Lloyd Wright's Gordon House: saved from the wrecking ball
and now residing at the Oregon Garden in Silverton.
Portland, Frank Lloyd Wright & Hans Hofmann
courage and the three-year itch
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.
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
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
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
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.
Wright stuff: inside the Gordon House (click for more info).
Frank Lloyd Wright
The Gordon House
The Oregon Garden
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
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
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
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.
Clash, 1964," at Berkeley Museum
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.