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Thursday 10.17.13

« Brenna Murphy at Upfor | Main | Suzanne Opton at Linfield College »

Bridge named after Rothko?

Bridge_trimet_selection_aerial_looking_north444.jpg

Trimet is taking public input for the naming of the exciting new transit, pedestrian and cycling only bridge over the Willamette.

I find bridges the most conceptually appealing form of infrastructure... they speak to our ideals, hopes and manifest existential metaphors physically in a way a street or park doesn't do as poetically. That said, this new bridge could be named after a general or some politician but as I've mentioned before should be named after Mark Rothko, who is Portland's most famous son... and remains unacknowledged in any memorial within the city (Portland's inability to acknowledge him is an embarrassing holdover from the city's more provincial attitudes, that have thankfully faded over the past 15 years). The fact that Rothko was a Russian immigrant Jew who rose to become one of the most consequential artists of all time should be enough but Rothko himself had quite a connection to the site as the western side of the bridge was host to numerous Jewish business and homes (including Rothko's family). He even painted the site and had a special fondness for mass transit.

Rothko_neighborhood_bridge_1.jpg

The bridge naming would be is especially fitting since the artist spent considerable time crossing back and forth across the Willamette (usually the Burnside Bridge, under which he sold newspapers).

For more information, Rothko's time in Portland was assiduously studied by our own Arcy Douglass here. I believe his sense of tragedy and atmospherics can in part be directly attributed to growing up under Portland's dramatic skies as well as life shaping events like his father's death. What's more he had his first major solo show at the Portland Art Museum, which also held a retrospective last year. Rothko took his first art classes at the Museum school (now PNCA) before leaving for Yale.

rothko_portrait101.jpg
Mark Rothko, 1961 (c) 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2008

Lastly, this needs to be done tastefully and should originate from artists with an abiding love for both the work and a human interest in the struggles that Rothko endured here (not some crass political campaign so I'm not going to organize this too much). To avoid provincialism or pantomime the bridge should not be made to look in any way like a Rothko painting, but it is an important way for the city to rediscover its history through planning for the future (via the bridge).

Portland is now a creative hub with many other immigrants and needs to remind itself that those roots run deep. This frankly would mean nothing to Rothko's reputation but it would redress the provincial, "he left so he didn't like us so we dont like him" mantra that was helped along by the historically out of date Breslin book (Breslin was not a Historian). Instead, it is far more complicated than that. Rothko returned repeatedly, even for his first honeymoon and desperately wanted his family to approve of him becoming an artist. He was a product of Portland's Jewish intellectual community, how else could an immigrant end up being accepted to Yale? He always had a tie to Portland and a friend from Lincoln High School proved to be the most important connection he had to wider cultural circles even when he was on the East Coast. At one time Rothko even considered becoming an engineer so there is something about this kind of structure that fits. Lastly, there is a lot of high level art historical research going into Rothko's once glossed over Portland years (they were difficult and crucially formative).

A naming would acknowledge a great Portlander for the difficulties he faced here (and shaped him) and perhaps help Portland better appreciate the serious artists who currently come here as a serious art hub. Back in Rothko's day one simply had to leave if they were ambitious but today so many use it as a kind of rebel base. Perhaps that is why a lot of us who came here over the past 15-20 years see him as a patron saint? It isn't coattails (there is no tourism in this idea), it is owning up to one's history in a suitable way. Portland has a problem acknowledging greatness and this issue illustrates it perfectly.

The proposal is receiving serious consideration and as a bold idea is more of a test for Portland than Rothko. If Rothko can't get his due in his boyhood and young adult home, then what chance do other Portlanders really have? As it stands Portland's young and ambitious artists still mostly make their names outside of Portland, leaving the official city markers in a perpetual state of catch up.

Naming the bridge after Rothko may or may not happen but it will say a lot about the city itself... capricious, silly, dull, provocative or seriously committed to higher ideals?

Posted by Jeff Jahn on October 17, 2013 at 13:42 | Comments (1)


Comments

I like it Jeff, good idea.
I have submitted a vote for the Rothko Memorial bridge.

Posted by: Thomas K. Conway [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 23, 2013 12:06 PM

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