Interview: Tad Savinar on making theater, urban design and studio art

The Portland artist explains how he's sorted his multiple career paths

Tad Savinar has done a lot of interesting things in a career of 40-plus years.

In 1982 he organized an exhibition for Portland Center for the Visual Arts called A Few Good Men. One of those “men” was actor/writer Eric Bogosian who presented a monologue performance. Three years later the play Talk Radio co-created by Savinar and Bogosian premiered at PCVA. In 1987 it was produced by Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Two years after that it was a feature film directed by Oliver Stone.

In the early 1990s he was a member of the Westside Light Rail Project Design Team. Since then he has participated in dozens of design teams and planning projects from Oregon and Washington to Arizona and New Jersey.

Now he is Vice Chair of the Portland Design Review Commission which “provides leadership and expertise on urban design and architecture and on maintaining and enhancing Portland’s historical and architectural heritage.”

But throughout his career he has been known as a studio artist with numerous exhibitions and public arts works to his credit.

Tad Savinar, THE NEW MAN,14 x 11.5 inches,
Digital print on paper,

Currently at the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery at Lewis and Clark College is an exhibition of
34 paintings, prints and sculptures he produced between 1994 and 2016 (along with 9 digital prints conceived during a sabbatical in Florence Italy in 2014). The show, “youniverse—past, present, future—Selected works from Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” runs from January 17-March 5.

This conversation happened last September.

You’ve said that to understand America you need to listen to talk radio and country music. Do you still think so?

I do—and talk to a 12-year-old.

The first works of yours that I saw, back in the mid-’70s, were the installations in your house. Back in school were you doing 3-D stuff? Or did that evolve?

I was doing 3-D stuff. Plus I was doing a lot of performance work, dressing up in costume, creating props—interacting in some way. That was in 1969. I moved out of that to focus more on sculptural objects.

So early on you were saying, “I could make it out of whatever.”

It was limited to my own skills. Later on I thought somebody else could make it better than me.

I was thinking that when you said you did performance in a sculpture class in 1969. I thought that was a pretty advanced art program for 1969.

The sculpture and basic design teachers [at Colorado College] were pretty adventuresome and contemporary. I think they taught at Boulder or were students when Roland Reiss was there as a teacher, so they were pretty hip guys. I would not say that the student body was contemporary. There were only a few of us going that far afield. Everybody else was pretty straightforward.

And you’d planned to be an art major all along?

I planned to be an artist since I was six. There were some times that I thought about being an architect, but I’m not very good at math so I shied away from it.

So you got a Bachelor’s degree in art. Why not go for an MFA?

I was too impatient. Why go to school when you can start your career.

What did you think you were going to do with an art degree?

I had no idea and I will say that nobody taught me how to be an artist at school.

We didn’t have “professional practices” classes back then.

I didn’t even know what slides were. There was none of that “career making,” so I was completely on my own.

Kids nowadays have it so easy. Teachers tell them what to do. You came back to Portland after Colorado College and started making art.

Yeah, I got a three bedroom apartment in Northwest Portland for $90 and turned the living room into a studio and set up a table saw in one of the bedrooms, a drawing table in the second and went to work. That was January ‘73. I had a little money from graduation. It was about maybe four months before I had to find work. Then I did a lot of bartending and restaurant work. I’d work for three or six months and save all the money and then quit. Then I’d do nothing but work in the studio, run out of money, and go back to work. I lived that pattern for a number of years.

Tad Savinar, CHAMP,
120” x 192”, Paint directly on wall, 1982

You were getting a lot of shows all over the place.

I was obsessed with careerism from about 1974 ‘til 1985. Obsessed with getting as many shows as I could, moving up the ladder—theme shows, one person shows, two person shows, group shows, college gallery, museum show, New York, San Francisco, LA. I was obsessed with it. I thought I was doing valuable work and I was getting shows and I was meeting with curators and people were writing about it and I was successful.

You bought your own ad in Artforum.

