When the Rijksmuseum reopened its doors in April to one of Europe’s greatest collections of art, Portland painter Henk Pander was on the scene. In itself, that’s not terribly remarkable. The Rijksmuseum had been all but shut down for 10 years for stem-to-stern renovations, and thousands of art tourists from around the world crowded into Amsterdam to celebrate its grand reopening.
But unlike the vast majority of visitors, Pander was an invited guest – and for very good reason.
The Rijksmuseum has collected a lot of his work, from journals and sketchbooks to giant watercolors. The Amsterdam museum lists 36 larger works by Pander in its collections, dating back to the 1960s, before he left his native Netherlands (he was born in 1937 in the old city of Haarlem, near Amsterdam) for the United States. And that doesn’t count the 17 or so sketchbooks, which contain hundreds more images.
One of those larger works – “New World,” a 40 x 60 inch watercolor of a field of abandoned fighter airplanes, from 1997 – was named one of the “Top 100” works on paper in the museum’s massive collection. Considering that the Rijksmuseum’s holdings in works on paper are among the world’s biggest and most significant, running deep in the likes of Rembrandt, Hals, Goltzius, Durer, Van Dyck, Steen, Rubens, and other masters of the line from before the Dutch Golden Age to modern times, it’s a hugely significant honor.
The Rijksmuseum’s reopening was one of the biggest art-world events of 2013 (during its long renovation the museum had kept a few rooms open to display some of its greatest hits, including Rembrandt’s iconic “The Night Watch”), and Pander made the most of it, spending a month back in his home country. As he does wherever he goes, he took a journal with him and kept daily notes on what he saw and heard. He’s shared excerpts from his Amsterdam journal with ArtsWatch, which are printed below.
They reveal the restless spirit of this now 75-year-old artist, whose work has come to be distinguished by a piercing sense of betweenness – born and trained Dutch, relocated to the U.S. as a young man, no longer feeling quite at home in either place. Yet in his almost half-century in Portland he’s also been a fully engaged citizen-artist (long before he became an official U.S. citizen in 2004), and he remains remarkably energetic, both physically and artistically. In his early days here in the 1960s and ’70s he dove briskly into Portland’s civic life, creating rock-show and antiwar posters and working as a highly creative set designer, especially for experimental dance companies and the old Storefront Theatre. The city-run Visual Chronicle of Portland, a kind of artists-as-reporters collection begun in 1984, was Pander’s baby. He’s painted provocative portraits of prominent Oregonians, including a remarkable one of former Gov. Tom McCall in three-piece suit, hand stretched out, standing on a beach with a helicopter hovering in the distance. In person Pander tends to be reflective and thoughtful, and he has a pithy, sometimes juicy sense of humor.
But he’s also had a tougher and more historically informed view of life than a lot of native-born Americans, and that may be partly why, even as an expatriate, he’s so highly regarded in his native country. As a boy he survived the hunger and deprivation of the Nazi occupation of Haarlem, and his work in America has often concentrated on dislocated events: the lives of emergency workers, the fiery shipwreck disaster of the New Carissa, the extreme physical and emotional crisis in New York after the September 11 attacks of 2001, the evidences of decay and abandonment in the deserts of the West. He’s a sought-after portraitist, and even, in the Dutch tradition, sometimes paints still lifes. But Pander’s abiding interest in the disjunctures of history and crises in the social compact have raised his profile among curators and critics even as they’ve limited his commercial potential. One of his hopes in visiting curators at the Rijksmuseum was that the museum would accept a stunning and intimate series of large watercolors depicting the last months of his wife Delores’s life before she died in 2010. Pander wants the series kept together, out of respect, and he wants it out of Oregon, also out of respect.
Historically the Panders are a seafaring family, but for several generations they’ve also produced artists trained in the great Dutch tradition. Pander is the oldest of 10 children of the illustrator and painter Jaap Pander, known in particular for his Bible illustrations. Henk’s cousin Pieter Pander, who painted the portrait of Henk shown here, is a leading contemporary Dutch realist whose art shows a strong connection to Henk’s even though they’ve spent most of their working lives apart. And Henk’s sons Jacob and Arnold are well-known graphic novelists and filmmakers.
Pander moved to Portland in 1965, and Pacific Northwest visitors to the Rijksmuseum would recognize some familiar scenes in his large works there, from the Steens Mountains and Hanford Nuclear Reservation to a jail yard in La Grande to a Pontiac in Shaniko and an abandoned bus in the unincorporated eastern Oregon crossroads of Kimberly. The outsider, the seldom seen, the often seen but rarely noticed, the realities that seem so strange they could almost be science fiction: these are the in-between places where Pander’s mind and hand draw creative sustenance.
