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Mr. Otis with brushes
The dust jacket from Mr. Otis, published by Macmillan in 1958
The Oregonian's contention was placed in doubt in 1958 when the Macmillan Company published Mr. Otis, a book containing color reproductions of Otis paintings, "both the masterpieces and the merely great," along with Holbrook's extensive "Notes on an Unusual Artist" and his critical commentary on the paintings. Holbrook, as an art critic, now proclaimed Otis as the founder of the Primitive-Moderne School, adding that the final e was imperative because "it makes the word foreign, hence fashionable." The book allowed Holbrook to satirize art criticism and puncture some of the pretensions of the modern art world, although in a less savage manner than the subsequent efforts of Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word (1975) or Morley Safer on "60 Minutes" in 1992. Thus, Holbrook observed sadly that as Otis' reputation grew he started using phrases such as "exploring further the textural plasticity of space" and "the fluid nuances demonstrated by Marsden Hartley."

The book was the breakthrough event for the artist. Celebrities from art and publishing circles jammed the Carlton House in New York to see the East Coast debut of Mr. Otis. Holbrook, as the "discoverer" of Otis, was on hand and told the reporters that he was "supremely happy to at last achieve permanent fame by riding on the coattails of Mr. Otis."

Reviews of the book brought national acclaim to Mr. Otis. American Heritage wrote that "a new talent burst on the art world ... which lies somewhere between Jackson Pollock and Gluyus Williams and within shouting distance of Maxfield Parrish," and compared the Otis-Holbrook relationship to that of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Lewis Gannett observed that "for all its intellectual sophistication Otis' work reaches into primordial depths unknown to the modernist." The Chicago Tribune's art editor hailed Otis as a new American genius who was taking modern art beyond the dead end reached by the abstract expressionists. The Boston Herald and the Detroit Times, apparently missing the point that Otis was a serious artist, hailed the book as a wonderful spoof on modern art.

Copies of the book sold briskly in established art centers, as well as Oregon, and Holbrook arranged to have copies signed in a weak scrawl by "Mr. Otis (the artist)" with Holbrook adding "guaranteed genuine" in his own strong hand. Oregon followers of Holbrook and Otis urged the Portland Art Museum to honor Mr. Otis with an exhibition in his hometown, but the museum staff -- not known in those days for bowing to popular taste or acknowledging the efforts of contemporary artists -- brusquely declined. The Multnomah County Library, Portland's two leading department stores, a gallery, and Erickson's saloon all came to the rescue and held exhibitions of "original and warranted hand painted works of Mr. Otis" during the next few years.

Now for the first time, the painter allowed his works to be sold for cash rather than bartered. Most were offered at prices ranging from $100 to $200. (Roughly the same price as a work by Carl Morris or Louis Bunce at the time.) "I'm amazed ... now they're beginning to buy the damn things," Holbrook was overheard to comment.


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