Yeah, I did that—just like any gallery would have done. But I quit when I went into the theater. When I did begin to make studio work again, I made a decision that I would make studio work, either with with my own hands or with other people, but that I was not going to be driven by this need to do 12 new slides that I would take to a curator. I was gonna make the work for myself, and if somebody was interested in showing it or selling it or buying it or doing something with it: great. That’s when the work matured. That’s exactly when the work started to get smarter. The work was finally being made purely for itself. It was more like laboratory work and that’s when I think the work found its place.

What year would that be?

1992 or 1993.

Was that about the time of West Side Light Rail?

That started in ’91.

Do you think there’s any relationship there?

[For a 1991 exhibition] I could make pieces that don’t have anything to do with each other. They were all different media. Some were temporary. Some were permanent objects. Some were good. Some were bad. I was really free at that point. I thought probably my shows were going to look like group theme shows. They’re all going to have an idea that ties them together, but the media, the scale could be different. So there was that switch from career driven practice to a full on studio driven practice. I also stopped going to New York, stayed in Portland. I became part of the Portland community more than I had been in the past. That was the same time as the planning thing.

That would be Westside Light Rail, being part of a design team.

I remember the first 15 minutes of the light rail project for Tri-Met at the old ZGF office when Greg Baldwin gets up to talk and the first day that the team was there. Greg starts talking and I remember thinking, “Holy fuck I don’t give a shit about making transit art. I want to do with this guy does.”

And the interesting thing is he got into that stuff by going through the whole architecture school grind and doing the whole architecture career thing, and you come into it from Colorado College doing some performance art stuff and sculpture class and etc. and you ending up writing 700-page documents that have to do with urban design.

The thing is, some artists say, “I’m a painter. I paint. I don’t do sculpture. I don’t do poetry. I just paint.” I have never limited myself. I’ve always said, “ If I’m interested in something, I pursue it—stage plays, urban design, whatever.

When I first started doing the other stuff I kept it completely separate.

Tad Savinar, DEVELOPMENT, 57 ½ x 24 x 24 inches, Digitally carved wood

What do you mean by separate?

Any time you have a client it’s not a studio piece. A client presents you with an opportunity, says “here are the parameters—are you willing to work within these parameters?” That is completely different for me than an ongoing continual trajectory of personally driven studio practice because in a studio practice all work emanates from something internal. Although an external event may trigger the wish to create a piece, it’s not given parameters and it’s not work for hire. So that was kind of the beginning understanding of public art versus studio art for me, and I even allowed myself to do things in the public art that I might not have done in my studio work in terms of treating it like an assignment rather than the evolution of my studio work.

I think I know what you’re getting at.

The difference is that you’re being paid. So, money implies that you are being hired and that you have a responsibility to fulfill the assignment. You can try and break the parameters if you have a good idea, which I did often.

It’s more like looking for a solution, providing an answer to a question. It’s not self-driven to start with. Whereas studio work is self-driven; in my mind there’s a continuity of how one moves through the career and what they think about their work and what they think about at that moment and say, “You know I think I want to try this” or “I’m more interested in exploring green” or “I want to change the nature of my work.” So as you’re travelling down that line somebody says. “Hey! We’ll give you some money to do this thing. Wanna do it?” Now I think there are some artists who are very adept at doing that. I am not as adept. Since most of my work comes from a social observation or social consideration…

The studio work or all the work?

The studio work. It’s ignited by that. Public art doesn’t tend to have that ignition for me. Now having said that, there’s no public work [that I did] that I think was lower quality than my studio work. It’s not a qualitative thing—a neighborhood needs something different than a museum does. So I found that an extremely rich experience. I thought, “How can I make something that a neighborhood can love and cherish?”

So you feel a deep responsibility to whoever the user group is.

Yes. That is exactly it.

Sometimes those things come together the studio work comes together [with the public art work] but for the most part it seems a little different. So I kept them separate and then there were some times when they just meshed completely and I couldn’t tell the difference. One with think that the studio work would actually drive the public work . I’ve had the other occur where it’s actually the urban design work—now the third category of work—where the urban design experience and thinking drives the visual work.

Do you think 40 years ago you were thinking about how the viewer will respond? Back when you were doing your stuff in your house. Or were you thinking, “ I’m gonna make this thing, it’s my thing”?