His journal excerpts reflect the everyday realities of life as an artist: the odd and sometimes dryly comic observations, the efforts to connect, the highs of recognition and lows of anonymity, the sharp eye for detail, the simple need to make a living. And they connect the grand historical sweep of the Dutch art tradition and a magnificent museum to his own determination to work within that tradition and yet be constantly aware of his existence as a contemporary artist and man in a rapidly evolving world.
– Bob Hicks
9 APRIL 2013, AMSTERDAM
I had a long walk through the city again. Still have the opening ahead of me. I walked around the perimeter of the museum and photographed it with the wide angle from all sides. I walked to the Rembrandtplein and photographed the three-dimensional portrayal of “The Night Watch.” I have seen it before. It is extremely well done, I have no idea by whom. [Editor’s note: Russian sculptors Mikhail Dronov and Alexander Taratynov conceived of the 3D project and cast it in 22 bronze pieces. It was installed in 2006, the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth.] I am going to need a bicycle to move about; I am starting to feel my feet.
10 APRIL 2013, AMSTERDAM
Late afternoon, yesterday, with sore feet and wearing presentable clothes, I walked to the museum. The front entrance was still closed with fences and barriers. … In the light drizzle I walked around the huge brick ornamented building along its black, hand-wrought iron fence and its classical gardens beyond still being laid out with fresh turf.
On the back of the building was what looked like an entrance. Some of the glass in the huge rotating door was shattered: a sour note in the pristine. A guard guided me to the proper entrance – I with a great many others, all dressed to the hilt, affluent looking. The central room, where the coat place was, is the actual old traffic tunnel under the center of the building with its huge brick arched roof. There were bright colored lights and in the distance was a stage where a band would play later. The walls of the tunnel were glassed and I looked into two huge atriums seen below. I walked through and looked at a crowd below. … I descended into the cocktail party, took a glass of red wine and started looking for anybody I knew. There were no name tags, which made the crowd anonymous to me, though a lot of people seemed to know one another. The crowd was young in my old eyes, extremely well dressed, and I noticed many people, men and women, were very tall, impressive-looking to me, being a short little guy. …
I was recognized by Marijn Schapelhouman, a curator in the department of prints. I have met him before several times. A slight friendly man who was there with his wife. Also I was introduced to Jacqueline de Raad, a young woman, curator of old drawings, and knowledgeable art historian – “You are famous here,” they told me. It seemed odd to hear in a gathering where I did not know anybody. Apparently it is my large 40” x 60” watercolors which impressed them. “We had to buy a special flat file just for them,” I was told. I then recognized Emily Eeerdmans, a smart, eccentric artist I went to school with at the academy. “You are here completely from America?” she said, surprised. …
I took more pictures and promptly got lost. I had some kind of map; it was too confusing (conceptual) for my dense brain. I found my way back to the atriums and asked the way to the central area, the Honor Gallery, where “The Night Watch” hangs flanked by van der Helst and Hals.
What the architects have done (is) clean out the museum, take down all walls and additions put in since it was built in the 19th century by [original architect Pierre] Cuypers, scrape out the walls, and either restore or repaint all delicate ornamentation – in the large hall in front of the Honor Gallery all former books and card stands, benches, and built-ins have been taken out and the original painted wall-coverings, which had been rolled up and kept, were re-applied to the walls again. Now one can clearly admire the elaborate mosaics in the vast floor.
16 APRIL 2013, AMSTERDAM
Yesterday I bicycled back to the Rijksmuseum. I took the Canon with the wide angle. I joined the large crowd visiting the place. I took a great many photos of the interior spaces and of individual paintings. I started with the Middle Ages. The rooms were low and the ceilings arched, the walls painted a deep grey. As I have suspected the lighting in the museum is done with LED lighting systems, and the colours in each one are exquisite. They are exhibited quite low and one can get very close to them. … The lighting, the combination of the works, many of them like old friends, was absolutely beautiful. I was nearly moved to tears. … I revisited many rooms I had been at the opening night last week and rephotographed a lot of the work.
I haven’t heard much from Portland while here … I fear I haven’t sold anything at the gallery so the struggle continues. There is another culture shock coming. A man my age slowly passed the restaurant window, pushing a rollator, gray, bent over. He gave me a slight nod. Monique read an article about the brain. It said people who constantly live under mild stress have better memories because their brains are forced to be more active and stimulated, so maybe there is hope – at least, I have those commissions to come back to. Another man, maybe a bit younger than me, shuffled by, a little plastic bag in his left hand. Dressed in a cheap grey quilted jacket, and an unshaven grey face. There are no trees on this city street, with all grey asphalt and cluttered shop fronts. Five-story brick buildings with white painted woodwork give the look of something colorless. People walking by wearing black or grey clothes make it look a bit cheerless and I think of the colorful gardens and houses of Portland.
