week, Sondland and Birnie Danzker talked about how the exhibit, "Beloved," came to be.

"Remember how it started?" Birnie Danzker said. "You were complaining. ... "

"I just opened my big mouth," Sondland said. "I said, 'Where are the Fryes?' They told me, 'They're in storage.' I said, 'Why don't you clean out your storage?' "

The very traditional full-length portraits of founders Charles and Emma Frye had been put away. Sondland insisted that the portraits come back.

That gave Birnie Danzker an idea. Frieda Sondland had such strong ideas about art, and such clear likes and dislikes — why not let her pick the paintings for the next show?

Sondland jumped at the chance. "They gave me a catalog," she said, "and I said, 'I like this, this, this.' I knew them all." She chose 23 of the 232 paintings in the founders' original collection.

It is actually a bit harder to curate a show than that, of course; the two women spent many long hours talking about which paintings to exhibit and how to group them, settling on three themes: religion, landscapes and portraits. They first went through photos of the paintings, then looked at them in person.

Sondland's selections are all very personal, and many reference her life in Berlin before her family fled in 1938 to escape Jewish persecution at the hands of the Nazis.

For example, she chose a portrait of Otto von Bismarck because she considers him a great statesman.

She loved the portrait of Jacob Stern, a Berlin Jew whose expressive face made him such a "remarkable subject" that painter Ludwig Knaus stopped Stern on the street and asked if he could paint him, Birnie Danzker said.

The show's paintings are all labeled in conventional museum style, with the name of the artist, an explanation of the subject and a little bit about the painter. But the labels for some of the paintings also include a separate commentary from Sondland.

For example, on Franz von Lenbach's "Voluptas" — a painting of the face and torso of a long-haired woman from 1897 — Sondland wrote: "I don't see this woman's nudity as being an invitation. She is just happy and free in her own voluptuous nakedness."

Or William Adolphe Bouguereau's "Gardeuse de Moutons," the painting of a wistful-looking little girl who is guarding the sheep: "This work seems to have been painted lovingly."

Sondland loves the realism of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"You look at these paintings, and you think they are photographs because they are so true to life," she said.

She said the chance to pick her favorites from the museum's collection was an amazing experience.

"I am so thankful to Jo-Anne," Sondland said. "She gave me this opportunity. It is a great joy, to do this."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @katherinelong.

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