I was considering the viewer in the wall paintings that I created in the 1980’s and showed at The Art Gym. That was completely driven by my wish to create content instead of objects—thinking, “OK, how can I get away from the mystique of craft and object and get as close to the content of an idea?” So I decided that if I painted right on the wall there’s no object so I’ll get right to the content. What fascinated me was that everyone said, “Hey, how did you make these things?”

People wondered how you made a painting on the wall?

Yeah, how to get this so perfect.

And what kind of masking tape you used?

They were just obsessed with it! I thought by eliminating the object it will be the opposite, but no—eliminate the object and it’s like magic.

It’s a new set of questions.

I realized that that wasn’t working and then it was through my work in theater that I started to realize that I could speak directly to the viewer if I started to use a language that we all use every day, you know: “I want to go to the park,” or, “I feel like this” or, “Have you ever.”

It’s conversational.

I always say I want to have a conversation with my viewer. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I came to the conclusion—it’s really from theater—that if I wrote these phrases in the first person that a a viewer reads, they can own or reject the statement. All my work is based on having a conversation.

How much of it is you saying these things or is it you imagining someone else saying these things?

It’s all me saying this. I’m the speaker. I think I do use exaggeration a lot to get a point across or make people think, “Oh that could never happen” and it does—televised decapitations. In 2003 I said that was that the moment before the death of civility. Now we have televised decapitations. I’m not saying I’m in favor of televised decapitations. I’m saying, “Well, if you take this to its end, it could potentially…”

What we thought was reductio ad absurdum, but evidently not.

That really comes through in the new work. So much of the work that I did in Italy was just at the beginning of some of the atrocities. So many of those pieces, even a piece about talking about when the population of London would become majority Muslim—well it was just a month ago they elected their first Muslim mayor. So I did that piece thinking, “What’s really absurd? Adding minarets to Buckingham palace—that would be absurd.” But stuff’s moving in that direction and there have been a lot of churches that were turned in mosques and mosques into churches and things change.

People have the changes that they like and that’s fine, and then there are the changes that they’re fearful of. Is there fear in your work? Is your work optimistic, pessimistic, cynical?

I think some of the work is optimistic in that it’s sharing of a realization. Then there is other work that I think is cynical, but cynical implies that it’s a negative statement on purpose. I still think that even when the work is cynical it comes from observations. I’m not making up cynicism. It’s an extension of an observation.

Seems like a work like “Courtesy Card” comes from observations.

The thing that happened was I realized that when it’s raining and I have an umbrella, I still find myself walking under the awnings. That’s inappropriate because those who don’t have umbrellas should be the ones walking under the awnings instead of me. A I realized that even I have behaviors and practices that are antisocial or they could be improved to make the place a better place. So I thought, what are some of the other things that we encounter in city life? Have we really lost our civility? Have we really lost our consideration that there’s another person occupying the space where choices can be made quite simply out of courtesy? So I find myself getting irritated, and I shouldn’t. I really want to rid myself of that irritation because I know that I have done some of those things myself.

Tad Savinar, JUGGERNAUT (ACTION PAINTING), 60”x84”, Acrylic on canvas, 1990

Is there overt political content in the work?

I say “social content.” Political kind of takes it down a different road… I think in the work “Everything is Broken,” that piece with the “Sermon on the Mount” and all the text, I think it’s probably a little on the didactic end of things. It’s making an overt statement and it’s also making a list of things that actually happened—so that might be a little confrontive.

You’ve had times when you questioned your own need to make art. Getting away from it all seems to help.

You learn enough skills and you have enough history that I think artists can go for a long time on something with without really asking, “ Is it important? Is it doing the job? Is it worth it? Is it worth even making?” Those kinds of questions. In 2013 I had that question to myself and then 2014 changed that when I went to Italy and got a studio in Florence. …..

I went to Florence and got a studio. I didn’t take pencils or papers or anything. I took slides of my past work and all my catalogs and the intent was going to the studio to think every day if this was something I want to do continue to continue to do. If so what was it going to be? Or was I going to quit?

