Holiday Package

The Colorado History Museum hosts Vance Kirkland and friends.

There are several other eye-popping decorative items in this first part of the exhibit. Take note of the gorgeous prairie-style pedestal by E. E. Roberts, which was made of oak and white marble for the Masonic Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Adjacent is a hand-carved and -painted trunk by Colorado artist Kathleen Vavra, and around the corner, in the second gallery, is a sublime moderne mirror by Warren McArthur.

The next part of the show is all but a period room -- or two of them, actually. I say "all but" because, technically, the room does not replicate a space that actually existed, but rather is a hypothetical historic room. CHM designer Newell lined the walls with light-colored wood panels reminiscent of mid-century treatments. This fantasy of a 1950s interior is a tour de force. The L-shaped space, which is raised up on a stage, has been outfitted as a living room on one end and a dining room on the other.

The living room includes a Hans Wegner "Papa Bear" armchair and ottoman, a Bruno Mathsson table and a nest of Italian tables by an anonymous designer. The dining room is furnished with a table and a buffet by Russel Wright, a pioneering modernist designer best known for his dinnerware, which is also displayed here. Wright was one of Kirkland's favorite designers, and he frequently served his guests meals on Wright-designed plates. Next to the Wright table set with Wright china is a small cabaret table made by Denver ceramic wizard Donna Marecak.

"Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," by Vance 
Kirkland, oil on linen.
"Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," by Vance Kirkland, oil on linen.
"Woman," by Bill Joseph, fabricated metal.
"Woman," by Bill Joseph, fabricated metal.


Through April 4, Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, 303-866-3670

These "rooms" have been further accessorized with paintings and sculptures. One, "Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," an oil on linen from 1948, is by Kirkland, but the other paintings are by his peers, including Edward Marecak and Frank Vavra. The Vavra, titled "Diana," is a modernist portrait of the artist's daughter done in oil on panel. The essentially abstract painting is perfect for this show, because it incorporates into it the image of a butterfly chair.

Also on display in this section is "Woman," an elegant fabricated-steel sculpture done in 1970 by Bill Joseph, an important figure in Denver's modern-art history. On a sad note, Joseph, who attended the show's opening with his wife, Barbara, died last week.

Grant nicknamed these period setups "the cocktail party" because they well express Kirkland's love of entertaining. The artist was an avid host and had many parties, receptions, exhibitions, recitals, lectures and all manner of events at both his mansion and his studio. Interestingly, several of the pieces in this section came not from Kirkland's estate, but from Grant's childhood home. Kirkland was good friends with Grant's parents back in the early 1950s, and he helped them pick out their furniture.

The show continues in the large gallery that leads toward the front of the museum. This space holds all the paintings for which Kirkland is best remembered today. The oldest pieces date from the 1940s and are surrealist; they are extensions of the ideas he worked out in the earlier metafisica-inspired pieces. These are followed by the abstract-expressionist compositions he began doing in the 1950s, which represent a total break with his earlier work, including the surrealist paintings. Finally, this part of the show concludes with Kirkland's signature dot paintings that he began doing in the 1960s and continued creating until his death, in 1981.

The abstract-expressionist paintings show off one of Kirkland's many inventions -- the mixing of oil and water. The artist would shake up oil paint in water and fling the mixture onto the canvas. As it settled, the water evaporated and allowed the oil paint to adhere to the picture's surface in its original water-borne shape. The dot paintings represent a take on this technique: Kirkland would first put down an oil-and-water layer and then, following the spontaneously produced contours that resulted, carefully put on dots using sticks and dowels in lieu of brushes.

The final part of the show includes the most recently done compositions in the exhibit. There's a stunning David Yust from the 1970s and a bronze figure by Edgar Britton done at the same time. There are even some works created after Kirkland's death -- notably, new paintings by Tracy and Sushe Felix.

In this same category of recently acquired works are several older ones that are displayed throughout the show, such as ceramics by Nan and Jim McKinnell and Mark Zamantakis. (Coincidentally, Zamantakis is currently the subject of his own solo; see Artbeat.)

Hopefully, this show will be only the first of many partnerships between the Kirkland and the CHM. In fact, I suggest that Vance Kirkland be used by the CHM as a kind of laboratory for future shows, one in which individual components could be extrapolated into full-blown exhibits. Within Vance Kirkland are the seeds of an American art-pottery survey, an arts-and-crafts exhibit, a deco display, a show on abstract art in Colorado, a 1950s furniture exhibition and a contemporary ceramics outing, among others. And happily, as we can see, the Kirkland Museum could provide all the material without affecting its own magical ambience and distinguished character one little bit.

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