The facade of Robert Graves’s Portland Building is graced by Raymond Kaskey’s Portlandia. It’s a huge sculpture in proportion to it site: just over three stories on a 15-story building. The allegorical figure is based on the City of Portland’s seal.
I have two reasons for posting on Portlandia. First, I admire Kaskey’s determination – ever since the sculpture’s dedication in 1985 – to keep control of the image. When asked why he protected the image so fiercely from use in third-party commercial reproductions (mugs, T-shirts, etc.), he replied, “To make some money – that’s the single best reason. It’s called capitalism.” Any artist who uses “capitalism” in a positive sense deserves kudos.
There are those who can’t fathom how an artist could have any rights to a work on a public building, paid for in part with public money. Personally, I don’t think the government should be in the business of funding art, because I don’t think the government should be deciding which art is and isn’t worth funding. But given that the government does currently fund art, the answer to the rights issue is fairly easy. Had Kaskey been a government employee doing government work, the sculpture would be public domain. However, since Kaskey worked as a private individual, he could and did have a contract that stated what his rights and obligations were. As Kaskey points out here, the city government of Portland passed a law decades ago that allows artists to retain ownership of the images of publicly funded works. He’s well within his rights to require that anyone who wants to use the image of his sculpture for commercial purposes must pay him for the use of it.
The second reason I’m posting on Portlandia is so I can link to Tom Wolfe’s two-page article “The Copper Goddess,” published in 1986, during the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. Wolfe described the celebrations when Portlandia arrived in Portland (description here; pics on the barge and in the streets – fabulous pics, so you damn well better click those links). Then Wolfe went on to speculate what would have been erected in New York Harbor if today’s art experts had been in charge of the project. His list of five shared principles of art experts and his conclusion about what the finished “artwork” would look like are riotously funny and dead accurate, based on what I’ve seen exhibited in galleries in New York City.
Today all art experts share a set of assumptions about sculpture. 1) No more pedestals; pedestals are a grandiose (bourgeois) device to remove the work of art from the people. So at the very outset Miss Liberty loses half of her height … [More here]
- In the final image in this Architectural Digest essay on the Portland Building, you can see Michael Graves’s original sketch of Portlandia.
- According to Charles Bergen in “Architect of Symbol: Raymond Kaskey,” (American Arts Quarterly, Fall 1995), Portlandia‘s pose is based on the 1794 engraving “Ancient of Days,” by William Blake. The Bergen article incorporated a lengthy interview with Kaskey.
- Kaskey’s work also appears as the sculptural decoration on the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago, which includes barn owls (representing knowledge and learning), sculpted heads of Ceres (goddess of grain), putti blowing (the “Windy City”), and swags with produce of the Midwest (squash, pumpkins, wheat).
- Kaskey’s website has images of more of his work. The Wikipedia article on Kaskey has a list of some of his sculptures.
- Tom Wolfe’s books on modern painting (The Painted Word) and modern architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House) are hilarious histories and dissections of modern “art”.
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