Hidden Treasure

Only rarely can one individual literally change the cultural landscape of a major city. But that's exactly what Nancy Tieken has done since she came to Denver for health reasons in 1991.

Bored by a lengthy recuperation process, Tieken, a lifetime art historian with a BFAfrom Radcliffe, volunteered at the Denver Art Museum and later became the adjunct curator of modern and contemporary art, a position museum director Lewis Sharp created especially for her. She soon took over preparation of the didactics for the department's exhibitions, and she lectured statewide. She organized shows and helped choose works for the collection, particularly the cache of Motherwells the DAM acquired in 1994. And Tieken was a voice for prudence during the deaccession days of 1995, taking many misunderstood paintings off the chopping block at a time when the DAM was disposing of hundreds of pieces from its permanent collection.

Tieken's most recent triumph is the exhibit that opened last weekend, The Poindexter Collection of Modern American Masters. The show, which Tieken organized and partly sponsored through the auspices of her NBT Foundation, features a magnificent selection of abstract art by some of America's most important artists.

But even before we can get to The Poindexter Collection, we're surrounded by Tieken's other accomplishments. One of the best curators to have ever graced the DAM, she has also been Denver's most important art patron in this decade. As visitors approach the DAM, they are met by Tieken's most recent gift, Donald Lipski's Yearling--an engaging post-pop-art piece that features a tiny paint pony on the seat of a monumental chair. The sculpture was installed last month on the lawn of the Denver Public Library, across from the museum. Though the absurd character of the Lipski could be disconcerting to some, Tieken is not surprised that it's been an overwhelming popular success. "Many adults see the piece as being aimed at children, so they allow themselves to enjoy it and even to laugh at it," Tieken explains. "It's not threatening like the Di Suvero," she says, referring to another of her donations, the painted, welded-steel Lao Tzu, by Mark Di Suvero, which was installed in 1996 and is unquestionably the finest piece of modern sculpture in the city. The spectacular haz-mat-orange sculpture is sited not far from the Lipski, just off the museum's side entrance.

After entering the museum and proceeding to the Stanton wing, we encounter another major sculpture that was also a gift from Tieken. Above our heads floats the gorgeous Snow Flurry, May 14, a black and white mobile from 1959 by the form's legendary pioneer, Alexander Calder. Throughout the rest of the Stanton wing are other Tieken gifts, including major pieces by James Turrell, Jim Dine and Dan Flavin, all of which are included in the current Welcome Back! exhibition highlighting the DAM's permanent collection of modern and contemporary art. That exhibition encompasses another example of Tieken's curatorial prowess, since she co-organized the room dedicated to early modernism with Gwen Chanzit, another of the DAM's highly accomplished curators. This room is the most compelling section of Welcome Back! On display here is a major sculpture that was acquired not by Tieken, but for her: Richard Serra's "Basic Maintenance," from 1987, which comprises two gigantic hot-rolled steel sheets leaning against the wall, was purchased by the DAM in Tieken's honor.

The Poindexter Collection is installed in the small set of rooms that make up the Stanton Wing's Close Range Gallery. The collection is a little-known treasure trove that has not seen the light of day in more than three decades. Tieken uncovered the horde while jurying an exhibition at the Paris Gibson Art Center in Montana. Richard Notkin, a nationally known ceramic artist associated with Montana's famous Archie Bray Foundation and an old friend of Tieken's, told her about a wonderful selection of mid-twentieth-century modern art long held in storage at the Montana Historical Society. "Imagine finding a collection like this, that includes a Pollock, several de Koonings and a Kline," Tieken says, "all on rusting metal racks in the basement--illuminated by a single bare light bulb!"

The collection was the brainchild of a Montana-born New York commodities broker named George Poindexter. How it wound up at the Montana Historical Society, of all places, and the shameful way it's been treated since make for a ripping yarn.

Poindexter was born in 1900 in Butte, Montana, into a prominent family; his father was a respected lawyer and later a federal judge. He grew up in Montana, moved to New York to attend Columbia University, graduated in 1922 and founded his own business, Commodity Brokers, Inc. Poindexter was a whiz in the commercial world, but he had an interest in painting as well. This was perhaps inspired by his wife, Elinor, who had studied art history at New York's prestigious Finch College.

After World War II, Poindexter took some time off from his business to learn to become an artist. He went to study in Paris with Elinor, but, Tieken says, "he was terrible at it." Back in New York, he took a class from abstract artist Jack Tworkov, whom he had known since his college days. "Tworkov suggested that instead of trying to make art, Poindexter should buy it. Nobody was collecting wildly experimental paintings when George started in 1956. This kind of work was available at the time for a small price and right from the source," Tieken says.

