Art review: A Coliseum for the New World

By BRIAN LIBBY

When Portland’s Memorial Coliseum (as it was originally known) was completed in 1960, America was entering perhaps its most tumultuous decade, one of both tragedy and promise. The country sent its first troops to Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested for leading nonviolent demonstration for the first time, and John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon to win the presidency.

As Kennedy would declare in his inaugural address the following January, a torch had been passed. Optimism abounded as the nation enjoyed unprecedented economic growth, explored outer space, and saw revolutionary ideas transform music and visual arts.

Avantika Bawa, “Coliseum 07”, 2017. Graphite and pastel on paper, 40 x 94 inches/Courtesy Ampersand Gallery

Veterans Memorial Coliseum, as it was renamed in 2011, embodies its time even as it remains timeless. That Avantika Bawa’s drawings, on display at both the Portland Art Museum and Ampersand Gallery, depict the Coliseum so beautifully owes first to her artistic talents, but the building’s simplicity and translucence are undoubtedly conducive to such portrayals.

The Coliseum has become a repository of the city’s shared 20th century history: of countless musical icons, of the Trail Blazers’ 1977 NBA championship, of audiences enthralled by the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama and Evel Knievel. Yet it has endured because of the architecture.

Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the Chicago and New York-based firm that more than any other had made the post-World War II glass office tower its signature, Memorial Coliseum (as I still prefer to call it), with more than 80,000 square feet of glass, is like a skyscraper that has been lain on its side. After attending a performance by The Beatles there in 1965, the great Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem about the experience called “Portland Coliseum,” referring to the venue as “the New World Auditorium.”

At the same time, the building is a marvel of engineering. Despite being nearly twice as big as a standard Portland city block, the entire building stands on just four columns. The Coliseum’s concrete seating bowl, holding up to 12,000, also stands completely untouched by the glass box around it, making what was intended first to be a very practical arena elegantly simple enough to be a kind of architectural sculpture. The glass box and the concrete bowl also represent a union of modern architecture’s glass and steel language of the 1950s, represented by the great Ludwig Mies van der Rohe giving way to the concrete-clad Brutalism to come in the late 1960s and ‘70s, pioneered by Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. The Coliseum’s lead designer for SOM, Myron Goldsmith, had been a student of both masters.

Avantika Bawa, “Coliseum 21”, 2018. Graphite and pastel on paper, 30 1/8 x 22 inches/Courtesy Ampersand Gallery

One can describe Memorial Coliseum’s essence in five words and one simple image: a bowl in a box. I’ve often told people I can draw the building with two pen strokes: first a square, and then an upturned half-circle. But Avantika Bawa’s drawings do far more to give us a vivid sense of this simplicity. She understandably saw the grid-like geometry of the Coliseum’s façade as part of not just a modernist architectural tradition but also a common language with minimalist visual artistic traditions from Agnes Martin to Donald Judd, and its curvy concrete seating bowl as an organic curve to juxtapose against the rectilinear glass box.

That simplicity has an equal if not even greater power experientially. Veterans Memorial Coliseum is perhaps the only arena offering a 360-degree view to the outside. I remember once during a Blazers exhibition game at the Coliseum watching the sun set over the downtown Portland skyline from my seat—one of the most moving architectural experiences I’ve ever had.

Yet herein lies a tragedy. For most of the Coliseum’s history, a fabric curtain between the top of the seating bowl and the ceiling has blocked that incredible view. I’ve talked to countless friends and family members who, like me, grew up attending events at Memorial Coliseum, and none of them remembered ever being there with the curtain open; in fact, none of them even knew that feature existed. Yet they all remember being in the concourse, looking through the glass walls at the city.

Avantika Bawa, “Coliseum 19b”, 2018. Graphite and pastel on paper, 17 x 14 inches/Courtesy Ampersand Gallery

Avantika Bawa’s love for Memorial Coliseum, her perceptive eye and lyrical drawing hand, have given us artwork that says everything without a word. These works bear witness to the Coliseum’s beauty, yet it’s not just representationalism. Elegantly simple enough to actually contain a hint of abstraction, her imaginary views of the building can actually feel more real than photos.

Many years ago the Coliseum was captured by the most acclaimed American architectural photographer of the 20th century, Julius Shulman. Those pictures are unquestionably magnificent, as are a series of nighttime shots by the underappreciated midcentury Seattle photographer Art Hupy. Bawa’s drawings stand beside those priceless images as an equal, yet apart from them by offering a more personal take that renders the Coliseum’s simplicity even more clearly.

Oregon has always been blessed with staggering natural beauty, from snow-capped Cascade peaks to the rugged Pacific coastline. Yet over the generations, a select few built spaces have become beloved landmarks. Avantika Bawa is not native to Portland or Oregon, but her work reminds us that sometimes it takes an outside perspective to most vividly see what’s always been there in front of us.

Avantika Bawa’s exhibit “Coliseum” at Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books (2916 NE Alberta Street) runs through November 25. A book of the same name, for which this essay was originally written, will be published by Ampersand later this month. Bawa, Libby and Portland Art Museum Northwest art curator Grace Kook-Anderson will also participate in a panel discussion scheduled for Friday, November 16 at 6:30 pm at Ampersand.

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