Artist Hank Willis Thomas’ Friendship With Collector Jordan Schnitzer On View In Exhibition

Hank Willis Thomas never expected to meet Jordan Schnitzer. It wasn’t access that he thought would prevent the meeting. As one of the most prominent contemporary artists of the past 25 years–downright famous–there’s no one in the art world, particularly a collector like Schnitzer, who wouldn’t pick up the phone if Thomas were on the other end.

“I didn’t know that Jordan was a living person at first,” Thomas (1976; Plainfield, NJ) told “There was a show at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco (in 2014) of these incredible prints by Betty Saar, Alison Saar–this incredible collection of African American masters–Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu. When I saw (the artworks) were all from the collection of Jordan Schnitzer, (I thought) clearly this person is long gone. To have had … such a broad collection, it didn’t seem like it would actually be one person. I thought maybe Jordan Schnitzer was a company.”

Jordan Schnitzer is a person and very much alive.

It would take years, however, for Thomas to realize that.

“I kept seeing the name,” he remembers.

The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Washington State University.

Artworks from his collection have been used to stage nearly 200 exhibits in more than 100 cities across the nation–and counting–since 2017, with an incalculable number of loans from his 20,000-plus object holdings supporting other presentations.

“Finally, when I had the show at the Portland Art Museum (2019-2020) and got wind that Jordan was coming to New York, that’s when I learned there was a living breathing person,” Thomas admits. “He came by the studio and showed interest in the work, especially LOVE RULES, which was really exciting for me. I thought that was that, maybe he’s interested in it; little did I know that relatively quickly he would become one of my dearest friends, but also probably my biggest collector.”

Thomas’ art made an impression on Schnitzer (b. 1951), a Portland native and globally recognized super-collector, and vice versa.

“I don’t remember all the labels of every museum show that I’ve gone to, but the shows that included Jordan’s collection left an impression on me that even 10 years later I’m able to call back to the memory of being so curious about the collection that I’m looking at the wall labels,” Thomas said.

Their mutual interest has evolved into a full-blown “bromance”–Schnitzer’s word–despite their different backgrounds, generations, races, and geography.

“In life you meet some people that you have more chemistry with than others,” Schnitzer told “Those magical things when you meet someone and you just feel good inside, and then you take 10 steps to get to know them and that’s how friendships are built. I can’t imagine any topic I couldn’t bring up to him–or I would hope he could bring up to me–personal issues, kids, life, business, presidential race, anything.”

Never Meet Your Heroes?

Schnitzer was initially hesitant about meeting the artists he admired.

“When I started collecting the work of the major post-World War II artists, I was always worried that if I met (Jasper) Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, whoever, and they were maybe temperamental, I thought I’d always be annoyed to love their work so much (while) they were a difficult personality,” Schnitzer said. “Now, over time, I have (met artists), and frankly, the older generation of artists, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, among others, were incredible to be with–down to earth, wonderful experiences for me.

Schnitzer has always focused his collecting on prints, multiples and works on paper, and doing so in extraordinary depth and volume. Nearly 1,500 items from Andy Warhol alone. What began as a passion for post war artists evolved into emerging– and now blue chip–contemporary artists including Leonardo Drew, Jeffrey Gibson, Mickalene Thomas, Marie Watt, David Hockney, and Hank Willis Thomas, just to name a few.

Schnitzer has over 150 Hank Willis Thomas artworks in his collection.

“Hank Willis Thomas, in his case–I can say this in front of him–I don’t know what is more meaningful to me, the personal relationship, or the magical journey that I go on looking at each of his works, and feeling in every part of me the creative genius in him,” Schnitzer said.

Thomas and Schnitzer’s friendship evidences itself in “Hank Willis Thomas: LOVERULES,” at Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle through August 4, 2024. The exhibition represents one of the largest solo presentations of Thomas’ work to date, drawn entirely from the collections of Jordan Schnitzer and his Family Foundation.

