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Portland Rothko Retrospective Brings Artist Home

Posted: 03/27/2012 7:00 am

When your room key features a black and white photo of Betty Ford dancing on the Cabinet Room table, you have to figure you're probably not in an ordinary hotel. Other hints would be the room service menu that offers Thai food, even at 3 in the morning, or the spiritual menu that dispenses every piece of religious literature from the Talmud to the Koran.

Yes, I'm at the Hotel Lucia, the downtown Portland, Oregon boutique hotel that doubles as an art museum. I'm here not to gawk at Hotel Lucia's art, though I certainly did, but for the rare opportunity to take in a Mark Rothko retrospective at the Portland Art Museum. Not many people know this about the artist whose color-saturated abstract paintings made him so famous, but he grew up here (after immigrating from Russia with his family) and took his first art class here. In fact, his first one-man show, staged in 1933 long before his paintings sold for tens of millions of dollars, was curated at the very museum hosting this current show, 45 pieces that trace his work from the late 1920s until shortly before his 1970 suicide.

Curator Bruce Guenther assembled the impressive exhibit from private collections, museums, the National Gallery of Art and Rothko's children that famously sued to reclaim the nearly 800 paintings in his estate. Thankfully, they were successful in securing the return of all but 100 paintings such as "Homage to Matisse" that sold in 2005 for a record $22.5 million and "White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)" that broke that record two years later, selling at Sotheby's for $72.8 million. The Portland retrospective moves from his early figurative works to the brooding Subway Scenes he painted while employed by the WPA to the transcendent abstractions that insured his legacy.

That Hotel Lucia is running a special Rothko promotion is not a big surprise. This chic and stylish hotel has developed quite a reputation with its permanent exhibit of 680 black and white photos from the portfolio of another Portland artist, Pulitzer-prize winning photographer David Hume Kennerly. In every corridor, guest room, bathroom and even elevator, Kennerly's stunning photographs tell the story of American politics from Nixon on. In fact, it was a bit disconcerting sleeping in a bed so close to Dick Cheney and Leonid Brezhnev. Luckily, Seinfield's Kramer (er, Michael Richards) and Ansel Adams also weighed in. Even Lucia's fitness center and business office where I printed out my boarding passes showcased art, colorful pieces by Portland artists Mike Russo and Gregory Grennon.

Included in Lucia's Rothko promotion are tickets to the Portland Art Museum, a $20 certificate to the museum's gift shop and two "Red on The Rocks" cocktails, designed to look just like a Rothko painting.

The Rothko respective runs at Portland Art Museum through May 27.

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