News & Notes passes on the Rothko Bridge

Naming the new Willamette River bridge after Mark Rothko isn't such a good idea

The Rothko Bridge.

I must admit, it has a certain ring, though in my imagination it isn’t so much a “structure” as an atmospheric blur of color that couldn’t support a pedestrian or a bike, let alone a light rail train or a bus.

But Jeff Jahn is proposing to name the new cable-stayed bridge over the Willamette River the Rothko Bridge as a serious matter. His argument as I understand it is that the name would both recognize a great artist (who lived in the city from ages 10 to 18 and then for short periods a little later) and also all the other great artists who have moved to the city, and might also help us overcome a deep-seated psychological issue: “Portland has a hard time acknowledging greatness.”

Wow: All that from naming a bridge! I propose that we rename ALL our bridges to get similar benefits out of them.

Mark Rothko, "Untitled", 1957/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

Mark Rothko, “Untitled”, 1957/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

Artist and spoilsport Paul Sutinen does a tidy job of demolishing Jahn’s argument, though. He points out that Portland and Rothko were mutually indifferent to each other while Rothko was alive, and that attempting to “claim” Rothko now is several decades late.

“Jahn says that “Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people.” I don’t quite understand what Jahn means by acknowledging in this regard. For me this whole thing still smacks of “grabbing at the coattails of someone who became a great artist.” Our ancestors (he left 92 years ago) had damn little to do with the success of Mark Rothko. This bridge naming thing remains something like getting one’s picture taken with a celebrity so you can claim a connection.”

Given our predilection for offering standing ovations at the end of performances of various sorts, I don’t understand the acknowledging highly ambitious people (or greatness) part, either. Sometimes I think we’ll give you a standing ovation if you just manage to stay upright the whole time.

medium_medium_wave bridge

Now, I happen to think this bridge is not good enough to name after Rothko in the first place. It’s an off-the-shelf bridge with near copies around the world. In some circumstances, these bridges are perfect—especially in hilly terrain, where their peaks and angles fit right in, or on rivers with very aggressive modernist buildings on either bank. This particular site and this particular use suggest a more modest-looking bridge, like the one proposed by original bridge designer Miguel Rosales, much to the chagrin of TriMet. Rosales and his “wave bridge” were dismissed and an architect hired who would give the agency what it wanted from the beginning, a cable-stayed bridge, one advantage of which is lower cost variability.

I wrote about all of this several times back in 2009 while I was at The Oregonian (here’s my final take), and now the design decision is all water under the…oh, please! I’ve been waiting to see what it would look like once it was built, since during the design phase, TriMet never built a scale model of the bridge and its landing points on either side of the Willamette. Now that we’re starting to see the magnitude of those towers and the splay of the cable, I’m afraid I just might have been right about that bridge, although The Oregonian keeps trying to make it “iconic.” It’s not, of course. It says absolutely nothing about Portland (as Rosales best design would have) and everything about cost certainty. In its own way, it’s about as bad as the Marquam Bridge.

So, I wouldn’t name it after Rothko, especially if Rothko was deeply associated with Portland. But our relationship with him has been difficult when it hasn’t been non-existent (another topic I’ve written about, when the Portland Art Museum put together a retrospective of his work). If I were naming something after Rothko, maybe it would be a sculpture garden, a plaza outside the art school at PSU, something like that.

What I DO appreciate about Jahn’s proposal? Naming something after an artist. Let’s say the new bridge wasn’t such a Godzilla on the Willamette (the title of my last post on the matter in 2009). Who among the city’s artists should we consider naming it after? In general, my rule would be: An artist who spent a significant portion of a significant career in the state. If we were determined to go with a visual artist, I would choose CS Price, probably, though my personal favorite would be the Carl and Hilda Morris Bridge. And frankly, a dozen more artists from their time would make me happy—Mike Russo and Sally Haley, Louis Bunce, the Runquist Brothers, Amanda Snyder, Jack McCarty, Charles Heaney, etc. But maybe we should go literary and honor poet William Stafford (whose centenary is coming up) and his wife Dorothy, who just passed away? Or Ursula K. Le Guin, which would mean she could come to the bridge dedication and say something smart and funny!

For this particular bridge at his particular time, I’m stumped. I’m attracted to Cheapside Bridge, though there’s no marketplace on either bank. The opera center and OMSI are nearby on the east bank, so maybe that suggests something? The Aria Bridge? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll know it when I hear it.

14 Responses.

  1. I propose naming it The Springfield Bridge. Here’s why:

    * A nod to Matt Groening, an artist who filled his art to the brim with nods to Portland
    * Named after a boring, nothing-special town (characteristics the bridge already possesses)
    * From a show that is enduring—a sure bet (characteristics the bridge should aspire to obtain)

    And, hell, at least Groening still visits.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I could get behind the Springfield Bridge, no problem. Also: Bridge of the Dogs, because lots of our canine friends will be crossing it, too!

