By Roger Hull
Professor of Art History, Willamette University
Faculty Curator, Hallie Ford Museum of Art
This article originally appeared in Oregon Humanities, Spring 2000
Driftage, William Givler, 1949,
Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 35.5, Collection of
Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University,
Salem, Oregon, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund and
Gift of Elaine Bernat and Roger Saydack.
If an Oregon variant of "Regionalist Art" can be identified, it precedes, post-dates, and differs in politics from American Regionalism as usually defined. Oregon's version, if it is a version, began earlier (perhaps as early as 1910 when Harry Wentz joined the faculty of the Museum Art School in Portland), lasted longer (perhaps it is still going on), avoided the political conservatism of mainstream Regionalism, and adopted a collaborative relationship with modernism, rather than rejecting it outright.
Consistently, Oregon's art has explored the abstraction of modernism and used it as the basis of expression about, or in response to, a particular place. In this, Oregon's art parallels the art of the Northeast, particularly Maine, where John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and others created modern art on the basis of the inspiration of a region. Their art is never referred to as Regionalist.
Regionalism, narrowly defined, spans the period between the two World Wars or, in stricter definitions, the Depression era of the 1930s. Narrowly defined, Regionalism is descriptive, realistic art often depicting rural scenes in some version or another of the American heartland. It honored American values and traditions in a period when these seemed to be endangered species. The political position of American Regionalist art was essentially conservative, and this conservatism included its characteristic rejection of modern European art and theory.
By these standards, Oregon's version of regionalism has been idiosyncratic, proto-modernist, politically liberal if political at all, but basically non-ideological. Chronologically, it precedes the First World War and sweeps past the Second. Oregon art has tended to be regionally inspired but not Regionalist in the strict and conservative sense.
An early philosopher of an Oregon regionalism was Harry Wentz (1875-1965), who was born in The Dalles, grew up in Portland, and studied at the Art Students League in New York. He taught at the Museum Art School (now the Pacific Northwest College of Art) in Portland from 1910 to 1941 and, in conversations with painters and architects, inspired a Northwest aesthetic. His beach cottage at Neahkanie, designed by A.E. Doyle in about 1916 under the influence of Wentz's emphasis on the materials and sites of the region, is one of the earliest examples of the "Northwest style" in building.
Wentz's watercolor of Willamette Falls in Oregon City, painted in 1926, is characteristic of his abstracted, consciously simplified renderings of both the natural and industrial aspects of Oregon, shown here in a scene that faces off nature and the hand of man. The composition reflects his teacher Arthur Wesley Dow's advice to paint with broad forms in order to fill the paper or canvas beautifully, and in this approach Wentz positions himself in different territory from the mainstream Regionalists beginning to emerge elsewhere in the country in the late 1920's. "True" Regionalism was more literally descriptive than abstract. In contrast, the haystack of a rock mounded as the left third of Wentz's composition, and the simple geometry of the buildings and the falls comprising the right two-thirds, are shapes and colors as much as description and documentation. Like Dow's other short-term pupil, Georgia O'Keeffe, Wentz paints the local in terms of pattern, shape, and massing--and in doing this transmitted an important lesson to his pupils, who included the brothers Albert and Arthur Runquist and their great meditative poet of Oregon art, Charles Heaney.
Heaney (1897-1981) is known for his prints and paintings of the Northwest landscape, of urban architecture in ruins (his "demolition" series), and of unnamed towns and settlements in inland Oregon. His Eastern Oregon (c. 1950), with its darkening sky, empty road, and isolated scrub tree in lonely conversation with the distant mountain range, is characteristic of Heaney's quiet expression. But it is also a painting about paint and the formal concerns of painting and thus is a modernist work as well as a "regional" one--this being the paradoxical essence of much painting of the Pacific Northwest.
