In Focus

The DAM takes a fresh look at photography.

Last year, the Denver Art Museum hired John Pultz to be consulting curator of photography, a part-time position in the modern and contemporary department.

Pultz's day job is professor of art history at the University of Kansas, where he's also a curator at KU's Spencer Museum. Several years ago, he organized an exhibit of photos from the Spencer collection that traveled to the Arvada Center ("Frames of Reference," February 25, 1998). The show exemplified Pultz's notion that photography, even photography that pre-dates the modern era, is the quintessential modernist art form -- an approach that should help the DAM put photography in the spotlight.

Since it was founded in 1893 as the Denver Artists' Club, the museum has exhibited photographs from time to time, but painting was always its primary emphasis. Photography became more important in the 1930s, with exhibits such as a solo show by Edward Weston -- then a cutting-edge contemporary photographer. Photographs and paintings continued their easy co-existence at the DAM until 1944, when Otto Bach was appointed the museum's director, a post he held until his retirement thirty years later.

Man Ray, "Le Monde," photogravure.
Man Ray, "Le Monde," photogravure.
Herbert Bayer, "profile en face," photomontage.
Herbert Bayer, "profile en face," photomontage.

Jim Milmoe, a master of commercial photography who's been working around Denver since the 1950s, once told me about an argument he had decades ago with Bach, when the museum director declared that photography was not a fine art (a rather widely held view in the mid-twentieth century) and was therefore irrelevant to an art museum -- in particular, his art museum. Milmoe's story has been echoed by many others who were around at that time, most notably Hal Gould, the legendary photographer, photo activist and curator who runs the Camera Obscura Gallery, the city's oldest photo gallery. The Colorado Photographic Arts Center, a still-flourishing organization, was founded in the 1960s to promote exhibits of fine-art photography -- in part because the DAM would not.

When Bach retired, deputy director Lewis Story became acting director. The late Story was a gifted leader and very interested in contemporary art, including photography. Soon after taking over, he acquired the very first photos for the DAM's permanent collection, a suite of Ansel Adams photographs. Adams and Story hit it off so well that the unbelievable happened: Adams threw in a photo for free.

Another boost to photography came a few years later with the hiring of curator Dianne Vanderlip, who founded the official contemporary department that was a successor to an unofficial one led by painter Vance Kirkland. Photography has had a profound influence on contemporary art, and Vanderlip showed her interest in the medium early on: As her first acquisition, she purchased a photo-based work by Los Angeles conceptualist John Baldessari. Of course, such work is distinct from photography per se -- no one would call an Andy Warhol soup-can painting a photo, yet photography was essential to its creation -- but the division between the two can get murky. As a result, both photography and photo-based art wound up in Vanderlip's contemporary department.

Photography became a bona fide division of the department with the 1986 opening of the Shwayder Gallery, which was exclusively devoted to it. The gallery was endowed by millionaire benefactors Ted and Joyce Strauss, and named in honor of Joyce's family. Ted Strauss also served as an adjunct curator at the DAM -- meaning he not only paid the Shwayder's expenses, he also donated his expertise as a curator. By the time Strauss came in, Story and Vanderlip had already acquired hundreds of photos for the museum's collection, and Strauss secured hundreds more, mostly as gifts. His taste, like Vanderlip's, tended toward the cutting edge; as a result, the collection has some depth in contemporary photography from the 1970s and '80s. Strauss retired in 1992.

At the same time that Strauss and Vanderlip were acquiring contemporary photos, new director Lewis Sharp made a bold move, and in 1990 purchased from Daniel Wolf, for $1.5 million, his assemblage of over a thousand late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century photos of the American West. Overnight, the DAM had a full-blown collection -- but it was very uneven, with a fabulous assortment of early photos and a marvelous group of recent ones, but very little in between.

In 1995, Jane Fudge, an assistant curator in what was now known as the modern-and-contemporary department, became the museum's photo specialist. It was Fudge's job to fill the collection's huge gap with work dating from the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, a watershed in the history of photography and the period when modernism was established and developed. Modernist photographs are very expensive; the ideal time to have purchased them was back when Bach was refusing to do so. Fudge did an admirable job of soliciting gifts, though, notably in the field of vanguard and experimental photography from the 1920s and '30s.

It was Fudge who oversaw the 1998 creation of the Laura and David Merage Gallery, which was originally located on the first floor in the Stanton rooms. Laura Merage is a noted contemporary photographer, and with her husband has endowed the Merage Gallery in much the same way the Strausses paid for the Shwayder. In addition to the Merage, which was devoted to modern and contemporary photography, Fudge also looked over a photo gallery on the seventh floor, which contained samplings from the Wolf collection.

Fudge left the museum two years ago under unhappy circumstances. At the time of her too-hasty departure, she'd already lost control of the Wolf collection gallery; in fact, her avid interest in it had been a sore point with Vanderlip. Now that Fudge was gone, the Merage Gallery was moved upstairs and replaced the gallery that had featured the Wolf photos.

