Greg Otto's vision of Baltimore bursts forth in brilliant color. He brings his own electric palette to the drabbest urban edifice or the most dilapidated corner store. His 2001 Baltimore Skyline vibrates with lavenders and purples and aqua greens and bold reds and oranges like a child's blocks piled high in a playpen.
City Hall sparkles with yellow light as if it were in a Christmas display. His Bromo Seltzer Tower is russet red against a black sky over Paca Street. The Domino Sugars sign glows pink under a jazzy Stuart Davis sky.
Otto has painted nearly 1,000 Baltimore buildings and streetscapes over the past 20 years or so. He's filled 3,000 notebooks with sketches. He's a masterly draftsman who began his artistic life with misty abstract drawings in black and white. His postcards and posters are as familiar in Baltimore as the structures and scenes they depict.
But for the last three years, he's been working on a series of paintings of Chicago's architectural masterworks for presentation at a convention of the American Institute of Architects in Chicago in June. Baltimoreans can get a preview of these works from tomorrow until the end of December at the AIA Gallery at 11 1/2 W. Chase St.
Otto works in a sprawling Roland Park house that looks like it might house refugees from an Anne Tyler novel. He lives there with his friend, Kathy Hudson, a free-lance writer. Her parents owned the house and she grew up in it. She's a bit of a business manager for Otto, who looks to her for exact dates and names and such things.
He paints in the dining room, which he says precludes much entertaining. He is slim and youthful-looking at 60 in jeans and a black sweater. The painting on his easel is titled 333 North Michigan Avenue, one of his Chicago works, which he used on the announcement for his show here.
The Chicago project came about because Alice Sinkevitch, the executive director of Chicago's AIA and the author of a 500-page guide to Chicago's architecture, came to Baltimore for a six-week stay in 1999. She was taken with Baltimore, taken with the Woman's Industrial Exchange, where she lunched, and taken with the postcards by Otto that she found in the exchange's gift shop. Nobody paints buildings like him in Chicago, she says.
When she got back home she almost immediately wrote and asked if he might be interested in painting Chicago.
"He came out here and looked and looked and looked and walked and walked the city up and down," Sinkevitch says. "He's looking at the city like people look at the city, at streetscapes and looking up at the tops of buildings and combining things in interesting ways. He hardly spoke, he was so busy looking at things."
Then Otto came back to Baltimore and started painting.
Sinkevitch used Otto's images at Chicago's booth during the AIA convention in San Diego last May. They gave away 7,000 postcard-size pictures. Otto finds that an "astronomical number."
"I've been looking at [Chicago] for over 30 years and he's seen things I haven't seen," Sinkevitch says. "I'm eager to see how people react to them at the convention. The architects loved them [at San Diego]. I suspect they'll love them next year, too."
Otto went out to Chicago for about three days in late October 2000. He was an accidental tourist.
"He had to practice," Hudson says.
"I hadn't really traveled out of the city in 15 years," Otto says. "So to warm up for that we did a rehearsal and went to Ocean City."
He laughs at himself. He loved O.C.
"So we went out [to Chicago]. We just marched and shot pictures," he says. "About 900."
He loved Chicago, too.
"You know, I could spend two lifetimes doing that city. It's wonderful."
But he hasn't been back.
"Because, frankly, I have enough here almost for a lifetime with the 900 pictures. If I go back, I'll shoot more pictures and I'll never get anything done!"
There were no restrictions or demands: "Anything I wanted to do was fine."
The AIA did suggest he do one building by Frank Lloyd Wright and one by Louis Sullivan, two giants of American architecture. He did Wright's Unity Temple, a classic architectural landmark still used by a Unitarian congregation in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb.
He painted the columns under the roof slanting across the canvas in a multitude of colors highlighted with gold glitter like a high-impact greeting card.
"I don't know how hard-core Frank Lloyd Wright people are going to be looking at this," he says. "I think it'll be OK. I hope so."