  2. Jeff jahn says:

    It is odd how much effort some long time Portlanders put into denying that Rothko had any relationship with Portland. He took his first art classes here, had his first solo show at PAM, made his lifelong friend Louis Kaufman at Lincoln High School (who proved crucial in launching his panting career), spent his first honeymoon here, and experienced the most tragic event of his life (the death of his father) here. Rothko’s work is steeped in tragedy.

    The only thing “demolished” was the lack of historical understanding that Paul had developed from an out of date book.

    Rothko grew up in a home near the West end of this new bridge and spent long hours under Portland’s existing bridges. He even painted the Ross Island Bridge shortly after it was completed. Barry you should admit that just like a lot of long time Portland residents have a deep seated aversion to Rothko. (You also seem to be unaware of the major Portland era Rothko scholarship that is being done by top level institutions outside of Portland as of late. Soon all you ask for will be put in a nice tidy package). There are a lot of Rothko paintings of Portland, and structures like bridges figure prominently.

    There is a generational gap here.

    The younger generation, those of us who have flocked to Portland see Rothko’s struggles with the city and recognize how much more difficult he had it. He was serious and not taking his legacy and connection to this city is a slight. The Rothko retrospective at PAM last year was needed… even though you couldn’t see or feel it somehow. It also made Paul’s requirement supercilious.

    I agree it is a good idea to name this after an artist but it should be the strongest artist the city has ever produced. Denial of this by the old school crowd is a problem the city would do well to outgrow because a bridge is by far the best thing Portland can offer.

    BTW it is a good bridge and forward thinking (those other designs you pointed out were nostalgic rather than the most up to date). The architect Donald Macdonald is a top level bridge designer and just completed The new Bay Bridge in San Francisco. It is the first bridge like this for pedestrians, transit and cycles.

    Overall, nobody is grasping to use his name… many younger, newer to Portlanders see him as a pole star who does not get acknowledged in Portland. PAM has already done retrospective and usually has a Rothko or two on display at all times. They have done their part for now. Naming the bridge after our most famous resident is getting a lot of attention because it is such a strong proposal. Just forwarding the idea reveals the biased indifference against Portland’s most famous son.

    Others like myself have a more up to date bias, we find Rothko’s Portland years compelling… even inspiring. He was a pretty interesting guy, an outsider… but we celebrate those sorts in Portland now.

  3. Jeff jahn says:

    Also, I love your logic… so many Simpsons characters are already named after Portland streets. The Springfield idea seems redundant and whimsical when we could do something more serious.

    Really, dogs over Rothko? Man what did Rothko ever do to you? The thing with great artists… they dont play fetch and you cant take them for a walk… like a bridge they take YOU for a walk.

  4. Barry Johnson says:

    Don’t know WHERE to begin with that. No, I like Rothko just fine, and I think he was an important artist. I’ve lived here since 1979, and I’ve never heard ANYONE say they didn’t like Rothko or that they were snubbing him for any reason whatsoever. “Biased indifference”? That’s just crazy.

    As HL Davis wrote in 1953: “It was Oregon, all right: the place where stories begin that end somewhere else. It has no history of its own, only the endings of stories from other places; it has no complete lives only beginnings. There are worse things.” That was Rothko. I don’t think he really “struggled” with Portland; he put us in his rearview mirror.

    I ventured some of your “generational” interpretation in an essay I wrote for ArtsWatch:

    “But how did the city’s Art Fathers and Mothers let him slip away? I’m thinking specifically of Thomas Colt, who led the museum in the late 1940s and ‘50s and was a booster of “advanced” painting, not that I blame him alone. Did no one here keep an eye on Rothko as he began to emerge in New York’s art scene in the 1940s before going super-nova with his glowing rectangles of color? Did no one collect him? Invite him back to lecture? Make any attempt whatsoever to introduce him into the city’s cultural “discourse”? For all I know, efforts were made and rejected, but somehow I doubt it.

    Was Rothko too far to the Left politically? Too Jewish? Too experimental as an artist? Too associated with New York? All of the above? Honestly, I don’t know. By the time I got here, at the beginning of the New Oregon, no one talked about him. By that time, though, I think it was because we didn’t think we were “worthy” of him somehow.

    During the past decade or so, though, maybe we’ve become more self-confident. Lives are being lived here that will end with their important work concluded here, in H.L. Davis’s formulation.”

