BY BRIAN LIBBY
The Portland Art Museum has hosted countless blockbuster exhibitions over the past two decades, from "Imperial Tombs of China" in 1996 to "Hesse: A Princely German Collection" in 2005. But the museum's Mark Rothko retrospective, which opened February 18, is a different kind of blockbuster.
For starters, it's curated by the museum itself (specifically chief curator Bruce Guenther) rather than just a traveling show begun elsewhere. What's more, the show also features the one Portland visual artist to achieve international superstardom, for Rothko stands alongside Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still as one of the great abstract expressionist painters exploding onto the scene after World War II and one of the great American artists of all-time.
The Rothko exhibition at PAM would be enough of a must-see for his historical significance alone, not to mention the arresting, engrossing power of his canvasses: fields of vibrant color and layered paint that not only possess great aesthetic beauty, but also act as spiritual portals - staring into the Rothko works you see in your mind what you want to see, or fear seeing, or never expect to see. For me, it's the continually changing Oregon skies that I see in Rothko's work: the dark gray and deep blue of his later works evoking our rainy season, the vivid tones of his late '40s and early '50s paintings calling to mind the horizon at dusk.
Yet the exhibit itself also gives us the chance to ask: Would Rothko have to leave Portland today in order to achieve the same level of acclaim?
Rothko's family immigrated to the United States from Russia (but what's now Latvia) in 1913 to escape Jewish persecution in the final years of the Czarist regime. But within months of arriving in Portland, where two of Rothko's uncles set up clothing businesses, his father died. Leaning on his mother for support, the 10-year-old Rothko enrolled in a local school and, despite having to learn English as his fourth language, his intelligence allowed him to skip two grades. He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1921. He received a scholarship to Yale University, but dropped out after a year and moved to New York, embracing his career as an artist.
Rothko would return to Portland in 1933 for what became his first museum exhibition, at the Portland Art Museum. It also included works by his pre-teen art class students at a New York Jewish community center. But by this time, he was unquestionably more New Yorker than Portlander. As the Great Depression raged, Rothko's career began to flourish because he lived amongst a fertile environment of fellow artists there. It's not that there weren't artists in Portland; the acclaimed Oregon painter Carl Morris was creating murals and canvasses of both romantic realism and, later, abstraction comparable to Rothko's. Yet Portland in the 1930s would have lacked the truly varied, vibrant art community of the Big Apple. It was in New York in the years just after World War II that Rothko had his breakthrough, dropping the symbolic and representational paintings of his career thus far and embracing the abstraction for which his name would be made.
It's fair to say that Rothko wouldn't have become Rothko had he stayed in Portland. After all, his representational paintings before the move to outright abstraction in 1947 are good but not great. Only in his abstract fields of color, after decades in NYC, did Rothko and his work become immortal.
But would the move to New York be essential today? Or more to the point, would it be so necessary to leave Portland? If an artist of comparable talent to Rothko lived here in Portland now, could he or she achieve the same level of superstardom Rothko did by leaving, only by staying instead?
My native's bias (and that of having gone to New York and come back) notwithstanding, I think so. Even aside from anything Portland may have done since Rothko's time to become a more cosmopolitan city with a robust artist community, the Internet and social media have created immeasurably more avenues for creative output of any kind to be seen.
It's not to say New York and Los Angeles won't always have the biggest media spotlight, or that Portland artists don't migrate there to get famous today. Director/performance artist/writer Miranda July is but the latest example. But our biggest cultural capitols no longer enjoy such domination over second-tier cities because they are no longer the only alternative. In Rothko's heyday in the first two decades after World War II, even Los Angeles was viewed as a backwater burg compared to NYC; it took Andy Warhol's first show, then the emergence of artists like Ed Ruscha to make California cool. Maybe Portland won't always have the kind of oversized pop-cultural footprint for its size that the city enjoys today, but it also feels far different from some isolated colony from which one must return to civilization.
Although Rothko might not have become anywhere near as famous had he stayed in Portland, I wonder if he might have lived longer. Rothko committed suicide in 1970, and maybe his depression could not have been swayed by any change of scenery or environment. After all, that which makes his post-1947 paintings so exceptionally powerful is the sense that he and other abstract expressionists were, however non-representational their forms may have been, giving visual outlet to the knot of sorrow and post-traumatic stress of World War II and the Holocaust. Maybe without being in New York Rothko would not have tapped in to that historical weight so strongly. Maybe he never would have had the epiphany that led from a good-but-not-great painter of symbols and scenes becoming a superlatively great abstract painter. But in Portland he would have had greater distance from historical burdens. He might have looked out at Mt. Hood and the natural world surrounding Portland more resonantly than nature visits Manhattan, and perhaps just that little difference might have allowed him to move on from the pain. Maybe he could have returned to Portland from New York in the late 1960s, when his canvases were beginning to foreshadow Rothko's increasingly hopeless outlook in their desaturated, enveloping darkness.
"(I spent my) youth in front of the endless space of the landscape of Oregon lying covered by wintery snows, in front of the monumental emptiness that is nothingness and at the same time part of it all," Rothko said of his time here. What if he'd spent the 1970s exploring more vibrant hues again in the Rose City?
Admittedly it's a pipe dream. And as Randy Gragg writes in a Portland Monthly article about Rothko and the PAM exhibit, we in this city may be too quick to claim favorite sons not born here and only residing here for a portion of their lives. Maybe Rothko never cared that much about Portland. Yet one sees in his canvases - in their limitless voids - the influence of a climate where the outdoors is always nearby, where clouds can roll through in spring especially with striking theatricality, piercing the gray with crystal blues and whites and yellows. One thinks of the line of generations Rothko is part of at Lincoln High alone, with Looney Tunes voice artist Mel Blanc and Simpsons creator Matt Groening walking the same halls, each a part of an iconic animated world. One thinks of Rothko in his early days painting the Willamette River from the West Hills, and wonders if he didn't have to go quite so early - from this city or from this Earth.
Kurt Cobain famously quoted the Neil Young lyric "It's better to burn out than fade away" in his suicide note. We tend to chalk up great artists' suicides to a romantic notion of the line between brilliance and madness. But personally, I feel less attracted to Young and Cobain's vision about death than Woody Allen's. Asked if he wanted to achieve immortality through his art, Allen said he'd rather achieve immortality through not dying.
Maybe the alchemy of Rothko's abstract paintings wouldn't have lasted even he had lived, but I like to imagine Rothko returning to Portland later in his life, if he hadn't committed suicide, like legendary architect Pietro Belluschi did. Freed from the expectations of hugely scaled, high-profile commissions during his years in Cambridge, Massachusetts (as dean of MIT's architecture school) like the Pan-Am Building or Lincoln Center in New York (two name two Belluschi commissions of the 1960s), he returned to Portland and designed an exceptional late-career portfolio of churches and houses.
Gus Van Sant also has left Portland at times only to return, and to remain rooted in community here - staging films locally and getting involved in charity. An aging Rothko could also have done similarly - mentored the city's art community, and perhaps attracted some of the major buyers Portland otherwise largely lacks even today. As it happens, the visual art scene is thriving here, but having Rothko as a part of the everyday fabric might have been transformative or at least impactful. If he was willing to teach art to children at a community center in New York for so long, how many people here might have been touched? Luckily though, as this comprehensive and exceptional Portland Art Museum retrospective reminds, there are always the paintings themselves. The collection is borrowed from a variety of museums and private collections, so it's not something that can remain here for long. But hopefully in time the museum, or another one here, will have a broader permanent collection of Rothkos of its own.