by Tyler White
Making my way up the elevator to the PICA office, I envisioned the doors opening and a dramatic scene from Portlandia would be on full display—a multigenerational meeting ground of old art connoisseurs and young millennials on their latest culture trip. Instead, I was greeted by two sincerely genuine and engaged women. Roya and Kirsten introduced me to their space.
It was quite odd to think of an art institution dedicated to providing a space for the untraditional artist to express the experiences of a life more nuanced than the narratives reinforced by a narrowed presentation of their lives across media platforms. But such an art institution lives in PICA. This seemed to be encompassed in Bob Nickas’ 100 Years/100 Paintings.
The event was started off by the fantastic, longtime PICA Visual Art Curator, Kristan Kennedy. Her mention of putting on shows as early as the spring of 2017 in PICA’s new location at 15 NE Hancock, surely struck a chord with the audience, along with myself. To imagine a major art institution, having roots on Portland’s east side, especially in North Portland, is not quite hard to fathom, given the recent barrage of gentrifiers, but instead, the new space is large and inclusive. Roya and Kirsten explained to me their meticulous establishment of the space. Starting as a donation, there is a sense of responsibility to uphold the history of the physical warehouse, that the space is occupying, but also to be transparent with the surrounding community. For so many of us there, we would now be able to enjoy an abstract dance interpretation without having to cross a bridge.
Nickas crossed a plethora of bridges, transitioning from one year to another. He dived straight in. Beginning with a lead painting, that had been the face of the screen for the initial mingling moments before the program had begun, by a black female artist in the White House and one of the only present by artists of her identity in the President’s home. Joking, Nickas made a comment, saying, “hope the painting is still hanging next year.” One must keep in mind, this was the Monday before the election, and the results had not been solidified. Now they are. And Nickas may be right, it might not be hanging next year.
100 Years/100 Paintings is Nickas’s collection of some of the most personally resonating and memorable art pieces from 1915 to 2015. In some way, each piece conveyed a greater sense of significance to the curator than many others of the time. Deferring from the clichés, Nickas incorporated pieces from some of history’s most prominent artists that few had been introduced to. For me, the incorporation of Grant Wood’s portrait of the sheer simplicity of the American landscape, with distant and near rolling green hills, transported me to American Midwest. I was able to envision life in the 20th century, in the rural foothills of Iowa.
Defying strict, structured time periods and artistic movements, Nickas provided a visceral truth: “all art is made at all times.” This resonated with me. Forced me to question, what made this 100 Years/100 Paintings list? Who decided each artistic movement and categorized the raw, indicative representation of that artist’s world, that artist’s self? The late Jean-Michel Basquiat—an abstract weaver of political and social artistic architecture—who was a dear friend of the equally, but more prominent, visionary Andy Warhol—was not taken seriously during his tenure as an artist. To this day, almost no major museums or institutions hold his work. MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, turned down his work on numerous occasions, until recently, when they purchased some of his pieces for 14–15 million dollars. Yet, they refrained from purchasing his 1980s work. The irony of this situation plagues me. At the time of gaining success and popularity, Basquiat could not be taken seriously. His work was not thought of as worthy to MoMA, until it was. What caused that shift? Who has the power to dictate the popularity of artists? Basquiat is not considered in some artists’ movements, and yet is considered an artist. He himself created a reality. One that did not need the validation of a traditionally white field to verify a young black man’s expression on a condition true to him. A similar sentiment is shared by Norman Lewis. Lewis entered the list in 1947, with a piece that took well over sixty years to receive its due recognition. Occupying the identities of being black and an artist, prove to continually contradict a place of recognition in the artistic canon.
Stories like these are the ones so widely left out of the conversation. Nickas opens this space up.
1927 was dedicated to Frida Kahlo. Her portrait of a grand, white woman, beautiful and starkly set against her dark background was an outlier of Kahlo’s work. Usually professed her paintings as being of herself, self-perpetuating. This painting came before Kahlo’s fame, illustrating Nickas’s notion that artists always produce their best works before they reach fame. Kahlo further embodied Nickas’ idea that Frida would not make it in the art world.
Commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in 1933, Diego Rivera was asked to create a mural for the Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller himself had been asked, as the third artist consulted after Matisse and Picasso could not take on the project. Rivera created a mural or fresco, by the name of Man at the Crossroads. Before its completion, Rockefeller ordered the piece to be destroyed. One would wonder why, of course. Man at the Crossroads was an anti-capitalist mural that was composed of strong multicultural themes, featured Engels, Marx, Trotsky and Lenin, possessed complex examples of human’s influence on civilization, humanity’s progress, and throughout time, the destruction of war, as told through the impacts of World War I, encompassed people of all shades and backgrounds. The beauty and individualism of each character is almost other-worldly. Rivera’s talent is strongly conveyed in this piece. However, the pieced was covered and destroyed by the dismayed Rockefellers. Not deterred, Rivera finished his mural in Mexico City, renaming it Man, Ruler of the World. The piece lives on as legacy, as a physical embodiment of not conforming to the ideals of the majority, of those in power.
The pieces of Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, and others contained a level of complexity. O’Keeffe’s The Lawrence Tree of 1929 provided great confusion over its orientation. When she came across it at an exhibition, she discreetly turned it to its correct position. The confusion ceased. Picasso’s work of 1923, which featured a solider, caused many to question whether or not it was unfinished. The other paintings featured criticism from Nickas. The 1941 Grandma Moses painting, Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey, was said by Nickas as having a great upper half and the bottom being less than.
Throughout his lecture, Nickas made a point to further explain the less conventional story of the artist. Many masterpieces came from troubled Mexican women, Cuban cubists, Black men who had no place in the canon of contemporary art greats, artists devoted to using their talents to comment on their current social climate and paintings misleading in title, but inclusive in interpretation. I found myself continually questioning whether or not I was hearing from an art historian.
Nickas, a more than well-accomplished figure in the art world, made every word and idea so accessible. Having had very little formal experience in the language and verbiage of art, I was able to follow along. Beside the occasional mention to ‘pre-realism’ art or ‘post-modernist paint strokes,’ I could connect ever so easily with the story of the painting projected on the slide. Once again, PICA has come to defy the usual art event as being the stigmatized paintings of random red lines, followed by an overly complex analysis of its meaning. Instead, I could follow. I could understand and even, learn. How amazing of an idea.
With the depth of each painting and year, it was almost impossible to understand every aspect of each respective painting in the two and a half hour lecture. Yet, each piece has a distinct place in my memory. The years harmoniously come together into a symphony of art’s dynamic power, to heal and anger, to articulate and interpret, to orate a story that has yet to be told and told differently with each person. That is the power of art.
Thank you, Nickas.