Henk Pander, the Dutch-born visual artist who came to Portland at age 27 in 1965 and became one of the Pacific Northwest’s most prominent artists, died on Friday, April 7, 2023. He was 85, and had been diagnosed in January of this year with inoperable brain cancer.
“Henk died this morning — peacefully in his sleep, a blessing of course,” said his friend Judy Margles, executive director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, which has featured his work in several exhibitions. “I saw him last on Sunday and could see a huge change from the week before. But even then he was more at peace than he had been and in his inimitable way, wanting to talk about what it would be like to die.”
In his almost six decades in Oregon Pander produced a prodigious amount of challenging, often raw and provocative but also beautiful work that was rooted in his deep classical training in the Netherlands, his childhood experiences of living under Nazi occupation during World War II, and his reactions to being an immigrant in the United States, where he felt himself at once a keen cultural observer and a restless outsider.
Pander was born Nov. 21, 1937, in the Dutch city of Haarlem, the oldest of ten children of Hendrica Smedes Pander and Jacob Pander, known professionally as Jaap Pander, a graphic artist, painter, and Bible illustrator who set an artistic example for the entire family.
Henk — Hendrik Pieter Pander — followed that example enthusiastically. He drew, with great skill, from a very young age, and as a student and young man was a rising star in the Dutch art world, training for a full five years at the prestigious Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and winning several commissions and prizes, including, in 1961, the Prix de Rome Silver Medal.
He’s had several exhibitions in Dutch museums, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, one of the world’s great museums, has a large number of his works in its permanent collections. When the museum fully reopened in 2013 after ten years of renovations during which most of its galleries were shut down, Pander was an invited guest to the grand reopening celebration: His 1997 watercolor New World, a 40- by 60-inch depiction of a field of abandoned fighter airplanes, had been named one of the “Top 100” works on paper in the museum’s massive collection. As ArtsWatch noted at the time, “Considering that the Rijskmuseum’s holdings in works on paper are among the world’s biggest and most significant, running deep in the likes of Rembrandt, Hals, Goltzius, Dürer, 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.”
He continued to work in his Portland studio (and sometimes in the wide Oregon outdoors, doing plein air drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings) almost to the end of his life. His final exhibition, titled The Ordeal and displayed this January in the Alexander Gallery at Clackamas Community College, seemed rooted in both the tragedies of today and the memories of his childhood during the war. “There are monsters in Henk Pander’s new exhibition of paintings and drawings,” I wrote in reviewing the show, “and spirits and skeletons and the detritus of terrible deeds. … If his monsters show up literally in his work … it’s little wonder. He was a child throughout World War II, trapped in Nazi-occupied Haarlem, near Amsterdam, living on the edges of fear, famine, and the ever-lurking threat of death. One does not trip lightly out of such formative circumstances.”
Rather, in Henk’s case, he returned to those circumstances, playing them over and over in his mind, keeping his memories alive in a constant search for their meaning, and for how they link with other disasters, tendencies, and atrocities in history and the contemporary world. I sometimes had the sense when looking at Pander’s art that he was a watcher and reporter, compelled to tell the bitterest of truths, because they had to be told, and yet also somehow finding beauty in the telling, like the messengers in The Book of Job (and in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick): “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
A lot of people find themselves attracted to Pander’s landscapes of Oregon’s wild places, paintings that fit well into a Northwest scheme of themes. Many respond to his colorfully voluptuous still lifes, or his startlingly vivid portraits, or his frankly physical nudes, or his contemporary social satires. Much of his most compelling work deals directly with his memories of those childhood war days, and with the trauma and tension that began there and became recurring themes in his work. Pander was three years old when Nazi troops occupied Haarlem, and eight by the time the war ended. Toward the end of that period, Pander and his family and much of the Netherlands suffered through the Hongerwinter, or Hunger Winter, of 1944-45, a time of famine when much of what was available was appropriated by the German occupiers and the city’s Dutch occupants were left to fend for themselves.
Over the years Pander created many drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings of those days, making a remembered history of a terrible time. Paintings such as 1988’s The Raid and 1995’s Raid Over Haarlem (The Father) portrayed, in the former, a spectral naked boy peering out an attic window at a sky pierced with Nazi searchlights seeking out Allied bombers; and in the latter, a frightened boy and man fleeing a window through which you can see swiftly and ominously approaching British warplanes, which the father fears might blow up a nearby German ammunition dump. The Floor, from 1992, shows a naked man scrunched flat between joists below the floorboards as Nazi soldiers search the bedroom above, where a man, probably dead, lies still and slack on the bed. The bayonet on one of the soldier’s rifles points directly to the man hiding below, and a little boy slumps forlornly beside the bed, looking downward.
