Pilgrims' Progress

Philip Anschutz's collection of blue-chip Western art is put through a torturous ride at the DAM.

In the next gallery are the Remingtons, including "Return of a Blackfoot War Party" from 1887. According to Troccoli, this is Remington's seminal painting because it was the first one he exhibited at the National Academy. The other two Remingtons, "The Apache Trail," from 1901, and "A Cold Morning on the Range," circa 1904, are perhaps less historically significant, but they are equally as strong and even more accomplished technically.

At this point we arrive at the horrible salon room, where Troccoli abandons the chronological format seen thus far and replaces it with a free-association approach. The way in which the paintings have been assembled in the salon room, and in several sections beyond, reveals that she has no love for twentieth-century art -- and no understanding of it either.

Every section has a title; this one's called "Jostling for Attention," and that's an understatement -- more than thirty paintings have been crammed into a space that should only accommodate ten or twelve. As if the overcrowding weren't enough visual clutter, a faux bois paint job is used to suggest hardwood paneling below the chair rail. Unfortunately, it looks like wood-grained plastic Contact paper. The worst thing about this room, though, is the way the paintings interact, causing a jarring disconnection in which the works aesthetically destroy one another.

"Blue Sky, Mountain Aspens and the Roaring Hondo," by John Marin, oil on canvas.
"Blue Sky, Mountain Aspens and the Roaring Hondo," by John Marin, oil on canvas.
"Indian Festival in Arizona," by Jan Matulka, oil on canvas.
"Indian Festival in Arizona," by Jan Matulka, oil on canvas.

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Through January 21, 303-640-4433
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

A good example of this -- though many could be cited -- is the comparison between the small and immediate "Eagle Dance," from 1934, by Emil Bisttram, and "The Death of Minnehaha," an academic-style painting done nearly a half-century earlier, in 1885, by William de Leftwich Dodge, which is hung next to it. "Eagle Dance" is an abstract depiction of conventionalized Indian dancers; Bisttram has simplified the dancers into overlapping, hard-edged shapes which have been assembled into a circle suggesting the rhythmic movements of the Indians. Light and airy, it's the stylistic opposite of "The Death of Minnehaha," which is dark and brooding. That piece, in which Minnehaha, who has been meticulously depicted, is laid out on a divan and attended to by a pair of semi-nude male mourners, suggests a locale on the outskirts of Rome instead of in the American West. This neo-classical feeling is underscored by the severe, Roman-style gold frame.

The problem? From the perspective of the Bisttram, the Dodge looks like a mural in an over-the-top Italian restaurant. Conversely, if the Dodge is our starting point, the Bisttram looks like a child's drawing.

You may want to flee the salon as quickly as possible, but there are so many wonderful paintings here that it's worth forcing yourself to stay and take a good look.

Some of the standouts include an exquisite little painting by Ernest Lawson and a related work by Leon Gaspard. Too bad they're hanging across the room from one another; they would have looked so good if they'd been hung side by side. The same opportunity is missed with the Frank Mechau and the Andrew Dasburg paintings. Both explore the same kind of figural abstraction, not to mention that the two paintings are among the top modern pieces in the entire collection.

Surely it's the fault of the museum's education department -- and not Troccoli -- that this section also has a vulgar ballot box, in which visitors are asked to vote for their favorite paintings. As is not the case with other recent races, I really don't care who wins this meaningless popularity contest.

After the salon room, American West never gets back on track, although some of the best pieces are in the last part of the show. Thus, it may be hard to appreciate the roomful of California genre paintings from the mid-nineteenth century that follows. These lovely European-inspired paintings, such as Charles Christian Nahl's "Vaqueros Roping a Steer," from 1866, should have been near the beginning, closer to their stylistic cousins up front.

Then there's a gallery that would have looked great right after the Hudson River school group. It consists of a handful of stunning impressionist-style paintings, including John Henry Twachtman's "Canyon in the Yellowstone," circa 1895, and the very Monet-esque "Sand Springs Butte," a 1904 work by Childe Hassam. Troccoli highlights Monet's influence by placing a small Monet reproduction near the Hassam. The same device is seen throughout the show with various European prototypes illustrated. But it's needlessly defensive. Is it really necessary to call upon Europe to justify our own culture?

The last leg of the show is made up of several galleries given over to the marvelous paintings by the masters of Taos and Santa Fe. It's almost a stand-alone exhibit, and with so many significant paintings, it gives Anschutz bragging rights in the territory.

The first of these galleries features several of the Taos art colony founders, and there's such a bounty of beautiful paintings that it's overwhelming; they include works by Walter Ufer, Robert Henri, Oscar Blumenschein and E. Martin Hennings. Unforgettable is Nicolai Fechin's "Portrait of Mabel Dodge Luhan," from 1927, which illustrates the artist's classic expressionism. Following this group are the modernists, installed in a dispirited way in the last two galleries. Jan Matulka's "Indian Festival in Arizona," circa 1918, and Howard Cook's "Koshari -- Santo Domingo Corn Dance," from 1948, are both efforts to reconcile modernist abstraction with traditional Western subject matter. Their shared topic is the life of the Indians. In the smallish last room are quite a few artists doing the same kind of thing as Matulka and Cook, but they've chosen the landscape for abstraction. The two John Marin paintings from 1930, "Blue Sky, Mountain Aspens and the Roaring Hondo" and "Canyon of the Hondo," are first-rate examples of his work. The Stuart Davis and the Marsden Hartley are also choice. Shouldn't the Mechau and Dasburg be nearby?

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