Quarter-Century Recap

The DAM celebrates curator Dianne Vanderlip's 25-year reign.

For the art scene in Colorado, the Denver Art Museum is the only big-league game around. It's something akin to the Broncos, Rockies and Nuggets all rolled into one.

When I first heard about the recently unveiled Retrospectacle, a salute to modern and contemporary art, I got a little nervous. I was afraid that the DAM would fold in the crunch -- you know, like the Broncos, the Rockies and the Nuggets.

But as soon as I saw the opening shot of the show, just inside the Stanton galleries, I immediately calmed down. Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic #172 (with Blood)," an acrylic on canvas from 1989-90, has been hung on a blood-red wall facing the elevator lobby. Part of a Motherwell focus at the DAM, it is readily recognizable as being the last of his hundreds of "Elegy" paintings. It would be a considerable understatement to describe the sight of this iconic modern painting hanging on a toned-up wall as an eye-catching experience. The moment I saw it, I thought to myself, "Even if the rest of the show falls flat, this initial moment is so good, I'm already happy that I came." And by the way, the show doesn't fall flat -- not at all. Vanderlip has pulled together a blockbuster based on her acquisitions since 1978, when the DAM hired her to establish a contemporary department. However, from the start, the museum had been collecting and exhibiting contemporary art. After all, the very first show, presented in 1893, was devoted to works by members of the Denver Artists' Club, who at the time were Denver's contemporary artists.

"far back in time," by Herbert Bayer, oil on canvas.
"far back in time," by Herbert Bayer, oil on canvas.

As early as the 1930s, the DAM was receiving important gifts, including the works of the modern masters. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, artist and art professor Vance Kirkland served as a volunteer contemporary curator at the DAM. Using his own resources, Kirkland purchased works and donated them to the museum, a good example being 1965's "Phantom Tattoo,"an acrylic on canvas by Gene Davis that hangs in Schlessman Hall yet is not part of the show.

The Davis exclusion illustrates the only hard-and-fast rule of Retrospectacle: Every piece had to be acquired during Vanderlip's tenure. "I thought about putting in the modern masters hanging on the sixth floor -- and they might have made the show a stronger one -- but I wanted to showcase what I had done," Vanderlip says, adding, "I can't believe what I've had to leave out."

The problem was space, and it's too bad that Retrospectacle wasn't allowed to stretch out into the adjacent Hamilton galleries -- especially since there will be no central gallery devoted to modern and contemporary art once the show closes in August 2003. Until the DAM's new wing is finished in 2005, fans of the department will have to be satisfied with a smattering of works on the sixth and seventh floors and in the nooks and crannies of the main floor.

This is unfortunate, because Vanderlip has made the department one of the most important -- if not the most important -- at the institution. The 5,000-piece collection, filled with major works by big-name artists, is worth "tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars," she says. Yet she spent very little by comparison -- more like tens of millions -- and raised all of the money herself. "Not one piece was paid for with public money or even museum money. We have no endowment; everything has been paid for by private donors."

Ted and Joyce Strauss, Mark and Polly Addison, Jan and Fred Mayer, Nancy Tieken, Hugh Grant and Ginny Williams are among the civic-minded types who have contributed. Plus, Vanderlip says, "there is an anonymous donor that no one will ever know, who has perhaps given, along with Nancy, the most support for the department in its history."

The Motherwell is the perfect starting point for an exhibition that displays the largesse of these and other donors. Despite being organized into stylistic, rather than chronological, categories, the older pieces in Retrospectacle tend to be in the very strong first half of the show, while the newer ones are presented in the less impressive second half.

The first gallery lives up to the "Elegy" promise and also includes Motherwell's monumental "Open No. 13 (in Washed Ochre)," from 1969-70. "This is my favorite Motherwell in our collection," Vanderlip says. The painting represents a bridge between the two poles of formalism. It's clearly abstract-expressionist, but it also relates well to minimalism, as does Motherwell's "Doorway With Figure," from 1951.

There are more abstract-expressionist paintings in this section, most notably Joan Mitchell's 1970 "Dune," which is a masterpiece. The oil-on-canvas painting is a recent gift from collectors Charles and Linda Hamlin. "I'm always looking for a lot of different kinds of art," Vanderlip says. "The work of the masters and the work of young kids."

Other standouts in this first section include a marvelous bronze sculpture, Isamu Noguchi's "Remembrance," from 1981, that's paired with 1970's "Caught," a quirky oil on canvas by Philip Guston. The comparison is inspired and brings Guston's second-phase cartoon work back to the artist's roots in surrealism and abstract expressionism. Also here is the first of the show's Colorado-related pieces: Betty Woodman's "Diana," a two-part expressionist ceramic sculpture from 1991. Though she retired to New York a few years ago, Woodman lived in Boulder for almost forty years.

The second gallery features two modernists who are also associated with Colorado: Denver painter extraordinaire Vance Kirkland and European immigrant and longtime Aspenite Herbert Bayer. The combination of the two artists is magical, and this gallery looks great, proving how well the best local art holds up. Vanderlip's insightful pairing points out the stylistic affinities between the two, which is a genuine revelation of the show.