I quit in 1986 for three years to work in the theater. I quit because I had discovered the power of theater, and wanted to infuse my artwork with that same kind of conversation with the viewer. I tried for a number of years and couldn’t. So, I said, “I’m just going to write for the theater.” I eventually came back into the studio practice, which was was great. So, I’m not fearful of saying I’m quitting.

I went to Florence with the intent of “maybe I’m going to quit” or “maybe I’m going to organize a survey show of my work” or something. I got a studio set up and sat down at the computer and I started to get an avalanche of imagery and concepts. It was just like I was standing under a waterfall. Part of it had to do with not being at home. Part of it had to do with the incredible architectural beauty surrounding me and then the beginning of some real unrest in the Middle East. So here I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world with centuries of culture. And this stuff just flooded—the beauty of the Renaissance and the ugliness of today. I subtitled that work “the ferocious future.” I developed 10 or 12 pieces over the time I was in Florence.

Was your experience of the studio time in Florence anything like your time at the Ucross residency?

It was exactly like that. At Ucross [I made] a total change in my work. That’s when I started to incorporate a more romantic notion of the universe. What had happened is that I drove through Yellowstone. I’ve never been to Yellowstone. I drove through Yellowstone on my way to Ucross. It was like, “Holy fuck! There’s something bigger than me on this planet.” That was ’97. It was a turning point toward a more romantic sense. The work started to become more conversational and more romantic, more “you and I we’re in this together.” I thrive on these places where I can really divorce myself from everything else.

Now you’re on the Portland Design Commission. Do you think of yourself as an artist on the Design Commission or are you another designer on the Design Commission?

I think they think I’m an artist. I tend to not bow down to the archi-speak. I try to talk in very intentionally common language because I feel that buildings that will occupy our city affect the common experience of a city. It’s the difference between doing work for hire and work that’s inspired internally, and architecture means doing work for hire. There are certain boundaries and criteria for how it should be, so there’s always that rub between the architecture as the “design idea” versus how it fits into the city and how it affects people’s lives. So, I try to make my comments more common and not play to the designery side of things.

Tad Savinar, EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, 51 inches x 38 inches x 2 inches, Digital print, 2014

The idea is that with the architecture of the city you’re dealing with the common good, that whoever walks down the street has to deal with that building. When you make studio art, nobody has to deal with it.

That’s what I made my urban design career on: thinking like an artist, not like an urban designer, using common sense and finding solutions that don’t have to do with ego, don’t have to deal with design practices, but actually have to do with the thing you’re trying to do—a much more basic approach.

The Portland Design Commission seems to be a pretty wearing yet exciting thing to be involved in.

Yes. In three years there was one day when I woke up in the morning and, “Dammit I don’t want to go to design review today.” That’s only happened once in three years. Every other Thursday, that’s a lot of time. So it’s still pretty rewarding, extremely frustrating, it’s very difficult, makes people cranky. I’m probably separating myself from the architectural community, not by wishing to but it’s the nature of the beast. So, the design commission is one thing I’m doing. The other thing is that I write what are called urban design guidelines, which are technical documents that describe to architects and engineers what they should be designing, and the values that drive those designs.

Who are you doing that for?

I wrote them for TriMet’s Orange Line and for a number of cities in the Phoenix, Arizona, region. The last one I wrote for Arizona was for 16 cities. It’s a regional document with guidelines for or every kind of public transit—high-speed rail, commuter rail, streetcar, light rail, and bus and bus rapid transit. Then I’m also often hired to do design review on transit documents that are in progress, so it spans from highly technical—the one for Phoenix was 700 pages of written stuff that I generated, a monster, took me two years—to design review which is a little more psychological. Those things are really exciting. And then I have a personal urban design project in Italy that I’m working on.

You have worked on a wide variety of projects, yet you didn’t have standard training except for a basic degree in art.

I’m so lucky to have been able to explore so many things.

And you’re doing it from Portland.

I’m doing it from Portland. And I’m not trained in urban design. I’m not trained in the theater.

But in a way, you apprenticed in those.

Yes. Absolutely.

Like in the Renaissance—an apprentice that had to do quick study to figure out how to do it.

I’ve said many times if I look forward I can’t tell you what I’m going to do next, but if I look backward it all makes sense.

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