20 Questions for Carl Andre—June, 1980

I had the good fortune to grow up as an artist in Portland during what I now think of as its early renaissance. Portland Center for the Visual Arts was founded in 1972 (and lasted until 1988). Blue Sky Gallery opened in fall 1975. The Northwest Artist’s Workshop, in 1976. Blackfish Gallery, 1979. The Art Gym at Marylhurst University, 1980. All of these were essentially DIY artists’ projects.

From 1974-1983 I was the art critic for Willamette Week. I wasn’t making much money then and half my income was from the 3 cents per word that I got as a WW freelancer. But I got to talk to some art stars. I interviewed Christo, Dan Flavin, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Irwin, Judy Chicago, Vito Acconci, Roy Lichtenstein. Those tended to be longer articles than straight reviews and easier to write.

Carl Andre had an exhibition at PCVA in 1973, before I was writing. But in 1980 Mel Katz arranged for him to come to Portland State University. Along with a public talk, there was an exhibition of two of Andre’s works (see below). I arranged to interview Andre, and as I recall we went to Burger King, then at Burnside and Broadway. It was there that Andre told me that he didn’t do recorded interviews anymore. My heart sank. There goes lots of 3 cent words. BUT, he suggested that I send him interview questions on 3×5 cards. So I did.  And he sent them back:

Andre000Andre002 Andre003Andre004 Andre005 Andre006 Andre007 Andre008 Andre009Andre010 Andre011 Andre012 Andre013 Andre014 Andre015 Andre016  Andre017

Andre022

Andre018 Andre019 Andre020

This interview was published in Willamette Week in August 1980.

WW Andre

Later, much to my surprise, I found that the interview was published in this catalog accompanying a big Andre exhibition in Germany. I only found out about it by seeing my name in the listing of an art book dealer.

1996 Book

Writing as Thinking: Rothko Bridge Redux

Something that I’ve told students for a long time is that you never know what you really think until you write it down. After writing two posts about the Rothko Bridge proposal and considering the ideas of others who have discussed the concept, I think I’m getting a better focus for myself as to the sides of the argument and what causes the position that I’ve instinctively taken.

Many years ago I was an art critic. A good friend and once editor told me that the fundamental question for criticism is: What causes this? It is important not to be satisfied with the initial like/don’t like reaction, but to think further to try to figure out what it is in the work that causes your feelings.

As I look back at my posts, I can see myself trying to put my finger on what has caused me to feel that something was really wrong with the Rothko Bridge idea, and with this post I hope I can pin that down.

I think this is the crux of the matter:

Those who promote the concept see it as finally recognizing someone who is somehow a hometown boy— “Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people,” says Jeff Jahn (BTW, I have no idea what he is talking about here). We could note that Rothko hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged by Portland since he and some of his students had a show at the Portland Art Museum in 1933. Naming the new bridge after Rothko would somehow make up for this slighting.

I see the bridge naming as too big, too irrelevant, and too late.

The Portland Art Museum has not managed to acquire a major Rothko painting in the 43 years since Rothko’s death. There was a time in the last four decades when a major Rothko could be had for less than 30 million dollars. Probably not now. The opportunity for meaningful recognition in the “art” sense has passed. (Note invitation to MAJOR DONOR.)

And Portland State University could have named something for Rothko as he attended Shattuck School and Lincoln High School buildings now part of the PSU campus. But they didn’t.

The Park Blocks near these buildings could have been renamed “The Rothko Blocks,” but they haven’t been.

So, Portland has dissed Rothko by 80 years of indifference.

But now we want to USE HIS NAME. That’s how I see it. If we pretentiously use the name of Mark Rothko for this bridge that has no significant relationship to him it will be to aggrandize Portland through the Rothko brand.

So the supporters see the idea as a sign of respect—and I see it as an ostentatious lack of respect. I agree that we will disagree.

Also:

Barry Johnson has posted Naming the new Willamette River bridge after Mark Rothko isn’t such a good idea on Oregon Arts Watch (www.orartswatch.org/news-notes-passes-on-the-rothko-bridge/). An important point that Barry makes is that the bridge isn’t much in a forward-looking design sense, so why saddle the Rothko name with it?

And:

A late thought that I had was about the dispersal of Rothko’s work after his death. So I came across an article from the New York Times: ROTHKO FOUNDATION GIVES 1,000 WORKS TO 19 ART MUSEUMS by Michael Brenson, May 4, 1984. The main facts:

The National Gallery of Art in Washington [received]… 285 paintings and works on paper, as well as 500 to 600 sketches, drawings and other study materials…

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art [were given] between one and five paintings…

The other institutions that [were] given between 1 and 15 works are The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Art Institute of Chicago; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass.; the Yale Art Gallery; the Tate Gallery in London; the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; the Louisianna Museum in Denmark; the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and the Tel Aviv Museum. (www.nytimes.com/1984/05/04/arts/rothko-foundation-gives-1000-works-to-19-art-museums.html)

What’s missing in this list? Yup. The Portland Art Museum. The Rothko Foundation gave 300+ paintings to art museums, but didn’t think enough of his “home town” to place any significant works here.