The 2001 watercolor Haarlem Transport, included in a 2012 exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, shows a man intently pedaling a bicycle over cobblestones, a little girl in red perched on the handlebars and a boy clinging precariously to the man from behind. Around the corner lurks a military tank, “its long pencil gun barrel pointed like an obscene promise toward the brick that is the city’s fabric,” I wrote in a review. “Something’s amiss. Even the young and unformed know it. It turns them old before their time.”
And yet, his paintings of the past are also paintings of the present. “There is a concept I learned long ago in Amsterdam,” he wrote about his 2003 painting Shadows, created from sketches he made at Ground Zero shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center’s twin towers: “The only thing one can really do is paint a picture of your time.”
Pander found himself, and his time, transported to Portland by happenstance. In Amsterdam he met Marcia Lynch, a fellow artist, who was from Oregon, and they married. In 1965, he and Marcia and their infant son Jacob moved to Portland. Later Jacob was joined by Arnold (who was also born in the Netherlands, during a sojourn back in Pander’s home country), and both boys became artists, too: In their projects together they’re known as The Pander Brothers. The marriage didn’t last, but Henk stayed in Oregon, in large part to be close to his sons, and made a life.
After bouncing from place to place in Portland, including a large studio near the Burnside Bridge on the downtown side of the Willamette River, he lived for years, until his death, in a modest house in Southeast Portland, a little south of the Hawthorne district. Its main-floor walls are heavy with paintings, mostly his own, exuding decades of artistic output, plus plants and an easel and lots of books and the odd artist’s-eye decoration here and there: a stuffed pheasant perched high on one wall; a bleached cow skull with a fine set of curved horns above the archway between the living and dining rooms. The house’s high-ceilinged upstairs is devoted to Pander’s expansive studio, complete with a large stage on which he could place props ranging from armchairs and chaises and rugs to elaborately assembled animal skeletons, sometimes hung on wires from the ceiling, that he could arrange into theatrical tableaux. Models often posed for portraits among the props. He liked to work on large-scale stretched linen, usually standing as he drew or painted, and a pulley system through a long slot in the floor allowed him to ease finished pieces to a smaller but still good-sized auxiliary studio on a lower level, from which they could be moved out for delivery to galleries or museums or private collectors.
Henk read a lot, and wrote a lot: The letters he wrote over a matter of years to his artist friend Willem den Ouden in the Netherlands would make for an engrossing book about the betweenness and regrets and opportunities of the immigrant life. And he seemed always to be thinking thinking thinking, his brain constantly at work. He was short and trim with a curly scramble of wayward hair, and until his illness he was spry, capable of navigating through arid or brambly landscapes in search of a good place to draw or paint: On his trips to central and eastern Oregon he would sometimes bring back animal bones or skeletons he’d discovered to use as models in his studio. A kind of sadness often hung over him, a haunting of sorts; and yet he was also often genial and inquisitive and good-humored, a companionable man with a touch of almost courtly gentleness, and he had a wry, quick sense of humor. He would shake his head at some grotesquery of life, and break into a little twitching smile. His voice would rise into a tenor singsong as he declaimed about the absurdity of it all; or perhaps, eyes alight, recall with surprise and affection something sweet or comical that had occurred in unexpected circumstances.
Pander became, in spite of his reservations, an important player in Portland and Oregon, a counterbalance to the art scene’s regional inclinations even as he helped reshape them. His introduction to Oregon and the United States came at a heady and perilous time, just as the nation was beginning to undergo a massive cultural revolution prompted by growing public disillusion with the Vietnam War.
Culturally, he joined in. “When I moved here from Amsterdam in 1965 I found a city in considerable upheaval,” he wrote in the introduction to the book The Visual Chronicle of Portland, Volume One: Acquisitions 1985-1989, which documented the city collection whose idea he had brought with him from Amsterdam. “A giant trench had been dug through the heart of town to build the I-405 freeway. It was a vast mud ditch that reached into the distant north, and monstrous yellow earth-moving machines, larger than any I had ever seen, were shoving around huge piles of dirt. At the edges of this crevasse were small, wooden Victorian houses, remnants of a once-lively working-class neighborhood …
“Many people on the streets were dressed as if they had just walked out of a seventeenth-century painting — men with long wavy curls flowing down the backs of their velvet vests, and women nude under sequined, see-through twenties dresses, with wreathes of flowers in their hair like Rembrandt’s Flora. During that era, there were mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.”
