By Bob Hicks
We’ve arrived at a time when many of the bright figures of 20th century art are slipping away into that final blankness that artists seem to anticipate better than the rest of us. Maybe it’s because artists begin each day with a blank canvas or paper and understand that the void is both an opportunity and an inevitability.
In the past week two fine West Coast artists, both based in San Francisco but well-known in Portland art circles, have died. Nathan Oliveira, who died last Saturday, was 81. Beth Van Hoesen, who died on Tuesday, was 84.
Both were figurative artists, although in very different ways and with very different outlooks and techniques. Oliveira, who is represented in Portland by Elizabeth Leach Gallery, was primarily a painter and sculptor (he also produced a lot of very good prints) and he was very much a modernist, an artist who explored the psychological dark corners. Van Hoesen was primarily a printmaker and an observer of the small wonders of life, a meticulous craftswoman and traditionalist whose skills and approach harked back to the likes of Durer. You can read Van Hoesen’s obituary here.
William Grimes wrote this good obituary of Oliveira in the New York Times,Â connecting Oliveira with Goya and Munch, and the Times also has a good slide-show gallery of Oliveira’s art posted online. Oliveira was being truthful and also maybe underselling himself when he said this to writer Diane Rogers for a 2002 profile in Stanford magazine, as related by Grimes: â€œIâ€™m not part of the avant-garde. Iâ€™m part of the garde that comes afterwards, assimilates, consolidates, refines.â€ We are all built from parts that came before us.
The Portland Art Museum holds the biggest collection of Van Hoesen’s prints — about 650 different works — and in 2009 Annette Dixon, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, organized an exhibition from them which I reviewed for The Oregonian. It was the beginning of a fruitful association with Van Hoesen’s works. That review, with a few changes, became an essay in Beth Van Hoesen: The Observant Eye, the catalog for a show of her prints at the Fresno Art Museum and the University Museums of Iowa State University. The artist, writer and collector Joseph Goldyne wrote the catalog’s other essay. Later I wrote an essay on the relationship between Van Hoesen’s drawings and her prints, to be published next year. And I’ve been working on another project about a long-term drawing group that she and her artist husband, Mark Adams, hosted in San Francisco. Its members also included Theophilus Brown, Wayne Thiebaud, Gordon Cook, Robert Bechtle and Timothy Berry: a pretty good lineup of Bay Area artists.
I met and talked with Van Hoesen early this year at her home in San Francisco, and she reminisced about that drawing group and the studio/home that she and Adams, who died in 2006, fashioned out of an old city firehouse they’d bought in 1959. She also told a funny tale about an encounter with Diego Rivera when she was a college student on break in Mexico in the 1940s. Van Hoesen studied with David Park, who famously kicked off the Bay Area Figurative Movement when he tossed all of his abstract expressionist paintings into the Berkeley city dump in 1949, and was one of the first artists to have work printed at Crown Point Press, and was friends with the likes of Richard Diebenkorn, who did some printing on her firehouse press. But always, from beginning to end, she was insistently herself.
To her and Oliveira, godspeed, and good night.
ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:
- Nathan Oliveira, “Nineteen Twenty-Nine,” oil on canvas, 1961. Smithsonian American Art Museum/Gift of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., 1969.
- Beth Van Hoesen, “Boris,” aquatint, etching, and dryprint, 1981.