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The Denver Art Museum turns recent design history every which way but loose.

It was back in 1990 when the Denver Art Museum hired curator R. Craig Miller to establish a department of architecture, design and graphics. Miller was working at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was stolen away by Met alum and longtime friend Lewis Sharp.

Sharp has made many savvy moves in his nearly fifteen years as director of the DAM, but creating the design department has got to be the best. Since there are only a relative handful of art museums in the country that have made a commitment to the field, first-rate examples of design have been easier to come by, and they are much cheaper than paintings and sculptures. This has allowed Miller to collect artifacts of the highest quality.

Over the years, the department has presented changing displays of its ever-growing and more impressive permanent collection -- which now numbers some 3,000 pieces -- and hosted or organized a number of special exhibits. It has also made a real contribution to the city at large, because without the department, and Miller, the Michael Graves-designed central library and the Daniel Libeskind museum annex being built across the street from the DAM wouldn't exist. In both cases, Miller used his international connections to get the two architecture stars, along with a raft of other big names, to enter the design competitions held for the buildings.

"Space" chaise, by Karim Rashid, glass, metal and neoprene.
"Space" chaise, by Karim Rashid, glass, metal and neoprene.

Details

Through May 26, 720-865-5000
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

But Miller's talents don't end there. In his regular duties as a curator, he has done a wonderful job, as is evident with the unbelievably rich and thoughtful US Design 1975-2000, which just opened. The show is the second in the "Masterworks" series organized by Miller. The first was Italian Design: 1960-1994, presented in 1994.

US Design is a heroic attempt to lasso most of the different intellectual currents in the various design fields from the last quarter-century and jam them into a single, coherent presentation. The task must have been daunting, but the result is unquestionably a triumph. With this show, Miller has demonstrated the courage to wade into the uncharted waters of the recent past and has clearly established himself as one of the world's foremost authorities on late-twentieth-century design.

About 60 percent of the show comprises decorative design and industrial design pieces chosen by Miller. The remaining 40 percent is split between graphics and architecture in the form of models, drawings and photos. To bring together the separate portions, Miller enlisted the help of two other experts: Philip Meggs, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who selected the graphics; and David De Long, from the University of Pennsylvania, who chose the architectural material. All three contributed essays to the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibit.

Sprawling in scope and size, US Design is densely packed; objects and ideas go by so fast that it's hard to keep up with them all. Sensibly, Miller has established several points of view -- not so much by answering questions as by raising them and leaving them unanswered. Making things even more challenging is that many of the ideas from the last quarter of the twentieth century were very complex and, as often as not, contradictory to one another.

These conceptual conundrums will remind some of Robert Venturi's epoch-making book, Complexities and Contradictions in Architecture. And that's just as it should be, given the tome's role as the Old Testament of postmodernism. Venturi's Learning From Las Vegas, then, would be the New Testament. Miller sees the two volumes as reflecting the two sides of postmodernism -- highbrow and lowbrow, respectively.

Miller has begun the exhibit by pairing Venturi with Graves, another prophet (or should I say profit?) of postmodernism. The two artists anchor "Inventing Traditions," the first of four major sections in the show.

Miller has combined a Venturi chair and chest with four pieces by Graves -- a table, a chair, a swatch of carpet and a mural. Heretofore, I had considered the two to be at opposite poles of postmodern theory. I'd seen Venturi as the philosopher prince of postmodern and Graves as the movement's most shameless proselytizer and populist (he does jobs for Disney and Target, for heaven's sake). But viewing their work together made me realize how closely interconnected their ideas really are. This is just the first of countless revelations and fresh insights with which Miller has peppered this show.

In Venturi's "Sheraton 664 Side Chair," from 1979-84, two pieces of bent plywood covered in black laminate have been connected at the joint of the back and the seat, very much like a mid-century modern chair. The back is pierced and richly painted with a colorful cartoon-like parody of an eighteenth-century Sheraton-style ornamental motif. Thus, instead of just sitting there like furniture is supposed to, this self-conscious piece silently comments on the history of furniture.

Graves's 1980-81 "Lounge Chair" and 1989 "Dining Table" are less strident, but they do the same thing: In both, it seems that the Viennese Biedermeier style is morphing into Parisian art deco in some unknown postmodern future where three-dimensional space is axiomatic.

But Venturi and Graves are first and foremost architects, and Miller included models and materials related to two of their most important buildings. Venturi's Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, done from 1985 to 1991, is examined in depth. So is Graves's 1984-87 Clos Pegase Winery in the Napa Valley. As they did with furniture, both men took a reflexive and critical attitude toward the history of architecture in order to create their otherwise very different buildings.

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