Old Times

Colorado artists have a history of going out on a limb.

In a way, the historically important and aesthetically compelling Vanguard Art in Colorado: 1940-1970, which just opened at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, provides a background for Colorado Abstraction: 1975-1999, the spectacular two-part exhibit now playing at the Arvada Center. Taken together, these shows provide a good big-picture look at the development of abstract painting and sculpture in the state since the mid-twentieth century.

The planning for Vanguard Art began about two years ago, when physician and art collector John Woodward approached BMoCA director Cydney Payton with the idea for an exhibit that would focus on the mostly unknown history of early abstraction in Colorado. At first Payton and Woodward attempted to coordinate with the Arvada Center, but the collaboration never happened. In spite of that, the exhibits are related, even if they spotlight different eras.

This is the second time that Payton and Woodward have teamed up to present an exhibit; the Dorothy Dehner retrospective, done a few years ago, was also presented at BMoCA. The two met more than ten years ago when Payton owned a Denver gallery and Woodward was a budding collector. Woodward and his wife, Karen Hall, have since built a serious art collection with holdings that include a range of material, from old landscape paintings to contemporary abstracts. They are interested in the art of Colorado, New Mexico and California, as well as modern art glass, ceramics and design.

They began collecting in the late Seventies, with Hall leading the way and Woodward joining in soon after. They haunted antique stores as well as contemporary galleries in their quest. It was in the antique market that they first encountered the work of the state's earliest modern artists. At the time, there was little or no interest in this material, and the couple built their collection readily and cheaply, something that is no longer possible.

In addition to loaning many pieces to the show, Woodward -- who is responsible for most of its content -- borrowed others from a number of private collections and several local institutions, including the not-yet-open Vance Kirkland Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (CSFAC) and the Fremont Center for the Arts in Cañon City. Because of a scheduling glitch, he was unable to borrow from the Denver Art Museum, but he easily found replacements.

Woodward is the chairman of the Denver Cultural Council (DCC), the organization that doles out the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District money to smaller (tier III) art organizations, a category under which BMoCA falls. But he is quick to point out that he does not feel this is a conflict of interest, since he is an unpaid volunteer in both instances. In fact, Woodward provided a good deal of the funding for Vanguard Art out of his own deep pockets.

With her usual hands-on direction, Payton supervised the installation, and she doesn't mince words when evaluating the results. "It is the pinnacle of my professional career in Colorado," she says. "It's a wonderful occasion."

Payton also makes the ironic observation that although the topic of Vanguard Artis artwork from the past,the exhibition is filled with fresh material: A good deal of the inclusions have not been exhibited publicly for decades, and some items have never been shown before. "It's so exciting to be a part of something new, something that's been secret," she says. "The show sets a precedent, providing historic context for the current generation of artists." And, it might be added, for the rest of us, too.

Woodward's inclusive approach, in which he brought together scores of artists working in dozens of different ways, is seen immediately as we enter the front galleries. On the wall directly opposite the entrance are a group of diverse paintings hung salon-style in a cluster. In front is a single sculpture.

Most of the artists in the show have been all but forgotten, but there are several in this first group who are genuinely famous, like Vance Kirkland and Herbert Bayer. Though both are still widely exhibited, it's a rarity to see their works hung side by side, as they are here.

Painted by Kirkland in 1970, Vibrations of Two Blues, Green, Violet on Yellow, an oil on linen, is one of the newest pieces in the show. It represents the late artist's final phase, in which he used wooden dowels instead of brushes to make op-art dot paintings. The title of the piece is thoroughly descriptive, and if you look at it long enough, the colors will start to vibrate. More than anyone else, Kirkland was responsible for the development of modern art in Denver. Moving to the city in the 1920s, he painted for more than fifty years and taught for decades, both at his own art school and at the University of Denver. He also served as the DAM's volunteer curator of contemporary art. Through his example and his teaching, he engendered an entire scene here. Many of the artists in Vanguard Art were influenced by him.

The Bayer painting, Untitled (Linear Structure Series), an oil on canvas from 1961, is a signature piece. On top of a handsome blue ground, Bayer places black and white lines in a formal, hieratic arrangement. The crisp, straightforward design recalls his Bauhaus background -- the Austrian-born artist was both a student and a teacher at the famous German art school. Like many of his colleagues at the Bauhaus who fled the Nazis, Bayer wound up in the United States. Lucky for us, he settled in Aspen in the 1940s, where he lived until shortly before his death in 1985.

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