Angela Allen

Mel Bochner, who is 84 and recovering on the East Coast from a prolonged battle with Covid and brain surgery, reflected on a print called Liar in the current Portland show, Mel Bochner: Words Mean Everything.

The print exhibit is hanging at the 4,000-square-foot The Schnitzer Collection, 3033 N.W. Yeon Ave., in Portland, a portion of Jordan Schnitzer’s warehouse that is home to his 22,000 pieces of artwork, much of it post-World War II prints and multiples. The Bochner show, only the second exhibit in the space, opened in the front part of the warehouse (not in the storage area) June 1 and will be up through October.  Hours are noon to 5 pm Thursdays through Saturdays, with private tours available. The  warehouse storage space is closed to the public.

This particular print that came to Bochner’s mind — and his most recent work and that of the show ranges in various printmaking media from etchings to monoprints to engravings to silkscreens — is timely. One version, a 2010 etching with aquatint, 31 inches by 23 7/8 inches, is a list of words that runs vertically down the paper in Bochner’s characteristic bold block handwriting. The list begins with “Liar, Prevaricator, Fabulator, Deceiver, Plagiarizer, Perjurer” and gallops down the paper with dozens of other synonyms for liar. “Equivocator, Conspirator, Counterfeiter, Collaborator, Bamboozler, Cheater, Charlatan” hang circled outside the list with arrows suggesting they, too, belong with the synonyms for liar. Two other more compact 2008 editions (30 1/2 inches by 22 1/2 inches) are on display in the Portland show.

Now, 16 years after he made the first Liar work, Bochner realizes how prescient his word art is. Lying is routine these days, part of American culture and politics, and more precisely, the core of Trump’s party line.

“My job is keeping up with my work. I’m always slightly behind my work,” Bochner said by phone in June in a conversation with OAW and Schnitzer, adding that he keeps a low profile these days and has revealed in various interviews that his modest profile is not new. His humble beginnings include a father who was a sign painter in Pittsburgh and exposed him to brushes, bold handwriting, paint, turpentine, and other tools of his future work. The younger Bochner hated helping out as a kid, but the habits of sign-making reside in his DNA and artistic development.

In the same phone conversation, Schnitzer told Bochner that he is “humbled and honored” to have and display his art. It is common for Schnitzer to have personal relationships with the artists whose works he collects. He has kept in touch with Bochner throughout the exhibit, recently invited him to Oregon, and has 168 pieces of Bochner’s work, mainly prints in his collections. He began collecting Bochner’s work in 1993, long after Bochner was called a conceptual artist, breaking with the Abstract Expressionists. Forty-two prints, many of them quite large and painterly, are in the Portland exhibit. The Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa, Ok., hung 53 pieces in an earlier similar exhibit.

Out of the effort came the handsome book, Amazing! Mel Bochner Prints: From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family FoundationPacked with interviews, printing explanations-–such as the difference between a single impression monoprint, of which many pieces in the show are, and an aquatint—and reproductions of Bochner’s art from his early work in the late 1950s until now, the volume is 260 pages long. Bochner’s 2011 print, AMAZING!, (an oft used word these days with prints in the show) is just that, with such words running together in large vividly colored print as BREATHTAKING, GROOVY, COOL, MIND-BLOWING and OMGYESS! (not to forget Valley Girl lingo).

“Jordan publishes exquisite art catalogs, simply to ensure this documentation is available,” said Azure Attoe, program and outreach manager for the Schnitzer Collection.

BOCHNER’S LEGACY

While Bochner, who studied fine art and philosophy, calls some of his prints “juicy and gushy” with the interaction of paper, press and paint, Schnitzer adds the work is surrounded  by “emotion and creativity … it is a perfect exhibit for this time with the partisan debate in our country.”

Earlier, at the show’s May 31 Schnitzer Collection VIP opening, Schnitzer said that the artist’s ‘word art’ “may be Bochner’s greatest legacy. It’s whimsical, eye-catching and thought-provoking.”

The prints in the show, made with various techniques at Two Palms Press in New York, are democratic. He has stuff for Jews, Wasps, Blacks, youth, you name it, Schnitzer says. Take Bochner’s 2016 Kvetch piece, that begins with the giant magenta word, “KVETCH.” and descends into “BITCH AND MOAN, VENT YOUR ANGER,”  ending  with “THROW A SHIT FIT” — all in giant capital letters from Bochner’s steady hand. Or the 2015 piece Money, with such words as “MOOLA, GELT, BOODLE, GRAVY, BIG BUCKS, SCRATCH,  LUCRE, ROOT OF ALL EVIL.”

Such a far-flung vocabulary pretty much covers how Americans try to communicate. Regarding his word obsession, Bochner reads a lot  but doesn’t do crossword puzzles. His love of words is “romantic,” he said. “It’s thrilling to find a new way of saying things.” And of course he spends a lot of time with Roget’s Thesaurus, one of his original inspirations for his colorful word art, in which he doesn’t leave out the visual power of “BLAHBLAHBLAH,” illustrated in the show’s pieces.