    I personally don’t think we can make up for our neglect of Rothko by naming a bridge after him. (Bridge of the Dogs/Bridge of the Gods—joke). I don’t think you’re right about the quality of the bridge. I’d be embarrassed to stick the name Rothko on it. You REALLY speak for a generation of artists? Somehow, I doubt it…

    • Jeff jahn says:

      One never puts where they had their crucial and formative experiences “behind them.” It just doesn’t work that way.

      You didn’t get why the Rothko retrospective was so crucial last year and yes it is a generational thing. You put a lot of effort into denying Rothko when it is a very basic one. He grew up here, met an influential best friend in High School that facilitated his connections on the East Coast, took his first art classes at the museum school (now PNCA) and yes STRUGGLED when his father died here (arguably the defining moment of his youth). He then came back to have his first solo show. Later, for his first solo show in New York he displayed 3 paintings he had done during that visit, one was titled simply, “Portland.” He came back several times after that but I’m not glossing over the complicated pain his family here and the was Portland used to be caused him.

      Most other cities do not deny their most famous son, but there is a contingent of old schoolers here (you are a card carrying member… not a slight, I’d like that card too, someday) that expends a great deal denying the obvious.

      Rothko is an important part of Portland’s history (including the present) and Portland is an important part of Rothko’s history. Nothing overstated, just a simple fact… there is a history and it should be acknowledged.

      I have no idea if this will be successful, it really doesn’t matter to Rothko’s reputation but it does say a lot about Portland that the editor of Oregon Arts Watch, and formerly the Oregonian can’t see the basic historical connections.

      All in all, any rousing discussion of a great artist and how they develop in response to a city is a useful exercise. The fact that it trips a few knee jerk provincial triggers is also worth noting. BTW this image of Rothko’s neighborhood and its relationship to the new bridge makes a very strong case in itself: http://www.portlandart.net/archives/Rothko_neighborhood_bridge_1.jpg

      • Barry Johnson says:

        That neighborhood is kinda the point… it was destroyed by the City of Portland in the redevelopment fervor of the early ’60s. Rothko’s Portland is gone.

        I see the historical connections. I don’t deny they existed. But Rothko has much deeper connections with other places, the village he came from in what is now Latvia and then New York. It’s astonishing to ME that the editor of PORT doesn’t get that. Portland, Oregon, is the place where we’d honor YOU with a bridge, not the place you went to high school and took your earliest art classes, because you did your most important work HERE, you were part of our lives here as an adult.

        If I were pushing to name that bridge after Rothko, I’d put it this way: The city neglected him for a long time, he left, then we realized what we’d missed, and now we want to make amends, not by “reclaiming” him, because you can’t reclaim people that way, but as a sort of apology.

        But, it’s interesting that no one living today actually “neglected” him when it mattered to Rothko himself. No one actually lived the narrative I described, and we aren’t bound by the errors of humans making decisions before the Great Depression. We don’t need to apologize to Rothko ourselves, because we didn’t do anything wrong, and he’s not around to accept or reject the apology in any case. So that’s not a convincing argument, but at least it makes some kind of sense.

        As I said in the story, there are dozens of artists in town I’d more likely name a bridge after because they truly struggled to make careers here. That doesn’t take away from Rothko (I couldn’t if I tried), it’s just more pertinent for generations past, present and future, in my opinion of course.

        And I think it was a fine thing to float the idea of the Rothko Bridge. I have no problem with that. I’d just go another way, for the reasons given. Given my record with TriMet, I’d say you have a LOT better chance getting the Rothko Bridge with me on the OTHER side.

  5. Jeff jahn says:

    Overall there is no ideal way to honor Rothko besides a museum or suite of rooms devoted to his work and history. Because of the art market that scenario doesn’t seem very plausible at the moment and will get less so as time goes by.

    I forward the bridge as a good idea, because it is tied directly with a deep understanding of his interests and times here. It is a test for Portland, not Rothko and I like how artists test the cities they reside in… and sometimes leave.

  6. Evan says:

    Maybe I’m coming at this from a different direction, as a planner and not as someone embedded in the arts in Portland, but you seem to be insinuating that agency’s decision to pursue a greater degree of cost-certainty is somehow a negative quality of this bridge? While white, cable stayed bridges are found around the world, so too were the other bridge types built in this city upon their construction. Bridges are not art objects – they are pieces of infrastructure whose primary purpose is to transport people and goods.

    Not to get politically incorrect about it, but if this was built 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation – it would be the Goldschmidt Bridge. Of course that is now impossible, as it should be. So why not Rothko?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks for the comment, Evan. No, I was saying that the big advantage of the cable-stayed bridge is exactly its cost-certainty. That’s a good thing. The estimates for Rosales’s innovative wave design started around the cost of the cable-stayed bridge but ended 20 or 25 percent higher, as I recall, because it WAS innovative. More study might have clarified the estimates, but TriMet didn’t want to go that route.

