The world lost a beautiful, warm, generous, mischievous, wickedly smart and delightfully cantankerous soul the night of Saturday, April 2, when Oregon artist Rick Bartow passed away after battling congenital heart failure. He was 69. At EW, our hearts are full of sorrow. Bartow will be remembered for his mastery of color and gesture, and his spirited and unflinching work — paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture, found in museums and collections around the globe.
Words like “genius” and “fearless” are terms thrown around perhaps too casually in this world, but Bartow was both. I won’t pretend to know Bartow intimately after spending just one splendid day with him at his home and studios in Newport, and after long chats on the phone, a year ago, but I know enough to say that he didn’t give a shit what the world thought of him or his art, which made both all the more beautiful and urgent.
This is the artist who, when the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art opened the stunning and largest-ever retrospective on Bartow’s work a year ago this month, opted to play guitar with his band downstairs instead of hobnobbing in the gallery. Bartow had expressed to me several times he didn’t go in for any “woo-woo” crap — anything stinking of pretension or pomp and circumstance.
As his beloved friend and agent of more than two decades Charles Froelick told me last April: “He could give a rat’s ass about fame or what people think.”
Bartow’s death is not unexpected. He had survived numerous strokes — having to relearn how to walk, talk and paint — along with heart issues, PTSD (stemming from his stint in Vietnam) and addiction. There were tragedies, too, such as losing his wife to cancer when she was 50 among other heartbreaks. When we met a year ago, the artist was beginning to go blind in one eye, and he himself was skeptical how much longer he could go on creating.
Word is that Bartow was still creating up to a week before his death, which makes sense, as that is how he processed life, how he beat his demons.
“Work — that’s the only thing,” Bartow told me in March 2015. “That’s the only way. Work. Work. Do what you can, as long as you can, because I don’t see anything outside of it. My place to have fun is work; to get out of pain, working.”
Bartow is survived by daughter Lily and son Booker, as well as siblings, his community in Wiyot and Newport, and a planet-full of artists. Thank you, Rick Bartow, for everything you taught and brought the world. Read the EW profile of the artist, “Teeth & Bones: Into the beautiful tormented world of artist Rick Bartow."
While the JSMA-curated exhibit Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain is long gone from the UO museum, it continues to make the rounds around the country, currently on view at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, through April 30. Then it will head to North Dakota and New Mexico before returning to the Pacific Northwest in 2017, on view at Washington State University Museum of Art in Pullman Jan. 20- March 11.
Debbie Williamson, JSMA communications manager, says that while most of the museum’s Bartow works are with the traveling exhibit, they plan are planning to install at least one of his works in memorial of the artist. Details TBA, but check the JSMA site or Facebook page for updates. The details of a memorial for Bartow are also TBA.