mark rothko

I Am This: Jewish artists in Oregon

A new exhibit traces the history and variety of Jewish art in the state. A second show tells the tale of a painting that saved lives.

It’s both easy and hard to wrap your head around I Am This: Art by Oregon Jewish Artists, the elegant small new exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

Easy because the choices of artists are mostly familiar to Portland art followers, and because they share curator Bruce Guenther’s taste for modern and contemporary works that deal, whatever else might be going on in them, with the notion of beauty.

Hard because the questions the exhibit asks – What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be a Jewish artist? What does it mean to be a Jewish artist from Oregon? – are so elusive, with so many different answers, and ultimately with so many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question marks. “Here we are, looking inward,” museum director Judith Margles remarked at a press preview last week, and maybe that’s at least a large part of what being Jewish means.

Frederick Littman's sculpture "Torso" (1968. Bronze, 46 x 22 x 12 inches, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection, Portland) and Mark Rothko's 1928 painting "Beach Scene" (oil on canvas mounted on board, Reed College, Kaufman Memorial Art Collection, gift of Louis and Annette Kaufman in memory of Isaac and Pauline Kaufman). Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Frederick Littman’s sculpture “Torso” (1968. Bronze, 46 x 22 x 12 inches, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection, Portland) and Mark Rothko’s 1928 painting “Beach Scene” (oil on canvas mounted on board, Reed College, Kaufman Memorial Art Collection, gift of Louis and Annette Kaufman in memory of Isaac and Pauline Kaufman). Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Guenther, the former longtime chief curator of the Portland Art Museum who is curating the first year of shows at the Jewish Museum since it moved into the old Museum of Contemporary Craft space in the Pearl District, spoke of the sometimes uneasy relationship between group and individual identity: “We live in an age of individualization, identity as core, as shield, as conflict.”

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The art museum fills in the blanks

Portland Art Museum's new $50 million Pavilion project restores a link to Mark Rothko and makes sense of a scattered campus. Here's why it's important.

The big news Thursday from the Portland Art Museum – a new $50 million building on its South Park Blocks campus – is about filling in blanks.

  • First, the open glass structure will fill in the space between the museum’s two major buildings, its 1932 Belluschi Building on the south and the Mark Building, a former Masonic Temple that the museum bought in 1994 and renovated in 2005, on the north.
  • Second, it will help fill in one of the most glaring holes in the museum’s collections, its almost total lack of works by Mark Rothko, the most famous visual artist ever to call Portland home.

The new building, called the Rothko Pavilion, is scheduled to break ground in 2018 and open in late 2020 or early 2021. It will connect the two current buildings and add almost 10,000 square feet of gallery space in its total of 30,000 square feet.

Artist's rendering of the new Rothko Pavilion, from Southwest Park Avenue.

Artist’s rendering of the new Rothko Pavilion, from Southwest Park Avenue.

It also marks a 20-year agreement with Rothko’s children, Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel, to loan major Rothko paintings in rotation from their private collection. Whether or not that leads to an eventual gift of major paintings, it makes it possible for Portland museum visitors to see and study first-hand the work of a leading innovator in 20th century art who grew up and graduated from high school here before moving to New York to take part in an artistic revolution. “Our family is thrilled to enter into this partnership with the museum,” Christopher Rothko said in a prepared statement from the museum. “Portland played a formative role in my father’s youth, and we are eager to share these works with the public and give Rothko a more active role in the vibrant cultural life of this city.”

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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.

Mark Rothko/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

During the past few months, I saw the Mark Rothko show at the Portland Art Museum a few times, attended the play “Red” about an episode in Rothko’s life and attended  a concert with music by American modernist composers who were inspired by Rothko. I thought about Rothko and read about Rothko. At the end of all that, though, I didn’t feel any “closer” to Rothko, even though I felt I should.

Rothko, after all, had been a Portlander for a time, and the subtext of all of this Rothko activity was that we, as a city, were changing our relationship to him, acknowledging him maybe or re-claiming him somehow. I supported this idea, mostly because it had become embarrassing, our denial of the connection, even though I saw this as a sign of our own lack of self-confidence, not disapproval of his “advanced” painting style.

Things are different here now, and we needed to start somewhere, roll our eyes at our own silliness, find our way back to him and embrace one of the Titans of Abstract Expressionism, shyly perhaps, but still… And given our new confidence in our cultural importance, reaching out to Rothko, even so many years after his death in 1970, maybe was something we could manage.

But what if Rothko didn’t reach back? What if what he became as an artist in New York City really didn’t have much to do with us? What if after all our efforts to reintroduce ourselves, he still seemed remote and distant?  Or rather, what if I felt distant from him?  How much does that matter?

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