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Thursday 01.15.09

« Art and Nature | Main | Rachel Whiteread at PAM »

Distinguished Guests in Oregon Museums

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic (Basque Elegy), 1967
Oil on canvas 82 ¼ x 138 inches, Private Collection.
Location: 2nd floor, JCMCA Portland Art Museum

It has been a a year or two since we've seen a nice Robert Motherwell "Elegy" at the Portland Art Museum, but this latest guest is by far the nicest one I've seen in Portland in the near decade I've been living here. In case you are unfamiliar, Motherwell, like other preeminent Abstract Expressionists, Rothko and Clyfford Still is from the Pacific Northwest. His Elegy to the Spanish Republics are his most famous works and characterized by their deep black bars and ovals which give the paintings their tragic, existential and fallen nationalistic air. The paintings were are in response to the rise of dictator Franco whose collaboration with Hitler also triggered Picasso's painting of Guernica. In many ways (socially, intellectually) Motherwell was the bridge artist between the expatriated European artists in New York like Duchamp and Mondrian and the New York School. Of all the Ab Ex'ers he was the best writer and a personal aside here... I took up being an art critic after reading a collection of his reviews and essays. Suddenly it seemed ok, even important to do more than hang pictures on the wall... somebody had to write.

Very few of the Elegies show off Motherwell's abilities a an exceptional colorist but this work is a notable exception with it's lively greens.

There are even more direct ties to Oregon, he was even a professor at the University of Oregon in 1940, a pivotal step for him as it was the first time he was allowed to paint full time. Yet another fact, refuting those who claim nothing of importance has happened in the Pacific Nothwest. Like Cobain, Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, though those two probably couldn't be more different, both had a gift for tragic existentialism.

Guggenheim Bilbao

I also find it interesting that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao is comprised of forms similar to Motherwell's elegies with its horizontal layout but vertical massing and compositional thrust. Bilbao is in the heart of Spain's still disputed Basque region.

Gilbert and George, Muscadet, 1973
29 gelatin silver prints in artist frames, 49 x 27 inches, Private Collection.
Location: 3rd floor, JCMCA Portland Art Museum

PAM also has a great, extremely early Gilbert and George also on loan. It compliments the equally nice Up God in the permanent collection.

 Last but not least Portland is officially jealous of Eugene, which has a nice classic Mark Rothko (who grew up and had his first major solo show in Portland) on display at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on January 15, 2009 at 12:02 | Comments (2)


For the record, it's worth noting that Aberdeen, WA--a town of less than 17,000 people--was also the birthplace of choreographer Trisha Brown, photographer Lee Friedlander, and the software engineer (and art collector) Peter Norton. Ridiculously fertile ground for the arts, apparently.

Posted by: Sam Kidd [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 15, 2009 04:59 PM

I will always have a soft spot for Motherwell.

In 1984, I wandered into the Seattle Art Museum at Volunteer Park (now the asian art museum if I'm not mistaken).

There, in the main atrium, were three large Motherwell paintings. For a 15 year old hip hop grafitti artist, they represented a certain freedom (from size restrictions, from subject matter, from representation, etc...) I hadn't experienced before.

The next opportunity, I headed downtown to see the full show, only to see the work all crated up, ready to be shipped to the next venue. Big bummer.

The next year, I spent a couple of days at the National Gallery in DC, drinking up all the AbEx I could find. It helped make up for missing the Seattle show.

I'll always credit Motherwell for helping to broaden my horizons about what art could be and what artists could do.

Thank you for allowing me to comment.

Posted by: Sean Casey [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 20, 2009 02:46 PM

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