And They're Off

The show doesn't necessarily clue the viewer in to the aims of the four collectors, but it makes for a satisfying visual experience nonetheless. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say it's one of the best contemporary shows seen in Denver in a long time--every bit as interesting as the Options exhibits that have been mounted by the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department over the last two years. As in those shows, the local artists who appear in The Collectors Vision are integrated with nationally known figures.

After entering the sumptuous lobby of the 1999 Broadway Building, visitors must follow a series of somewhat confusing signs up a staircase to the mezzanine. That space has been finished much like the lobby--with literally tons of marble, slate, granite and steel. This created a problem, because polished stone walls make a lousy backdrop for art. (Some cynics might note that art doesn't stand up well to nature.) The solution was the construction of temporary white walls that line and define the spaces. These custom-made walls represented one of the largest single expenses associated with the show and are said to have cost nearly $20,000--paid for, as were all the exhibition's expenses, with money provided by an anonymous donor and by Norwest Bank. But the walls were well worth the expense; without them, the room, and not the art, would have captured all the attention.

The first space at the top of the stairs houses the paintings lent by collector Kenneth Whiting, along with a display of posters for sale. Of the four collections, Whiting's receives the sparest treatment, with only three paintings on display: a Fernando Botero still life, another still life by Aaron Fink, and a color-field abstraction by Paul Jenkins. The real standout is the Jenkins, an acrylic on canvas from 1984 titled "Phenomena: Battery Park Prism." In a sense, the Whiting selection serves as a sneak preview to the rest of the exhibit--much as the show itself provides an early glimpse of the embryonic Museum of Contemporary Art.

The remaining three collections are shown off in considerably more depth and provide the visitor with a much better idea of how art collections are put together. The first formal gallery, created through the use of those custom-made walls, is devoted to selections from the Hughes collection. Paul Hughes, longtime director of the recently closed Inkfish Gallery, always said he wouldn't sell any painting he wouldn't have in his own home. So it's not surprising to find in this collection the same names we know from all those Inkfish shows over the years.

The Hughes collection is broad-based and eclectic, boasting a 1940s Vance Kirkland watercolor of trees, a 1980s abstract-expressionist work by Lee Simpson and a pair of Italo Scanga's neo-expressionist sculptures, also from the 1980s. But as might be expected, the real strength is late modernist work--reductivist sculpture and painting from the 1960s to the present. A good example is Harry Bertoia's breathtaking "Untitled," a brass and copper sculpture from 1961, in which Bertoia mounted little metal squares in vertical rows on an upright metal pole. George Rickey also uses simple geometric shapes in the 1996 kinetic sculpture "Open Rectangles."

Squares and rectangles appear again in Herbert Bayer's "Opening (on Black)," an acrylic-on-canvas painting from 1973 that, with its rainbow of bright colors and black square in the center, constituted an important work for the artist. Squares of color are also laid one over another in the 1979 diptych "Untitled," an acrylic on canvas by Richard Anuszkiewicz.

The Bryan Pulte collection is displayed both in its own formal gallery space and in a broad corridor that connects that gallery with the Hughes display. Pulte has collected many significant local artists, and those locals--among them Jeff Starr, Lorre Hoffman and the late Wes Kennedy--hold their own even in the heady company of national figures like Bertoia and Rickey. Pulte's commitment to large-scale ceramic sculpture is particularly impressive; the show includes both the magnificent Scott Chamberlin sculpture "Thuja," from 1988, and a stunning multi-panel wall relief by Martha Daniels from the same year.

Winding back around to the corridor, the visitor arrives at two large galleries outfitted with Charles Hamlin's formidable holdings, which include some of the most talked-about pieces in the show. For instance, there's the incredible abstract-expressionist Anthony Caro sculpture from 1977, "Table PC CCXXXIV," a mass of found and forged steel that was allowed to rust before being sealed with varnish. And how about Helen Frankenthaler's "Fire," an acrylic on canvas from 1962? It's easy to understand how Frankenthaler went to the top of the color-field movement when one sees a painting such as this.

Other treats in Hamlin's collection include a pair of Dale Chihuly blown and cased glass vases from the "Indian Blanket Series" of 1966. There may be bigger Chihuly pieces around, but not many that were more important to his development as an artist. And don't miss those Dorothy Dehner bronzes, either--or that wonderful black painting by Matt O'Neill.

All in all, The Collectors Vision constitutes a remarkable start for Cannon's group, even if it was a bit of a no-brainer to put together. (After all, the collectors already did the hard work of selecting the art.) But a few problems need to be addressed immediately. For example, there is no guide to the exhibit. Admittedly, most of the artists are well-known. But others aren't--and it would be nice to know who they are. Then there are the identifying labels, some of which are incomplete, and some of which actually misspell the artists' names. The lack of a unified graphic design for the museum's publications and mailings doesn't help, either--for now, they're mostly cheap and ugly-looking.

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