Encompassing photography, print, mixed-media, sculpture, and neon–including LOVE RULES”LOVERULES” covers over 20 years of work and touches on the artist’s most significant practices and themes: the impact of corporate branding, the construction of gender and race, and the struggle for liberty and equality.

“When I see his work, the first thought is, ‘wow!, how did he come up with those ideas,’” Schnitzer said. “You don’t need to know anything about an artist to appreciate their work, but when you get to know more about what they were influenced by and how they came about doing what they’re doing, it adds a greater dimension to the appreciation.”

True Friends

A cynic might understandably think Thomas and Schnitzer’s relationship is based on reciprocal manipulation. Schnitzer attempting to gain access to the cultural elite via Thomas, and Thomas using Schnitzer’s wealth for a steady source of income. Listening to the men talk to each other, it’s clear their friendship is genuine.

“What (Hank) doesn’t know is when I walked in (to the exhibition) before he got there, I burst into tears. What I was feeling was (being) in the midst of not only someone who’s a friend, but artistically, he is just that good,” Schnitzer said, choking up again. “What’s inspiring to me about art is when you’re dealing with the best of the best, that level of excellence is inspiring to me. It makes me feel better about my gifts and what I can do in areas that I am gifted. This is a man who has certain aesthetic gifts and has continued to push himself, one theme after another, different mediums, different ideas, different technology.”

Occasionally, even artists of Thomas’ esteemed stature can use an affirmation like Schnitzer’s.

“Of course we talked about this (show) for years, we knew it was coming, we had Zoom calls, I knew all the work, but seeing it there gave me new life. It gave me new life to see my work–in a sense my spirit, my essence–shared through Jordan’s passion and Shamim M. Momin’s curation,” Thomas said. “I thought, wow, I really like myself! I do some important things. It gave me gratitude for the gifts I was given, but also for the people who were willing to reflect back to me my own genius, which I sometimes discount because I don’t feel extraordinary. I feel pretty regular and sometimes less than that.”

Schnitzer was especially grateful to have shared the Henry Gallery opening with Thomas’ family.

“We’d flown out together the previous week to Los Angeles with his wife and kids and he came to some events at the Getty (Museum) I was hosting,” Schnitzer recalls. “Then he took his kids to Disneyland and he flew to Seattle, and I flew up later that week. I did not know that his parents were coming. For me, having his parents there–not that they haven’t seen other exhibitions of his–I can only imagine how proud they are. Being there, with his parents there and his wife there and his little girls, sharing the exhibition really touched me.”

‘A Century of White Women’

Originally trained in photography, Thomas’ work resides at the intersection of art, politics and social justice. He regularly employs both archival and contemporary imagery from popular culture to take on urgent questions. What is the role of art in civic life? How do advertising and visual culture create narratives that shape our notion of value in society? The commodification of identity. The ways in which dominant cultural tropes shape notions of race and race relations, along with gender and socio-economic presentation.

His photographic series Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915 – 2015, brings all of these themes together. One room at the Henry Gallery displays 48 of the 110 images Thomas created for the project–one for each year.

“It’s about how we relate to each other, it’s also about how we learn who we are in the modern era through marketing and advertising as much from our families or cultural backgrounds,” Thomas said of the series which he considers his most ambitious project. “I am looking at the production of an identity group. One hundred years ago, women in the United States were just getting the right to vote. Gender as we know it, even in the 10 years since the project was completed, has changed a lot. We are having much different conversations about what it means to be a woman now than we were 10 years ago, it’s also beginning to be reflected in advertising and popular culture. Advertising and popular culture are fascinating windows into an evolution of society.”

Thomas scoured thousands of magazines to construct the images of white women being advertised to, and themselves advertised, that he depicts in the series. Removing all text from the pictures challenges modern audiences to reconstruct what was attempting to be sold, and cringe at how.

Admission to Henry Gallery is free with a suggested donation. Schnitzer and the museum hope to travel the presentation to other venues, although none have yet been announced.

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