Vance Encounter

Vance Kirkland was the biggest name in Denver's art world for much of the twentieth century. From the 1930s through the 1970s, he dominated the local art scene, not just as the city's premier modern painter, but also as an influential art teacher and a powerful force at the Denver Art Museum. In spite of his many successes, however, it's been only in the past decade that Kirkland has achieved genuine international fame. Unfortunately, it's a distinction that eluded Kirkland during his lifetime--he died of cancer in 1981.

Kirkland's posthumous revival began in 1994, when a television documentary lauding his career was aired nationally on PBS. This was followed last year by the organization of an in-depth survey of his work that is now midway through a tour of European museums. Of course, we can't see that traveling show, but as a consolation prize, we can catch a small but wonderful exhibit currently at the DAM titled Vance Kirkland: The Late Paintings, a showcase featuring eleven pieces that marked the final phases of the artist's long career.

Credit for all of this Kirkland-mania--including the show at the DAM--must go to Hugh Grant, Kirkland's friend and protege who today serves as director of the Vance Kirkland Foundation and Museum. That foundation was set up by Kirkland and primarily funded by Grant and his wife, Merle Chambers. Grant has kept the torch burning for the late artist since Kirkland's death, at times carrying on his campaign single-handedly, especially during the lean years of the 1980s, when many local know-it-alls openly questioned Kirkland's value as an artist. But times change, and so do tastes, and Kirkland's work is looking great again--even to some former naysayers.

Certainly the renewed interest in Kirkland wouldn't have happened if things had been left to the DAM, which does very little for even the best local artists. In fact, Vance Kirkland is the museum's first exhibit in more than twenty years to focus on the artist's work--even though, from 1958 to 1965, Kirkland served without pay as the DAM's first curator of contemporary art. In the kind of scheduling snafu that's all too common at the museum, the show, in the Close Range Gallery off the elevator lobby, has wound up being the only exhibit on the first floor. The recently inaugurated Hamilton Galleries and the extensive Stanton Galleries, both of which are between shows, are closed off. This gives an eerily vacant quality to the first floor that may actually serve to repel visitors.

Worse yet, at least for the Kirkland show, is that the large doorway on the left side of the Close Range rooms has been left open. This provides museumgoers with a distracting view of the ladders and paint cans that have been gathered in preparation for another exhibit that will open in April, after the Kirkland show closes. (That show, by the way, will contain quite a surprise: the return of the important 1937 "Still Life" oil painting by Picasso that's been out of sight for years. The museum had announced last fall that the painting was among a group of 41 works slated for deaccessioning. But let's not complain about the DAM curators' indecisiveness; let's just be happy they changed their minds.)

Like a number of other Colorado artists who managed to get into the DAM's permanent collection, Kirkland himself was subject to deaccessioning. He left some 300 of his own paintings to the DAM, not knowing that the museum would choose to keep only 30 and sell the rest. The dozens of deaccessioned Kirkland paintings didn't appear at the on-the-premises auction conducted by Christie's a few years ago but instead were quietly purchased in bulk by the wealthy Kirkland Foundation. By doing so, the foundation averted flooding the market and driving down the value of the artist's work. Now, a few years later, the foundation is in a position to lend pieces--such as those that make up this new show--back to the DAM.

The paintings in the exhibit were selected by DAM curator Gwen Chanzit, who acknowledges the contributions of foundation director Grant. The works chosen by Chanzit and Grant range in date from the late 1950s to just before Kirkland's death in 1981. For many artists, twenty years would represent an entire career. For Kirkland, it's just a couple of chapters.

Born in 1904 in rural Ohio, Kirkland moved at age nineteen to Cleveland, then a center for regional art, and attended both the Cleveland School of Art and Western Reserve University, which jointly awarded him a degree in art education in 1928. He came to Denver the following year, outfitted with a Carnegie Foundation grant and determined to start an art school.

Upon his arrival, Kirkland founded the Chappell School of Art at the University of Denver, the predecessor to DU's School of Art and Art History. In the beginning, the school was housed not on campus but in the Chappell House, a mansion that once stood at 14th and Logan Streets. At the time, Chappell House also served as a home for the DAM. Kirkland went on to establish a BFA program at DU--then a rare offering--but left in 1932 when the university refused to grant fine-art degrees.

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