Mind and Body

Edgar Britton's legacy is rediscovered.

It was Vanderlip who decided to get rid of the Brittons as part of the great DAM deaccessioning that culminated in the liquidation auction of 1995, held at the museum and conducted by Christie's. Only one Britton was included in the auction, however, since nearly all the others had already been quietly transferred to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which has exhibited them only rarely.

Although it was misguided of the DAM to toss out their Brittons, the Fine Arts Center is an appropriate repository for them since the artist was a teacher at the now long-closed but still venerated art school that was once a part of the institution. The Fine Arts Center had been unintentionally collecting Britton's pieces for decades because so many of them were bequeathed to the institution by collectors. Currently, the Fine Arts Center owns scores of Brittons, including sculptures, paintings, works on paper and even stained glass. Nonetheless, like the DAM, the Fine Arts Center hasn't deigned to mount a major exhibit devoted to the artist.


"Acrobats," bronze sculpture.
"Acrobats," bronze sculpture.

Details

Through May 13, 1-719-634-5581

The Erotic Art of Edgar Britton
Through April 18
The Coburn Art Gallery, Colorado College, 14 West Cache La Poudre Street, Colorado Springs
1-719-389-6000

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs

The Fine Arts Center did mount a modest presentation on Britton in 1997, however, as part of a series of small shows featuring artists associated with the institution and its predecessor, the Broadmoor Academy.

And humble as it was, the show's impact was great, because it inspired Colorado Springs-based author Jane Hilberry to record Britton's life and to explore his work in her recently released but somewhat misleadingly titled The Erotic Art of Edgar Britton. The book, published by Ocean View Books, is available at the Tattered Cover.

The book, in turn, has inspired a pair of exhibits based on it, and again Hilberry has taken the reins by organizing both shows. The Erotic Art of Edgar Britton is at the Coburn Art Gallery on the Colorado College campus; just a block south, at the Fine Arts Center, is The Lyrical Line: Edgar Britton¹s Passion for the Human Figure.

"As I looked at the show back in 1997," Hilberry says, "I realized how amazing it was that we had this important local artist. I had never heard of him before, and so I became curious about him.

"I went to the bookstore and asked Chris Jones, the manager, if there was a book on Britton," she continues. "He told me there wasn't one, but that I might want to talk to Katie Dodge." Dodge, who lives in Denver, was Britton's companion during the 1970s, the last decade of the artist's life.

Hilberry repeatedly interviewed Dodge, who led the writer to others with firsthand knowledge of Britton's lifestyle and career.

Although Hilberry is not an art historian, she is an associate professor of English at Colorado College and a published poet and prose writer, and she did a superb job with her study of Britton, taking an unusual psychosexual approach toward the artist's life. Despite the limitation of this psychological slant, the book fully accounts for Britton's life in a conventional sense, and Hilberry went to a lot of trouble to track down many details for the biography.

The shows themselves are quite similar; one is essentially a continuation of the other. In both, Hilberry focuses on Britton's figural abstractions in sculpture and works on paper, including monotypes, oils and watercolors. Interestingly, many of Britton's major public sculptures in Denver are abstractions, or, in the case of the screen at the federal complex, non-objective. He apparently alternated between figural abstracts and pure abstraction in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Although Hilberry has included a few early works, most of the pieces are from the tail end of an art career that spanned half a century. This is appropriate, since Hilberry has borrowed many of them from Dodge and has constructed her narrative in the book and in the shows through the prism of Dodge's memories. Dodge has also generously donated to the Fine Arts Center many of the works on paper seen in that show.

The Lyrical Line is in the vest-pocket space at the Fine Arts Center called the East Two Gallery. But as small as the space is, Hilberry, with help from curator Judy Burdick, has filled it to the limit with remarkable treasures. The selection reveals that Britton was clearly influenced, not by the New York School developments of the 1940s and '50s, but by the earlier School of Paris modernism of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse. Like his European predecessors, Britton captured the images of male and, more often, female nudes in repose, in action, and entwined with one another.

One of the oldest pieces in the show demonstrates this debt to Paris. "Waterfall," a tempera on board from 1945 that depicts a group of hefty female nudes frolicking in the water, is in complete homage to Cézanne. Another overtly Parisian-inspired piece is "The King Was Tired," an ink on paper from 1975 that recalls Picasso's neo-classicism.

This show also has a nice group of mid-sized and smaller sculptures. One of the standouts is "Torso of a Woman," a carved abstraction of a nude in which the figure's face, arms, breast and body have been reduced to rounded, non-distinct shapes. This piece, which is from the Fine Arts Center's permanent collection, has been dated to 1961, but I think it's about ten years older. The same approach to figural abstraction seen in "Torso" is evident in "Daphnis and Chloe," an undated bronze of a seated, embracing couple.

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