For a succinct definition of modernism in painting, the most frequently cited authority is Clement Greenberg, the influential critic who in his writings in the 1950s and 1960s almost single-handedly established the parameters of modernism and positioned its key players, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, in the canon of modernism. For Greenberg, modernist art was inherently self-reflexive, focused on its own essential qualities. In painting, this meant an emphasis by the artist on "the ineluctable flatness of the canvas" and a general concern for such formal properties as the flat surface of the painting, its square or rectangular shape, and the nature of the brush stroke itself. Although Greenberg did not insist upon complete abstraction, most work he championed was nonrepresentational "pure painting."
Charles Heaney, though far from being a Greenbergian, was nevertheless, like his teacher Wentz, a modernist in his own terms. A painter of place and mood, he was also a painter of great formal abstraction. In Eastern Oregon, the flatness of the painting's surface is emphasized consistently, from top to bottom and side to side, by the crust of pigment that Heaney scraped and brushed across his panel, creating the effect of weathered paint on the flat board siding of an Oregon barn. At the same time, the horizontal strata of the paintwork parallel the top and bottom edges of the painting, again reminding us that paintings, after all, are flat surfaces with definite edges. To the simple anatomy of his painting he adds the curve of the road, the sweep of the mountains, the blotch of the tree--all shapes that accent and add rhythm to this field of paint that is also a scene of isolation along the roadways of Oregon. A regional poet as well as a gracefully sophisticated modernist, Heaney is an archetypical regionalist of the Oregon sort--the sort who responds unabashedly to the particulars of a region but does so in the artistic terms of his era, exploring modernist principles for his own purposes, transcending the debate that resulted for a time in separately classifying "modern" and "traditional" art in the Oregon State Fair art exhibitions of the 1950s. The writer Stewart H. Holbrook described these camps as "the fried-egg, or modern, school" and "the candy-box top, or traditional school" in a 1950 Oregonian essay in which he confessed to an epiphany that undermined his skepticism about the "fried-egg school" and set the stage for his purchase of a major painting by William Givler.
A frequent visitor to Harry Wentz's cottage at Neahkanie, Givler (born in 1908) served as dean of the Museum Art School beginning in 1931, overlapping Wentz's tenure there by a decade. Givler painted numerous beach-inspired works over the years--one of the most romantically sublime of these being Driftage (1949), a scene of surge and flow that captures the dynamism and cataclysmic potential of the Pacific eternally crashing against the mainland. The enormous hunk of "driftage," an upended root of a primeval tree, is a geyser of energy in the left center of the painting, its animate forms echoed in the wave-like shapes of the smaller pieces of driftwood, the waves themselves, the clouds, and the windswept hair and clothing of the female figure on the beach. The seething palette of red, orange, purple, blue, and green with accents of white, brown, and black intensifies the mood to a high pitch of expression that astonished Holbrook: "I never saw, in life, a beach like that portrayed in ‘Driftage,' nor a sky, nor a woman. Yet the total effect was little short of a blow--a scene of a brooding, sinister sky, of chaotic flotsam come to shore, of the figure of a girl who might well have been a witch of the storm, or some siren of the reefs--a scene both foreboding and beautiful, filled with the savage movement of unseen forces, with disturbing forms and colors."
Holbrook's intense response, so imaginative and personal, was confessedly a sea change for him. "I do not know what, if anything, this picture ‘means'; and I did not ask Artist Givler for an explanation. I did not want one. I was content to enjoy what I saw on the canvas, and came to the conclusion…that henceforth I would never attempt consciously to ‘understand' a painting, fried-egg or otherwise…Since seeing ‘Driftage,' I feel much better about the whole business of what is and what is not Art." Givler's painting provided Holbrook and presumably many other viewers with the means of grasping modernist expressionism through regional subject matter.
