The Language of the Sublime

The panoramic Colorado landscape — the thunder and lightning, the mountains jutting shardlike to the sky, the palpable wildness — helped form Henry Sayre’s aesthetic sensibility.


October 14, 2015

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Art historian Henry Sayre’s professional life is intensely focused on scholarship and writing since he became an emeritus professor last spring. (Photo: Joe Kline)

ONE DAY TEENAGED HENRY SAYRE WAS ROAMING THE FLATIRONS above the mesas southwest of Boulder, Colorado, when he looked across the valley and saw a thunderstorm forming high on a distant ridge. He watched it sweep down the foothills, a mass of moisture roiling toward the northern edge of town. After it blew through, the far side of the valley was shimmering with hailstones. The other half — the half where Henry’s family lived — was clear and dry, untouched. Sayre has held that image in his mind’s eye for 50-plus years, the thunderheads casting long shadows across the landscape of his childhood, where he knew “every little trail, every little cave.” He can hear the thunder rumbling through the canyons still and feel the electricity prickling the air.

“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” he says.

That’s a strong statement from a man whose deepest driving force has been the seeing of amazing things — not only the sublime and luminous wonders of the natural world but also the inspired creations of human hands. On a family trip abroad when Henry was 13, the Sayres toured France in an “old, worn-out station wagon” and, in Paris, “looked at art all day” in museums like the Jeu de Paume and Orangerie, where Monet’s water lilies wrapped around him in a visual embrace. Since then, he has traveled to Europe dozens of times, not simply as a tourist, but as a scholar — or, more precisely, as a pilgrim. Over and over, he has visited virtually every great museum in the world (the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Gallerie dell’Academia in Venice, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, to name a few). He calls them “pilgrimage places.” They pull him in, again and again, to stand before the most acclaimed artworks by the most gifted artists ever to put brush to canvas or chisel to stone (Michelangelo and Manet, Rubens and Rembrandt, David and Ingres, Picasso and Pollack are a mere handful).

Hundreds of these creations of the human spirit he has shared with students, face-to-face in physical classrooms as well as virtual ones, and in the pages of his voluminous written works, which include his bestselling textbook, A World of Art. More than a million students have read and studied his art appreciation textbook since it was first released by Prentice-Hall in the 1990s. Now in its eighth edition, it helps students tease out the interwoven threads — social, cultural, historical, political, personal — from which artworks emerge.

Now, after 35 years as a Distinguished Professor of art history at Oregon State University — 13 of them at OSU-Cascades — Sayre has taken on the emeritus mantel. But for him, retirement from the classroom doesn’t mean a chaise lounge by the seashore. It means more time to write. Working from his book-stuffed study in the art-filled Bend home he shares with his wife Sandra Brooke, a painter and associate professor at OSU-Cascades, he’s already well into his next project, a provocative book about the racial overtones and economic undertones of Manet’s masterpiece, Olympia, which has him scouring the archives of the Bibliotheque nationale de France for source materials.  “It’s very exciting!” he says with the zeal of a gourmet about to fork into a plate of coq au vin.

Views from the Summit

The panoramic Colorado landscape — the thunder and lightning, the mountains jutting shardlike to the sky, the palpable wildness — helped form Sayre’s aesthetic sensibility. It’s not a fluke, for instance, that one of his most-loved paintings is Georgione’s The Tempest, a 16th-century masterwork that bristles with electricity and earthly mystery; you can practically smell the ozone as you gaze at the white-hot bolt splitting a portentous sky. In a fascinating essay on the influence of landscape on American art, “The Great Interior Basin: Western Landscape as a Container,” which he produced for a Smithsonian exhibition catalog, he writes: “The symbolic language of the sublime dominates American landscape imagery usually associated with altitude — with peaks, pinnacles, spires, buttes, promontories, and the views from such lofty vantage points. …Sublime is the word we have created to name the incomprehensible and the unknowable, the very condition of which leaves us, paradoxically, dumb-struck — literally, without words.”

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At a production studio in Bend, Sayre records the e-book version of his bestselling textbook, A World of Art, now in its eighth edition. Photo by Joe Kline.

But nature was just one of his muses. The allure of literature matched the magnetism of mountains, woods and rivers in Henry’s imagination. His dad, the city attorney, had made him a deal in the fourth grade: For every book Henry finished on the required reading list for Phillips Exeter, a prestigious prep school on the East Coast, he could buy a book of his own choosing. One by one, Henry checked off the titles on the Exeter list (which his “ever-ambitious-for-her-children” mother had found somewhere and thought was a good idea).

