PAM – Two score years of disappointment

I recently wrote about the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards currently at the Portland Art Museum for Oregon ArtsWatch:

At the end of the article I said:

Addendum: I wrote in Willamette Week about the Oregon Annual at the museum forty years ago, and about a couple of Oregon Biennials after that. Two score years of disappointment. Nothing new.

I don’t have the 1976 article, but here are articles from 1978 and 1981:

A of O 1978O Bi 1981


Art Portland 1970s

I’ve never been very good at archiving my stuff. I wrote almost 200 articles for Willamette Week from 1974-1983, but I probably saved only a couple dozen of my  clippings myself. However, my mother was better at clipping her son’s stuff, and recently, when looking through my clips box I found this article from 1980 that she saved. For those who were not here in the 70s, here’s some basic info.

(Click on the image to enlarge for readability.)


WW 70s AWW70s Combo

The Rough Rider

Back when I taught a class on contemporary art a question often arose: Why don’t they put up meaningful statues that people understand instead of those obscure abstract sculptures?

Then I’d ask: How many of you know that sculpture in the park in front of the Portland Art Museum—the guy on the horse?

Most hands would rise.

Then I’d ask: Who is it?

I’d say that over the years less than 5% of my students could answer.

So much for “meaningful.”

But I was intrigued by the work, and I wrote a piece about it for Encore magazine (before I began teaching), a magazine that was published for the Portland Opera and the Oregon Symphony. It turns out that the sculptor, Alexander Phimister Proctor, was a pretty interesting fellow, and the unveiling of the work in 1922 was a really big deal.

Proctor ADJ


On July 16, 2000 The Oregonian published a reprint of page one from Armistice Day 1922 with the statue dedication noted in the right hand column.

OREG Proctor009

Proctor’s autobiography is very entertaining and there are a couple copies at Powell’s (and lots at




You can see other works by Proctor at the Portland Art Museum:


Indian on Horseback , 1898, bronze, Gift of Mrs. A.L. Mills, Mrs. T.H. Bartlett, Henrietta E. Failing, Mary Forbush Failing, Mrs. H.C. Cabell, Charles Francis Adams, John C. Ainsworth, William D. Cartwright, and T.B. Wilcox, © artist or other rights holder, 11.2


Lions , 1911, bronze, Bequest of Winslow B. Ayer, © artist or other rights holder, 35.182

Or if you are at the University of Oregon you can see:


The Pioneer, which predates The Rough Rider. From the U of O web site: This sculpture, located across from Johnson Hall, was dedicated with great ceremony in May 1919. The sculptor, Alexander Phimister Proctor (1862-1950), used a trapper from near Burns, Oregon, as his model. The 1918 bronze statue, mounted on a base of McKenzie River basalt, was a gift of Joseph N. Teal, Portland attorney.


U of O Mother

The Pioneer Mother, 1930—according to the U of O web site, but from Sculptor in Buckskin…

Proctor working on PiMother

And, there are works by Proctor in this new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:


From the Met’s web site:


Buckaroo, 1914 (cast 1915 or after). Denver Art Museum, Funds from William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection by exchange (2005.12)


Stalking Panther, 1891–93 (cast ca. 1905–13). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Bequest of James Parmelee (41.79)

And, if you are in New York and see the William Tecumseh Sherman monument in Central Park note that the whole is by Augustus St. Gaudens, but Proctor did the horse:


PAM INSTALLATION…and furthermore

Thanks to everyone who looked at and commented on the previous post about the mis-installation of the Irwin disc

The point was clearly noted by Chloe Eudaly who said, “I’ve wondered about that very painting! Not being familiar with the artist I have to say that I’ve found it pretty confounding. I’d love to see it properly installed!” Indeed, seems to me that the point of being an art museum should be to educate, not to confound.

The mis-installation of art is rarely as big a problem as the outright lie of the Irwin installation, but the contemporary galleries have several obvious examples of art installed in goofy (in the bad sense) ways. How is the installation important? The same way that a properly tuned piano is important to hearing a Beethoven sonata. We want the music to be in tune and well played. We want the art to be shown to its best advantage so that it can be most effectively received.

Jeff Jahn was kind enough to mention the Irwin post on PORT  ( He said, “It is true, that presentation of one of the best pieces in the collection IS horrendous (a hangover from the still overcrowded Buchanan era install that needs thinning and more sensitivity). Installed correctly (as it once was) it is a stunner.” He goes on to note, “The over-installed nature of most of the museum’s collection is a MAJOR drag on the reputation of an otherwise rapidly improving modern/contemporary program at PAM …Can we fix this? This sort of thing is what many design professionals in Portland consider a major turn-off at the museum. PAM’s Jubitz Center is due for a major reinstall.”

Jahn notes that the space is “overcrowded.” I agree. The galleries are difficult because contemporary art requires generous space. Given that there is little generosity in these awkward galleries crammed on the side of the old lodge building, extra effort needs to be made to allow the art to work effectively.

