Jordan Schnitzer, an Oregon real estate developer with leadership roles in the Portland Jewish community, makes no special effort to meet the artists whose works are part of his vast contemporary collection.
The concern is that personalities might distract from the creative expressions he admires.
Ellsworth Kelly, painter and printmaker as well as sculptor, did make a special effort to meet Schnitzer, known for acquiring Kelly’s works and initiating exhibitions to showcase works of many other artists.
The intent was to add to Schnitzer’s holdings and encourage sponsorship to tour them.
Schnitzer, after accepting an invitation to visit the artist’s studio in New York State, was glad that Kelly’s intellect and humanity could be admired as much as the iconic designs which he then agreed to showcase.
Many of the Kelly prints that became part of the Schnitzer holdings before and since that visit can be seen May 24-Sept. 8 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where Schnitzer is scheduled to speak this evening in a dinner program introducing the display.
“Ellsworth Kelly: Prints” has become one of 10 traveling exhibits initiated by the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, which has put together more than 80 exhibits that have been shown at more than 50 museums. “Ellsworth Kelly’s art reflects the issues, mores and values of post-World War II America,” Schnitzer explains during a phone conversation from his home state.
“While I collect the works of 250 artists, his work has a particular effect on me that is transformational. When I’m in a room with just one of his pieces, let alone this exhibit with 130, I feel an inner calm, almost a meditative state. “He takes forms and shapes and colors around for thousands of years and puts them together with his own personal style and message.”
Kelly, turning 90 on May 31 and still working, has developed more than 330 editions of individual prints. This spring, galleries all over the world are presenting his work in celebration of his birthday.
While best known for colorful geometric images, Kelly simultaneously has worked on black and white projects. He has used a realistic drawing style to create plant and flower lithographs as well as portraits.
The DIA exhibit, showing the breadth of Kelly’s prints, also will feature a film about the artist. Richard Axsom, who has taught art history at the University of Michigan, will discuss the exhibit in a free presentation at 7 p.m. Friday, May 24.
Axsom has written The Prints of Ellsworth Kelly: A Catalogue Raisonne and edited Letters to Ellsworth, a compilation of tributes from friends and critics requested by Schnitzer. Both books will be available at the DIA.
Black and White, one of Kelly’s large oil paintings in the DIA collection, will be on view during the Motor City showing. “Ellsworth Kelly is one of our greatest living artists,” says Nancy Sojka, DIA curator arranging the exhibition originally organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“He has had a sustained career with impact on contemporary styles. He wants his work to look easy, but he demonstrates an astounding thought process.”
This will be the third extensive Kelly exhibition in Detroit, with additional support provided by Dede and Oscar Feldman, Marjorie & Maxwell Jospey Foundation, Lisa and Robert Katzman, Marianne and Alan Schwartz, Marc Schwartz, Lori and J. Patrick Stillwagon, Ileane and Bruce Thal, and the city of Detroit.
The DIA, one of four venues to feature Kelly’s first retrospective, in 1973, opened his first prints-only retrospective in 1987 before its countrywide tour.
The current display, covering the 1960s to the present, will bring Schnitzer to the DIA for the first time.
“I will talk about why I started collecting and why this artist in particular,” says Schnitzer, 62, president of Harsch Investment Properties and the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.
“I love contemporary art because it speaks to our time. It is the art that’s been produced during my lifetime.
“Works on paper often are thought of as a distant relative of oil paintings and sculpture, but for me, all of an artist’s work is important. With Ellsworth Kelly, the graphics are so powerful.”
Schnitzer, who grew up in Portland, became interested in art through his mother, Arlene Schnitzer, who owned
a gallery that introduced artists of the Pacific Northwest. Her son made his first artistic purchase when he was 14, choosing Sanctuary by Louis Bunce.
Schnitzer’s interest in contemporary works grew while he served on the board of the Portland Art Museum. Stopping to look at one special print exhibit, he decided to enlarge his holdings with works by artists outside home territory, such as Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.
“I’ve become the largest private contemporary print collector, and I like collecting artists’ works in depth,” he says. “I’m building a public collection, like a lending library, so fabulous institutionslike the DIA can call up and ask for an exhibition. “We do the lending for free and usually give outreach money to pay for brochures, visiting artists and student transportation. We generally have two or three traveling exhibitions at a time. It’s all become a significant part of my philanthropy.”
Also important to that overall philanthropic outlook is participation in a number of Jewish organizations. He is director of the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, trustee of the Greater Portland Hillel and co-president of Congregation Shaarie Torah.
Schnitzer has established a Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at the University of Oregon and Portland State University in memory of his father, and he set up the Jordan Schnitzner Book Awards offered for academics by the Association for Jewish Studies.
“If we’re concerned about passing on our Jewish values, a key component of that is a passion for art,” says Schnitzer, the father of two teenage daughters.
“When you support the arts, you’re supporting healthy values and helping build healthy communities. When you’re experiencing the arts, for me visual arts, it helps ground you.
“There’s creativity and a bit of the artist in all of us, and out of going to exhibitions, we get inspired to be better human beings and try harder to be the best that we can be.”
“Ellsworth Kelly: Prints” will be on view May 24-Sept. 8 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. The exhibition is free with museum admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors ages 62 and older, $4 for ages 6-17 and free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties and DIA members. (313) 833-7900; www.dia.org.