Colorado Dreaming

Majestic vistas from the state's glorious past are on view at David Cook.

The swank David Cook Fine Art has been riding the recent wave of interest in the art of the American West, a formerly untapped treasure trove. One way the gallery has done this is by presenting consistently great shows on the subject, filling them to the brim with first-rate pieces.

For the past five years, a highlight of the exhibition calendar has been Cook's summer group show featuring the crème de la crème of the gallery's stock, which is heavy on new finds uncovered by David Cook himself or by his staff. To create Colorado & the West this year, Cook tapped a Denver collection and the estate of onetime Colorado artist Ethel Magafan. The show is gorgeous, and it tells us many things about what the best and brightest artists in the region were up to fifty to one hundred years ago, including impressionism, post-impressionism and other kinds of modernism.

I've seen the four previous Cook summer annuals, plus many other exhibits on the topic elsewhere in the area, so it's really remarkable to me that nearly everything in Colorado & the West is completely new. It's an interesting contradiction that's often seen in art-history shows such as this one: The pieces are almost a century old, but everything still seems completely fresh.

"Mountain and Stream," by Ethel Magafan, oil on 
board.
"Mountain and Stream," by Ethel Magafan, oil on board.
"Up Red Canon, Rabbit Ear Range," by Frank Vavra, 
oil on canvas.
"Up Red Canon, Rabbit Ear Range," by Frank Vavra, oil on canvas.

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Through June 4, David Cook Fine Art, 1637 Wazee Street, 303-623-8181

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The star of Colorado & the West is clearly Birger Sandzén, a Swedish-born Kansas artist who spent summers here and produced his iconic Colorado landscapes, the most important work of his long career. Sandzén taught summer sessions at the Broadmoor Academy in the 1910s and 1920s, and like the other artists associated with that school, his work was influenced by European vanguard art. Then again, Sandzén had been trained and had come of age as a painter in Europe.

Directly across from the front entrance is a classic Sandzén landscape titled "In the Mountains, Manitou Springs, Colorado," an oil on canvas from 1920. A rugged, treeless peak fills the center of the composition, and there's a group of oddly shaped trees in the right foreground and a lively cloud-filled sky in the background. A couple of things make this painting forward-looking, considering its date: Sandzén's outrageous palette, with tons of hot pinks and lavenders offset by plenty of icy greens and blues; and his painting technique, in which globs of oil paint are smeared over the surface, almost in the same way an abstract-expressionist painting is handled. The strong colors laid on in heavy blobs create a spectacular effect that looks like cake icing or chewed gum.

Other Sandzéns in the show include two marvelous landscapes, a pair of very unexpected still-life scenes and some prints. Though smaller than the masterful "In the Mountains," these pieces are pure Sandzén in both style and execution.

Of all the artists associated with Colorado, I think Sandzén will wind up being the most important. It's amazing that no museum has thought to pair his works with those of an abstract expressionist -- Willem De Kooning comes to mind -- to show how modernist abstraction is just a step or two from what Sandzén was doing decades earlier.

If Sandzén could be called cutting-edge for his time, Ethel Magafan, who is represented in the Cook show, was much more conservative. Her "Mountain and Stream," an oil on board from 1950, is no more modernist than any of the much older Sandzéns. But that's not a shortcoming, because "Mountain and Stream" is fabulous. Magafan lays on strong colors in jagged shapes. Like the Sandzéns, the Magafans are almost, though not quite, abstract-expressionist -- but unlike the Sandzéns, which were done so much earlier, they are contemporaneous with abstract expressionism.

Falling somewhere in between Sandzén and Magafan is New Mexico artist Fremont Ellis. His "New Mexico Landscape," from 1935, sports loose brushwork that's been used to convey a fairly representational depiction of aspen trees by a creek.

Near the Ellis is a Vance Kirkland. Now, it's hardly unusual to find Kirkland's work being a part of some art-history show around town, but it is strange to see one that's actually for sale. Cook had the watercolor "A Misty Landscape" available, but naturally, it was snapped up as soon as the show opened. The scene, which might be Roxborough Park, is somewhat surrealistic, with the rock formations being rendered as though they were on the verge of churning, like waves at sea. The palette is somber, dominated by browns and greens, but the picture itself is theatrical, with the vista unfolding in a series of progressive spaces defined by a push and pull of lights and darks.

The show continues on Cook's lower level where there are some choice impressionist paintings by Charles Partridge Adams, along with more modernist works by Paul Kauvar Smith and Frank Vavra. Both Smith and Vavra went on to do bodies of abstractions, but these earlier paintings are brushy, expressionist landscapes of local scenes. One of the Vavras, "Up Red Canon, Rabbit Ear Range," is spectacular and is the finest painting by him that I've ever seen. The trees in the foreground, their leaves in autumn gold and red, are used to create a pierced screen through which the namesake mountain range can be glimpsed. This effect is marvelous. Vavra has not yet been given his due, though the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts is in the planning stages of a retrospective for the artist's long career in Denver.

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