Hidden Treasure

The Poindexter Collection of Modern American Masters, as curated by Nancy Tieken, is one of the most thoughtful and beautiful exhibits the DAM has ever presented. And the fact that it represents her triumphant swan song--Tieken has sold her pied-à-terre on Cheesman Park and is soon leaving town permanently--makes it a mournful occasion as well.

The Poindexter Collection at the DAM isn't the only current show featuring a modernist collection that was put together by rich people at mid-century. Selections From the Private Collections of Rose and King Shwayder and Gordon Rosenblum is in its final days at the School of Art and Art History Gallery in the Shwayder Fine Art Building on the campus of the University of Denver.

The show commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the building's completion. Partly paid for by the Shwayders, who gave DU more than $1 million toward its construction, the building is a formalist cast-concrete and plate-glass composition by the Denver architectural firm of RNL.

If Rose and King were spendthrifts when it came to capital-improvements donations, they were clearly more frugal when shopping for art. Though there are a lot of major names in the collection, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, the works are mostly minor--and more than a few are in deplorable condition. But this may be an unfair judgment, since what's on display is only a fraction of what Rose Shwayder put together, mostly in the '50s and '60s; specifically, it's the fraction inherited and enhanced by her nephew, Gordon Rosenblum (hence the run-on title of the show).

And there are reasons to catch the exhibit. The Shwayders have several interesting examples of German expressionism from the early twentieth century, most notably "The Patient," a disturbing 1937 ink and watercolor on paper by George Grosz. Working in Berlin at the time--but soon to run for his life from the Nazis, settling permanently in the U.S.--Grosz reflects the terror of the time in this creepy view of a man in a wheelchair attended by a sinister companion.

Other German expressionist highlights are prints by Kathe Kollwitz and Max Pechstein. "Hunger," Kollwitz's 1923 woodcut, shows a lamenting woman with a child's corpse in her lap; it seems to predict in stark black and white the consequences of the Holocaust, then still more than a decade away. Surely Kollwitz was inspired by the horrors of World War I, at least indirectly. Pechstein makes direct references to the First World War--from the German side. Using straight lines and conventionalized details, he creates in an untitled 1917 print and drypoint a grotesque parody of the Pietà, in which a corpse is cradled in the arms of a helmeted soldier.

The Shwayder collection's greatest strength is its many Oskar Fischinger paintings, which were acquired by Rosenblum. Fischinger was a German emigre associated with the transcendentalists of the 1930s and '40s. Though he enjoyed some success at the time (his work was collected by New York's Guggenheim Museum), he is fairly obscure today. Unlike the show's mostly insignificant (and cheap) works by famous artists, Fischinger's wonderful paintings are the major works of a minor artist.

Early on, Fischinger arrived at a pointillist approach in which abstract compositions are created out of spots or dashes of color arranged in patterns. In the oldest Fischinger here, 1939's "Dots," red and yellow squares made up of colored paint specks stand out plainly on a field of blue gray. Fischinger's dot paintings will remind some of the contemporaneous work of Denver's homegrown transcendentalist, Vance Kirkland, who--not entirely coincidentally--was head of the DU art department when the Shwayders gave all that money to the art-building fund.

The show is a fitting celebration--warts and all--for the building's twentieth birthday. But you'd think, after all this time, that the university would make the commitment to hire a director, because the undependable School of Art and Art History Gallery is in dire need of some direction.

The Poindexter Collection of Modern American Masters, through May 16, 1999, in the Close Range Gallery at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 303-640-2295.

Selections From the Private Collections of Rose and King Shwayder and Gordon Rosenblum, through October 24 at the University of Denver's School of Art and Art History Gallery, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 303-871-2846.

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