Pikes Peak or Bust

Pity Colorado Springs if you must. Today it's known primarily for its right-wing politics. But as recently as the early 1950s, the city was famous mostly for its art--a lot of which was left-wing. Hard to believe? Perhaps. But it's a message that Manitou Springs painter Tracy Felix wants to relay to anyone who'll listen.

Felix is best known in Denver for his simplified contemporary landscape paintings depicting the Front Range. But he's also an at-large art historian, curator and exhibition designer--talents he puts to full use in a trio of current shows that make Colorado Springs a worthwhile destination for a change.

Downtown, Felix has helped reinstall the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum's permanent collection of Artus and Anne Van Briggle's art pottery. In the city's old north end, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, he played a role in a five-years-in-the-making tribute to Depression-era muralist and illustrator Boardman Robinson. And up at the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Felix co-curated a second Robinson retrospective, this one juxtaposing the work of Robinson with that of his colleagues and students.

The Pioneers Museum is housed in the elegant old El Paso County Courthouse on South Tejon Street, a pink stone Italian palazzo on steroids crowned with a huge bell tower. Spared the wrecking ball in the 1970s when its bland replacement was built across the street, the courthouse became the CSPM's new home. Over the years, the museum staff has restored the opulent building, converting courtrooms to exhibition space without destroying the interior's splendid details.

In a small side gallery that must have been a clerk's office, a series of glass showcases are filled with more than 100 examples of Van Briggle art pottery. In 1899 Artus Van Briggle and his wife, Anne, came to Colorado Springs, attracted both by the clay rush that had made Colorado an attractive place for potters and by the cool, dry air--a godsend for Artus, who suffered from tuberculosis. The Van Briggles established a commercial pottery and went on to earn worldwide acclaim, winning a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1903. Artus died in 1904, and Anne essentially gave up on the pottery business (which still exists, by the way) when it was sold at a sheriff's auction in 1913.

Felix recently revamped the glass showcases and stocked them with Van Briggle selections from the museum's enormous collection. He chose the oldest and finest pieces, which well illustrate the many stylistic influences the Van Briggles embraced, from art nouveau and arts and crafts to Chinese and American Indian works. Using his painter's eye for color, Felix also made his selections with the idea of featuring gorgeous glazes. He found plenty of those in a group of pieces originally assembled by a local private collector, Lois Crouch, who first became aware of the pottery in the museums of Paris in the 1960s. Fifteen years ago Crouch donated her magnificent assortment to the CSPM, and it became the core of the museum's Van Briggle collection. The CSPM has since acquired many more articles, including a stunning turquoise-colored fireplace.

Just a short car ride from the old courthouse is the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, a 1936 modernist masterpiece by New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. In the 1930s the idea of having exhibitions, concerts, plays and art instruction in a one-stop art center was a brand-new idea, and the Fine Arts Center quickly replaced its predecessor, the prestigious Broadmoor Academy, as the city's art hub. Renowned muralist Boardman Robinson, the Broadmoor's director since 1931, moved over to become director of the CSFAC's newly created art school and remained a force in Colorado Springs until he was disgracefully fired shortly before he died in 1952. His dismissal was a direct result of that decade's Red Scare, which literally brought down the whole art school. This last tragic aspect in the life of the artist is all but ignored in the otherwise spectacular Robinson show that now occupies three large galleries and the center's lobby.

Boardman Robinson: American Muralist and Illustrator, 1876-1952 is the product of a committee that has been working since 1991. The honorary chairman was Robinson's granddaughter, Johanne Robinson Coiner, who shared anecdotes along with her collection. Also taking part were a number of Robinson's students, including significant Colorado artists such as Lew Tilley, Eric Bransby, Mary Ann Bransby and Laurence B. Field, as well as local art collectors and enthusiasts such as Nelson Rieger, Pat Musick and, of course, Felix.

According to Cathy Wright, chief curator of the CSFAC's Taylor Museum, the committee was largely responsible for the center's acquisition of what she calls one of Robinson's greatest works, the ten-mural series "History of Commerce," created for Pittsburgh's Kaufmann's department store in 1929. The committee entrusted specific decisions about the Robinson show to Henry Adams, the highly regarded regionalist authority, who was brought in especially for the event.

