Tag Archives: Mark Rothko

Art and storytelling, Best Friends Forever

By Bob Hicks

The fun thing about art is that it always seems to come with a story. Not that the stories are more important than the art — at least, not usually — but they do have a way of getting a potentially esoteric subject down to the nitty gritty.

Alfred Maurer, "George Washington," Portland Art MuseumMartha Ullman West, whose tale about the painter Titian and the man-about-Europe Pietro Aretino provided the pith for our previous posting, took a break from the thickets of her book manuscript to send along another quick story, this one about the American painter Alfred Maurer, whose 1932 Cubist version of George Washington was included in a piece I wrote in this morning’s Oregonian about images of faces in the permanent collection of the Portland Art Museum. The story was a sidebar to my cover story about Titian’s La Bella, which is on temporary display at the museum. Martha’s father, to complete the setup, was the New York painter Allen Ullman, and her grandfather was the artist Eugene Ullman, so inside stories about artists flowed like wine in her childhood home.

Continue reading Art and storytelling, Best Friends Forever

Monday scattered like the New Carissa

With the late September sun blazing and the pinot noir grapes sweetening by the minute, Scatter attempts to move its attention from dreams of wine-y complexity to almost anything else.

1. The New Carissa. We met the news that the salvage of the stern of the New Carissa on the coast near Coos Bay was nearly complete with some unexpected sadness. Remove it as though it never happened? The derelict New Carissa was a formidable adversary, defying our best efforts to… well, do anything with her that we wanted. Just the saga of the bow section — towed (with great difficulty) out to sea for burial, it breaks free in a storm and re-grounds near Waldport, gets a tow back out to deep water where it is blasted by a destroyer and sunk by a torpedo into 10,000 feet of water — is incredible. It would have all been completely comic if oil from the ship hadn’t leaked and destroyed marine wildlife nearby. Put us in the camp with those who would have left a hunk of stern on the beach, not as a tourist attraction, mind you, which would have been silly, but as a monument to our folly, a permanent metaphor. (That’s Henk Pander’s Wreck of the New Carissa, above.)

2. WaMu, Seattle misses you. We linked you to Regina Hackett’s story in the Seattle P-I that detailed some worry about the fate of Washington Mutual and the building-sharing agreement it has with the Seattle Art Museum. Now, of course, WaMu has turned into a subsidiary of JP Morgan Chase & Co. and her new story with John Marshall talks about the worry at many other Seattle arts organizations that WaMu’s extensive arts funding will diminish or disappear. This is just the direct fallout from the sub-prime loan mess; we have yet to see how much deeper this blade will cut.

3. Mark Rothko at the Tate. Scatter follows Rothko pretty closely — he went to Lincoln High School, after all, and was a friend of Portland painters Carl and Hilda Morris — even though we sometimes don’t know what to make of him. Or maybe it’s that we think different things about him at different times. In any case, the show of his late work (1958 when he famously withdrew from his Four Seasons restaurant commission in the Seagram buildling until his suicide in 1970) at the Tate Modern in London is drawing similarly mixed responses. We recommend a reading of Laura Cumming’s review in the Observer, which describes an exhausted Rothko and locates the figurative elements threatening to bust loose in all the abstraction. Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the London Times, however, finds something altogether different — a lighter, brighter, soaring Rothko. Let’s see: exhausted or soaring? Maybe a trip to London to sort all of this out would be in order if only the Scatter piggy bank didn’t rattle so forlornly.

The high price of art, the cost of keeping up with it

Maybe a dozen years ago, when I was filling in for a few months for the art critic at the daily newspaper that was my bread and margarine, I decided it was a good idea to print the prices of the works of art being discussed in reviews of gallery shows. Seemed reasonable at the time. Why shouldn’t the paper give its readers an idea of whether that new painting by Gregory Grenon, say, was going for $1,800 or $18,000? Why not let the working-two-jobs-to-make-ends-meet art fan know that if she really liked that piece by the brand-new art school grad, she could pick it up for $250 instead of assuming it was going to be swooped up by some dot-com turk because it was out of her price range?

The response around me in my corner of the newsroom was unison and aghast. It amounted to this: Art is for art’s sake. Money has nothing to do with intrinsic value (I wasn’t arguing that it did). To discuss price is to taint the critical process (all I wanted to do was list the prices in the information box). Besides, money is, well, you know, tawdry. I quickly scotched the idea, and pretty much forgot about it: No smudge of commerce would taint the culture pages, where truth and beauty are all you need to know.

So why is it so damned fascinating to read about the high-roller art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s? The latest report comes from Carol Vogel in the New York Times, and the frenzied buying seems to indicate that, while working-class saps are getting kicked in the rear by the recession, the big spenders are spending, well, big. Real big. Like there’s no tomorrow big. “The market is defying gravity,” Vogel quotes financier and collector Eli Broad.

Follow the money, everyone says, to which you can add, Follow the art — it’s following the money. To Japan in the 1980s, to Las Vegas and the marketing and advertising whizzes of London in the 1990s, to the culture-cloaking Wal-Mart matrons in the ’00s. And to just about anybody who’s cashed in on the biggest upward transfer of wealth since the days of the 19th century Robber Barons (who actually seem a bit like pikers compared to the new bunch of sudden zillionaires).

Continue reading The high price of art, the cost of keeping up with it

Carl Morris, early paintings

“Ascending Forms,” Carl MorrisIt seems unfair to write about an art exhibition that has already been taken down, but that’s exactly what’s about to happen. Sorry!

For a variety of reasons I haven’t been able to get to Carl Morris: figure, word, light at Marylhurst University’s Art Gym until now. But I want to say a few things about it, and Morris will come up again on Art Scatter. All of us are interested in his work; I wrote the catalog essay for his retrospective at the Portland Art Museum in 1993; and just last summer I wrote about the sublime show of his 1959 History of Religions paintings at the University of Oregon’s art museum, organized by Lawrence Fong.

So, maybe you saw the show (the Saturday I went, the Art Gym was crowded), maybe you didn’t but wanted to, or maybe you just want to start jumping on the Carl Morris bandwagon with the rest of us.

The show was described to me originally by one of the behind-the-scenes organizers as a look at Carl’s work from the 1940s — those dark, symbolic, angular paintings, with their heavily painted surfaces. That sounded promising. These paintings hadn’t really been gathered together in numbers since an art museum show in the early ’50s. A chance to give them a good look again, struggle to reconnect to their iconography, test their power to affect us, place them in their context of Northwest painting, is an excellent idea.

Continue reading Carl Morris, early paintings