Several years ago when Jordan Schnitzer was checking out real estate in Tucson, he visited the University of Arizona Museum of Art. He met up with Olivia Miller, interim director and curator of exhibitions, and guess what they talked about?
His artwork—and how they could put together a show.
In 2018, Miller came to Portland and took a look at Schnitzer’s 175 binders of pages representing his almost 20,000 pieces of art. Most are postwar 20th- and 21st-century prints and multiples, but Schnitzer collects just about everything. His collection includes work of about 4,500 artists including weighty contemporary names like David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson and Jean-Michel Basquiat, several of whom have works in the current “The Art of Food” show at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University.
After checking out Schnitzer’s collection, Miller said, “Here’s a theme. Food and art,” which ultimately turned into the current “Art of Food” two-floor exhibition that opened Aug. 30. “At first I thought that idea was pretty stupid,” Schnitzer said in mid-September after the show opened at his 3-year-old museum in downtown Portland.
Then he thought about it, and changed his mind. “About every artist from time immemorial has used food in their art,” he said.
Though he hasn’t made a point of focusing on food-themed art, he has plenty of it in his collection that he started in the mid-‘60s. When he was 14 he bought his first print (a Louis Bunce called Sanctuary) for $75 from his late mother Arlene Schnitzer’s Fountain Gallery of Art in Portland. The print cost $75, but he’s quick to point out that he paid less because of the family discount, and he took several weeks to pay it off with his $5 weekly allowance. “Nobody talked me into buying it, and no one has ever talked me into buying anything,” he said. Nor has he ever sold any piece of art.
The print was the beginning of a non-stop collecting passion that has led him regularly to loan out his art to museums, especially to regional ones that don’t have as much access to show-stopping pieces as the biggies like Museum of Modern Art in New York and Seattle Art Museum. He has loaned his work to 120 to 150 (depending on your source) exhibitions over the years and has a reputation for having one of the best and biggest contemporary print collections in the nation, and possibly in the world. He has three museums on college campuses with his name on them: PSU, University of Oregon and Washington State University. “Art is for all,” he says, and college students are at the best stage in life to start appreciating it.
While putting together the exhibit, which took four years and was interrupted by a year’s break due to Covid, it occurred to Schnitzer and to Miller that food scarcity, especially with the toll of Covid, was a universal issue. The over-commercialization of food, the disconnect between farm and table, the obsession with beautiful and expensive “foodie” food, and how food is grown, packaged and controlled are things we face every day. The current period for the show, which opened in October, 2021 in Tucson, a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, suddenly seemed timely and an ideal fit for Schnitzer’s collection. Hundreds of Schnitzers’ art-related pieces were left out, but 37 artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Damien Hirst, Alex Katz, David Hockney, Alison Saar, Andy Warhol have works in the show. Pieces by four Oregon artists— Sherrie Wolf, Katherine Ace, Chris Antemann and Malia Jensen— are also featured.
With so many artists and their 109 pieces–several, such as Hirst’s multilayered spoof of pharmaceuticals, Last Supper, are series–and with such complex concepts and provocative questions to sort out, Miller decided to divide up the show into themes, she wrote by email, “to get a grip and to break down the huge topic” into digestible parts, such as food as community, controlling food sources and pure visual delight, as in the “Eye Candy” category. She did a stellar job.
Depending on where you start to wander through the exhibit, you will see such themes as “Community.” In this group, find Claes Oldenburg’s ironic plaster sculpture of a piece of wedding cake called Wedding Souvenir. Can you imagine eating this? Another grouping, “Disassociation,”includes Warhol’s 1966 series of screen prints depicting repetitive frames of a cow, called Cow. Can we separate eating meat from the living animal? the piece asks.
“Control” is another theme, showcasing ideas about who has access to food. Corwin “Corky” Clairmont’s 1946 Tarsand Trout is a print of a fish, half in the water, half out. The half that is out of the water is a skeleton, ruined and gutted by black tar from mining operation. Clairmont ’s piece poses questions about Native food destruction and who controls the food chain.
Oregon artist Jensen’s plaster of paris Butterscape is a seemingly obvious stick of butter except that if you look closely, its top is crushed from someone wedging the heel of his or her hand into it. Is butter more than something to eat? It falls into the “Food for Thought” category.
The “Eye Candy”-themed corner is a place to stop and stare at Antemann’s intricate porcelain sculpture called Covet, based on 18th-century dining culture. It shows an elaborate table filled with pastries and fruit, trumped by a woman on all fours as the centerpiece dish of the day. Antemann, who lives in Eastern Oregon and travels to Germany to collaborate with the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, has a lot to say about gender roles, and uses food and the decorative arts to make her points. A favorite piece of Miller’s, who chose Covet to be in the show early on, the work “can be explored in many ways,“ Miller said. “The miniature foods on the table and the behaviors of the figures make it a fun piece to explore, yet at the same time Antemann is calling on a long tradition in porcelain that has its own interesting history.”
Wolf’s vivid First Harvest and Ace’s oil of Cupid and Psyche with Cut Apple are among several pieces that make your mouth water—not the point of the show, but a delightful side kick. The “Still Life” section includes Ellsworth Kelly’s subtle mid-’60s Suite of Plant lithographs and Donald Sultan’s Black Lemon aquatint etching, a particular favorite of Schnitzer’s. “Elixirs and Libations” features Jasper Johns’ Untitled (Coca- Cola and Grid) 1971 lithograph that screams with familiarity due to the ubiquitous Coke logo.
The newest piece in the show, Donuts, a piece by Jensen, is a last-minute add-on for the Portland exhibit. Schnitzer purchased it recently and is thrilled that it found its way into the show. A white kiln-glass pile of “donuts,” it’s a visual metaphor that plays off the trendy food. The artist combines tongue-in-cheek humor with acute observation. Salt Lick, a second work from the same series, is also in the exhibition.
“The Art of Food” is brilliantly hung at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University in downtown Portland. Don’t expect to get hungry, though, while you’re ambling through, free of charge. You’ll do more thinking than craving food.