Thanks for the Memories

A William Sanderson solo is shoehorned into the Kirkland Museum.

The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art is a unique aesthetic resource that's filled to the rafters with interesting things to see. The Kirkland is a collecting institution; its impressive holdings, in a variety of aesthetic categories, are permanently displayed in a series of large rooms on two floors.

The museum is named for famed Denver modernist painter, educator, curator and arts advocate Vance Kirkland, and it includes hundreds of his works from the last century. In addition, the Kirkland has actively collected the work of other Colorado artists in depth, and there's a staggering collection of twentieth-century furniture, pottery, metalwork and glass.

So much is on display -- more than 3,000 examples of decorative art alone -- that when I heard a solo was being planned for the Kirkland, I couldn't for the life of me figure out where in the museum it could be installed. After all, there's already something in every nook and cranny. There's even a large and important Bill Hayes color-field abstraction hanging in the elevator, for heaven's sake! Such crowding is probably why The Centennial of William Sanderson is the first-ever temporary show to be presented by the Kirkland.

"Berlin, 1945," by William Sanderson, oil on canvas.
"Berlin, 1945," by William Sanderson, oil on canvas.
"Signals," by William Sanderson, oil on canvas.
"Signals," by William Sanderson, oil on canvas.

Kirkland director Hugh Grant made room for the exhibit by removing paintings that had been hanging on two large walls. However, the wall are in two different rooms (the main gallery and the small exhibition room), so viewers will need to concentrate and not be distracted by all the many visual temptations. It's hardly an ideal solution, but it works better than I thought it would.

The idea of celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Sanderson's birth has been kicking around for a few years, and the show was originally going to be presented in the Western History Gallery at the Central Denver Public Library. The artist's son, Michael Sanderson, proposed the idea, but he was unable to work things out with the library, so Grant offered to host the show at the Kirkland. "I just couldn't stand the idea of having Sanderson's centennial come and go without an exhibit," he says.

William Sanderson was co-curated by Michael Sanderson and Grant, who's giving over not just space for the exhibit, but also a number of paintings from the Kirkland's permanent collection. Other works are on loan from various local collectors and from the portion of the artist's estate that the family still holds.

Sanderson was one of the most prominent Denver artists in the late '40s and early '50s, but even then his work was a little old-fashioned. His signature style has a cartoonish quality that sometimes references cubism and can be compared to the 1930s efforts of other regional artists, including Vance Kirkland, Charles Bunnell and Raymond Jonson. But doing this kind of work after World War II, as Sanderson did, made him clearly out of step with his artistic times. As a result, he was little known by the 1960s. Then, in the 1980s, not long before he died, his career enjoyed a second boom. But this revival didn't occur because Sanderson's work changed; the art world did.

In the middle of the last century, critics and art theorists embraced the idea that art had a deterministic quality that was going full steam toward art about art. In the '50s, that meant that in painting, for example, formalist abstraction -- in particular, abstract expressionism -- was seen as the only style worth doing. This was perceived to be the inevitable result of a series of events that had started with cubism in the early twentieth century. Bringing formalist ideas even further along these same lines, minimalism appeared in the late '50s and early '60s. The minimalists were so sure of their destiny as the ultimate formalists that they honestly felt they would be the last artists to ever exist.

The fly in the ointment of this tidy theory was the appearance of pop art, which was anti-formalist. Ultimately, the post-modern characteristics of pop art would lead to an explosion of credible contemporary styles in the '70s and '80s that made no reference to formalism or to its quaint historic determinism.

The new era led artists such as Susan Cooper and Tracy Felix to embrace approaches that were similar to those Sanderson had been using all along -- for example, creating recognizable scenes out of flattened patterns. This new generation of artists changed the public perception of Sanderson's pieces, and his formerly backward-looking paintings began to look more contemporary. Now, twenty years after their rediscovery, Sanderson's paintings no longer look out of date, as they did when they were new.

Sanderson was born Wilhelm Tsiegelnitsky in Latvia in 1905 and lived in Russia and the Ukraine as a child. It was not an ideal time or place to be born, as the Tsiegelnitskys were a Jewish family in an era of raging anti-Semitism. In response to these conditions, they immigrated to the United States in 1923. When they landed, their surname was changed to Siegel.

Soon after arriving, Sanderson entered the National Academy of Design in New York; he graduated in 1927 and immediately launched a career as a graphic artist. In 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed at Denver's Lowry Field; while here, he met his future wife, Ruth Lambertson. He was shipped off to post-war Berlin in 1945 to act as an interpreter, then returned to Denver that same year after being discharged. In 1946, none other than Vance Kirkland himself hired Sanderson to teach commercial art at the University of Denver, which he did for the next quarter-century. He retired in 1972 but continued to paint until 1985.

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