A Fountain of passion

Collector Jordan Schnitzer discusses Ellsworth Kelly and a half-century of supporting art in Portland

Jordan Schnitzer and a few of his friends drop into Whitsell Auditorium. Photo: Portland Art Museum

BY BRIAN LIBBY

In 1961, when Portland businessman, philanthropist and art collector Jordan Schnitzer was a young child, his mother opened an art gallery. Actually it was THE gallery in Portland, Fountain Fine Art, launching the careers of many now esteemed regional artists such as Mel Katz, Michele Russo, Jay Backstrand, and Lucinda Parker while laying the foundation for what has become today one of America’s most energized art scenes. “It was a fascinating thing for a first grader to see,” Schnitzer remembered in a Portland Art Museum talk Thursday evening.

“Colors on a Grid,” 1976. c. Ellsworth Kelly and Tyler Graphics, Ltd.

A half-century after the Fountain’s opening, his mother, Arlene Schnitzer, remains a local icon for her philanthropy, with a concert hall and museum wings bearing her name. And Jordan Schnitzer has emerged as one of the nation’s most prominent art collectors, specifically of prints. From Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly, there are scarcely any major post-World War II artists (especially from the Pop Art movement), whose work Schnitzer doesn’t own.

What’s more, the Portland collector has been instrumental in bringing major print shows to the nation’s top art museums: more than 80 exhibitions of his work at 47 museums across the country, including the Kelly print show first exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and now, through September 14, on the walls at PAM.

Schnitzer sat down with museum director Brian Ferriso Thursday in the museum’s Whitsell Auditorium for a talk called “Collecting Ellsworth Kelly” that wound up as a broader discussion of the collector-philanthropist’s life and pursuits.

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Although the opening of the Fountain Gallery crystallized an interest in art for Jordan Schnitzer as well as his parents, it was the classes his mother took at the Museum Art School – now a separate institution, the Pacific Northwest College of Art – that began their journey.

“Suddenly she’d be coming home with paints, and I’d be babysat by people like [future gallery owner] Laura Russo,” Schnitzer told Ferriso. “My mother would come home and talk about how excited she was.”

Brian Ferriso, Jordan Schnitzer. Photo: Portland Art Museum

Arlene and Harold Schnitzer also believed it was important to support local artists as part of Portland’s cultural advancement. If the artists couldn’t make a living or gain attention here, they’d leave – as Rothko and others had already done. Starting the Fountain was much more than just the wife of an affluent businessman killing time. It was a commitment to the city.

And because the Fountain was the first major gallery in town, it corralled an impressive roster of talent. In its first year, 1961, the gallery featured Northwest luminaries like Kenneth Callahan, Carl Morris, Lee Chesney and many others. “Those openings were pretty amazing. It was a real focal point, just like First Thursday,” Schnitzer remembered. “It was almost like the beginning of this burgeoning art scene.”

While Arlene Schnitzer and her two partners were the Fountain’s proprietors, Jordan remembers his father acting as its safety net and conscience. “I think one reason the Fountain was so beloved is my mother did what was right. That could mean trading artworks for dental work for an artist. It meant being a parental figure, a psychologist. And while she tried to sort of break even, my father, because he was working hard in the real estate business … there was a flexibility to do what was right, to support artists whose work maybe might not sell a lot, but deserved a show. There were many artists like Mel Katz doing works that really weren’t accepted. At the end of the night, if there were no red dots on a work, I’d turn around and one would magically appear. She’d smile and say, ‘Your father bought it.’ He couldn’t bear that an artist who put their heart out would leave without any success at selling a piece.”

After enduring a fire that destroyed the gallery in 1977, the Fountain moved to Northwest 21st and prospered for nearly another decade. But when Arlene decided to close the Fountain in 1986 to retire and concentrate on philanthropic efforts, it only served to grow Jordan’s interest in building a collection of his own. Arlene had given him his first piece when the gallery opened, “Fond de la Mer” by Stanley Heyter, and soon after he made his own first purchase, “Sanctuary,” by Louis Bunce. “I think it was sixty bucks and I paid five bucks a month,” he told Ferriso. “This I’ve always had with me. It’s in my dressing room, front and center on the right.”

