Rothko: a tunnel runs through it

Art notes: Portland Art Museum's new pavilion proposal adds a pedestrian walkway; a Forain and a Gorky on loan at the museum

The journey of the embattled Rothko Pavilion has taken a short cut – straight through the Portland Art Museum’s proposed link between its poorly connected north and south buildings. When the project went public in 2016 the glassing-in of what is now an open plaza drew swift objection from pedestrian and bicycle advocates, as well as from critics of what would be a “super-block” on the museum’s South Park Blocks campus.

The super-block dissent never seemed to make much sense. Portland’s downtown city blocks are famously only 200 feet long – miniatures compared to the blocks in most cities – and both museum buildings, plus the proposed connector, are low-rise structures, which further diminishes the sense of mass. The pavilion’s glass exterior lightens the visual effect even more: the museum would be long but low, with far less sense of bulk than, say, Big Pink, which fits its block’s footprint yet seems massive.

Refined Rothko Pavilion design, with open passageway. Illustration: Vinci Hamp Architects & Hennebery Eddy Architects

The objections of pedestrian advocates are more persuasive, especially since so many older people live in the apartments and condominiums in the museum district. For many of them, having to walk around the museum rather than cutting through the courtyard would represent a true hardship.

A year ago the museum promised to take a closer look and respond to the criticisms. That revision’s proposal, which called for guarded public passage through the still-enclosed pavilion for extended hours, didn’t fly. The latest proposal is one that many of the original plan’s critics suggested from the beginning: provide a ground-level open passageway through the pavilion from Southwest 10th Avenue to Southwest Park Avenue. The “tunnel” in the new proposal is small enough to minimize the impact on the pavilion’s interior and big enough to allow people easy access through the museum grounds.

Brian Libby, on his excellent site Portland Architecture, has an in-depth interview with museum director Brian Ferriso and Tim Eddy, co-founder of Hennebery Eddy, one of two architectural firms working on the project. It’s highly recommended reading. Libby, Ferriso and Eddy delve deeply not just into the physical shape of the redesign but also into the way it works with the neighborhood and community as a whole: how it draws people in, accommodates their needs, meets the rest of the city rather than isolating itself.

That said, it’s hard to overstress the need for the Rothko Pavilion. When the museum added the 1925 Masonic Temple building (now the Mark Building) to the north of its original 1932 Belluschi Building it added a lot of square footage that simply didn’t mesh, and the courtyard that was added in between did nothing to connect the two stylistically very different buildings. The Masonic offered a lot of broken-up space that was clumsy for adapting to galleries, and the underground connections between the two buildings have never been intuitive, to the extent that a lot of visitors simply never find their way to the Mark Building, which houses the contemporary, modern, 20th century, photography, decorative art, and Impressionist galleries, and which contains many of the museum’s finest works. Even museum regulars often get lost trying to find their way around. The Pavilion will create a new entryway to the united museum. Far more importantly, it will create multilevel passageways that will easily connect the Belluschi and Mark gallery spaces and create something much closer to a rational layout that will allow a natural, easy-to-understand flow from one space to another. That’s good for the art, good for museum visitors, and good for the city.

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Jean-Louis Forain, “La femme aux affiches,” ca. 1880-85, oil on canvas, 22 x 18.4 inches. Private collection, on loan to Portland Art Museum.

That $25 million J.M.W. Turner landscape parked at the Portland Art Museum through mid-October isn’t the only masterwork hanging temporarily in the museum’s galleries for tax purposes right now. In the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art you can also find Jean-Louis Forain’s 1880-85 painting La femme aux affiches, a fetching portrait of a young woman standing in front of a wall of show posters, which will hang in the Portland museum through mid-December. It was sold at Christie’s New York on May 10 to an anonymous buyer, who has “parked” it for four months at the Portland Art Museum to take advantage of quirks in the tax laws that allow buyers of art to take a big break if they show their new purchase at a museum before taking it home to live with them. The painting’s presale estimate was $500,000-$700,000 – far from the Turner’s price, but still nothing to sneeze at.

Market price and intrinsic aesthetic value, of course, are related but often only tentatively. The relative values of the Turner and Forain according to their price tags are probably about right, but when one gets into the $25 million or $100 million range (or $142.4 million, the selling price of a 2013 Portland Art Museum “park” job, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud) a certain unreality sets in. At that point, other factors become crucial: fashion, prestige, scarcity, Wall Street-style gambling, trends that might shift sharply in another decade. In an imbalanced world economy in which many have little and a few have more than they can begin to know what to do with, the simple desire to hang an expensive trophy on the wall can be overwhelming. Supply and demand play a big role. Only 34 paintings known to be by Johannes Vermeer remain in existence. Imagine if another were discovered to be unassailably his, even a second-rate Vermeer: How much would it be worth on the open market?

Forain played a key role ten years ago in the Portland museum’s large-scale exhibition The Dancer: Degas, Fourain, and Toulouse-Lautrec, focusing on the three artists’ images of dancers and the world they lived in. “Although he’s not the artist that Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec were,” I wrote at the time, “Jean-Louis Forain is pivotal to this show, its conscience, perhaps. A superb illustrator who at his best approached the satiric bite of Honoré Daumier, he saw the backstage world at the Paris Opera as a cesspool of corruption – specifically by the abonnés, or wealthy male season subscribers, who had free access to the backstage and would often use it to cruise for assignations with the young, poverty-wage dancers. It was, in Forain’s view, a rank abuse of privilege, often made worse by the pandering of stage mothers looking for financial security in the form of wealthy ‘clients’ for their daughters’ favors.”

Arshile Gorky, “The Orators,” 1947, oil on canvas. Private collection; on loan to Portland Art Museum.

Another loan, also in the Jubitz Center, is also worth seeking out: The Orators, painted in 1947 by the important Armenian-American modernist Arshile Gorky, months before he hanged himself at age 44. The “meanings” of the painting are elusive: Hilton Kramer wrote that Gorky painted The Orators to commemorate his father’s death. “Gorky’s art was a bridge between two worlds,” Kramer wrote In a 1969 review, “joining the Cubism and Surrealism of the School of Paris to the new modes of abstraction of the New York School.” In a 1981 review of several books about Gorky, Kramer champions the view of Harry Rand that Gorky “stands revealed as that rarest of creatures, a modern history painter; it was own history that he painted.” That personal history was one of considerable trauma: He was born in 1904 in an Armenian part of Turkey and survived the slaughter of that nation’s Armenian population during World War I before emigrating to the United States at age 16; the melancholy remained.

Others emphasize the importance of Gorky’s technical breakthroughs. The curator and scholar William C. Seitz, writing of the artist’s late work, said: “Gorky was a magician who could change foreground to background, model roundness and hollow depth, or compress bulk and recession into the transparent picture plane that lies somewhere between the line scheme and the color scheme. … (H)e could simultaneously create impressionist atmosphere, subdivide space into planes, and assert surface.” In other words: Maybe, in important ways, the painting’s meaning is the painting itself.

Unlike the Forain, I can find no record of a recent sale of The Orators: It seems to be, simply, on loan.

2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Sarah Morgan says:

    Does this remodel add bathrooms to the Mark galleries?

    • Bob Hicks says:

      The view in this drawing is from the outside, but a lot of the most important work in this remodel proposal is being done on the inside to make the complex more functional. I can’t answer your specific question, but I do know the museum and architects are paying a lot of attention to issues of accessibility, making the spaces more functional for everyone. This would seem to fall in that category.

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