The Portland Art Museum

The Portland Art Museum’s annual, “Artists of Oregon, Painting and Sculpture,” 1962, was not so much an art show as it was a summation of the creative deterioration that has devastated this State.

The exhibition ended March 25. It is gone; but we must not forget it. There is house cleaning to be done and a general re-evaluation should be forthcoming. And this should be done before time rolls ’round for another gathering together of Oregon arts.

There are three words that describe this ’62 show: Redundant, Anemic, and Precocious . . . probably the weakest art exhibition Oregon has ever shown. The situation comes as no real surprise to the detached, yet vitally interested, observer . . . danger signs have been in evidence for a number of years; selections and special mentions seem to have been more politically inspired than creatively earned.

Oregon artists and administrators have been patting one another on the back so hard and so often that their spines have all but disappeared.

This particular exhibition is mecca for the viewing public as well as the sincere collector interested in an accurate cross-section of Oregon painting and sculpture. They must have left confused: If the representation was accurate and complete, Oregon would seem to be void of creative individuality.

This is not true.

I have been observing Western shows for 25 years; especially, those in Oregon. I know of no area, section, or State, having a more exciting potential than Oregon. The creative spirits are here! But one would have to burrow in to find them; having been rejected and neglected for so many years, they have exiled themselves rather than submit to the demands of the “new” image. The tragedy stems from the image demanded by the juries. It seems based on a 1953 issue of ART NEWS or THE ARTS magazines.

An indication as to the success of these demands to conform could positively be noted in this show: one might have silk-screened a single signature at the bottom of each and every work  . . .  and it really wouldn’t have mattered. As it was, one had to approach each painting and sculpture to determine the identity of the artist . . . even though familiar with their work (the only exceptions, a few old “pros”).

Without positive individual direction, what is the purpose of showing more than one artist?

Young painter: If you missed the exhibition, I will give you the recipe for surefire acceptance in most any show in Oregon (at least, the current requisites):
4 cups De Kooning
4 cups Kline
2 cups Rothko
Season with a dash of Pollock.
Mix well.
Drench with fluoridated water to consistency of a decorative nothingness. Bake at low creative heat. Serve to those having unflinching vested interests and control.

The use of the recipe is justified if one is convinced that all creativity comes as a “wave” from the East; emanating from New York and flowing across the land. (Surely, only the foam can reach this far.)

To find out for myself, I followed this great wave back to its source . . . a couple of years ago. True, I found only foam through Oregon, Idaho, and Montana; but I expected that. But the foam continued through the Dakotas, the cornbelt States, through Illinois, and on and on. I became frantic!

Then, at long last, I found the source. And it was in New York  . . .  right in the City . . . on 57th St.

The “wave” proved to be a leaking fire hydrant; and the “well of creativity” was a tubercular young artist aimlessly washing out a watercolor brush in the piddling stream.

When are the administrators, the juries, the artists, going to stop this insane repetitious search for the decorative “thing”; and stop being content with reflected glory? When will they re-discover the vibrancy, the undiluted vigor of the individual and the individual direction?

The pity of it all lies in the fact that, here in Oregon, we cannot blame a single person, a single museum, a single group. The devastation is far too ingrown and intermingled. Some decisions are made in complete honesty, but by people too close to actually realize what is going on. Personal and political ties have made astute insight virtually impossible.

I want this State to assume its natural heritage of giving birth to solid, individual creativity. Oregon has refused to do so, on the gallery level, because, I suppose, of the pains of labor. But full stature will never be achieved until this right of birth is acknowledged.

There are other factors abetting mediocrity in this State.

The baking powder art critics lavishly document every wisp of mediocrity, merely to gain column inches, with no regards to the confusion that might result. (The unknowing public so often assumes: If it is hung, it must be good; if printed, doubly so.)

Fantastic harm can be done to the natural flow of creativity by a handful of “don’t rock the boat” experts; plus, a couple of foundation and grant tramps, and a sprinkling of country club esthetes. Especially, if they gain key positions  . . .  which they invariably do, when left unchecked.

Very special caution must be exercised when a State has a single main art museum; with an art school in the museum; and with leading private galleries operated by teaching staff members of the school. Note: I did not say this proved an impossible situation  . . .  merely; greater caution than ordinary, should be exercised to prevent any tendency toward a monopoly.

If the so-called organized “friends” of creativity had their purses as open as their mouths, a genuine art climate might result.

But, back to the Show:

The entire exhibition had the effect of being “decorated” by interior decorators, rather than by a respected jury. The effect was exaggerated by the emphasis on the purely decorative . . . slight little things (in spite of size) for use in a cozy corner and for cocktail conversation.

No red blood could be noted.

One became hypnotized when scrutinizing the paintings (even though this kind of viewing may be considered old-fashioned these days). The casual glare of color covered, almost without exception, a significant commonplaceness in shape organization. It was obvious the paintings could not stand on the merits of organization alone.

Here, the tricks had to start! One could sense that the painters knew something was amiss even though they didn’t know what it was. In order to cover up lack of control, the surface was dibbled and dabbled with paint, applied in all sorts of manners . . . desperately.

But, the painter is not really to blame. All can make mistakes; do weak paintings, etc. . . . The real culprits are the jury members who allow the hanging of such. (If only one painting and one sculpture is worthy of hanging, then hang them — if none are worthy; why not a peasant dance instead?)

Beyond the shallowness of the purely decorative, came an insistent fragmentation . . . amounting to almost a cult of the fragment . . . as if a school of Fragmentationism was being fostered and developed. (Not realizing, perhaps, that a fragment remains a fragment forever and ever and ever.)

Actually, there are three trends (not just one) continuing throughout the State:

(1) Realism: as in romantic realism (beyond mere recording, anyway)

(2) Non-Representation: the search for existing orders “within” a situation.

(3) The Contrived Design: the over-all character of this particular show. (If indications prove out, we will have to add a fourth—out and out illustration.) It seems prudent to suggest expanding the coverage of this show; as well as other shows throughout the State. Let us not be bashful in announcing intentions to do so. Inform the art public at large: by sound truck, posters, helicopters—whatever . . . let the individual direction be supported; for the credit and benefit of the State.

Select a jury with members who are not, and never have been, connected with the “Portland scene”  . . .  at least, for the first year; to allow for an aesthetic catharsis.

Inform the jury that a cross-section of interests is desired. They will do the rest.

(The sculpture in this show had the same inherent weaknesses as the paintings. To speak of one is to speak of the other.)

The field of art, in Oregon, is absolutely wide open. The painter, or sculptor, able to establish a positive direction will encounter no competition whatsoever. While he may not find current acceptance, the truth of a valid style has a way of working its way to the surface, regardless of all!

I am absolutely sure that Oregon has a far greater potential than was indicated by this particular exhibition.

Above all, think about the words of the eminent president and director of the Seattle Art Museum, Richard E. Fuller. He wrote recently, “. . . we certainly always endeavor to encourage the original spirits especially if they have a flavor of the Northwest.”

Whatever you do, don’t sell the real Oregon short . . . there are pockets of creativity here that would turn an Easterner’s eyes green with envy; and make him sick to mis stomach.

Neil A. Koch