Fong with “Provenance” in miniature
Lawrence Fong turns a key on the jingling ring and steps into the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Gallery. It’s a Wednesday afternoon at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, and grey light from the windows casts an even glow on empty white walls.
Perched on a nearby table is another room, this one small enough to fit in a dollhouse. It has the same rectangular shape as the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Gallery, but its walls are dotted with dozens of tiny works of art. Fong squats next to the model.
“This is ‘Provenance,’” he says, peering down as though he’s looking into his own head. The exhibition is a tribute to Arlene Schnitzer, who is Jordan Schnitzer’s mother and a generous museum donor. It’s also Fong’s last show here as curator of American and regional art.
“I’ll be nervous when Arlene walks in this gallery,” says Fong. All of the works are from Schnitzer’s collection, and some were removed from her living room walls for the show. Fong has been working hard to preserve her aesthetic. He even ordered flowers to match the ones Schnitzer keeps in her home.
Fong rises and surveys the mock-up from another angle. If there’s anything he’s learned in his 24 years here, it’s how to look at things from new perspectives and find stories in unexpected places.
The week before, Fong sits down for a latte at the museum’s café to tell his own story, but is hardly in a retrospective mood. He’d rather talk about what he’s doing after he leaves in June, a volunteer gig as treasurer of the Morris Graves Foundation. He’s publishing a book of Graves’ letters this fall, and his head is full of facts about the prominent Northwest artist.
“Throughout his life, he always designed and built environments where he felt he could create,” says Fong. Graves moved four times, including to an 18th century Dublin manor, and ended up in Eureka, California on 200 acres of redwood forest. His last residence is now the headquarters of the Morris Graves Foundation.
Fong pushes up his Ray-Bans and starts on other subjects, deftly covering Mark Tobey, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Cage, with a detour at Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Fong’s monologue would seem like an art history lecture if his tone weren’t so conversational, and if he hadn’t seen or handled most of the art he was discussing. In this roundabout way, the curator tells his own story.
Fong wears jeans and Converse All-Stars to work most days. He speaks with a sort of subdued enthusiasm, his voice low but his words spilling out and tumbling together. It’s easy to guess that he’s from casual California. As a kid he adventured to museums around the Bay Area, but not to see art.
“I loved going to natural history museums and science museums,” Fong says. “There was always something about what they preserved or imparted that intrigued me.”
He studied history and German as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, and planned to live in Germany for graduate school. Instead he drew inspiration from those childhood museum visits and went to the University of Arizona to study cultural history and anthropology.
At UA, Fong read through boxes of documents excavated from Tucson barrios and learned about Navajo blanket weaving. He also took classes in 20th century art and photography, his first exposure to fine art.
Just as he was completing his master’s degree in 1981, Fong’s new knowledge of art landed him a job as an archivist at UA’s Center for Creative Photography. He was set to the task of identifying ten American photographers who would form the base of the museum’s collection. Soon he was handling the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Richard Avedon.
“I got tired of looking at photographs,” Fong said. “A lot of the photographers that we were working with were involved with painters in New York.” Photographers like Charles Sheeler and Alfred Stieglitz formed pathways to almost every movement in American modernism, and Fong journeyed down all of them. After a year as a registrar at the Portland Art Museum, Fong wanted to work with students again and jumped to the JSMA in 1988.
Michele Russo’s “Girl with Daisies,” big and small
It’s Friday, and the walls of the Arlene Schnitzer Gallery are still empty. As Fong strides into the room, painted figures seem to stare up at him impatiently. They lean against the walls, resting the bottoms of their frames on foam blocks.
Though they’re by 27 different artists and span multiple mediums, the works in “Provenance” seem to share a parent. It has something to do with the colors: bright reds and dull pinks crop up often, like expressions of a common genetic code. The pieces are also all by artists who live or lived in the Northwest.
“In terms of Pacific Northwest art, Larry knows everyone and why they’re important,” says JSMA Executive Director Jill Hartz. “The whole idea behind ‘Provenance’ is that just because someone’s regional, it doesn’t make them lesser.”
This has been a common theme throughout Fong’s career. He often positions work by artists from the Northwest next to nationally famous pieces from the same movement. The similarities can be striking, chipping away at notions of the East Coast as the art world’s exclusive center.
“He really thinks things through very deeply, but he’s also intuitive,” says Hartz. “When he suggests something, it comes out of this substantial way he sees the world and the place of art in it.”
Perhaps Fong’s most stunning act of creation at the museum was the museum building itself. When he first arrived at the JSMA, it had only a handful of employees and limited exhibition space.
“It was a very small, very tight crew,” says JSMA Associate Director of Administration and Exhibitions Kurt Neugebauer, who came to the museum in 1995 when it had just 5 employees. “We all wore all of the hats and tried to cobble it together for shows.”
Neugebauer and Fong worked closely on the 2004 renovation, a project that nearly doubled the museum in size. They had to move its 13,000-object collection to a secret location in West Eugene and guard the works during the project.
“Those were some tense times. It took us a year to pack everything up,” says Neugebauer. “It was really bare bones, but Larry and I worked really well together.”
Since then, the museum staff has grown significantly, as have the exhibitions. Hartz started at the JSMA four years ago, and was here for one of Fong’s most elaborate undertakings. The show was called “One Step Big Shot,” and tied Northwest artist and director Gus Van Sant to Andy Warhol through their work with Polaroids. Fong saw parallels in how Van Sant and Warhol used instant photographs as creative seeds.
“It was a really brilliant comparison for so many reasons,” says Hartz, noting Van Sant and Warhol’s connections to gay culture and Van Sant’s identification as Warhol’s reincarnation. “I don’t think he knew that was going to happen when he came up with the idea.” Hartz says Fong tackles all of his exhibitions in a similar way, drawing lines and connecting them in surprising ways.
Fong gets close to Robert Colescott’s “I Dreamed I Was Really Good Looking”
After 19 years and countless exhibitions, Neugebauer is still impressed by Fong’s process. “He can bring in something not expected by people who have not dealt with that subject before,” he says. “He’s good at finding interesting corners on a show and bringing them together.”
Fong says his process is pretty simple. “I’m always interested in doing things that will challenge me to learn more. Choose one thing, something that you’re interested in and that you have the resources to understand,” he says. “That’s my philosophy.”
As for how it feels to leave, Fong hasn’t looked back too hard. “I haven’t thought about how it all makes me feel,” he says. “I can only say that as the museum continues to grow and as people continue to use these spaces, it’s going to change again. So that’s exciting.”
It’s been a week, and “Provenance” is finally up. The show clutters the entire gallery, with sculptures and moveable pylons filling the floor space. It’s not hard to imagine Arlene Schnitzer’s living room in the white space between the works on the walls. The only thing missing is the foliage, and that’s soon to arrive.
Now that the art is resting quietly in place, Fong is nowhere to be seen. His work is done, and he’s left it for visitors to explore.