Seven of the Kaufmann murals, which were all executed in automotive paint on canvas, have been included in the current exhibit. All are breathtaking and by themselves well worth the hour's drive to the Springs. The mural panels Robinson completed long ago at the entrance to the Fine Arts Center were repainted entirely--rather than restored--in the 1980s by Eric Bransby. So it's not until the lobby that one gets the first glimpse of Robinson's genius: an entire wall covered with the enormous "Trade and Commerce in the United States," the final panel of the Kaufmann series. The mural depicts construction workers at their labors in the foreground, with the skyscrapers and smokestacks of Pittsburgh in the background. Robinson's interest in the heroic arrangement of forms used by the old masters is evident in the composition, as is his embrace of the cubist-inspired simplification of the human form.

At the time the mural was painted, Robinson and his friend and colleague Thomas Hart Benton were just inventing regionalism--and laying the groundwork for the style that would dominate the mural division of the 1930s Works Progress Administration. Robinson continued to receive private commissions through the 1930s, including one for New York's fabled Radio City Music Hall. But he also received a number of WPA-sponsored jobs, most notably a famous mural series depicting great lawmakers for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Passing through the garden gallery and around to the north gallery, the viewer is confronted with the transcendent experience of seeing the other six Kaufmann murals brought together in one room. The murals depict trade through the ages, with titles like "Venetians in the Levant" and "The English in China." Each panel features large figures in appropriate historical garb set against landscapes that define the locales of the titles. The colors are as bold as the subject matter: predominating blues and ambers set off by vivid reds, soft pinks and dusty oranges.

Displayed along with the six Kaufmann murals is 1940's "Full Scale Cartoon for the Englewood Post Office Mural." History buffs will be delighted to find that this is the original charcoal sketch on gessoed craft paper that Robinson prepared as a study for the mural, which depicts a horse auction and which is still in place at the post office on South Broadway.

The remainder of the CSFAC show attempts to survey the many different phases through which Robinson passed. The two galleries devoted to his work make the point that Robinson was mainly interested in drawing and mural painting, and the viewer is struck by how rarely he turned his attention to easel painting. The first of the galleries includes many of Robinson's leftist political cartoons, which were published as early as 1908 in several New York dailies. The artist also had a career as an illustrator during World War I, when he traveled to Eastern Europe with leftist journalist John Reed. After the war he resumed his career as a cartoonist, publishing in progressive political magazines like The Masses and The Liberator. (These were the activities that would get him in trouble with the thought police of the 1950s.)

The second gallery is filled with work Robinson did after arriving in Colorado Springs. Many of these pieces are the rough sketches or finished character studies that he used in preparation for mural painting. But this section also features a number of fine portraits, many depicting Robinson's contemporaries in the art scene that was centered for so many years at the CSFAC.

That halcyon scene is the subject of a fabulous show at UCCS's Gallery of Contemporary Art titled Boardman Robinson and His Circle. Co-organizers Felix and Gerry Riggs, the GCA director, both sat on the Robinson committee and decided that the Robinson tribute would not be complete without a separate exhibit devoted to his colleagues and students. According to Riggs, he and Felix began by submitting the names of seventy artists to the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, which wrote an article about the effort. The response, Riggs says, was astounding. Some forty art collectors contacted the GCA, and the result is a show that includes a remarkable 137 pieces by 52 artists. Among the standouts are a pair of 1930s mural studies by the great Frank Mechau, a female torso in travertine from the 1950s by Edgar Britton, two never-before-exhibited 1970s bronzes by Starr Kempf, and four lithographs and a watercolor by regionalist master and sometime visiting CSFAC art teacher Adolf Dehn, including that artist's whimsical and wonderful 1940 lithograph, "Good Americans All."

After having toured these three shows, viewers may find themselves exhausted by the effort. But imagine how tired Tracy Felix must be. "I've got to get back to work in my studio," he says. He can use the well-earned rest.

The pottery of Artus and Anne Van Briggle, on permanent display at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, 215 South Tejon Street, 719-578-6650.

Boardman Robinson: American Muralist and Illustrator, 1876-1952, through January 12, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, 719-634-5581

Boardman Robinson and His Circle, through November 1 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, 719-262-3567.

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