It is in this relocated Merage Gallery that Pultz makes his DAM debut with Metamorphosis: Modernist Photographs by Herbert Bayer and Man Ray. (A group of Timothy O'Sullivan photos from the Wolf collection are displayed in the West Point/Points Westshow, also on the seventh floor; Pultz made these selections, too.) Until the completion of the museum's new wing in 2005, Pultz plans to fill the Merage with shows that will, in his words, "exploit the riches of the collection."

Metamorphosis came together naturally as Pultz, currently on sabbatical from KU, began surveying the museum's uneven photography collection last year with able curatorial assistant Blake Milteer. "I was going through boxes with Blake -- I'm only partway through -- and in the process, I had seen the Man Ray portfolio, and thought, 'Well, these are fabulous photographs that haven't been out for a while.' Then, when it was time to come up with a topic of a small show to put in this space, I remembered those Man Rays, and I knew there was the great Bayer collection here and thought it would make an interesting show."

Pultz paired Man Ray and Herbert Bayer for several reasons. "Both artists were basically working at the same moment in time, and both artists were modernists interested in photography," he explains. "By the late '20s, early '30s, when these photos were done, there's a mixed heritage of dada and surrealism. The Bayers have a genuine surrealism to them -- the torsos, the body parts -- and that's seen in some of the Man Rays, too. But Man Ray's work is on the cusp of dada and surrealism, and his rayographs in which objects are placed on photosensitive paper, are related to Marcel Duchamp's found objects."

Although the two artists are compatible aesthetically and historically, Pultz gives each his own part of the intimate Merage Gallery. The first third is devoted to Man Ray, a Philadelphia artist who lived in Paris and was in the vanguard of its art scene at the beginning of the last century.

On display are all ten images from a portfolio called "Èlectricité," which was commissioned in 1931 by a Paris utility company, La Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d'Èlectricité, with an edition of 500 done as premiums for the company's important clients. Although some of the images in "Èlectricité" feature Man Ray's famous rayograph technique, all of them are actually hand-pulled photogravures. Pultz contends that the pieces in this series mark a transition between the earlier dada and the newer surrealism: Some are pure dada while others are surrealistic, and still others are hybrids of the two.

"Le Monde," for instance, is classic dada. Using a combination of rayography and photomontage, Man Ray places the "live" rayographic image of a switch on a cord below a photographic image of the moon. The absurd idea that the moon can be switched on reflects the dada interest in the ridiculous and in sight gags. Clearly surrealist is "Salle de Bain," which features a headless nude torso. The model was Man Ray's student, American artist Lee Miller. Miller was also the model for the very similar "Èlectricité," a combination of dada and surrealism. The double nude torso is signature surrealist, but the rayograph of electric wires in wavy and diagonal lines is pure dada, because the objects -- the wires -- have made their own images, and their casual arrangement reflects dada's embrace of the accidental. It looks as though Man Ray simply threw the wires down on the paper in order to create this element.

The Bayers relate beautifully to the Man Rays, even though the two artists'works hang next to each other in just one spot. Pultz sensitively uses Bayer's "legs in sand," a 1928 gelatin silver print of a pair of female legs, as the transitional piece to Man Ray's conceptually similar "Èlectricité."

The Bayer photographs fall into three distinct types, Pultz says. There's straightforward photography, such as "legs in sand," in which the surrealist content is created simply by shadows and by cropping. In another single-shot image, the 1929 "glass eyes," also a gelatin silver print, the surrealism lies in Bayer's choice of a creepy subject, in this instance a glass-eye salesman's sample case.

The second kind of work is what Bayer called "fotoplastik." With this method, he typically assembled a still-life composition using found and ready-made objects, and then took a conventional photo of it. The 1936 "wall with shingles," for example, features an enigmatic assortment of objects -- rope tied in knots, carved pieces of wood, a metal wheel -- arrayed on a shingled wall. Sometimes Bayer would alter the resulting photo and shoot it again. In "metamorphosis," also from 1936, a landscape photo has been altered so that the foreground is a field of geometric shapes while the background is made up of the expected trees and sky.

The third Bayer style is photomontage, in which photos are cut up and rearranged. The classic 1929 "profile en face" is a fine example of this type of work, combining a ripped photo of a woman's face with fragments of architectural and graphic designs. The photomontage represents the most desirable and valuable kind of Bayer photograph and dates to the period when Bayer had just left the Bauhaus, where he had been both student and master.

The Nazis closed the Bauhaus and persecuted modern artists like Bayer, who left Germany in 1938 and eventually came to the United States. For decades he lived in Aspen, which explains why the DAM has such a large collection of his work: Bayer and his wife, Joella, bequeathed many pieces to the museum.

They're among an assortment of worthwhile photographs in the DAM's collection. Now it's up to Pultz to put the art form in focus.

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