Givler himself saw Driftage as one of his most important paintings, perhaps because of the intense merger of the region and the modern, and showed the work in a sequence of prestigious exhibitions in the course of the three decades: the Oregon Annual for 1949 at the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Centennial Exhibition of 1959 at the Museum, and the exhibition "Art of the Pacific Northwest" of 1974 at the Smithsonian Institute, Seattle Art Museum, and Portland Art Museum. For Portland, the state of Oregon, and even a national audience, Driftage was presented at auspicious moments as quintessentially Oregon art, modernist and regional, blending and transcending polarities to become an American painting beyond "isms."
In working from regional inspiration to create art of broad appeal, Givler, Heaney, Wentz, and others in Oregon were like John Marin, whose watercolors inspired by the coast of Maine, or Georgia O'Keeffe, whose paintings inspired by New Mexico, came to be seen as American paintings, not Regionalists, or even regional, ones. But Marin and O'Keeffe had the impresario Alfred Stieglitz on their side, positioning their paintings in the canon of American art through skillful combinations of display, promotion, and rhetoric. The painters of Oregon had no clearly defined proponent to promote their works in New York, even though Washington State's version of the "Northwest School" (epitomized by such artists as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Kenneth Callahan) did enjoy national publicity and recognition.
Willamette Falls, Henry Wentz, 1926,
watercolor on paper, 10.625x12.75"
Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University,
Salem, Oregon, Gift of Dan
and Nancy Scneider.
In the 1930s and '40s, Robert Tyler Davis, director of the Portland Art Museum, did promote and, to a degree, export Oregon art--most notably in the exhibition Oregon Artists that he organized for the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1943. Givler and Heaney were included in the 13-person exhibition, and so was Constance E. Fowler (1907-1996) of Salem. A native of Minnesota, Fowler earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at Washington State College in 1929, studied art for an additional year at the University of Washington, and eventually earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1940 at the University of Oregon. In 1935, she was hired by Willamette University to re-invent the art program there, and from her base in Salem she painted and made wood engravings of Willamette Valley landmarks, such as the Parkersville Hotel in Marion County. Far more than nostalgic or "discover America" scenes, her paintings and prints are agitated, expressive images. In Parkersville Hotel (1938), Fowler used heavy impasto combined with scraping and scratching to vary and distress her paint surface, a dark and brooding palette, and visual distortion of her basically realistic subject matter to suggest, almost alarmingly, the darkness and decay that can characterize the Northwest. The darkness of her vision was the antithesis of Givler's euphoric brilliance, but both created art in terms of what the Romantic era called the "sublime" and the twentieth century called "expressionism." For Givler and Fowler, though in different ways, art concerned intense human emotion and the shuddering dynamism of nature, seen as always on the move, always shifting, full of energy beyond human control.
Fowler's Parksville Hotel was made in her most definitely "Regionalist" manner and period. Like many other artists of her generation, she radically transformed her imagery beginning in the 1950s to meet the challenge of extreme modernism. Her painting Prologue (1970s) is based on the painting process itself and the tendencies of paint to flow, drip, and splatter. Yet even in works such as this one, the surface evokes the sheen of an ocean swell and, with the red stains in the lower right corner, the possibility of violence and death beneath the surface--qualities reflecting her fascination with the Pacific coast and her somber expressiveness.Wentz, Heaney, Givler and Fowler are among the numerous Oregon artists who essentially matured as artists within the state and painted in terms of both the region and the emerging tenets of modernism. A different model is of an artist arriving in Oregon in artistic maturity and engaging the region as the means for transforming or expanding an existing developed style. The painter Carl Hall of Salem and the sculptor Jan Zach of Eugene embody this second model.
Carl Hall (1921-1996) was a child prodigy in drawing and while still a senior in high school took up the study of painting with Carlos Lopez at the Meinzinger School of Art in Detroit. There he developed a "magical realist" style, combining Midwest Regionalism and Surrealism, that attracted the attention of collectors and dealers interested in Hall's fusion of meticulous realism and hallucinatory intensity; the famed New York dealer Julien Levy exhibited Hall's work in the years following World War II. Hall first arrived in Oregon in 1942 for military training at Camp Adair in Corvallis. After serving in the Pacific he settled in 1947 in Salem, where he succeeded Constance Fowler on the faculty at Willamette University.
