Modern Master

Herbert Bayer's genius is on display at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

The late Herbert Bayer, who spent a good deal of his life in Aspen, is one of the greatest artists to have ever worked in Colorado. He's part of the international history of graphics and photography, but he did so much more, creating paintings, prints, sculptures, buildings and some of the first modernist earthworks ever realized.

Bayer is surely best known in Denver for his monumental sculpture "articulated wall," off South Broadway (see Artbeat, page 59). A series of photos documenting its installation are among the first things you see in A Visual Voice: The Language of Herbert Bayer, at the Philip J. Steele Gallery on the campus of the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Bayer's son, the late Javan Bayer, took the photos so that his father, who was then ill, could see the erection of the sculpture.

The show, organized by Steele director Lisa Spivak and RMCAD graphics-department chair Fred Murrell, is an ambitious offering and includes a handsome catalogue with an essay by Jeff Sheppard. The catalogue lays out four separate themes that are purportedly explored in the exhibit: linear, geometric, organic and the Colorado connection. But the four are catch-alls and essentially meaningless, making the display more a sampling than a survey.

"mountain picture," by Herbert Bayer, oil on panel.
"mountain picture," by Herbert Bayer, oil on panel.
"Ski in Aspen," by Herbert Bayer, lithograph.
"Ski in Aspen," by Herbert Bayer, lithograph.

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Through October 1, Philip J. Steele Gallery on the RMCAD campus, 1600 Pierce Street, Lakewood, 303-225-8587

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Bayer was born in 1900 in Austria. With no formal art training, he became an apprentice to an architect in Linz in 1918. In 1920, he moved to Germany and got a job as an assistant to architect Josef Margold, who exposed him to the most advanced aesthetic ideas of the time, including Gropius's Bauhaus manifesto, which was published when the famous German art school was launched. He left Margold's atelier in 1921 and enrolled in the Bauhaus.

Once at the school, Bayer presented himself to Gropius, who was impressed enough to personally exempt him from taking the preliminary course. By 1923, Bayer, though still officially a pupil, was increasingly taking on the role of a master. He was a pioneer of modernist graphic design, and when he discovered that there was no sufficiently modern typeface available, he drew his own. The simplified sans serif, which includes only lowercase letters, was what he used for the rest of his life.

One of the guiding concepts of the Bauhaus was the integration of art and industry, and students and teachers took on clients using the school's facilities. Bayer did that with the graphics and typography workshop, and through the 1920s, he designed and produced commercial projects. This was fortuitous, as things were getting more difficult at the Bauhaus because of pressure from the Nazis. In 1928, Bayer broke his ties with the school and moved to Berlin, where his career really took off.

The pieces he did in Berlin, including the photographs he began taking after moving there, are most often surrealistic. The show at the Steele includes a few of these: "profile en face," a cut-up portrait of a woman from 1929; "self portrait," from 1932, in which Bayer is seen removing a wedge of his arm as he stares in wonder; and "shortly before dawn," an abstract still life from 1936.

Bayer also created paintings in Berlin that were related to both his photos and his graphic designs. There are a couple of these paintings on display at the Steele, too: "bone and fruit," from 1930, and "mountain picture," from 1931, both of which are oils on canvas and feature the surrealistic juxtaposition of recognizable objects and abstract shapes.

Things were definitely going well for Bayer in Berlin, but not, as we all know, for long. In 1936 the Nazis confiscated several of his Bauhaus-era works from German museums, so he left Germany and came to the United States in 1937. While in this country he met John McAndrew, the curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, who had been wanting to put on a show about the Bauhaus. He asked Bayer to design it and to return to Germany to round up the relevant pieces. Bayer agreed, went back to Berlin, shut down his business, contacted Bauhaus-associated figures still in Germany to get the material necessary for the exhibition, and began the bureaucratic process to emigrate. When he arrived in New York in 1938, he carried with him the Bauhaus artifacts he had collected for the MoMA show -- and about twenty dollars in cash.

