From Here to Modernity

A fond farewell to Denver modern master Bill Joseph.

Though he'd kept a low profile during the past ten years and only rarely exhibited his work during that period, longtime Denver artist Bill Joseph remained involved in the city's art world until his death, on December 15. In fact, I ran into him in the company of his wife, Barbara, as recently as November 20. The occasion was the opening reception for Vance Kirkland: A Colorado Painter's Life, the Early Works and Beyond, now on view at the Colorado History Museum.

The title suggests a solo presentation devoted to Kirkland, but it's actually a group show, and Joseph and more than a score of other Colorado art wizards are included. Being part of this exhibition is an honor, as only the state's most significant modernists are represented. It's a virtual who's who of the arts in Denver during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

The Joseph piece, which was cited in my December 25 column, is "Woman," a modernist abstraction of a female torso made in 1970 out of fabricated steel that was bent and welded together and then finished in black. It was loaned to the CHM by the Kirkland Museum, which has a number of other Josephs in its collection.

"The Great Seal," by Bill Joseph, fabricated bronze 
Anthony Camera
"The Great Seal," by Bill Joseph, fabricated bronze bas-relief.
"The Great Seal," by Bill Joseph, fabricated bronze 
Anthony Camera
"The Great Seal," by Bill Joseph, fabricated bronze bas-relief.

When I saw Joseph at the reception, I found him to be charming and outgoing, as usual. True, he looked a little frail, and he was walking with the aid of a cane, but these factors were mitigated by his buoyant mood. When I spoke with him -- no more than to nod and say "Hello" -- he was smiling and very apparently enjoying the attention he was getting from being included in the show. Plus, it was a chance for him to catch up with his many old friends from the ever-smaller community of senior artists.

But even on that glorious night, there was a shadow of what was to come. Barbara, who is ordinarily bubbly, was in a serious mood. She pulled me aside and said Bill hadn't been doing so well lately, and if I wanted to interview him, I'd better do it soon. I never did call to set up a meeting, but I had little chance: Just days later, Joseph suffered a massive stroke. He ultimately died from its complications.

Fortunately, I had interviewed Joseph about his life and his art career a few years ago, when he was the subject of an exhibit at the O'Sullivan Arts Center at Regis University. But there's no denying that it would have been more edifying to have spoken with him one last time, and I'll always regret that I didn't promptly follow up on Barbara's advice.

In many ways, Joseph was quintessentially Denver. He was born here in 1926 and grew up in the city's Park Hill neighborhood, which is where he met Barbara. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Denver in 1949 and earned his Master of Arts the following year.

At that time, artists had little chance to exhibit their creations in Denver. There were few publicly funded art centers and fewer privately owned galleries. Instead, the exhibition scene was dominated by a handful of institutional venues -- only some of which are still around. Chief among these was the Denver Art Museum, where Joseph first exhibited his pieces in 1949. Not an inauspicious beginning to an emerging artist's career.

After graduation, Joseph briefly taught art at both the DAM and DU. In 1957, Loretto Heights College, a private women's institution, hired him as an art professor, a position he held for the next thirty years. The school, which is now Teikyo Loretto Heights University, was a very appropriate place for Joseph to work, because the college was also Roman Catholic. Joseph was a devout Catholic all his life, and his beliefs were manifested in his art. He received many commissions for religious artworks, most of them meant for Catholic chapels and churches. He created statues, crucifixes, tabernacles, screens, sanctuary lights and panels that mark the Stations of the Cross. He received his first liturgical commissions in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, they'd become a major component of his efforts. He continued making religious items up until just a few years ago.

Examples of Joseph's sacred sculptures abound in the area, though they're not limited to this region: He created works for churches in places as far-flung as Montana and New York. Among his notable accomplishments around here is the work he completed for Boulder's Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where, in 1963, he created a pair of life-sized cast-bronze sculptures of the risen Christ and St. Benedict. Stylistically, these sculptures are examples of a simplified representational style, with both figures being attenuated and having angular details. More completely abstract are the aluminum decorations he carried out in 1968 for St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Arvada.

At the same time he was creating this religious art, Joseph was pursuing a career as a secular contemporary artist. In the 1960s, while turning out the pieces he made for Sacred Heart and St. Joan of Arc, he became involved with The Fifteen. The group, which was made up of a lot more than just fifteen artists, advocated for contemporary art by presenting studio exhibits spotlighting the work of its members.

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