Artistically, he struck out fiercely on his own path, largely ignoring trends and doing what he wanted to do – or, sometimes, what he felt he needed to do to make ends meet. He created posters for theater productions and political protests. Like other artists as varied as Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, David Hockney, William Kentridge, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Rauschenberg, Maurice Sendak, and even Edvard Munch, who designed the sets for Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, he collaborated frequently with performing artists, designing sets for the old Storefront Theatre (which grew out of the protest movement) and other theater companies, and for dance groups, including a remarkable collaboration with choreographer Dennis Spaight on a new version of Scheherazade for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Ric Young, Pander’s friend from Storefront, designed the costumes for Scheherazade; later, as Young was dying from AIDS, Pander created some large and remarkable and loving end-of-life portraits of him.
Over his long career he made murals, and created detailed pen-and-ink drawings, and watercolors, and oil paintings usually on linen rather than canvas, often on a larger scale than many collectors were used to. And he created art on a broad array of subjects, from floral still lifes to landscapes (often of the eastern Oregon deserts) to portraits to evocations of key historical figures such as the astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. He had a fascination for deep-thinking scientific innovators: As the writer Cather Stewart noted in a 2015 essay, in the late 1980s Pander produced a series of paintings made from watching construction of the Galileo Spacecraft at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, and followed up with paintings of the Goldstone telescope in the Mojave Desert, and, in 1989, the launching at Cape Canaveral of the Atlantis space shuttle that carried the Galileo toward Venus. “I am trying to assimilate this experience and turn it into paintings which convey, above all, my added sense of amazement at the cosmic structure of which we are part,” Pander wrote at the time.
His paintings can seem messy, but deliberately so, with blurred edges between objects, and lines that sometimes turn into scrawls, and almost sculptural surfaces that are built with bold and often overlapping swaths of paint. His choices of colors can feel like collisions, bright bumping into bright and creating little explosions in the mind. The style suggests sometimes the brutality and more often the elusive provisionality of life. Nothing is still. Everything’s in flux; everything strikes and moves on.
Even his own work, as grounded in classical traditions as it is, shifted and grew as he did the same. “My father was a watercolorist and I’ve been painting with watercolors my entire life,” he told ArtsWatch’s Lori Tobias in 2018. “And they’ve gotten better. They are more imaginary. Ever since I was super young, like 10 years old, I’ve been working outdoors. I do so here. The landscapes here are incredible. This country is so striking. When I came to Oregon, I thought, I can’t make watercolors the way I did before.”
Often his subject matter turned to cultural flashpoints, to those events and circumstances in which the well-oiled joints of civilized life went dry and rubbed raw. In many of these you could sense echoes of the traumas of his wartime childhood. He painted airplane graveyards in the deserts of the American Southwest, and the emergency actions of firefighters and paramedics in Los Angeles. He created evocations of the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the environmental disaster of the sinking of the freighter New Carissa off the southern Oregon coast.
He portrayed with fierce clarity the clashes between protesters and armed local and national policing forces during Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests, and the environmental and cultural catastrophes of Oregon’s 1948 Vanport Flood. “The flooding of Vanport reminded me of the flooding of the Netherlands and dikes breaking there,” he told Tobias. “Vanport has a poignancy to it. A lot of minorities were moving to find work there. They were working day and night to build ships and when the town flooded, the Black population moved to Portland … It became a very determining element for the Black community here in Portland. It is just an extremely rich subject.”
When the Coronavirus pandemic hit, he made a series of paintings of the 14th century siege of the Genoese port city of Caffa, in what is now Ukraine, where an early form of biological warfare helped spread the plague known as the Black Death that devastated Europe. “We should be grateful that this is not THE Plague,” he said, speaking of the relationship between his 2020 painting Plague Ships Fleeing the Burning City of Caffa Ca. 1347 and the Covid pandemic. The painting, he added, is “a vision, a fantasy. You’ve got the burning of Rome in it, for crying out loud.”
When terrorist planes toppled the Twin Towers in 2001 he flew to New York and planted himself amid the barren buildings and rubble of Ground Zero, drawing and painting the destruction that he saw. He was a witness, a watcher, a recorder, an interpreter. He was, in important ways, a cultural reporter with a paintbrush.
