Broad Strokes

The Museum of Contemporary Art brings together five local masters of abstraction.

Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art was founded in part to provide a venue for shows like the spectacular 5 Abstract that opened this past weekend. That's because this exhibit gives major artists from Colorado the kind of serious attention that only a museum show can deliver, something that 500-pound gorilla on the Civic Center, the Denver Art Museum, rarely does. All of this gives 5 Abstract an added urgency and luster.

The show is the kind of thing we expect from the MCA, and from its director, Cydney Payton. During her tenure as director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, the job she held before taking over at the MCA last year, Payton established a record of organizing a group of related shows that explored modern and contemporary art in Colorado. "I've been ruminating about this show for probably five years," she says. "5 Abstract is one piece of a larger grouping I want to do, and have done. And it's part of an ongoing interest of mine to document Colorado art by interviewing artists, and that will be done in conjunction with this show later on."

It's also the first major show of any kind that she's organized at the MCA. And it was worth the wait: 5 Abstract is the best thing the museum has ever presented, which says a lot, as this fledgling venue has hosted some pretty good shows. Payton has brought together a group of the most significant, well-established and best-known contemporary artists who have worked in Colorado over the last 35 to fifty years. They are: Robert Mangold, Clark Richert, Dale Chisman, Bev Rosen and Al Wynne. "It's amazing, but they have never been shown together before," notes Payton.

Stylistically, the five artists can be bracketed into two basic types: Mangold, Richert and Rosen have all done work based on some kind of geometry, whereas Wynne and Chisman are expressionists. And although connections can be made between the five, each takes a distinctly individual path to abstraction. Furthermore, they don't represent a single era or generation. Mangold, Wynne and Rosen came of age in the late 1950s and early '60s, while Richert and Chisman appeared in the mid-'60s, a very different time.

So why -- or more to the point, how -- did Payton come up with this particular group? "The thing that I wanted to do is to showcase what I think is the most significant work by living artists in Colorado," she says. "They are all artists who have matured in their mediums and have contributed to the welfare of the artistic community in some significant way, and all of them were innovative in their practice."

I hate to second-guess Payton, since the show is such a knockout, but I have a duty to mention that Ken Goehring, Bill Hayes and David Yust are also masters of Colorado abstraction who should have been included. They fit Payton's fairly loose criteria perfectly, and they, too, came of age in the late '50s or mid-'60s.

"I limited the show to five because I wanted to present each of the artists in depth," Payton explains. "Our space is so limited, and remember, this is only the first show of this kind at the museum. I plan to do many more. I'd love to include Bill Hayes sometime in the future -- I adore his work -- but I just didn't have the room this time."

Payton has done her typical expert job with installation. Each artist is given a discrete and fairly cogent space, at least considering the limitations of the museum. As did her predecessors at the MCA, Payton uses the handsome courtyard at Sakura Square, where the museum's main entrance is located, to display outdoor sculpture. In this case, it is the work of Mangold (the only sculptor in the show), whose specialty just happens to be outdoor sculptures.

Mangold first came to Denver from Illinois in 1960. At the time, he was already an accomplished modernist sculptor and had created his first kinetic sculptures, which he sees as responses to constructivist Naum Gabo and, to a lesser extent, George Rickey, with whom Mangold studied. In the more than forty years since he arrived here, Mangold has created a body of work, much of it monumental, that has made him internationally known.

The oldest Mangold at MCA is the gigantic "Tetrahedral Hypersphere," from 1971. The cantilevered construction is made of mild steel, which has been allowed to rust and thus acquire a rich brown patina. The piece, as well as the others in this series, illustrates a key concern of Mangold's: the exploration of physical space. The sculpture deals with the intersection of four cylinders that, when combined with a tetrahedron, form a hypersphere.

The newest Mangold in the group, "Point Traveling Through Space at an Erratic Speed," from 1997, is also concerned with defining imaginary spaces. Here the trajectory of a hypothetical object is seemingly frozen in polished stainless-steel pipes. The remaining Mangold sculptures, "Anemotive Tower" and "Anemotive," done in 1995, are from the artist's most recognized series, and involve spherical kinetic sculptures made of bars and cone-like aerodynamic wind foils. One of the steel sculptures has been polished, while the other has been painted in a kaleidoscope of gorgeous colors.

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