Mile-High Masters

Herbert Bayer is feted at Emil Nelson, while Vance Kirkland will be featured at the Newton Auditorium.

The definitive art history of Colorado has yet to be written, but even without a scholarly guide, it's not hard to list the great ones. In terms of mid-century-modernist abstraction, for instance, it is widely known that Herbert Bayer, who lived in Aspen, and Denver's own Vance Kirkland towered over the rest. Though both died decades ago, their work remains relevant to the current art scene here -- and that constitutes a couple of remarkable from-beyond-the-grave feats. Their shared preeminence is demonstrated in many ways, but none more clearly than this fact: The Denver Art Museum has real depth in the work of only three artists, and Bayer and Kirkland are two of them. (The other is New York School giant Robert Motherwell.)

Unfortunately, the DAM displays their work only rarely. Luckily for us, the Emil Nelson Gallery, just west of the museum across Bannock Street, is hosting an incredibly good Bayer show right now. Plus, the Kirkland Museum announced last week that it is permanently loaning the city a trio of canvases that are among the largest projects the artist ever took on -- but more about that in a minute.

The exhibit herbert bayer: maquettes, prints and posters marks the second time this gallery has given the late artist a solo. But while last season's exhibit was made up of owner Hugo Anderson's own Bayer holdings and those of his uncle, this time everything's from the collection of the artist's family. Anderson now represents the family, and that's undeniably a major coup in the local art market. But it is something of a surprise, considering how modest a place Emil Nelson Gallery is.

"yellow stacked squares," by Herbert Bayer, wood 
and paint.
"yellow stacked squares," by Herbert Bayer, wood and paint.

Located in a turn-of-the-last-century row house, the Emil Nelson does not look like a typical art gallery. The standard today is the chaste, spotlight-lit rectangle, but Emil Nelson is more like the galleries of yore. Instead of being crisp and institutional, the place has a cozy residential atmosphere because it was once a house and is extremely cluttered, with diverse treasures crowded everywhere. It reminds me of how most galleries were when I was a child -- more like curio shops, and not so much like today's mini-museums. Come to think of it, these characteristics make it the perfect setting for the work of an artist who was already famous half a century ago.

Bayer first came to Colorado in 1946, when he moved to Aspen to become a design consultant for the development of the ski resort and of the Aspen Institute. He was born in Austria in 1900 and began to study architecture in 1919 after serving in World War I. In 1921, he entered the Bauhaus, a legendary and revolutionary German art school that preached for a union of all the arts. While a student there, he studied with Vasily Kandinsky, whose influence is easy to see in some of Bayer's later work. In 1925, Bayer became a teacher at the Bauhaus in typography and graphic design. But with the rise of the Nazis, Bayer was forced to flee Germany in 1938, essentially at the last minute before all hell broke loose. He wound up in New York and eventually settled in our state, making a long-lasting contribution to the local cultural scene.

Given his Bauhaus training, it's not surprising that Bayer was interested in doing many different art forms. The show at the Emil Nelson includes examples of his sculpture maquettes, prints and posters, but there are also works on paper and some remarkable paintings stuck around the edges in the storage areas. The paintings are not technically a part of the exhibit, but they might as well be, since they are displayed so close to the things that are.

Bayer went through a number of stylistic phases over his very long career, including surrealism, abstract expressionism and figural abstraction. Pieces from all those genres are on display, but he is best known for geometric abstraction, the style of choice at the Bauhaus. In the 1960s and '70s, Bayer returned to his Bauhaus roots, and it is this style of work that dominates the Emil Nelson outing.

Entering the intimate gallery, viewers are immediately confronted by a table covered with small, painted wooden maquettes that are in individual Plexiglas boxes. There's a playful quality to these pieces -- and not just because their colors recall the shades found on children's toy blocks. Anderson says the pieces remind him of toys, especially of model trains. And like model trains, these maquettes represent things that are meant to be much bigger.

The maquettes were to be realized as full-sized monumental sculptures, like the more-than-fifty-foot-tall, taxicab-yellow "articulated wall," at the Denver Design Center on South Broadway. For "articulated wall," a steel mast was set perpendicular to the ground and specially cast concrete rectangles were mounted to it, stepping in and out as they rise. The Emil Nelson show doesn't include a model of "articulated wall," but it does have the closely related "undulated wall," from 1967, made of wood and Masonite painted white. Also following on the same formal and chromatic concept is "yellow stacked squares," one of the best objects in the show.

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