For as much fame and, sometimes, notoriety as he gained in the Pacific Northwest, and for as wide a web of friendships as he maintained over his nearly six decades in Oregon, Pander felt himself an outsider, misunderstood and undervalued by the local art establishment. His relationships with galleries were rocky. He often relied on commissioned portraiture to make sales – portraits that often seemed to say as much about the artist and how he saw as about the subject. Among his many portraits were official paintings of former governors Tom McCall and John Kitzhaber, and of former Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. His was, in a sense, an immigrant’s story stripped to the bone: uncertain in his new place, missing what he’d left behind. A cloud of disappointment hung over him, especially when he compared his high reputation in the Netherlands to what he believed to be a lack of appreciation in the United States. “I should not have come here,” he often said, and yet he also felt it was too late to move back permanently to the Netherlands.
“I think of Pander as both the most radical and most conservative major artist operating in the city, and neither has helped him,” Barry Johnson, Oregon ArtsWatch’s founder, wrote in a 2011 essay for Arts Dispatch. It was a point well taken, and a matter of more consternation in Oregon than it would have been in Amsterdam, where the overlapping of old and new seems far less contradictory. Pander was classically trained in the great Dutch tradition, and proud of it. Few could match his drawing skills: He was a master illustrator, as his father had been, and he routinely elevated that skill to art. In January of this year, a few days before he got his cancer diagnosis, he showed me a drawing he’d done when he was 11 years old; it was remarkable, and not just because it was good for a kid that age.
Pander consciously took cues from the past. But he was no nostalgist. He saw the past, especially its tragic parts, echoing into the present and the future, and he followed relentlessly where it was leading. Why toss tradition, he appeared to believe, when you can use it to hold a merciless mirror to the contemporary world? In much of his work, or so it seemed, only the grotesque could adequately convey what he wanted to reveal. If Rembrandt was in his hand, so were Bosch, and Goya, and Daumier, and Egon Schiele, and James Ensor, and Francis Bacon, and Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe: partners, all, in the belief that art and life were deeply and inevitably intertwined, and that neither should pretend that ugliness and brutality did not exist.
Fantasy and mythology often play a role in Pander’s work: skeletons and monsters, like the minotaur and the harpy in his exhibition The Ordeal in January of this year; or juxtapositions that both startle and make dramatic sense, such as in 1984’s oil painting Man Reading, in which an airplane is flying perilously low toward a Portland drawbridge as a man stands placidly and either unaware or unconcerned along the riverfront, reading from a newspaper when the important and immediate news, if he were but to raise his head, is right in front of his nose.
The mirror that Pander held up to his American audiences was often ruthless, and that, I think, is the sort of thing Johnson meant when he declared that Pander was also the most radical artist in the city. In the world of Pander’s art, tradition means nothing and everything. Radicalism means nothing and everything. They flow into one another. They are one and the same. Going through files while researching for this story, I came across a piece I’d written in 2011 for The Oregonian: “These, then, are pictures of Pander’s time, and of ours. They aren’t pretty, but they’re gorgeous, in that brutal and cold-eyed way that truth can have. They’re scintillating, really, and deeply pleasurable in spite of their jarring subjects and general unhappiness with the state of human nature. Few painters in the Pacific Northwest have been so public in their work, so compelled to paint scenes of human enormity and gravitas. … The case has been made that because his work is suffused structurally and technically in the styles and viewpoints of European masters … it’s not relevant to the shaping and advancement of contemporary art. It’s a silly argument, really, especially since the case against figurative art has pretty much collapsed in the past 40 years. The argument that Pander is a throwback sidesteps both the unusual skill of his hands and the ways he’s reshaped the visual vocabularies of the past to speak the language of current affairs.”
Trying to pin Pander down is like trying to trap light in a butterfly net. As much as he became identified in the 1960s and ’70s with Portland’s counterculture through his work with Storefront Theatre and his often scathing artistic responses to the Vietnam War and other cultural issues, and as much as he moved in the city’s bohemian/slash/hippie circles, the stereotype of the laid-back hippie was always an uncomfortable and in many ways inaccurate fit. The truth was, he could never not work. Roger Hull, in his masterful 2011 book Henk Pander: Memory and Modern Life, published in conjunction with a major career retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, quotes from a letter Pander sent to his Dutch friend den Ouden: “’I am a Calvinistic brooder,’ Pander confessed to Willem, ‘and sometimes get sick of myself. … Often times I feel like a lonely worrier predicting death. What a rotten job.’”