He hit the advertising world in New York and found ready success with his surrealist style. He did cover designs for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Fortune, among others, and got hooked up with the Container Corporation of America, a big-time advertising client. In 1945 the company hired him to design a traveling exhibition sponsored by the CCA, and a fast friendship developed between Bayer and company president Walter Paepcke.

Paepcke invited Bayer to spend the holidays with him at his winter home in Aspen. During that stay, Paepcke convinced Bayer to leave New York and move to the small ski town, which was hardly the jet-set kind of place it is today. Paepcke intended to establish an informal think tank that would be called the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, where major players in business and industry would meet with their corollaries from the arts and the sciences. In 1946, Bayer moved to Aspen.

He oversaw the restoration of Victorian houses and the Wheeler Opera House. He designed a series of modernist buildings to house the Aspen Institute, which was built in a campus-like setting at the edge of town. As part of the same master plan, Bayer also designed Aspen Meadows and an apartment complex and health facility, which were among the first buildings that he ever constructed.

The complex includes some astoundingly forward-looking outdoor installations, including "marble garden," created from found marble fragments set on end, and "grass mound," a conceptual site plan anchored by a dirt mound covered with grass.

Overseeing the redevelopment of a town and planning a new conference center would seem to be enough to keep anyone busy, but Bayer was doing a lot of other things. He designed many buildings for CCA, including a research center in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, that also incorporated earthworks. And he was taking on freelance jobs designing posters. There are several notable examples of these posters in A Visual Voice, but the best is the incredible "Ski in Aspen," from 1947, which depicts a skier framed by an Aspen leaf, and "Ski Broadmoor," from 1959, in which skiers' tracks form the letter B.

It might be hard to imagine that he had the time, but Bayer was simultaneously creating a large body of fine art. The Aspen years marked a major shift in his fine-art style, bringing it more in line with his architecture and sculpture. In the '40s, he began moving away from surrealism and toward organic abstraction. A Visual Voice includes some examples of this, such as the two prints from the series "7 convolutions," which were done at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School, perhaps at its Aspen campus.

By the late '50s and continuing into the '80s, Bayer's paintings and prints became more geometric, and he increasingly employed straight and curved lines. The Steele display is particularly rich in work of this sort, including the tapestry "ordered amassment."

Bayer met Robert O. Anderson, president of the Atlantic Richfield Corporation, through the Aspen Institute, and in 1966 he left CCA and went to ARCO. He created murals, tapestries, sculptures and environmental projects for the corporation's various properties. Anderson personally sponsored Bayer's most ambitious earthwork, Anderson Park, done in 1973, which includes a series of grass-covered mounds and sculptural installations.

Closely akin to Bayer's minimalist paintings, prints and buildings were several proposed monumental sculptures that can be described as both lyrical and austere. Bayer formed these minimalist sculptures, most of which exist only in maquettes, by arranging identical rectilinear or cylindrical elements. The first full-sized one was erected in Mexico City as part of the 1968 Summer Olympics; a decade later, "articulated wall" was erected in Denver. For A Visual Voice, a third one, "gate with concentric circles" -- built by the RMCAD sculpture department based on the plaster model -- is temporarily installed outside on the green.

Though Bayer had lived in Aspen for decades, by 1975 his failing health forced him to leave. He relocated to Santa Barbara, California, where he continued to do commissions for ARCO. Though he could have slowed down, he didn't, creating a series of incredible post-minimalist paintings and prints before his death in 1985. These works from the '70s and '80s are called the "anthologies," and a group of them are included at the Steele. The hard-edged abstractions incorporate feathery color fields and can be easily compared with the style of geometric abstractionist Clark Richert, who teaches at RMCAD. It would be great if the two artists were paired in some future outing.

A Visual Voice is an important exhibit, but there are only a few days left to see it. On Friday, September 30, at 11 a.m., Bayer enthusiasts H. Kirk Brown III and Hugo Anderson will give a gallery talk. Anderson, who is Robert O. Anderson's nephew, and Brown are among Visual's lenders, a group that also includes Brown's wife, Jill A. Wiltse, and the Bayer family. If you haven't seen this show yet -- and not many have -- you should get out to RMCAD as soon as possible.

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