He did Sullivan's Auditorium Building, another classic in American architecture, completely in variations on tones of blue.
"One of the reasons I had to choose this particular building of Louis Sullivan is [his] ornate-ness," Otto says. "He's just a wonderful architect, but his detail, I don't know if people would even do that sort of detail today. This seemed to be something I could handle. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous building."
Sullivan, the 19th-century precursor of modern American architecture, made famous the dictum "form follows function," but his buildings often included extraordinary friezes and doorways as elaborate as a Gothic cathedral.
"Since I had to finish this building pretty quickly I did it in sort of monochromatic blues," Otto says. "I could work pretty fast with that."
Full-bore color, he says, would have taken three times as long.
"Making all the color decisions is what takes up the time," he says. "It looks pretty simplified, some of these color combinations. But they really take a lot of time to try to figure out what color goes next to the other one. They're deceptively sort of simple."
He did the Tribune Tower - one of Chicago's most famous structures and the headquarters of the corporation that owns this newspaper - in a kind of rose blush.
"It's the most complicated building I've ever seen," Otto says. "It's got flying buttresses. It's got all this spidery detail, this Gothic stuff at the top. And I was really worried about ... that painting. The only way I could think of doing it was in this red tone, red and white. It works for me."
The Tribune Tower is not actually red and white, need it be said. And the Gothic tracery he's painted rosy red is 30-some stories above the street.
"I really can't give you a reason," he says. "It comes into my head. I look at all the colors. I look at the tubes of paint or I have these color swatches and I'll look over these things and a color comes into mind in the evening and if the color stays with me any length of time I know it's the right color. There's no other way of explaining it. A lot of paintings I've gone into I'm given the most difficult color ahead of time."
"It's just there. It's just in my head and it stays there. ... So when it comes time to do the sky I'll try every other color and then I come back to the blue that works. Whatever that is, that's the mechanism."
The saturated colors of his Chicago series make it hard to recall that Otto started out in black and white, making abstract pencil drawings a few years after his graduation in 1969 from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
He showed his work at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Parsons had awarded him a drawing prize in a competition at Newport, R.I. She was the great champion of abstract-expressionism, with artists such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and later Robert Rauschenberg showing their work at her gallery.
"I went to her apartment once," he says. "It was like living in an art-history book. There were early Jasper Johnses. There was an Alexander Calder circus by her bed that Calder had made just for her. She would open closets and there'd be nothing but artwork in there. No clothes. 'I guess you can see I'm a dealer,' she said."
"I've always drawn," he says. He's reproduced two of his drawings in the Chicago show at the AIA Gallery. One cantilevers the luminous yellow face of the Marshall Field clock into a field of velvety gray like a lantern in a fog. And he drew the entrance to the Chicago Board of Trade in a cantata of black and white and gray photo-realism.
Lately he's taken to drawing storefront churches and corner stores here in Baltimore. He adds color as he does to landmark skyscrapers, with feeling.
"I watch television when I'm doing the drawings because it's very meditative to do that," he says. "I do these late at night and I love to watch television when I'm doing the drawings because it's so much mark-making, repetitive mark-making."
He says it's "very meditative."
"I've got a little TV and I just sort of watch Law & Order, whatever, The Practice, while I'm doing the drawings. I work about an hour on these every night. It settles me down in the evening."
He watched the Watergate hearings when he was doing his abstract-expressionist drawings.
He smiles at himself. He's looks like a kid talking about watching TV while he's doing his homework.
"There's a difference between drawing and painting." he says. "It's very soothing to draw. Painting is a lot more, ah, cranky."
And in his Chicago paintings a whole lot more colorful.
What: Chicago in Baltimore, Greg Otto's paintings of Chicago architecture
Where: American Institute of Architects, 11 1/2 W. Chase St.
When: Openings, 5 p.m.-7 p.m. tomorrow and 2 p.m.-4 p.m. Sunday; otherwise, 9 a.m. to
4:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; through Dec. 30.