The pleasures and pains of simply living a life helped keep Pander in Portland. After his breakup with Marcia Lynch, Pander was married to Linda (Yasha) Long Pander, and although the marriage was short, Yasha’s daughter Demauri Pander and Henk remained close throughout his life. He enjoyed a much more enduring, 32-year marriage with Delores Rooney Pander, who in addition to helping manage Henk’s career worked for Portland Dance Theater and then-Portland City Commissioner Earl Blumenauer, and with the Oregon writers Ursula Le Guin and Jean Auel. Delores died of cancer in 2010. Late in life Henk married Jody Sterne, a longtime friend, and the two of them began to split time between his house in Portland and her home near Mount Hood, where Henk set up a smaller studio in which he could continue his work. Jody, who survives him, provided a warm and solid foundation and partnership both before and during his final illness.
The art of memory ripples through the human history of painting, and music, and dance, and writing, and every art form, transforming both personal and collective events into forms of emotional and intellectual and aesthetic coherence: How do we make sense of these things that happen? What stories rise from them? Pander was nothing if not a storyteller. The stories he told were made of ink and paint, and they were potent.
Sometimes they rose like dreams out of the shadows of his past. He remembered, as a child in Haarlem, that his father hid members of the Resistance in the Pander family house, and the courage and danger that came along with such quiet rebellion. He recalls the monks at the nearby monastery covering for his father when Nazi troops burst in and appeared ready to haul him off. He remembered sometimes, as a child, being sent to deliver messages along the Resistance information chain, quietly, furtively. He would talk, sometimes, about Haarlem’s synagogue being destroyed, and the Jewish quarters being emptied out; of people disappearing, never to be seen again. It was at this time that Anne Frank, just eight years older than young Henk, was hiding out in an attic in nearby Amsterdam. Many years later, in 2019, Pander created a series of paintings of the streets and buildings of Amsterdam’s old Jewish neighborhood. In those paintings, no people can be seen. “I tried to set this series of paintings back in time, and give these neighborhoods a sense of abandonment,” he said.
In his final show, January’s The Ordeal, Pander returned again in a pair of works to the stories of his childhood and the occupation and the fear that he might not survive. I wrote: “The Skipper’s Wife is a little different from the other paintings in The Ordeal, but linked by its themes of war and human cruelty, and in a way a foundation piece for the others in the exhibit. It’s an autobiographical painting, a memory from the Netherlands’ Hongerwinter famine of 1944. ‘My father brought my sister Gesa and I to a distant family member’s large ship to take us to the countryside where there was food,’ Pander explains in a wall panel accompanying the painting. ‘The skipper’s wife took a good look at my little sister and me. She discovered that we had scurvy and were covered in lice. She refused us passage and we spent the remainder of the war in the city of Haarlem.’ A related pen-and-ink drawing shows the skipper’s wife again, brusquely examining Gesa, while a gaunt and frail Henk looks on. The wife’s refusal might have been, but was not, a death sentence. In the painting she chases the children and their father from the boat, pointing like a wrathful angel banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.”
Why this body of work, then, these stories, here, and now? Perhaps simply, because. Because they were brought here, to this moderate-sized city in the Northwestern United States, by this man, as an obsession and a gift. I find myself turning again to Roger Hull, once more from his book Henk Pander: Memory and Modern Life:
“From the moment he first set foot in Oregon, Pander has startled, shocked, outraged, and yet astonished and pleased his viewers. His work has been deemed too bold and controversial (‘pornographic,’ some have said), too traditional and academic, too calculatedly aimed at the marketplace, too independent, too art-historical, too varied and wide-ranging and thus lacking in focus, too un-modern, too ‘weird.’ Pander himself has been known to list some of the ‘problems’ associated with his work: ‘I know my work does not sell well—it’s too large, confrontational, does not follow trends, deals with politics, social critique, satire, irony, the negative aspects of life—everything which turns people off.’ Pander’s sometimes irascible personality, his immigrant’s defensiveness and even paranoia, can itself raise the temperature of the debates surrounding his work. Yet when one asks who are the major portraitists in the Pacific Northwest these days, Henk Pander is on the list. When one asks who are the artists who paint the major murals and other public art works around here these days, Pander is on the list. And when one asks who paints the most dramatic narrative scenes of modern life in Europe and the United States, Pander is sure to be named. On the other hand, by painting scenes of human beings engaged and ensnared in daily experiences of the mundane and tragic, Pander opens himself to the assertion that he is not a modernist, that he paints and draws in the ways of art history but not the ways of now. Henk Pander offers a case study that is rife with paradox. His work is contradictory, complex, vital, often abrasive, often gorgeous. He is a remarkable Northwest master whose art provides a synthesis of New World and Old World experience in sometimes beautiful and sometimes toxic ways.”
And with his death the devil of it all is this: Who, now, can take his place?