Childe Hassam I
Bill Long 12/11/04
Oregon Retrospective at the Portland Art Museum
For the first fifty years after Statehood (1859), Oregon did not play host to many illustrious painters. One exception was the Boston-born Impressionist painter Childe Hassam, who visited his friend, Oregon attorney C.E.S. Wood, during 1904 and 1908. Many of Hassam's paintings from his two Oregon visits, along with some of his earlier paintings and later etchings, are now on display at the PAM until March 2005. Skillfully arranged by Associate Curator of American Art Margaret Bullock, the Hassam exhibit offers a rare glimpse into the creative process of Hassam when confronted with a new and completely unfamiliar terrain. His paintings of the Oregon Coast around Cannon Beach in 1904 and his Harney County paintings in 1908 give glimpses into the undiscovered Oregon country as well as into the soul of a prominent artist.
How to Review an Exhibit
I decided that before I would pen my own thoughts of the exhibit I would "check out" the review of the Oregonian's art critic, D.K. Row. Though I don't want to get into a row with Row, or if I was dyslexic and confused my vowels, a war with Row, I want to say that I just don't understand him when he writes. Two sentences will suffice. He says that Hassam's work was "sweet, sweet stuff that could send you swooning to the floor or into a hypoglycemic stupor, but never into the heavenly realm of deep contemplation." Huh? Are we trying here to distinguish between various kinds of ecstatic states? Hassam could make you swoon but not give you heavenly contemplative realms? How is this helpful, revelatory or even illuminative? And, what if Hassam does send some into realms of "deep contemplation"? How would we know it if we see it? So, Row's review didn't start out well for me.
I decided to give him one more chance, even though in more than 90% of the articles I read, outlandish or unsupported statements at the beginning set the tone for the whole. So, near the end of the article he talks about the 1914 "Silver Veil and the Golden Gate" by saying that it "is a magnificent sight, but it's almost weirdly cinematic and unreal: Striving to originate a virile American Impressionism, Hassam ended up ushering in a prettier version of the French." Besides the fact that Row uses a host of words that are dangling without clarity (what does it mean that something is "weirdly cinematic?" How is this picture not "virile?"), he leaves us with comparisons that don't register, at least with me (what is meant by a "prettier version of the French?"). I thus concluded, like so many other things in life, that it is worthless for me to read someone else's take on something. Either they don't write clearly or haven't sorted out what they think or they are just being ornery because they can be so with impunity. But the good thing about Row's review is that it forces me to ask the question of how I would review an exhibit.
My Orientation to Hassam
So, how do I approach Hassam? In answering this question, I was forced to consider how I understand my own creative process and my approach to other phenomena of which I know a little. One such other subject is investing. Ever since I began investing in the markets in 1988, I have differed from my investment advisor in philosophy and actual stock picks. He is a "technical" investor--crunching numbers, reading research reports, interviewing corporate CEOs, etc.
In contrast, I coined a new term for the kind of investor I am: I am a "cultural" investor. That is, I don't really care about the numbers, except if there are obvious red flags. I seek, rather, to limn what are the major cultural trends in America, both positive and negative, and put my money there. For example, I concluded in 1995 that Starbucks, then a rather small Seattle-based coffee franchise, was really trying to position itself to sell not just coffee but also a life-style--sweats and informality and good novels and easy listening music-- which would be perfect for the baby boomers. Invest in it.
Or, on the more negative side, I began to see that Costco in the mid 1980s was "supersizing" everything and making it almost prohibitive for Americans not to buy in quantity. I knew that since food was a problem in American life (ever since depression-era parents warned their children about the perils of leaving their food uneaten--that tons of starving children from India would love to eat every morsel), Americans would go crazy over food if it was available to them at bargain prices in huge quantities. And, we have seen 20 years of uncontrolled Costco in American life: obesity is rife as never before. And, Costco stock hasn't performed that badly.
The same analysis would hold for Nike or Ebay or FLIR security systems in the wake of 9/11. Invest in the culture, not in the numbers.
Applying this Philosophy to Art Criticism
So, how does this apply to criticism of art? Simply this way: I look for my own way of interpreting art and Hassam in particular. Certainly it will be informed by large categories that the history of art provides for us (such as Impressionism), but beyond that it seems that you can look at Hassam in a variety of ways. I choose to look at him through the lens of two paintings with which I first became acquainted in the 1970s. I became acquainted with these not so much because of their artistic technique as by the way they portrayed their subject matter. The two paintings are Evening on Boston Common and the Church at Old Lyme, CT. Each of these hit me very hard because of an immediacy of connection that I felt with each scene.
The next essay describes the feelings I had when looking at these paintings, and how it helped me love the work of Hassam.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long