This artwork, Schnitzer says, is “magical, lyrical, with depth and breadth.”

SCHNITZER’S STYLE

Schnitzer defines his collecting style as “passionate.” A story he often tells is that he has been buying art since he spent $75 of his savings from his  $5-a-week allowance at 14 years old on a Louis Bunce print called Sanctuary from his late mother Arlene Schnitzer’s Fountain Gallery of Art. And if the house were burning down, he’d save the Bunce, he insists. He has never been talked into buying anything. “I only buy what I love,” he mentioned in a previous interview with Oregon Arts Watch about the 2022 Art of Food exhibit at his Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. (The Art of Food is now at the Parrish Art Museum in Watermill, NY, and from Aug. 20 through March 8, 2025, will hang at the Washington State University’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Pullman, Wash.)

Schnitzer prides himself on loaning his art, free of charge, to museums, most of them smaller operations rather than the biggies like the Met or Museum of Modern Art, which have more robust budgets and more access to high-end art. He has loaned pieces to 180 exhibits, including those in his three Jordan Schnitzer university museums (University of Oregon, Washington State and  PSU) and to 120 museums. The list goes on and on. His staff coordinates framing and then ships the art it sends out.

Attoe, programming director with the Schnitzer Collection, has been working with collectors since 2000. “In all my experience, I have never encountered a collector who does as much to share art as Jordan. His teaching collection is constantly expanding, and he never sells any pieces. The storage area for his collection surpasses even the best museum storage facilities I’ve seen. Artists are assured that their work will be shared with museums. Jordan collaborates with curators to make the collection accessible free of charge.”

This summer, works from Schnitzer’s collections are in a Christie’s Los Angeles show, When Art is a Mirror: Reflections on America 1965-2023; at Bend’s High Desert Museum in shows Near, Far, Gone, and later at the same institution in, Rick Bartow: Animal Kinship. He is contributing prints to a Terry Winters show at Indiana University’s Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art in Bloomington, Ind., and others to a Jeffrey Gibson exhibition at Kennesaw State University’s Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art in Kennesaw, Ga.  His David Hockneys will go up in November at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s David Hockney: Perspective Should Be Reversed.

THE COLLECTION

The Schnitzer Collection — its fancy name — started out as Jordan Schnitzer’s warehouse, which it still is, and as a space for private viewings, but it turned into a public space in 2023 after Schnitzer largely funded the citywide Portland Art Biennial Converge 45, and installed We Are the Revolution from his collection. It was a success, many viewers saw it, and as Schnitzer said, “We might as well keep running the operation.”

That launched the Schnitzer Collection as a 4,000-square-foot  permanent space for art to open to the public, adding to the three university museums he has funded. The Schnitzer Collection, however, is solely run by Schnitzer; the museums that he started are run by the universities where they reside. All venues exclusively display his collected art. The Schnitzer collection space is large, open and prime for big events, especially those aimed at younger viewers.

In its first eight months, the Schnitzer Collection counted over 5,000 visitors, relying primarily on Instagram and word-of-mouth, said Attoe, who owned an experimental artspace from 2021-23 in downtown Portland. To draw people to the warehouse, she and her staff engaged community influencers from various fields, who then brought in large groups from their networks, she said. The staff hosted multiple Nike events, attracting young creative professionals, and facilitated visits from hundreds of high school and college students, with Schnitzer funding bus transportation.They created monthly “type-in” and ‘zine events. A local gold- and platinum-winning musician, Jonny Cool, makes original music for the monthly events.

“As for attracting younger audiences, there’s really been no challenge,” said Attoe, whom Schnitzer credits with bringing in younger audiences. “Young people are naturally brilliant and drawn to the arts. Our approach was simply to offer compelling programming and open the doors. Portland is hungry for a contemporary art space like the Schnitzer Collection.”

Art reflects the world and prods us to anticipate the future. But Schnitzer’s bottomline reason for making his art available to as many people as he can is simple: Art is for everyone. You don’t have to know everything about the artist. “Let your heart go … let it be your friend.”

Even though he has more than 1,400 Andy Warhol prints and thousands of pieces made by weighty contemporary artists like Bochner, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ellsworth Kelly, Dale Chihuly, Roy Lichtenstein, Damien Hirst, Katherine AceJim Dine, Sherrie Wolf, and new Oregon favorite Peter Gronquist, his hefty collection, generous foundation, longtime family philanthropy, lucrative real estate holdings, and nonstop exhibit ideas don’t bring him the most pride.

His proudest moments involve his connection with his parents, primarily his mother. He tears up when he says it: “It gave her so much joy that I had such a passion for art. She exposed me to it and gave me love for it.”

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