Rothko Bridge? Another thought…and a proposal

I see that Jeff Jahn has repeated his thought that the new bridge be named for Mark Rothko. On PORT he says:

I’ve updated the both very popular and controversial post on the Rothko bridge naming. I see it as cutting a provincial gordian knot… so many (especially those who have been in Portland a long time) put a lot of effort into denying that the city’s most famous and accomplished resident ever lived here or had any real connection. The sentiment doesn’t hold up to the facts and illustrates why Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people (provincialism). It is a good thing to get over.

That has led me to think further about this idea.

I don’t know who those “many” are who would be silly enough to deny “that the city’s most famous and accomplished resident ever lived here or had any real connection.” Why would anyone deny that Rothko lived in Portland from 1913-1921, from ages 10-18 and that he went to Shattuck School, now Shattuck Hall at Portland State University, and Lincoln High School, now Lincoln Hall at PSU? The evidence is clear in James E. Breslin’s authoritative Mark Rothko: a biography (“an excellent resource,” as Arcy Douglas said on PORT , June 17, 2009). Who could argue with that?

Perhaps it could be claimed that it was Portland, the city and its resources that gave the foundation for Rothko’s life after he left , but I have seen no compelling evidence of that (Later in life Rothko claimed that had he “remained in Portland, he would have been a bum,” [Breslin]). Perhaps Dvinsk, Russia should name a bridge for Rothko. As Breslin says:

Rothko’s desire to create artistic works that would provide a place for him, his difficulty in accommodating these creations to the real world of restaurants, museums and viewers, his combativeness, his prophetic ambitions, his intense desire for success, his guilt about success, his uncompromisingness, his compromises, his propensity to isolate himself, his wish for community, his mixed feelings about both wealth and poverty, his suspicions, his suspicions about himself, his vulnerability to despair—all these conflicting feelings in the Mark Rothko of the early 1960s had their origins in the life of Marcus Rothkowitz, born in Dvinsk, Russia, a despised Jew in the infamous Settlement of Pale, in the first years of the twentieth century.

If we look for the Mark Rothko who said, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them” —those years in Dvinsk could easily be seen to be the root. Again, as Breslin says:

When Rothko himself recalled the first ten years of his life, he was most likely to remember Russian persecution. He was “very strongly interested” in “his Russian background,” according to his friend Herbert Ferber, and often repeated stories of his childhood—”being carried in the arms of his mother or a nurse at one time when a Cossack rode by and slashed them with a whip. And he had a scar on his nose which he claimed had been caused by the whip of a Cossack.”

I have yet find where anyone who knew Rothko said that Rothko was very strongly interested in his Portland background.

We could wish that something “Portland” influenced Rothko, but there is no significant evidence that Rothko found anything here that he would not have found during his elementary and high school years in a supportive Jewish community in any other city.

Of course it has been pointed out that Rothko came back to Portland several times (1933, 1944, 1949, 1967). He came to Portland to visit family. There is no evidence that the city itself had anything more for him.

And, there might be speculation about the landscape, but speculation is not clear evidence.

Jahn says that “Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people.” I don’t quite understand what Jahn means by acknowledging in this regard. For me this whole thing still smacks of “grabbing at the coattails of someone who became a great artist.” Our ancestors (he left 92 years ago) had damn little to do with the success of Mark Rothko. This bridge naming thing remains something like getting one’s picture taken with a celebrity so you can claim a connection.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

Beyond the question of how Rothko related to Portland there is another important question:

How did Portland relate to Rothko?

Looks like the answer is:  With indifference.

Yes, Rothko showed some of his work, along with some works by his students, at the Portland Art Museum in 1933.  But now, 80 years later,  the Portland Art Museum has yet to acquire a significant work by the artist. The collection, according to the online search tool, contains two modest works on paper by Rothko.

Over the past 80 years, Portland has not acknowledged Mark Rothko by doing the one “art” thing that artists will recognize: buying the artwork.

So, here’s my modest proposal: I will support the naming of the “Rothko Bridge” when there is an acquisition by the Portland Art Museum (or any other public entity) of a major work by the artist.

Otherwise we would be doing the one easy thing that costs nothing and we do not deserve a Rothko Bridge.

From what I’ve read of Rothko, I think he would agree: Money talks, bullshit walks.