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The museum’s longtime print curator, Gordon Gilkey, helped point Jordan Schnitzer into the print-collecting that would become his legacy. Happening on an exhibit, Schnitzer recalls, “I thought, ‘My gosh.’ I’d had a commitment to local artists. My mother had helped thousands of us in the local community. How damaged the cultural fabric would be without them there. But after seeing that show I went down and I bought a small Frank Stella, I bought a Frankenthaler. By the time I was in college I’d blown through all the wall space I had. Six or seven years later I was up to 300 prints.”

“Blue and Orange and Green,” 1964-65. c. Ellsworth Kelly and Maeght Editions, Paris

Even the Schnitzer family doesn’t have enough wall space at home for that much artwork. As Jordan Schnitzer began working to exhibit art at the gallery of his alma mater, the University of Oregon (he later helped to develop a museum there that bears his name) he had an epiphany about the experience of seeing his collection curated and displayed professionally.

“It was so neat walking in that space, because I’d only had two or three up at the house of the time,” he remembered. “And the way Larry Fong, the curator, had arranged the work, and how the pieces spoke to me and to each other when I walked in was just amazing. I thought, the West Coast just hasn’t had the kind of exposure to contemporary art that the East Coast has. I thought, wouldn’t it be neat if I could buy some of the modern masters and make that available to museums, while still supporting local art?”

After Jordan Schnitzer’s extensive Roy Lichtenstein print collection became the basis for a traveling show a few years ago, Kelly approached the collector about a similar retrospective. A longtime Kelly fan, Schnitzer jumped at the chance. And while the ensuing exhibition debuted at LACMA before coming to PAM, the collector sees Kelly as particularly relevant to a Portland and Pacific Northwest audience. “We have such a design-centric community, and his work touches on that. It really helps us understand the idea of less is more, and how it touches the everyday,” Schnitzer told Ferriso. “Kelly first is a master master colorist. I love work where colors just speak to me; you don’t have to think, you just feel it. Second, it’s the craftsman he is. He’s able to refine and refine and refine things, to eliminate all the distraction. You have to deal with it. You have to let it flow into you.”

Schnitzer also believes Kelly is an inherent naturalist. “Think about what you looked out at today: parks, trees, water. I can’t imagine not having that around us. I think all of us in the northwest have a sense of that,” he said. “When I think of Ellsworth Kelly, even though it’s abstract, for me his work speaks to us in the Northwest. It is so organic. It’s all of nature. When I see his work it just speaks to me in this way.”

Normally Schnitzer avoids meeting the great artists he collects, the collector told Ferriso.

“I’ve always worried: What if I meet him or her and they’re just a jerk? I didn’t want to let that artist affect the wonderful little construct I’d created about the work. But Ellsworth Kelly, you can see his mind work. With geniuses like that, they just see a little bit different. It could be a leaf, or an object. He converts that into these wonderful sculptural elements and works on paper.”

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Though the museum talk lasted only an hour, it was an emotional trip down memory lane. A succession of photos on the Whitsell’s screen of Schnitzer’s life accompanied the talk, with his mother Arlene often chiming in from the front row to add comments of her own. Jordan even briefly was brought to tears discussing his past. Through it all, what came through was a naturally shy man (even though he’s a CEO and a major American collector) but also one driven by his passion for art.

“Why art’s been so wonderful for me is there isn’t one of us in this room that didn’t wake up with a bunch of issues in our lives,” Schnitzer said. “I remember when I was young and I finished law school, I thought if I can just get through these issues, it’d be perfect. But life is a continuum of issues. That joy in being so lucky to be alive, and to be healthy, and to be in this country, has got to come from within. And if you have hobbies that can help you be happy within yourself, that takes you away. For me art has been this wonderful, wonderful refuge. Artists help us learn to see.”

 

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