Thanks for the Memories

A William Sanderson solo is shoehorned into the Kirkland Museum.

The Sanderson show at the Kirkland is hung chronologically for the most part, though a couple of paintings are placed outside the date-order arrangement. Nearly all of the early paintings, which recall stylized comics and cubism, are what Sanderson is remembered for. All of the works emphatically reveal the artist's astounding hand-to-eye coordination. The margins between the colors are finely done, and the surfaces are amazingly smooth. There's also a marvelous orchestration of the palette, with scores of different shades masterfully assembled into a unified scheme, no matter how wildly varied the hues.

Hard edges are used in the cartoon-like pieces, such as "The Lovers," an exaggerated double portrait of a man and a woman, and "Spanish Landscape," depicting an artist at his easel, which is similar in tone. Both were done in the 1940s. Among the several wonderful cubistic Sandersons in this section are "Steamship Ruth," from 1946, a crisp rendition of a boat in harbor, and, hanging above it, "Berlin, 1945," which dates from 1947. In both, Sanderson cut the subjects into hard-edged geometric shapes.

After taking in the several delights in the first part of the show, viewers will have to turn around and head across the room to the small exhibition space. Just inside is "Mountain Retreat," from 1958, in which a cluster of planar buildings is set in front of planar mountains. "Mountain Retreat" relates very well to the earlier pieces and is the perfect device to connect the two parts of the show. It's also recognizable, because it was used as the main publicity shot for the show.

"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.

Sanderson continued with his combination of whimsical representational imagery and cubism up through the mid-'60s, when pieces such as 1964's "Whites Only" was done. The painting is a fractured scene of a ruined antebellum mansion and tattered Confederate flag. In the late '60s, Sanderson became more experimental, as seen in the great non-objective pattern painting "Signals." In this piece, rectangular and curved shapes are arranged on a vertically oriented panel. The colors are strong -- as are the contrasts between them -- and all are laid on top of a cool white ground. I don't know if Sanderson did many paintings of this sort, but I'd sure like to see more. If his style was formerly behind the times, with "Signals" he fully caught up to the most advanced currents of his day -- but not for long.

His work in the '70s is extremely varied and is very hit or miss -- mostly miss. He seems to get back to business with his last paintings, done in the 1980s, such as "The Wave" and "Mountain Lake No. 1." Grant points out that "Mountain Lake" comes right out of a widely published 1930s painting by Kirkland. It's funny to realize that Sanderson, like the young artists of that time, was looking for inspiration fifty years in the past.

The only real problem with William Sanderson is that it's disjointed because of the space arrangement. Temporary exhibits are important to most museums because they generate visitors. Even the Denver Art Museum is devoting the entire first floor of the new Hamilton Building to such features. I would suggest that the Kirkland empty a room on the lower level specifically for changing shows.

This is Thanksgiving weekend, with accompanying riot conditions at the malls. I think checking out William Sanderson at the Kirkland Museum would be a much better way to spend your time -- especially if you have family and friends in town. I leave it to you to decide whether or not to bring them along.

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