Totally Abstract

At 100 years old, abstract art still holds its shape.

For the last five years or so, the fine-art world has seen a major revival of interest in abstraction in its innumerable stylistic permutations.

Abstraction in painting and sculpture came into its own in the first few years of the twentieth century. Its audience among artists and collectors was small at first, but its appeal grew quickly, and it soon supplanted the representation of recognizable objects, a tried-and-true approach that had dominated Western art since the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Because abstraction represents such a big stylistic shift from what went on before, it is surely the quintessential twentieth-century approach in the fine arts.

And now, at the start of the 2000s, abstraction is still popular; in fact, it's more more popular now than it has been in twenty years, demonstrating that it has some long legs.

"Intuitive Recognition," by Lynn Heitler, painting.
"Intuitive Recognition," by Lynn Heitler, painting.
"American Flyer," by Richard Heinrich, bronze sculpture.
"American Flyer," by Richard Heinrich, bronze sculpture.


Charles Thomas ONeil: Recent Paintings and Richard Heinrich: Recent Bronze Sculpture, through June 10 at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 303-777-9473
Intuition, through May 27 at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360.

But there are some naysayers on the scene, especially those interested in conceptual art, who argue that abstraction's renewed vigor in recent times marks its institutionalization into a kind of traditional art, like realism or impressionism. In this scenario, contemporary abstraction is conservative, reactionary and -- worst of all -- safe.

There is a substantial problem with this theoretical pose, however. The truth is that for the vast majority of the public who are not specifically interested in art -- but still buy pictures to hang over their sofas -- abstract art is anything but safe. We know this because of the hostility manifested in jokes and put-downs directed at abstracts on TV sitcoms and in cocktail-party banter. Even more telling is the huge local market in traditional paintings of the landscape and the figure, the sale of which supports several of the toniest galleries in Cherry Creek North. No, abstraction, regardless of how safe it might be, doesn't enjoy anywhere near such a level of financial success, at least not in Denver.

Thus, contemporary abstraction is both old-fashioned and threatening, which is an interesting combination, to say the least. Maybe it's this internal contradiction that has kept it going for all these years.

Two opposing currents in abstract painting now seem to be the most predominant: There is the continuing influence of abstract expressionism, America's greatest painting style, which first appeared in 1940s in its full-blown manner; and there is minimalism, with its many theoretical progeny, which didn't take center stage until the 1960s. In a sense, the two are opposites, with the former being freely done and based on subconscious instincts and the latter typically precise and based on ideas, or even mathematical calculations. It's like the difference between beat pottery and calculus.

Two of the top galleries in town are now featuring shows that include some of the latest work by several contemporary abstract artists from across the country. At the William Havu Gallery is Intuition, which combines the work of Lynn Heitler, Neltje and Lynn Bernay. And at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery are two shows that have been installed as one, Charles Thomas ONeil: Recent Paintings and Richard Heinrich: Recent Bronze Sculpture. Most of the artists at Havu and Rule are present-day practitioners of abstract expressionism, but some of them have thrown in a little minimalism and even a touch of pop art.

The first of the three artists at Havu, Heitler, was born and raised in Denver in the 1960s and studied at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She received her fine-art degree in 1970 from the University of California at Berkeley and attended the Corcoran Museum Art School in Washington, D.C., in the late '70s. She returned to Denver in the 1980s and began to exhibit locally in the early 1990s. In this way, she established her reputation as a fine abstract painter and printmaker.

Heitler asserts that today's abstractionists may be understood as "yet another generation of artists" carrying on the work of the modern masters of the 1930s to the 1960s, and she is essentially right. But it could be added that there are now more than one generation of artists who are the aesthetic heirs of the abstract giants of the mid-twentieth century.

Havu has included a number of Heitler's largish paintings, including some recent work, in Intuition, along with lots of prints. Her work is installed in the center of the main floor and in the space under the mezzanine loft.

To the right as you enter the gallery is "Intuitive Recognition," an oil on canvas. Like many of the Heitlers in the show, this painting is made up of small, painterly passages in which light colors like yellow and white are surrounded by smears of gray. As we examine it, certain forms suggesting flowers or other plant shapes seem to emerge, but Heitler denies that the paintings are based on the landscape. Instead, she says, "they're all autobiographical." This explanation, as vague as it is, turns out to be standard. Abstract-expressionists really do think they are revealing their very essence in their paintings. I'm not so philosophical: I think abstract expressionism is mostly about paint, and that's good enough.

Other impressive Heitlers, which also evoke the landscape in the forms the artist assembles, include "Garden and the Room" and "Indoor Space." Both are luscious and painterly oils on canvas.

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