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Frank Lloyd Wright's Gordon House: saved from the wrecking ball and now residing at the Oregon Garden in Silverton.
Critical i

Portland, Frank Lloyd Wright & Hans Hofmann
Salmon courage and the three-year itch
by Jeff Jahn

owdy. April 1 is the three-year anniversary of my emigration to Portland. In addition to my monthly article, I'm also unveiling my essay, "Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism."

It's a culmination of ideas I've had kicking around for the last 10 years and, although I think the general population will be more open to some of the ideas after Sept. 11, 2001, it was hardly conceived in response to that event. It is broader and more general, as I intended it to have a lasting resonance amongst an informed, art-crazy audience.

Lastly, the essay seems timely – as most of Portland's art lacks threat or risk. Usually, if I review something it means there is some risk to it, successful or not. Still, gentle reader, I'd like to say a few things before I tackle two giants: Frank Lloyd Wright and Hans Hofmann.

Why Portland?
On reflection, I have to say moving to Portland is the smartest thing I have ever done. I could have moved anywhere after I finished my master's degree. Cities like Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, Denver and Seattle were bandied about but the decision was simple.

"Stump Cozy"

Portland is a cosmopolitan city that resisted the whole "faster, higher, more-is-more" aesthetic that defined the U.S.A. in the 20th century. A good example is Shanon Schollian's "Stump Cozy." It is a kind of archetypical Portland piece, a funky mutation of homeyness and naturalism. I like it, it is out of hand in a motherly smotherly way, with a wink that says "crazy like a fox."

The "more is more" strategy has become a bankrupt, or at least a "diminishing return," parody of itself. Even ennui cannot go on indefinitely. I needed to do something risky and placing bets on Portland's impressive, but by turns incestuous, regional art scene with an eye towards the international – seemed like a nice bet.

Frankly, I am drawn to humanity's highest aims as a way to counteract its lowest tendencies. I'm familiar with both on a cellular level, and the two are only separated by the thinnest set of elements. In 1998, while on my epic minivan tour of the U.S., I realized America had to grow up and for some reason it was happening in Portland first.

Also, there is the issue of volcanism, where we are reminded that the earth hasn't cooled to the core yet. The crust is pretty brittle and tenuous here. It creates an apt metaphor for the cultural strata in the region. Portland is a place for radical ideas and innovative problem solving, as well as a stodgy antithesis to give those elements focus. It is an artists' city where the battles fought by C.S. Price, Laura Russo, William Jamison, Kristi Edmunds and Elizabeth Leach need to take their next logical step.

It is time. Overall, the Pacific Northwest practically begged for articulation, ambition and some balls.

As an artist, historian of the now, composer and overall nature-boy, I felt drawn and needed here. Someone once described me as having "salmon courage." Shades of Thomas Hardy; I wonder if I really had any choice but to live here?

Why be a critic if you're an artist?
This is also the one-year anniversary of Critical i. In Tristan Tzara's version of surrealism he railed against "supervised thought." I always liked that idea – it's my bratty rebel side.

For the longest time, I saw most art critics as a kind of domesticated sheep, and agents of the postmodern art market. "Supervised thought," par excellence.

Then I started reading Robert Motherwell and decided it was a perfect conflict of interest to be an art critic as well as an artist. Really, they're two sides of the same coin and would only make me better.

In fact, most great artists are clearer and more decisive than the critics around them. In other words, they insightfully beat the reviewers to the punch through all the experience that creating art and evaluating art entails. That stands to reason, since creating important art is harder than writing quality reviews. Still, criticism is vital to "important" art, since everything should be put on public trial.

I was also reminded that quality made room for itself in a democracy. What could be more democratic than the Internet? I decided to stop being an impartial, or at least private, observer of visual culture and started to engage and broadcast what I perceived.

The last year has been a quantum change for the Portland art scene – and myself. Things are definitely heating up. So, go ahead; read my essay, e-mail my editor about what a schmuck I am and exercise your right to unsupervised thought.

The Wright stuff: inside the Gordon House (click for more info).

Frank Lloyd Wright
The Gordon House
The Oregon Garden
Silverton, Ore.

Frank Lloyd Wright is a man who understood risk and would be on my Top Ten List of people whose example in the 20th century will profoundly affect the 21st. His family motto, "Truth Against the World," conveyed both hubris and worth: It takes balls to achieve anything.

