Western Civilization

The interconnected art traditions of Colorado and New Mexico are showcased in area exhibits.

The history of art in Colorado has yet to be written, so those of us with an interest in the topic have to get our information in dribs and drabs, chiefly through exhibitions. Of course, that's only one of the reasons to see Colorado Collections II. Others include the incredible scope of the show -- it features more than a hundred paintings, watercolors, prints and drawings -- and the wealth of heretofore little-known pieces. The works reveal a true Colorado style -- or, more properly, styles -- from the show's target period of 1900 to 1950.

Although the exhibit is billed as being displayed in the Denver Public Library's Vida Ellison Gallery, most of it is actually hung along the broad curvilinear corridor that runs across the building's entire seventh floor. That's good, because the gallery itself is a thoroughly unpleasant room in which to see a show. Its north wall is made up almost entirely of windows that provide a great view of the Civic Center but let in far too much light for effective art viewing. Perhaps movable walls could be placed in front of the windows as a short-term solution.

Because Colorado Collections II is so good, though, it's possible to ignore the Ellison's limitations -- but just barely.

"Evergreens," by Hugh Weller, oil on canvas.
"Evergreens," by Hugh Weller, oil on canvas.

Details

Colorado Collections II
Through August 23
Vida Ellison Gallery, Denver Public Library, 10 West 14th Avenue Parkway
720-865-1111

Taos Art Today
Through August 25
Foothills Art Center, 808 15th Street, Golden,
303-279-3922

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As indicated by its title, the show is the second in a series highlighting art made in Colorado -- both by local artists and by those who came from other parts of the country to work here. The initial exhibition was presented in 2001; its focus was material dating from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and it was mostly made up of pieces from the DPL's own collection. This time around, more than two-thirds of the works are on loan from private collectors.

"The collectors were so generous," says Kay Wisnia, the show's curator and a key member of the Western History staff. "They were so enthusiastic about the show, and all of them were so excited about seeing their pieces included in the exhibit. I was offered so many works that the show could have been almost twice as big as it is, but there simply wasn't the room to include everything."

Prominent among the private collectors who participated are the recently deceased Dusty Loo and his wife, Kathy, from Colorado Springs. During the past several decades, the Loos, the former owners of Current greeting cards, amassed an incredible collection with an emphasis on artists from the Broadmoor Academy and its successor institution, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The quality of the Loos' collection is at least on par with that of the Denver Art Museum's Harmsen Collection.

Another Colorado Springs-based collection, put together by Nelson and Susan Rieger, is also sampled in Colorado Collections.

Considering the participation of the Loos and the Riegers, it's not surprising that the exhibit includes a number of pieces done in Colorado Springs, Colorado's art center for the first half of the twentieth century. But Denver is well-represented, too: The DPL's own Denver-centered collection is supplemented by loans from the Kirkland Museum as well as a variety of private collectors, notably Lee and Jennifer Ballentine.

Wisnia tried to get works by as many different artists as possible, but she did not set out to create a historical show, or one based on stylistic analysis. Instead, her choices were purely aesthetic ones. The show has been installed the same way -- aesthetically -- but some placement decisions appear to be a concession, at least in part, to space limitations. Actually, it looks as though Wisnia did it this way because it's the only possible way the pieces would fit together, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle.

Nonetheless, some broad historical and stylistic observations can be made, regardless of where or how the works are hung. I like things in chronological order, so I'll start with the oldest pieces, which are examples of post-impressionism -- both plein-air painting and expressionism from the 1910s, '20s and '30s. For the most part, these paintings are by the studio masters of the Broadmoor Academy, particularly Birger Sandzén, William Potter and Robert Reid.

There are four Sandzéns in the show -- two prints and two paintings. The paintings are done in Sandzén's famous signature style, which is marked by wild colors, heavily applied paint and virtually abstract forms, though all of it is in a landscape format. There's only one piece by the essentially forgotten Potter, "Freyessee Cañon, Colorado," a dreamy and gorgeous 1930s expressionist landscape made up of slashes of rich, dark colors. The still highly regarded Reid is represented by two oils: "Sunset Point Sublime," from 1921, and "Estes Park," from 1931.

During the 1930s, a regionalist scene sprang up in the area, and Wisnia has selected some wonderful pieces from that time. Standouts include an untitled oil sketch by Allen Tupper True that's a study for a transportation mural. Especially nice are the painting's speeding roadster and a woman sashaying toward an Airstream trailer. The study isn't dated, and the whereabouts of the finished mural is unknown.

Interestingly, True served as a model for one element of another great regionalist painting, "Mountain Picnic," a 1936 oil by Louise Ronnebeck. According to Wisnia, the painting, which shows a large picnic in the foothills, includes not just True's portrait, but portraits of many artists on the Denver scene at the time, including Ronnebeck's husband, Arnold, who was also a major player in the local art world. Colorado Collections provides a rare opportunity to see the work of both Ronnebecks.

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