There are three Kirklands: "Timberline Abstraction," a surrealist oil on linen from 1952; "Energy of Space" from 1959, an oil-and-water-on-linen masterpiece; and one of his great dot paintings, 1978's "Explosions of Energy Near the Sun Fifty Billion Years BC," also in oil and water on linen. Most of Bayer's works date back to the time he spent in Austria and Germany and include some of his most famous photomontages and graphic designs, most of which have been seen before. One recently acquired oil-on-canvas Bayer, "far back in time," is making its debut in this show and relates beautifully to the Kirklands.

Next, two galleries open to one another, with the first devoted to minimalism and the other to pop art. A Sol LeWitt stepped pyramid, made from repeated open squares, and Richard Serra's "Basic Maintenance," which consists of a pair of metal slabs leaning against the wall, are stunning centerpieces for the minimalist gallery. In a distinct but related vein is Dan Flavin's classic light sculpture. And while all of these have been shown before, Ilya Bolotowsky's painted wooden post from 1980 is a show-stopping newcomer.

Opposite all this chaste imagery is the connecting space where minimalism's polar opposite is displayed. The ten soup-can prints by Andy Warhol (never before exhibited together) are incredible and haven't aged a bit since they were made in 1965. Or maybe it's just that the rest of the art world is finally catching up, making them look newer than they should? The museum's famous and frequently illustrated Warhol, "The American Indian (Russell Means)," a polymer and silkscreen on canvas from 1976, hangs next to the soup cans. Also of note here is the Claes Oldenburg clothespin sculpture. The second half of the show begins after the pop-art section. While the previous galleries represent the golden age of American art, international currents are now thrown in. Except for New Mexico's Larry Bell, this next gallery is almost completely focused on British art. Vanderlip has a special interest in the field, and there are pieces by some of the most prominent English artists of the last few decades. Don't miss the billboard-sized "Living" assembled C-print photographs from 1992 by Gilbert and George. And you can't miss Damien Hirst's "Party Time," a huge, eight-foot-wide ashtray filled with cigarette butts. "It's starting to look like a modernist icon, isn't it?" asks Vanderlip. Another knockout in this room is Anish Kapoor's "Untitled," from 1999. The three-dimensional wall-hung piece is a stainless-steel bowl that's been lacquered in the most unbelievable shade of blue-green. And speaking of unbelievable, how about that outrageous new Antony Gormley?

European art continues its march in the next section, which is anchored by "The Cannon," a 1995 oil on linen by Germany's Neo Rauch that references World War II. "We are so lucky to have this painting," Vanderlip says of the somber painting with its palette of army greens and browns, "because major works by Rauch are so hard to come by."

In the gallery to the right are several heavy-duty works by Colorado artists. There's a monumental Chuck Forsman from 1973, an oil-on-Masonite painting titled "Cheryl" that depicts a nude pregnant woman in almost photographic detail. Adjacent is a double-paneled Clark Richert painting from 1990 called "World Game," an exploration in the mathematical division of space, with Denver's geometric skyline in the background. Across the room is a recently acquired John DeAndrea sculptural group, "Clothed Artist and Model" from 1976, done in polychromed vinyl, clothing and plaster. The artist of the title is DeAndrea himself, and the likeness is uncanny.

The next gallery is given over to contemporary art based on identity politics. The splendid 2001 audio/video projection by Lorna Simpson, "Easy to Remember," features recordings of the mouths of African-Americans as they hum Cole Porter's song of the same title. It's ephemeral and diaphanous, yet very emphatic and in-your-face.

Back around the corner are the last two parts of the show. In one is Marcel Duchamp's "Box-in-Valise," a leather, linen, glass and wood carrying case that includes facsimiles of all of Duchamp's masterpieces. Around the Duchamp are examples of post-modernism, including a Bruce Nauman watercolor of very limited appeal and a Nicole Eisenman that has even less. Vanderlip, who says the Duchamp is the most important piece she's ever acquired -- I don't agree -- uses the placement to illustrate that Duchamp launched postmodern. Hey, but don't hold that against him. The final space is devoted to women's art, both political and apolitical. One nice pairing is based on similar colors and similarly insubstantial materials: Denver artist Mary Ehrin's "Purple Python Pool," from 2000, a feather-covered oval bordered in fake python skin, nicely enhances 1991's "Four Purple Velvet Bathrobes," by nationally known artist Beverly Semmes.

Retrospectacle starts with a big bang and ends with a whimper, but I can't blame Vanderlip for that, since this situation mirrors the approximately half-century of art surveyed. Over the years, I have quibbled with Vanderlip's choices and decisions -- and there are several things in the show that I just don't get or, worse, that I don't take seriously -- but there's no question about how good this show is overall. And I can say without equivocation that not only is it the best show in town this season, but it's the best contemporary show we've seen in Denver for many years.

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