AMSTERDAM 17 APRIL 2013
Tomorrow is my meeting with [Head of the Print Room] Jane Turner … I will offer her the Delores death watercolors so they get away from Oregon and preserve her dignity. It is also a very moving body of work, terribly sad. I keep thinking about her. I get very emotional and upset. I miss her so. I am continually haunted by these last weeks with her before her death. And then administering medication to my dying Delores, her having to deal with all the indignities. Her silence. The stroke and her silence were very difficult to deal with. It makes me silent as well. … My fear of being alone without her terrified me. Yet here I am nearly three years later, alone in Amsterdam … It is a long month and I am not sure how often I will be back here. …
I walked along the Waterlooplein, the remnant of the old flea market where, while at the academy, I bought many nice things, furniture, room screens, mirrors, glassware, frames, all lost in the entropy of time. I walked to the Nieuwmarkt and looked up at Joyce and [actor] Cor van Rijn’s window. They still live there, elderly now, but I saw no one. I lived close to the Nieuwmarkt in my youth just after I left home on my dad’s demand.
I thought of my father, the war, the academy days, my old friends, most of them dead or lost in time. I sat at T’is Fris for a bit and had a sandwich. I thought of [my sons, the artists] Jacob and Arnold, who loved to come there in the early nineties, and where Delores and I had sat. Walking among the stalls at the Waterlooplein, I had visions of Delores and I being there in 1993.
AMSTERDAM 18 APRIL 2013
This morning had my meeting with Jane Turner, the new head of the print room at the Rijksmuseum. I bicycled to a villa-office building on the Hobbemastraat 20 behind the museum. It was a clean windy day and there was a cheeriness about the city. … She’s a slight, friendly, middle-aged woman. She wore a linen jacket, and a scarf swept over her shoulder. We left the office building and she led me through an oak carved door into the museum where she took me into a large room with desks, books, antique furniture. … We had tea. I immediately launched into my reasons to see her. She asked me what they had, what [former curator of prints and head of the museum’s print department] Ger Luijten collected. I told her also Ger was intending to come back [to Portland] and look at my large drawing collection, which is not represented. I addressed the sketchbooks and the journals. Jane took notes. I pulled the discs and gave them to her as well as Roger Hull’s book [“Henk Pander: Memory and Modern Life,” Hallie Ford Museum of Art/University of Washington Press, 2011]. I then told her about the Delores watercolors and that as a tribute to Delores, for safekeeping, and to get them out of Oregon, I hoped to donate them as a collection to the Rijksmuseum. She seemed open to that and told me a number of close family members of hers had died in the last period of time and she was moved by the work and the spirit behind it. She understood why I wanted to give them to the Rijksmuseum as a permanent tribute. She was happy with the CDs and said she would look through the discs with Jacqueline de Raad, a young curator I had met at the opening. She also showed me photocopies of the “100 Top” of the print room, including mine, which, briefly, as I glanced at them, stood out. I told her Marijn had a very good idea what they hold of mine and where it is. In the future maybe a publication of the “100 Top” or a show. I committed to sign a release of the work they have so they may reproduce the work and get it on the Website. “You may do whatever you like to do with it,” I said. If any work of mine gets shown or reproduced she would certainly let me know. Apparently the focus of the growing collection will be Dutch and not be international. It is a function the Rijks will take over, since the Stedelijk had not been doing it.
After the business end of the meeting she led me through long white underground corridors to the library, which I had photographed from above earlier. I met Merijn there. I looked up at thousands of books – 2 km length. He said there was another 4 km downstairs. So the collection consists of 4 miles length of books, all computer filed and randomly stored by size instead of subject. Without a computer you can’t find them. I stood on the mosaic floors while the many levels of books towered over me. It still has a Victorian feel with its cast iron column rising to an arched skylight. Parallel to the library was another long room filled with large tables in a row for storing drawings and prints. … He led me into the collection room where drawings and prints are kept in boxes. On a low shelf was a small pile of sketchbooks. “Pander,” said two of them in gold letters. They were the two books [Pendleton book artist] Roberta Lavadour had made for me some years ago. I took a picture of them, and Jane took one of me reaching for them. It came out blurry.
AMSTERDAM 19 APRIL 2013
I feel like I am killing time. I don’t know anybody here anymore … The nasty review (I heard about but never read) and lack of sales has given me a feeling of defeat. [The review, by Richard Speer of Willamette Week, was of Pander’s February exhibit at Laura Russo Gallery] … I cannot continually keep making watercolors and paintings and drawings nobody wants, without some kind of optimism. It is very expensive to make all this work. I cannot afford it without financial support. …
Jane Turner told me an anecdote about Ger. He had to be interviewed about his position at Fondation Custodia in Paris. He was asked how he judged his performances at Booymans [a museum in Rotterdam] on a scale of 1 to 10. “A ten,” he replied. How did you judge your performance at the Rijksmuseum? “A ten,” he responded. But Mr. Luijten, they asked, how can you ever improve on that in your position in Paris? “I am a firm believer in the number eleven,” he replied.