Though Elinor had opened the Poindexter Gallery in 1955 (the year before George started collecting), Tieken has established through research and interviews that the Poindexter Collection was George's individual creation. (Elinor put together her own modernist painting collection, which she donated to the Yellowstone Art Center in Billings.)

In 1960, George began to cede his collection to the Montana Historical Society, giving an abstract painting in memory of his father. (The gift caused some consternation for his relatives, who had little affection for abstraction.) By 1963, the 100-plus-piece collection was ensconced in the historical society in Helena, then Montana's only museum of any kind. Prior to its current appearance at the DAM, it was displayed only twice--once on the occasion of the gift in 1963 when it traveled statewide, and again in 1965 at the then-new Yellowstone Arts Center, the second museum to open in Montana. In the more than thirty intervening years, the Poindexter Collection has been put away--and that's what makes this current show such a rare, exciting treat.

Poindexter was an adventurous collector, and his choices "provide a snapshot of art on the cusp from the late Fifties and early Sixties," Tieken says. Widely varied styles are apparent in the three paintings in the anteroom leading to the Close Range Gallery. On the left is Gene Davis's "65-I," an undated acrylic on canvas made up of vertical stripes of color. Ahead is an abstracted figure painting, "Mr. and Mrs. S.," a 1960 oil on canvas by James Weeks. And to the right is "Beach Figures," an abstract-expressionist composition by Robert Goodnough, done in 1962. With these three paintings, Poindexter covered a lot of mid-century painting territory, from Davis's Washington School minimalism to Weeks's Bay Area figuration, alongside Goodnough's New York School abstract expressionism. And though the three rival movements were each putting forward a different pictorial program, they now peacefully coexist at the DAM. If, as Tieken says, it was rare for individuals to collect contemporary art in the 1950s, it was rarer still to find someone like Poindexter, who was interested in competing movements at the same time.

Poindexter's commitment to difficult, transitional works is demonstrated by the first piece in the exhibit proper, an early and significant Jackson Pollock. Within the untitled 1943 ink and watercolor on paper are several surrealist elements that anticipate Pollock's later classic abstract-expressionist paintings. This prescience is best embodied in Pollock's extensive use of automatic drawing; essentially scribbling, the method makes this painting every bit as non-objective as his subsequent drip paintings. Pollock thought the use of automatism came out of his subconscious, an idea that was the product of his exposure to psychoanalysis.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the collection is its four historically important Willem de Kooning paintings. They all are definitive stylistically and date from the late Forties and early Fifties, the artist's most consequential period. Poindexter acquired the paintings directly from de Kooning. (The two had a mutual friend--the collector's mentor, Tworkov, who had introduced them.)

The most striking of the de Koonings is also the smallest. The diminutive "Woman," an oil on paperboard from 1946, is the painting Poindexter dedicated to his father's memory. It reveals the way de Kooning began to leave behind representational imagery as he increasingly embraced abstraction. Though it is part of de Kooning's famous "Woman" series, this piece is unique. "It's the only de Kooning 'Woman' I know of with a recognizable background," Tieken says.

Franz Kline, another abstract-expressionist giant, is represented by an archetypal example, a 1951 untitled oil on canvas. The easel-sized horizontal composition, in which bold black brush strokes are heavily applied on a rich, thickly painted white ground, is pure Kline. "I wanted to hang the Kline alone on its own wall, but there just wasn't the space," Tieken says. Truly, the show is cramped in Close Range--but with the quality of paintings included, so what?

Other highlights are two marvelous figural paintings by noteworthy artists Robert DeNiro, who worked in New York, and Richard Diebenkorn of San Francisco. They are among the artists in the Poindexter Collection who were represented by Elinor's gallery, which gave Diebenkorn his first New York show in 1956 and regularly exhibited DeNiro's work until closing its doors in 1978. The DeNiro, a 1954 tempera on paper titled "Small Single Bather," and the Diebenkorn, a 1956 oil on canvas called "Portrait," have been hung together. They're markedly similar: Each is a portrait in which the subject's features have been only vaguely filled in, and both seem to be mostly about the application of paint.

Poindexter was also interested in fine, definitive color-field paintings. Notably, there's the stunning "Singular Delight," an undated oil on canvas by Jules Olitski that features a gigantic orange figure eight on a rich blue ground. And the full-bodied 1961 Al Held oil on canvas "Untitled No. 8" indicates the artist's transition from abstract expressionism to minimalism in that it incorporates an unlikely combination of both drips and hard edges. (Olitski and Held were represented by Elinor's Poindexter Gallery, too.)

After he gave the collection to the Montana Historical Society in 1963, Tieken says, Poindexter apparently lost interest in it, since correspondence in the files after that time remains unopened. It's unclear why Poindexter suddenly dropped his hobby.

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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