Inside scoop at the Portland Art Museum

We collared a docent and posed a dozen questions we were dying to ask.
Crosscut archive image.

Top: <i>Mount Jefferson, Oregon, 1891</i>, by Myra Albert Wiggins, part of the Western photography collection at the Portland Art Museum. Bottom: <i>Arrival of the Westerners</i>, Japanese, 17th century.

We collared a docent and posed a dozen questions we were dying to ask.

Trailing along on more than a few fascinating docent-guided excursions through the Portland Art Museum, I always end up wondering what quirky things these insiders know that we mere visitors miss. Enter Carol Isaak, a docent at PAM for the past dozen years who gamely agreed to furnish answers to a dozen questions on the spot, with her erudite answers subject to my paraphrasing.

1. Tell me something about a cool piece of glass.

Glass as art medium is very Northwest. The Portland Art Museum commissioned William Morris to resolve what once was an elevator shaft for the old art school with an installed (permanent) piece. Called Artifact, each segment is made of glass, although it appears to be composed of found bones and vessels. It can be viewed from all four gallery levels.

2. Name a piece that is often misunderstood.

Two pieces in the museum's collection are not what we might assume. The Steerage (1907), the photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz, has become an icon of immigration but actually documents people leaving the United States. Dying Gaul by John De Andrea (nude as the day is long) is a colored, polyvinyl sculpture based on a Roman copy in marble of a Greek warrior. It's sometimes thought to have been created during the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a symbol of the disease's many lost lives but was actually created earlier than assumed, in 1984.

3. What hot spots in the museum are often overlooked?

  • New, challenging pieces frequently appear at the top level of the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art. They are temporary exhibits assembled by the chief curator to stimulate imagination and offer Northwesterners a view of what other folks are looking at that is original and thought-provoking.
  • In the lower level of the Belluschi Building, there are galleries dedicated to works on paper. The exhibits are often spectacular. (Currently there is an exhibit of works on paper by Leonard Baskin, a mid-20th century American sculptor, sometime painter, and often-times printmaker.)
  • A series of galleries in the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art are specifically for photography. This is the largest designated space for photography west of the Mississippi, reopening after a re-installation on Sept. 7.

4. Is there any cow art?

Would you settle for a sterling-silver boar on a plate? Boar by Gianmaria Buccellati is dated 1995.

5. Is there a piece of art that challenges a cultural stereotype?

Remember that the term art means any number of things to us. In some cultures there is no word for art; everything is made with artistic inclination, intention, or focus. Also, things made for everyday life in the Native American world or things made as tomb objects in Chinese culture – these were not made for the coffee table or the mantle. One piece that brings home how this difference can result in cultural stereotypes: In the Native American galleries, there is an enormous trough carved from a hollowed-out tree in the shape of a reclining human. It was used for community ritual meals. Christian missionaries assumed the Native Americans were cannibals when they talked about eating from the body.

6. Is there any hidden art?

Pull-out drawers in the second-floor ArtInsight Resource Center have charming treasures for everyone to discover.

7. What other forms of art or artifacts, beside the traditional paintings and sculpture, can be found in the Portland Art Museum?

To name a few: objects made of silver, ancient glass, Cameroon sculpture, Native American, South and Central American objects, including ritual and everyday garments, masks, and baby boards; the sculpture court's contemporary work; a small double aisle of contemporary crafts.

8. What's an unusual item owned by the museum and not on display now?

Every museum is a collection of collections. Folks donate something precious to the museum; it goes through a selection process and there can be long stretches of time between exhibits of any one object or collection. There's a collection of lace stashed in a museum vault that even longtime docents haven't seen.

9. What is one of the most valuable pieces? Something interesting, not just a big ticket.

Many visitors want to see Monet's Water Lilies (1914-15), but then there's The Coming of the Westerners, the double six-panel screen, one of the most interesting and valuable objects in the museum. It has visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art but is currently re-installed in the PAM Japanese Gallery. It tells the story of the Portuguese explorers coming to Japan in the 1500s by ship to trade with (and convert) the Japanese, bringing goods from China and taking home things that were Japanese-made.

10. What do we have that's better than the same item owned by some hot-shot museum in Europe?

PAM's stele (a terrific crossword puzzle or SAT word; a bonus for readers who get this far) was actually a stone door to an early tomb and is in better condition than those fragments in the Guimet Museum in Paris. (Hint: Find the jugglers, the acrobats, and the drummers. Then find the severed limbs.)

11. Anything interactive?

  • There is a piece in the contemporary galleries, Locations by Richard Artschwager, that asks you to go on a limited scavenger hunt and find the other objects in the room which duplicate its shape. (Hint: There are five objects and the shadow of one.)
  • There is only one piece of sculpture that you are invited to touch: Night Truck, which is made of steel and rocks when pushed, like a truck going down a bumpy road.
  • There is a Claes Oldenburg sculpture for which you can push a button and it will slowly inflate. It is an enormous hot water bottle.
  • There is a Calder mobile that moves as the air in the room swishes by.

12. Is there anything that makes noise?

Literally speaking, there are works with a TV set and radio, respectively, which are on all the time. But here's a more intriguing thought: Some folks "hear" certain works of art. The paintings are so rhythmic that these people are moved by the "visual sound," the swoosh or whisper of wind in some abstract work, or drumming, or a particularly favorite melody which seems to duplicate the cadence of the painting. This is good noise.


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