The Oregonian (image at right by Hans Hofmann)
Elizabeth Leach is smiling.
It's a Monday morning -- the last Monday morning when smiles can still come easily, less than 24 hours before the terror of the toppling towers.
And for Leach, whose art gallery is less than a week into its latest exhibition, it's been a good few days. You can tell by the number of little gold stars beside the prints and paintings on the gallery walls, each star signifying a sale.
A good gallery owner is part trend-maker, part teacher, part psychologist, part unrelenting publicist. She's a sleuth, seeking out artists whose work she can believe in. She's a friend, a critic, sometimes an irritant to the artists she represents. She's a guide and curator to the people who walk in the door. She knows what's going on in the art world at large, and she genuinely loves the art she hangs.
But love doesn't pay the bills. If she can't move the product, it all falls apart -- and since the previous Wednesday's opening Leach has moved a gratifying amount of product.
Not just any old product, either. Leach's current show, "Twenty/twenty," is noteworthy for two reasons.
First, it marks the 20th anniversary of Elizabeth Leach Gallery, which has been in its handsome, graciously rambling quarters at 207 S.W. Pine St. for all but its first seven months. It's a remarkably long run for a Portland gallery, harking back to the times when the city had fewer than a half-dozen serious galleries.
Second, it's a really good show. Walk in the door and the first thing you see is a big, gorgeous Helen Frankenthaler painting, 1960's "Figure in a Landscape," which is loose and bold and playful, its energy bursting forth and its bold hues audaciously slapped against a canvas that remains mostly white. In tandem with some bright, almost joyous Frankenthaler prints, it reinforces the emerging view that Frankenthaler is one of the 20th century's best American artists.
And Frankenthaler is only the beginning. "Twenty/twenty" is a celebration of 20th-century abstract modernists, and it echoes seamlessly the Portland Art Museum's show that ended last weekend of works acquired from the estate of Clement Greenberg, the provocative critic who established the international primacy of New York abstractionists such as Jackson Pollock and Jules Olitski. Also included in "Twenty/twenty" are works by Hans Hoffman, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Friedel Dzubas, Sam Francis and Olitski.
The pleasures of "Twenty/twenty" lie in the way these artists wed their clarity of vision and technique to a liberating freedom of movement. "A lot of color," Leach says. "There's a lot of pretty upbeat energy, considering what was going on in those years."
That lightness of being -- or more accurately, that celebration of the pure joy of form and color -- speaks also to America's post-terrorist shock. In the midst of trauma, beauty must not be forgotten. Hoffman wedges his great slabs of paint like fat hoards of pigment. Dzubas sets pure chunks of color into a dancing frenzy. Francis' heroically scaled "Mount of Venus" has the urgent thrust and playful skitterings of an Artie Shaw clarinet solo. The once rigorously abstract Olitski, now in his 80s, has begun to paint lovely, strange, serene landscapes that revisit his Jewish childhood in Russia. Noland's 1981 "Farallons" is a jab of V's on heavy handmade paper, like Joseph's coat of many colors transformed into an arrow. "It's a show of opportunity," Leach says -- to view, to learn, to take pleasure in the midst of sorrow, and, if you can afford it, to buy.
Over the years, and especially in the past five or six, Leach has seen a sharp rise in the city's sophistication about art. "I nearly left in 1986," she says ruefully. "I did a show of Richard Diebenkorn prints, and people said, 'Richard who?' There was no context for national work in Portland. But I'm glad I hung in here. It's an exciting time to be in Portland."
By now, some of her clients even know that the internationally recognized Diebenkorn was born in Portland.
Like a few other Portland galleries such as Augen and Savage, Leach deftly balances a stable of local artists with shows of work by national and international artists. "But, see, for me 'local' is West Coast," she says. "Oregon, Washington, Idaho, even British Columbia. California I keep separate."
One of Leach's goals is to erase what she considers a false distinction between regional and nonregional art. "There was a resistance for a long time in Portland to art that isn't from here," she says. "A lot of the problem with Portland is the comfort level. A lot of artists don't push themselves. The best ones are the ones who are the most self-critical, the ones who kick themselves. There is great talent in this area. And often the best work is by artists who have traveled, who know the context of the time we live in, who are thinking about what they're doing."
When she sees those things, Leach sees an artist she'd like to represent. Some of her artists, such as James Lavadour and Henk Pander, have moved to other galleries. Some, such as Christine Bourdette, Judy Cooke, Drake Deknatel, Mark Smith, Robert Hanson, Stephen Hayes, Horatio Law, Norie Sato and Christopher Rauschenberg, are among the region's best-known.
"I like art that has to do with ideas," Leach says. "So a lot of my (artists') work is abstract. Light and nature and concept. And also, lately, humor. There is a definite strength of ideas. From a Hoffman print to a Judy Cooke, there's something riveting. It's not wishy-washy."
Leach pauses, thinking about 20 years of finding, promoting, selling and thinking about art.
"I think artists that change and evolve," she says, "are ever more important than artists who stay in their rut."
You can reach Bob Hicks at 503-221-8369 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.