It was after reading The Catcher in the Rye that Henry — in constant conflict with his parents and intrigued by J.D. Salinger’s fictional boarding school, Pencey Prep — proposed a deal of his own: If he could get into famed Exeter, would they let him go?

“They looked at each other and said, ‘Sure’,” he recalls with a wry smile. “They probably thought I wouldn’t get in.”

On October 22, 1962, the day of Henry’s interview with an Exeter recruiter at the swanky Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, the Cuban Missile Crisis was reaching a scary crescendo.  Waiting in the hotel lobby, Henry and his dad listened to President Kennedy’s speech to a worried nation.

Henry got into Exeter, one of the first kids from the then-small town of Boulder, he says, to attend a private boarding school in the East. Like some scene out of Dead Poets Society or The Emperor’s Club, the rebellious Westerner from the Flatirons arrived at the storied New Hampshire campus, suitcase in hand, and donned the required sports jacket and tie along with several hundred other nervous 14-year-olds. The first year was tough. But once he got used to the East Coast jargon and the academic rigor, he was in his element, sitting at oval tables with his teachers and classmates, discussing history, literature, philosophy and art in the Socratic style. It was a heady place for a boy from Boulder. When he graduated, President Eisenhower gave the commencement address. Dwight’s grandson David was one of Henry’s classmates.

The Left Coast

He loved Exeter. But the East Coast didn’t hold him. For college he bounced back west to Stanford, where a storm of another kind was brewing. It was the late ’60s. Antiwar activist David Harris, husband of folk singer Joan Baez, was student-body president when Sayre enrolled for his freshman year. It wasn’t long before Henry was burning his draft card at the federal building in San Francisco while Baez sang The Times They Are A-Changin’ live on the front steps. Across the bay at UC Berkeley, he marched in the infamous People’s Park protest, which ended in riot and bloodshed. He demonstrated at the Stanford Research Institute — an event that took a quirky twist some 30 years later when Sayre was viewing an exhibit called “Evidence” at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

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Sayre’s art collection includes this painting titled Kerouac. Photo by Joe Kline.

“I turn a corner, and there’s a photograph of the big demonstration at Stanford Research Institute, and there I am,” he says.  “There’s a black Magic Marker circle around my face and a question mark next to it.”

It’s not surprising then, given his Vietnam-era activism, that another of Sayre’s most beloved paintings is Guernica, Picasso’s antiwar depiction of devastation in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Sayre draws a straight line, in fact, from early political pieces like Guernica to the contemporary works of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who challenges his nation’s Communist regime by, for example, painting a Coca Cola logo on an ancient Han Dynasty urn, and to today’s young artists in New York City whose content is both political and environmental.

“The number of them who are working in ways that are about climate change is extraordinary,” Sayre says. He offers an example. A few years after Hurricane Katrina and shortly before Superstorm Sandy, the Museum of Modern Art held an “architects-in-residence” exhibition called “Rising Currents,” displaying ecologically sound designs for protecting New York City from climate-driven sea-level rise.

Making conscious connections between art and politics, art and science, art and the environment is a relatively new direction in the field of art history, according to Sayre. “When I was first taking art history, art was over here (he points to the south wall of his comfortable living room) and life was over there (he points to the opposite wall). Scholars, critics, collectors and curators tried to isolate art from the world. The museum was something of a sacred space where you could go to retreat from the urban reality — and maybe get a good cocktail at the bar. That thinking started to change in the ’60s with the Vietnam War and civil rights movements. People realized that art could be, and almost always was, political.”

Rites of Passage

Political activism was exciting for Sayre. So was rock ’n’ roll (he wrote music criticism for a small arts magazine called Chaparral, and once even booked the just-emerging rock bands Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead to play at a freshman dorm party). But these ’60s-era rites of passage didn’t keep him from his intellectual pursuits. Two classes, in particular, gripped him and led him toward his eventual embrace of the humanities en masse (and later to write another bestselling textbook, The Humanities: Culture, Continuity, and Change). One seminal course, “The Epic,” explored foundational Western literature. He can still tick off the required readings: Epic of Gilgamesh, The Old Testament, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost, The Inferno, Shakespeare’s history plays, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Tristam Shandy, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, The Magic Mountain. “I was blown away,”
he says.