His designs sought to exist within nature, not dominate it. To me, "Truth Against the World" can sound like ecology against blind development. Other voluminous statements by FLW back this up. The good news: the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oregon has found a new home as a historical "model" home in the Oregon Garden.

Yes, he was a patronizing man and a controlling designer. Still, as an idealist and sometimes in execution, he's the greatest architect since Imhotep (think pyramids) made architecture worth remembering.

Wright's Guggenheim

By comparison, other architects come off as too practical or too cosmetically aesthetic to compete on his level. Unfortunately many of his buildings were simply created before the proper materials were available.

Frankly, Frank was more interested in the big whats, hows and whys of architecture than any of his colleagues – before or since.

In fact, if you hate suburban sprawl, Wright is your man. Don't get me wrong, he could be a huge jerk. But at least it was for the right reasons.

His focus on the essentials of shelter, husbandry with nature and a commitment to defeating throwaway culture in his designs makes him so Oregon. Which makes the recent rescue of Oregon's only FLW house so very lucky.

The move of the nearly scrapped Gordon House to the Oregon Garden works as a model home and a museum of ideals in execution.

Still, it is my hope that Wright can be eclipsed by an architect who can utilize and exceed his ecological ideals and breathtaking design with a trust and freedom that never really materialized.

In 400 years, I don't want Frank Lloyd Wright to be the greatest architect ever. Architecture students, get to work and visit the Gordon House, the Johnson Wax Building, Wingspread, Falling Water, Marin Country Civic Center, the Guggenheim and many others. The bar has been set; let's play limbo.

"The Clash, 1964," at Berkeley Museum

Hans Hofmann
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
207 SW Pine
(closes April 27)

Finally, a Portland gallery has put a truly historically important body of work on display. In other words, if I stared at just one of these works for 10 minutes I could get more out of it than spending three weeks in the top floor of Portland Art Museum.

Yes, Hans Hofmann is that important. So get off your duff and see this show. No serious artist or collector in Portland can escape a twinge of dilettante guilt if they miss it. In fact, I dare say that Clement Greenberg and the whole shift of the center of the art world from Europe to America could not have occurred had Hans stayed in Germany. Hans' theories (and approach) were picked up both by Greenberg and Jackson Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, at critical points in their development.

At first Hofmann was more of a teacher than a painter, and his canvases until 1944 often lacked a convincing punch (with notable exceptions). This was true only of his paintings, as this show points out. The immediacy of his works on paper is where he made his first breathtaking synthesis and shattering of Matisse's color, Cubism's space and Klee's line. What a thing to see so clearly.

For example, "Untitled 1941," a small crayon-on-paper, practically floats and glows. It has a child's lust for life, but is so filled with spatial detail and complex color interplay that one can only realize Hofmann has fully integrated the entire School of Paris into something new.

an amazing crayon from 1941

Hofmann even "takes a line for a walk," like Paul Klee – so it really is more like the School of Europe. Like De Kooning, Hofmann was an immigrant who needed to be in the U.S. to develop.

Hofmann's ability to stay airy even while using such ridiculously saturated color and visceral line in the piece gives it weight and mass. All this ordered overload creates its own gravity – a phenomenon Hofmann described as "push pull." I liken it to a palpable presence, something I obsessed over for nearly seven years.

In later works on paper, Hofmann further demonstrates his mastery. In the mixed media "Untitled 1944," a fearsome green and pink claw are charged with primordial energy only found in Jackson Pollock's works of the same period like "Guardians of The Secret." In comparison to the still young Pollock, Hofmann's work breathes better – the work of someone more confident and developed.

"Untitled 1944"

These breakthroughs are sometimes mirrored in the oil paintings of the 1940s, but it wasn't until the super-thick or super-washy works of the '50s and '60s that Hofmann could apply what he learned here with consistent results. To see this many works on paper is a revelation for those canvases.

Somehow these works look like they weigh 200 pounds, yet they also float in midair before the viewer and are clearly delicate.

It is thrilling to see a man make such personal denouements. The workings of his eye and hand are so naked. Allegedly, Hofmann usually painted naked but drew outdoors or in his car (so American).

These are all some of the very best examples of Hofmann's development; they hold up extremely well against his best canvases. In fact, they inform each other. Exciting – don't miss it! This is a rare show anywhere.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don’t miss his recent columns and be sure to see his April essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism.

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