One might argue that it is better to see more pieces, but I would say that it is better to have fewer unabridged volumes of literature on bookshelves than it is to have a lot of “works” in Readers Digest Condensed Books versions. The full experience is a better experience.

Here are a few problems:

The old painter’s saying is: Sculpture is something you trip over when you step back to look at a painting. Maybe the incident below is a sculptor’s revenge—Painting is the thing on the wall that serves as a backdrop for sculpture.

The big painting below, by Larry Poons,  is of the type that one should first be able to experience fully from a distance. Unfortunately the Michael Todd sculpture is within about seven feet of the painting.  (The photo is misleading. The painting is probably at least 15 feet wide.)


Dan Flavin’s work requires breathing room, a sense of space. Here is is crowded by the John McCracken* plank. (But note: At least all the fluorescent tubes are there and working!)


The space under the stairs might be a place for storage in a home, but not a site to display art.


If you want someone to ignore something, change the subject. Don’t repeat the motif:


*One of John McCracken’s planks has my all time favorite title: There’s no reason not to

I also like DeKooning’s Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (and the painting itself is pretty nice, too).

VANDALISM at The Portland Art Museum

Robert Irwin is one of my favorite artists.

When I was a student at Portland State back in the early 70s Mel Katz brought Irwin to PSU. He sat in the life drawing studio and talked for several hours. A few years later I saw one of his scrim installations at the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington. I thought it was amazing. He did a very minimal installation at Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1978. As the art critic for Willamette Week at that time I had a nice conversation/interview with him at the Burger King that used to be at Burnside and Broadway.

Irwin is an artist whose attitudes about seeing have led me to be very conscious of everything within an artwork’s visual environment. He has always been very careful about how his work is installed. I believe that everything he does has “intention.” Everything has been considered and attended to.

So, for years I’ve been ticked off by the idiotic installation of one of his disc paintings at the Portland Art Museum. For me it amounts to vandalism.

In the late 1960s Irwin made a series of  paintings on round convex panels. With these works, according to Lawrence Wescher in his wonderful book on Irwin titled Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees:

Irwin was trying to create a painting that would simply dissolve into its environment. And whereas some artists (including Irwin himself at an earlier period) had long been concerned with lighting—eager that it not distract from, indeed that it enhance the presence of the painted image—Irwin was now concerned with light itself as an integral part of the aesthetic moment.

Further on Weschler quotes John Coplans from the 1968 catalog for the exhibition of these works at the Pasadena Art Museum:

…each of Irwin’s new paintings is dependent on the use of its ground…a flat gray tinged wall approximately 12 feet high in a suitably sized room or gallery. The wall needs to be at least 12 feet wide, but if possible it should be wider…The disc is cross-lit from four corners by incandescent lamps (two in the ceiling and two in the floor, placed equidistant from each other and approximately six feet back from the wall)…and the effect of the cross-light is to cast a clearly discernible, symmetrical, but elaborate shadow  pattern of segments of a circle…The result of the cross illumination combined with the ambient light is the that the shadow, the disc and the outer area of the illumined wall are seen as an entirety. Thus the three elements—wall, shadow, and painted disc—are equally positive; the shadow, in fact , sometimes becomes almost more positive than the disc.

So this is how the installation of one of these pieces is supposed to look (perhaps a little too much contrast in the pic):



Or from a distance:


(Thanks to

But at our Portland Art Museum the work is obviously misunderstood as “just another painting” and hung like just another everyday painting:


Perhaps they just don’t know any better. Perhaps nobody at the museum has every seen one of these Irwin disc paintings before, or flipped through Google images of Irwin’s work, or saw the original first installation of this work at the museum after it was acquired (it was given really nice space and lit correctly). Or maybe nobody from the museum was at this talk  at the museum by Ethan Rose:

Go to about 6:15 in the video where Rose says,”There’s a slight issue here in that this piece isn’t mounted exactly to Irwin’s specifications.” He goes on to discuss the lighting.

Weschler says,”Shown correctly, Irwin’s discs are otherworldly. They seem to float ambiguously. Is the disc seeming to dematerialize or the shadows taking on volume? There is an eerie, fluid sense of density, object and shadow playing in and out of copresence.”

Well, that can’t happen with this installation at PAM. For the viewer who doesn’t know better the installation is a lie about the work of Robert Irwin. How can one learn about contemporary art when they are shown a vandalized version?

According to our friend Wikipedia:

Since 2000 Bruce Guenther has served as the Chief Curator of the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon as well as its curator of contemporary art.In addition to administrative duties, Guenther is responsible for initiating and planning all exhibitions and permanent collection presentations of modern and contemporary art.

So, if I put two and two together, I’d have to say that Bruce Guenther is responsible for this—if he is responsible for…all…permanent collection presentations of modern and contemporary art.

I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t aware enough to know about Robert Irwin’s intentions with his disc paintings.

But that must be the case because I just don’t see how one could ethically knowingly misrepresent the work of any artist.