Woman on the Edge

The Alice Neel retrospective at the DAM is really something else.

In the past, administrators at the Denver Art Museum have had a bad habit regarding the scheduling of temporary exhibitions. They've lined them up one at a time and then shuttered the rooms -- usually the first-floor Stanton and Hamilton galleries -- in the downtime between shows. Sometimes this state of affairs lasted for months at a stretch.

The atmosphere created by this emptiness right near the museum's entrance was comparable to the way someone looks with their front teeth knocked out. Despite the fact that the other six floors were always filled, open and lit, the darkened galleries downstairs made the place seem closed. Occasionally these periods have coincided with the holiday season -- a time of year when people want to pursue cultural activities, especially with out-of-town family members or friends.

Fortunately, things have changed considerably this season. There will soon be not one, but two major exhibits on display on the first floor through the end of the year, with a third major show on the seventh floor. And the openings and closings have been staggered, so that at least one will still be open when next year's first shows debut. Alice Neel, a retrospective devoted to the late New York artist, has already opened in the Stanton galleries. Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore, which surveys the early-twentieth-century Cos Cob art colony, is set to open next weekend in the adjacent Hamilton galleries. And next month, The Harmsen Collection, highlighting the recently acquired Western art assembled by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, will open upstairs.

"Dianne Vanderlip," by Alice Neel, oil on canvas.
"Dianne Vanderlip," by Alice Neel, oil on canvas.
"Self-Portrait," oil on canvas.
"Self-Portrait," oil on canvas.

Taken along with the impressive permanent displays and a number of smaller shows, the varied viewing at the DAM is going to be unprecedented in the coming months. This happy situation might even prevail indefinitely, as it looks to be the manifestation of a new strategy -- and a good one.


Denver is the last of a five-city tour for the Neel show, which examines the fifty-year career of this eccentric representational painter who died in 1984. The tour, which was organized by Ann Temkin for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, began at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2000, a hundred years after Neel was born. The belated birthday celebration here in Denver was literally a last-minute addition.

"You know, we are very lucky to have gotten this show in the first place," says Dianne Vanderlip, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the DAM. "The schedule for the exhibition was completed, everything was done. There was a little opening in our calendar, and without even going down and asking [DAM director Lewis Sharp], I called the Philadelphia museum and said, 'Can we get this here? And because of our long relationship with them, they said yes, but that meant that they had to call every single lender. There's a tremendous amount of paperwork that goes into extending the run of a show -- people don't realize that -- but they did everything, and Lewis said if we can pull it off, let's go for it."

Vanderlip had a compelling reason to want the Neel show: She is a significant figure in Neel's professional life, and as responsible as anyone else for the artist's growing fame beginning a generation ago. In fact, it was Vanderlip who organized the first survey of Neel's career back in 1971. That show, which launched Neel as an important artist, was presented at the Moore College of Art and Design Gallery in Philadelphia. Vanderlip was the gallery's founding director, and it was from that job that she came to the DAM's contemporary department in 1978.

Neel worked in obscurity for most of her career, though nearly all of it was spent in New York (with side trips to Cuba and back to Pennsylvania, where she was born). In the 1930s, she was a social realist, but she never received the recognition that others of that ilk did. For the next three decades, she was clearly out of step with the other artists in New York -- in particular, those associated with the various styles of the New York School, from abstract expressionism through pop art to minimalism. In the late '60s and early '70s, however, sociocultural forces, as well as forces in the art world itself, came together to put Neel in a revered place in the aesthetic hierarchy.

In American society, the rise of feminism led many to search for forgotten women artists. The idea was that women had been discriminated against, underappreciated and even barred in the art world. In addition, many advocates of stylistic pluralism began to re-evaluate artists who had worked outside the tenets of the New York School styles. The pluralists were interested in both men and women who'd been ignored because of their individual artistic heterodoxies. By organizing that Neel show at Moore in the early '70s, Vanderlip placed herself at the forefront of these movements.

As visitors enter the Stanton rooms, a discreet arrow indicates that the exhibit begins in the small gallery to the left. The signage is so subtle, though, that I fear many visitors will go through the show backward, which is too bad, because Vanderlip has arranged it in a rough chronology that also lays out Neel's stylistic development.

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