The other course, “The Existential Quest in the Continental Novel,” was taught by Walter Sokel, an eminent intellectual who had fled his home in Austria before World War II to escape the scourge of anti-Semitism that was infecting Europe. Even though Sokel lectured in a 450-seat auditorium, the course always filled up in a nanosecond. When Sayre finally got his chance in his junior year, he sat transported by Sokel’s stories about such Existentialist writers as Kafka, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, stories whose weft was richly woven into the warp of events and ideas of 19th- and 20th-century Europe (the rise of Marxism, the aftermath of World War I, the psychology of pre-Hitler Berlin).

Full-color plates of thousands of other works, such as Manet’s Bohémienne à la Cigarette. fill Sayre's shelves at home. Photo by Joe Kline of his library.
Full-color plates of thousands of other works, such as Manet’s Bohémienne à la Cigarette, fill Sayre’s shelves at home. Photo by Joe Kline.

To be honest,” Sayre reveals with a confessionary laugh, “I wanted to be Sokel.”

Armed with his English degree, Sayre started casting about for a Ph.D. program. By then he was tilting strongly toward art history. But in those days, academic disciplines were straitjacketed, leaving little-to-no room for overlap. That was doubly true for art history, which Sayre characterizes as “the most conservative of the humanities disciplines.” His English degree might as well have come with a deadbolt; it locked him out of art history departments left and right. But he found a portal through which he could slip. At the University of Washington was an English professor named Roger Stein who was working on a book called Seascape and the American Imagination (published in 1975). “Rather like myself,” Sayre says, “Stein started off in English and transformed himself into an art historian.”

Sayre was admitted to the UW American literature department “to explore landscape artwork as an idea.” By the time he enrolled, however, Stein had moved on. Undeterred, Sayre shifted gears. His dissertation on writer Gertrude Stein, poet William Carlos Williams and the rise of American modernist painting eventually led to his first book, The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams. He had dipped his professional toe into art history scholarship.

East Village Chronicles

Serendipity brought Sayre to Oregon State University in 1980. It was the year Mount St. Helens blew volcanic ash all over the Northwest. He had been teaching part-time at the University of Washington and — frequently stopping to change the ash-clogged filter on his Dodge Charger — driving back and forth from Seattle to Corvallis, where his first wife, Laura Rice, was on the English faculty.

When their 2-year-old son was diagnosed with kidney cancer, Sayre quit teaching to care for him. During the little boy’s convalescence, Sayre had lots of time to write. One of his pieces, a review of a “gorgeous” exhibit of scientific photographs of coastal estuaries, ran in the Salem Statesman-Journal’s Sunday magazine. One of his sources for the article was Mark Sponenburgh, then chair of OSU’s art department. Sponenburgh — a sculptor and one of the celebrated World War II “Monuments Men” who recovered priceless artworks stolen by the Nazis — loved Sayre’s article. As it happened, the piece’s appearance on newsstands coincided with the sudden, untimely resignation of one of Sponenburgh’s faculty members. There was no time to conduct a search. Sponenburgh asked if Sayre could fill in. “I could do that,” Sayre responded.

“Filling in” led to a yearlong, $25,000 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study and write about performance art. Hanging out in Greenwich Village, New York City’s hotbed of artistic talent and experimentation, seemed like the best place to research his topic. By then, Sayre’s little boy was healthy, so the family took a flat in New England and Sayre made the scene in the East Village every other weekend or so. He saw Andy Warhol — the pop icon of the mid-20th century — painting in the studio known as The Factory, where the “Warhol Superstars” (described in Wikipedia as “a ménage of adult film performers, drag queens, socialites, drug addicts, musicians, and free-thinkers”) helped screenprint famous images like the Campbell’s Soup cans and portraits of Marilyn and Mao. Sayre soaked it all up that year, and then came back to Oregon State to accept a tenure-track position teaching art history.

