Three-Way

The Kirkland Museum showcases the aesthetic heritage of the Vavra family.

During the last decade or so, there has been increased interest in exploring the rich art history of Colorado, and Hugh Grant, director of Denver's Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, has been at the forefront of this movement, having acquired thousands of works by hundreds of artists who worked in our state over the last century. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that Grant has done more for Colorado's modern art history than anyone else ever has.

Colorado has been an important regional center for artistic production, outshining the traditions of all but a handful of states outside New York. Our state is definitely one of the top ten places in the country for local art, which is pretty amazing when you consider our small population. Just think about our neighbors: Other than New Mexico, nothing compares to what happened here in any of the adjacent states. Not only that, but many of the artists who wrote Colorado's art history came from these states, relocating from such backwaters as Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming. Part of the reason was the scenery, but it was also because of the area's relatively progressive artistic atmosphere, which encouraged experimentation and led to the early acceptance of modernism.

This is the context in which VAVRA Triptych at the Kirkland needs to be seen. The show zeroes in on the career of Frank Vavra, one of the big shots of early-twentieth-century art in Colorado, and that of his wife, Kathleen Huffman Vavra, and their daughter, Diana Vavra. "I could have easily done a show just about Frank -- there's plenty of his work around -- but when I looked at the pieces by Kathleen and Diana, I thought it would be wonderful to show all three together," says Grant, who curated the exhibit.

"Moon With Moons," by Diana Vavra, woodcut.
"Moon With Moons," by Diana Vavra, woodcut.
"Pikes Peak," by Frank Vavra, oil on canvas.
"Pikes Peak," by Frank Vavra, oil on canvas.

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VAVRA Triptych is only the second temporary feature the Kirkland has ever presented, with the first having been a William Sanderson solo presented this past winter. The Kirkland is a collecting institution, and every gallery, entryway, office, storage room, staircase and elevator is crammed to its physical limits with artworks. This leaves no room for changing displays like VAVRA Triptych, so the show meanders along several walls in the two main spaces, which are filled with work by other artists and designers. Unfortunately, this mix of material prevents the show from jelling as an independent entity.

Half joking, I told Grant that he should purchase the long-closed 7-Eleven directly across 13th Avenue from the museum to provide extra gallery space. It turns out that he actually did try to buy it, but the Southland Corporation is not interested in getting rid of it right now.

So until the museum is able to expand, viewers need to discipline themselves when they take in such shows as VAVRA Triptych, screening out of their consciousness all the other things by other artists that are nearby. The exhibit begins in the large exhibition room, where two walls are given over to it, and continues into the small exhibition room, where all four walls are dedicated to the show. As expected, Frank Vavra's oil paintings are up first, followed by a section devoted to watercolors by Kathleen Huffman Vavra, and finally, an area featuring prints by Diana Vavra.

Frank Vavra was born in Nebraska in 1892, but as a child moved with his family to Wyoming. Though he showed an early interest in art, it was not until he was an adult that he pursued a career as an artist. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and was shipped off to France to fight in World War I. In the summer of 1918, he was in the Argonne, where he and his fellow soldiers were subjected to mustard gas. They were sent to Vichy to recover, and that is where he began to study painting with a protegé of Claude Monet's and began to do post-impressionist paintings, which is what he is best known for today. He returned to Wyoming after the war but moved to Denver in 1923, where he enrolled in the Corey Art School. While there, he met John Edward Thompson, the father of modern art in Colorado; Thompson urged him to attend the Denver Art Academy, where Vavra studied from 1924 to 1926.

The show at the Kirkland includes a small group of his post-impressionist compositions, but I really wish there had been more, since these are his most significant works. Although the show is installed in rough chronological order, it starts out with regionalist-style work from the '30s instead of the post-impressionism of the '20s, which throws off the stylistic analysis of Vavra's artistic development.

The early landscapes are gorgeous, being luxuriously painted and masterfully composed. Vavra was adept at conveying depth, and he brings viewers into his paintings, drawing their eyes from the foreground to the deep background. In the exquisite "Pikes Peak," the bottom of the painting reveals a desert field, the red rocks of the Garden of the Gods occupy the middle, and the mountain of the title fills the top. It's fabulous. Other exquisite landscapes from this period include the monumental "Up Red Cañon," which was exhibited at the David Cook Galleries and is one of the only pieces in the show that is for sale. Also worth noting are "Platte Canyon" and "Point of Rocks."

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