Real to Real

The Singer Gallery's mid-summer offering, the absolutely fabulous John DeAndrea: Fragments, provides local viewers a rare opportunity to see the work of one of the greatest artists in Colorado, ever.

DeAndrea was born in Denver in 1941 and raised in the old Italian neighborhood on the west side. "We lived where they built the Valley Highway," he says. "The Italians were moving toward Federal when I was a kid--now they've made it to Arvada." For a time, DeAndrea did his neighbors one better, getting as far west as California, where he lived briefly, but he has mostly remained in the Highland neighborhood and points out that his studio, which he bought in 1969, is only five blocks from where he grew up.

According to DeAndrea, this background played a key role in his development as an artist. "Being working-class, being Italian was more important than what I was taught at the university," he says. "I had an innate love of beauty and a love for Italian Renaissance art--which in the long run was all that mattered."

At North High School in the late 1950s, DeAndrea's art teacher, the late Martha Epp, recognized and encouraged his aesthetic gifts. "I might not be an artist today if not for her," says DeAndrea, who notes that a lot of Epp's former students feel the same way, including abstract painter Dale Chisman. In 1961 DeAndrea entered the fine-arts program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There, painter and art professor Frank Sampson became a big supporter. "More than anyone at CU, he encouraged me. He's still a friend, still the same kind of guy," DeAndrea says.

DeAndrea recalls that his classic style, in which the human figure is rendered with fanatical attention to detail, began to develop while he was still at CU. "It was through experimentation and was not a conscious thing," recalls DeAndrea. The dominant style of the time at CU and nearly everywhere else was abstract expressionism. "It was a real effort not to do that," he remembers.

Turning away from abstraction and toward representation was a conscious choice for DeAndrea, at least in hindsight, and his approach was based on a critique of modernism. DeAndrea sees twentieth-century modern art as being derived from nineteenth-century concepts. "That art should have a message is a Victorian idea. But art was decorative for a long, long time," he says. The influence of psychology has also had a deleterious effect on art, he adds. "Freud believed that everything had a double meaning, a hidden message. My work has an old-fashioned message. It's about beauty; it's about making people's hearts thump."

Graduating in 1965 with a bachelor of fine arts degree from CU, DeAndrea went on to the University of New Mexico for graduate study but never completed his master's degree. "I was being trained to be a teacher, but I felt I didn't have teacher potential and so decided to work full-time on my sculpture," he says. It was a smart move. In 1969, a year after leaving UNM, DeAndrea met Ivan Karp, director of New York's OK Harris Gallery. Karp gave DeAndrea a solo show the next year, and the artist was soon internationally famous, with his work displayed at prestigious galleries and museums in the United States and Europe. DeAndrea sees the wonderful advantage his ready and enduring fame has given him. "It was a way to keep going," he says. "It brings energy. It's not the fame, it's the acceptance. If the Beatles had kept playing in Liverpool, they wouldn't have gotten so good. I always was trying harder, always going back for more."

DeAndrea was one of a group of realists coming to prominence at the time, but the rest were a generation older. "The other realists, like Duane Hanson, were more mature, more seasoned. I was pure energy. I powered my way through it. The creativity was flowing, and my work was idea-rich," he says, noting that although he is older now, his approach hasn't changed much. "I guess I'm still not seasoned."

Despite his immediate fame almost thirty years ago, it would not be until 1996 that DeAndrea would be feted with a solo show at the Denver Art Museum, which truly illustrates the idea that you're never famous in your own hometown. The show included the well-known DeAndrea sculpture "Linda," a reclining nude, one of the DAM's most popular works since it was acquired in 1984. "Linda" is currently in storage.

Fragments is the first time DeAndrea's work has been seen in the city since the DAM exhibit closed in 1997. The show was the brainchild of Singer director Simon Zalkind. It was on a studio visit last spring that Zalkind had the unusual idea of organizing a show pairing DeAndrea's finished sculptures with his preparatory studies and pieces in experimental states. "It was Simon's idea; the way it looks is the way he wanted it to look. I just let him go, and he proved up to it," says DeAndrea, who is very happy with the show. "I'm tickled. It's like a Christmas present."

When the idea for a DeAndrea show was presented to Zalkind by a boardmember of the Mizel Arts Center, of which the Singer is a part, the gallery director gave pause. "I felt like it was unworkable," says Zalkind, since DeAndrea is best known for his detailed renditions of nude females and the Singer is part of a family-oriented facility (the Mizel Arts Center leases space from the Jewish Community Center). "We have a religious preschool here, so no naked ladies," says Zalkind, kicking up his Brooklyn accent a notch. As if on cue, a group of three- and four-year-olds march through the gallery. "Now, remember our special rule: no touching," the teacher says.

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