His painting The Slough (1948), depicting Minto Island in Salem, combines descriptive realism with exaggerated perspective, a somber but glistening palette, and fitful lighting--a blend of his Midwest Regionalist style with Oregon subject and atmospheric conditions. It illustrates why Jo Gibbs, the critic of Art Digest, described Hall as a "magic realist": the high focus rendering of the grain of the planks, the rope, and the plants transforms these ordinary details into a heightened state in the manner of Surrealism.
Hall spoke of Oregon as "Eden Again" and set about painting it--especially the Willamette Valley and the coast--in ecstatic, euphoric terms for nearly fifty years. An "outsider," he made Oregon the beloved object of his endless creativity, offering a taut, edgy alternative to the loose, painterly styles of Wentz, Heaney, or Givler, or the brushy turbulence of Fowler. Hall's art, always structured, loosened and grew more fluent over the years--as it begins to do in the classic Willamette Valley view entitled Earth--That is Sufficient (1950).
The sculptor Jan Zach (1914-1986) also brought art from outside and cross-bred it with Pacific Northwest material and forms. Born and raised in Slany, Czechoslovakia, and trained in painting and design in Prague, Zach came to the United States in 1938 to paint murals and design decorations for the Czechoslovak pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939. The Nazis occupied his homeland soon after he arrived in the United States, and he never returned. He lived and worked in Brazil for eleven years, moved in 1951 to Canada, and in 1958 joined the faculty of the University of Oregon.
"Leaving Brazil for Victoria, B.C., the beaches of the Pacific Northwest influenced my ideas of sculptural forms expressed in the twisting and thrusting of trunks and roots of trees," he later commented. Venus (1952) is an early work along these lines. It is the first of several increasingly monumental beach log sculptures that he made in Canada and Oregon, such as the powerful works entitled Resistance (1955) and Persistence (1960-62)--both heroic abstract forms that speak of human valor in face of political oppression. Zach was an international artist who used the materials and forms of the Northwest to express himself about human and political issues of the mid-twentieth century that gravely concerned him as an Eastern European.
The flowing vocabulary of these wood pieces inspired Zach in other media, including cast metals. He is known as well for his series of sleek and luminous stainless steel constructions--light, aerial (sometimes actually suspended and mobile), and gleaming. These pieces are the antithesis of the massive wood carvings and yet, by means of the extreme contrast they provide, help clarify the importance of the "Northwest component" in Zach's work.
During much of the twentieth century, for artists such as Wentz, Heaney, Givler, Fowler, Hall, Zach, and their comrades (including the modernists C.S. Price, Carl Morris, Louis Bunce and Jack McLarty, the Lincoln County painter Ruth Grover, and the Eugene artists Andrew Vincent and David McCosh; the list is long and illustrious), the Oregon region has been hard to ignore as an aesthetic catalyst, as an artistic resource, as the basis for expression of attitudes, feelings, and emotions of relevance far beyond the boundaries of a particular state. Oregon art, often richly inspired by the region, is more complex, modernist, individualized, and original than Regionalist art as commonly defined.
Roger Hull is professor of art history and a faculty curator at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University.
Portions of this essay are adapted from my articles "The Lure of Pacific Northwest Art," American Art Review (February 1999), 168-177, and "Constance Fowler and the Oregon Scene," Historic Marion (Marion County Historical Society Quarterly; Winter 1998) 6-7
Jo Gibbs, "Filling a Promise," The Art Digest, Vol. 22, No. 4 (November 15, 1947), 19
Stewart H. Holbrook, "It's Content that Counts in Painting," The Sunday Oregonian Magazine (January 8, 1950)
Jan Zach Sculpture: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue, Museum of Art, University of Oregon, Eugene, July 1-August 12, 1979)
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