      Why not Rothko? In the context of this comment, because Rothko would have been horrified that the more inventive design was chosen because of mere money!

  7. Jeff jahn says:

    Barry, at no time did I diminish the role of Latvia or New York in Rothko’s life. The point is simply to acknowledge something important about Portland and Rothko. No city owns an artist… if they are lucky they get to share them for a short time and if they are even luckier they create some work within city limits.

    The neighborhood argument is actually very strong. Ironically Portland bulldozed and redeveloped much of the part of town where Rothko and a lot of immigrant Jews lived. We cant bring the neighborhood back but we can acknowledge it’s most famous son. In fact that person was the most accomplished person to come from Portland (to date).

    I see the bridge proposal as an interesting historical circumscription of what happened to Rothko’s life and neighborhood. Acknowledging Portland in no way diminishes Latvia or New York and it is a weak rhetorical attempt. Repeatedly I have stated that Rothko as an ambitious person of that time had to move to New York, today things have changed listen to last Year’s Think Out Loud program on OPB: http://www.opb.org/radio/programs/thinkoutloud/segment/rothko-portland/

    It is equally true that the Portland years mattered, setting the stage.

    The point that is being lost here is that he was an intellectual, an immigrant Jew and artist who is forever linked to Portland. Nobody expects to have a bridge named after them and it is never an ideal process but putting the idea forth does shine alight on the way various groups don’t get the credit due.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I totally agree that it’s fine to propose the Rothko Bridge. Or the CS Price Bridge. Or the Carl and Hilda Morris Bridge. Or the William Stafford Bridge. Or the John Yeon Bridge, the Belluschi Bridge, the Le Guin Bridge, the Dorothea Lensch Bridge. We don’t give enough attention to any of them, and they are worthy of the attention. No problem.

      Right. No city owns an artist. But some artists do their major work in one city and become identified with it one way or another. The point Paul Sutinen and I are making is simply that Rothko is New York’s. We wish it were different, that this had been more hospitable ground for him, that we had kept the connection with him after he left, celebrated his triumphs during his career with him, and mourned his death, that this was truly “Rothko Country” in the way that it’s “Stafford Country” or “Hilda Morris Country.”

      It’s not “rhetorical” to point out that Rothko’s time in Latvia and New York were very likely more important to him personally and as an artist than his time in Portland. It’s a simple analysis based on what we know about him, human psychology and art. And its bearing on the question has to do with the “claim” that naming a bridge after him implies. Diebenkorn was born here (he left when he was 2) and was a very fine artist himself, but I wouldn’t name a bridge after him, either.

      But clearly, this is a subjective matter. Would I be crushed if that bridge was named after Rothko? Of course not. It WOULD take some explaining to visitors. “Why did you name the bridge after Rothko?” “Oh because he lived here while he was a teenager.” “Uh, OK.”

  8. Jeff jahn says:

    The rhetorical part was you implying I down play Latvia or New York. Once again I restate that all three are crucial. He wasn’t JUST a teenager here. He came back to have his first solo show here after he had permanently moved to New York. His first New York solo show included a work titled simply “Portland.”

    The thing is there is somehow an unpardonable offense in “leaving Portland” that blacklists him as a Portlander. Its provincial and part of the reason I like the idea is it circumscribes the attitude that leaving makes him unattached to this place. It is far more complicated and connected than say Diebenkorn.

    When Rothko was here he was an outsider… and in many ways it shaped him. Today the new Portland celebrates outsiders. Or at least it pays lip service to the idea.

    The amount of effort that goes into denying Rothko does strike me as incredibly odd when the basic facts indicate that Portland was crucial. Lets not forget Louis Kaufman’s role… best friends at Lincoln High, then connected him to Avery and New York’s elite. Latvia, Portland, New York and Houston (with the Menil Chapel) are the only places that can claim a special relationship. Each is distinct and because the Portland part involved a lot of bridges it is a pretty fair proposal.

    No other visual artist of note has the kind of connection to Portland’s bridges like Rothko has.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      That’s another straw dog: I don’t know ANYONE who thinks that Rothko should have stayed in Portland. Not a soul. Or blames him for the “breach” with Portland.

      Lots of excellent Portland artists have considered the bridges, including Henk Pander (he had a jet flying under one of his PDX bridges) and George Johanson. If you are putting Portland on par with Latvia and New York in Rothko’s life, I’m afraid you’re overstating our importance to him. As an immigrant, he was going to be an outsider almost anyplace he went, when he arrived, and because of who he was, he was going to make connections, here or somewhere else.

      But I’m afraid we’re repeating ourselves…

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