Illustrators of History

To Sayre, artists like Warhol, one of the most notable visual chroniclers and cultural critics of the modern era, play a powerful role as illustrators of human history. As he writes in A World of Art, “Artists make a visual record of the people, places and events of their time and place.” He spells out other roles, too: helping others see the world in new ways, imbuing functional objects with beauty and meaning, and giving form to “the immaterial” (universal truths, spiritual forces, personal feelings). At the end of each chapter, Sayre poses a series of questions, challenging students to think critically about works such as Warhol’s 1963 piece, Race Riot, a four-panel representation in red, white and blue of African-American demonstrators beset by attack dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama. The book also includes works like Charles the First, an homage to the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker by black artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, described by Sayre as “an icon of the civil rights movement,” by Bettye Saar.

Sayre’s art collection includes a Madoura ceramic plate by Picasso. Photo by Joe Kline.
Sayre’s art collection includes a Madoura ceramic plate by Picasso. Photo by Joe Kline.

But not that long ago, broad inclusion was outside the norm. When Sayre first came to OSU, the typical art appreciation book was limited to Western artists, mostly white, mostly male. These glaring gaps were brought home to Sayre in the fall of 1990 when he was teaching Art 101. There was an incident on campus — a white student shouted a racial slur at black student Jeffrey Revels, coordinator of the university’s Black Cultural Center, and then almost ran him down with his car — that sparked a campuswide conversation on race. For Sayre, that conversation proved pivotal.

“This black kid in class said, ‘Well, Dr. Sayre, you know, this textbook we’re using doesn’t have any black artists in it.’ And I said, ‘That’s true. That’s true of almost all the books.’ And he said, ‘Besides that, every time you talk about value’ (light and dark) if something is high in value, it’s white. If something is low in value, it’s black. Do you ever think about that?’

“And I thought, ‘Oh, geez.’”

That’s the day Sayre decided to accept Prentice-Hall’s offer to publish an art appreciation book if he was willing to write it. The book ultimately spanned all spheres of human diversity, from ethnicity to gender, culture to nationality, featuring artists from around the globe, a daring leap from the norm.

“It broke new ground,” Sayre says.

He broke new ground, too, in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he helped lead the development of OSU’s “Bacc Core” curriculum, and again with the production of a multimedia teaching package for art appreciation, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The project included a 10-part TV series, Works in Progress, co-produced with Oregon Public Broadcasting. It first aired on PBS in 1997.

East of the Cascades

At the turn of the millennium, Oregon State began looking toward Central Oregon to site a satellite campus. About the same time, Sayre was elected president of the Faculty Senate. He quickly jumped into the front seat to help steer the Central Oregon effort. When he moved to Bend the following year, it was as academic vice-provost of OSU-Cascades.

“We opened the doors on 9/11, 2001,” he recalls. “The first thing I did was gather everybody out in the circle in front of the administration building to sing God Bless America. It was pretty weird.”

Settling in Bend felt like returning to the landscape of his youth. “Bend is Boulder back in the 1960s but without the big university, only the burgeoning one,” he says. “There’s something about the dryness, the altitude, being on the eastern slope of mountains, on the very edge of the wilderness, that is exactly the same. My body is simply happier above 4,000 feet.”

A Narrative Arc

In the end, Sayre says, everything comes down to story. The human story, which he calls the “grand narrative” — the emergence of Homo sapiens, the birth of civilization, the sweep of history, the progression of ideas, the power of culture, the hegemony of technology — is the container that holds the context for our own time, our own tale.

“We’ve got all this information exploding around us,” he says. “If it comes to us in isolated flecks, we have no place to store it.  But if we’ve got some understanding of the history of thought, then we have cubbyholes we can tuck it into and remember where it goes.”

His notion of “grand narrative” plays out in his textbooks. Take Chapter 1 of A World of Art, sixth edition, for example. He guides the reader from The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s massive saffron-fabric art installation in New York’s Central Park in 2003; to the Torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, dedicated to the Shinto God of Rice; to the U.S. refusal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. At the same time, he brings in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, the original Central Park architects Olmsted and Vaux, and the reactions of critics and residents to the Christo installation. And that’s just in the first three pages.

“Students often think of art appreciation as something like a maraschino cherry on top of their education sundae, kind of pretty, maybe poisonous — at least when it was red dye No. 2 — but pretty much useless,” Sayre says. “But it’s just the opposite. That’s the reason we emphasize critical thinking so much. I mean, it’s no accident that the detectives in New York City go to the Morgan Museum and look at art as part of their forensics training. They’re asked to notice things — ‘What did you see in the painting?’ They learn to put two and two together, to notice detail, to understand that even the smallest things matter.”

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