Portrait of an artist as a much-maligned figure

New in the Northwest
Friday, April 29, 2005

MATT LAMB Richard Speer Wiley, 356 pages, $24.95

Portland writer Richard Speer tells the story of controversial artist Matt Lamb's extraordinary life in the biography "Matt Lamb: The Art of Success."

As a painter, Lamb's been compared to Picasso and Chagall, yet the road to respectability has not been smooth. Speer spent a year with Lamb to find out how a dyslexic former gang member from Chicago became the CEO of one of the Midwest's largest family businesses and emerged as a much-loved and -loathed artist.

Inexplicably, one morning in 1980, the 48-year-old Lamb could not get out of bed. He was diagnosed with chronic active hepatitis, sarcoidosis of the liver and a relapse of acute infectious mononucleosis. Lamb's condition worsened over time and, three years later, he was told to get his affairs in order.

Lamb vowed to his wife, Rose, that if he beat his illness he would sell his companies and paint. Rose urged Lamb to get a second medical opinion, and he listened in disbelief as his new doctor gave Lamb a clean bill of health.

Taking this second chance at life as a miracle, Lamb followed through on his promise and began to paint.

Lamb's work was controversial from the start. While his gallery debut nearly sold out, he was trashed by an art critic who claimed the work was "horrible . . . the work of an undertaker who thinks he's an artist."

In his forthright style, Speer explores Lamb's life as a business tycoon and as an artist. Lamb talks with candor and humor to Speer about the business of art, his life and eventual death. Speer portrays Lamb as a walking, breathing contradiction. He's adored in Europe but controversial in his own country. He's a conservative businessman turned raving radical. He's a jet-setter who seems happiest painting with schoolchildren.

"Matt Lamb" is a captivating biography. Speer includes photographs, a timeline, selected collections and exhibition history and gallery contact information. Speer's essays and reviews have appeared in Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, ARTnews, Opera News and other publications. He is a visual arts critic at Willamette Week.

Speer discusses "Matt Lamb" at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St. -- Beverly Close

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