Three-Way

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

In the '30s, Vavra briefly embraced regionalism, and these paintings, such as "Untitled (Cowgirls at Cheyenne Frontier Days)" and "Topsy Turvy," which depicts a rodeo cowboy, are among the only pieces in the show that include figures. About ten years later, in the early '40s, Vavra took his first tentative steps toward modernism, and in the pivotal "Trapper's Lake," he combines his former post-impressionist style with the then-newer approach, as evidenced by the rectangular clouds that float above the blocky mountain. In the years that followed, Vavra pushed the geometry even further, as evidenced by the cubo-regionalist "Colorado Mountain Town," in which the buildings are reduced to diagonal lines, and by the even more abstract "Overpasses," which is made up mostly of horizontals and verticals.

This turn to modernism reflects the great changes that were overtaking American art at the end of the first half of the twentieth century. Regionalism evolved into surrealism, which led to abstract expressionism. Unlike most artists in this country, however, Frank Vavra never fully embraced abstract expressionism and instead stayed with surrealism up to the end of his life.

Grant points out that when Vavra abandoned the landscape tradition, his income suffered. His earlier work had sold briskly, but he couldn't give away his surrealist compositions. Today, however, there's an increasing interest in these -- and little wonder: They're spectacular. Three of the most incredible are hanging in a row in the second gallery. In these paintings -- "Back From Bataan," "Revolt" and "Cheyenne Still Life" -- Vavra refers to recognizable images, but only just barely. At first sight, each looks completely abstract, but viewers will begin to make out figures and objects hidden in the pigments. "Revolt," dating from the early '50s, is really amazing, because it so completely anticipates the neo-expressionism of the 1980s.

"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.

Vavra continued to work until a couple of years before his death in 1967. He was survived by his widow, Kathleen Huffman Vavra, whom he had met at the Denver Art Academy when they were both students. Kathleen Huffman was born in 1906 in Michigan but moved to Colorado Springs as a small child. A year later, her family relocated to Boulder, and soon after that to Denver, where Kathleen attended junior high and high school. She married Frank Vavra in 1924, at the tender age of eighteen.

The Kathleen Vavra section starts immediately after her husband's part concludes. The most important pieces by her are regionalist watercolors that are of the finest quality, some of which were exhibited at her Denver Art Museum solo in 1936. Based on these works and some later pieces, Kathleen was obviously a lot more than just the wife of a renowned artist. When money was tight, she launched a second career as a fashion illustrator, founding her own commercial art firm in 1950. Comparing the earlier regionalist watercolors to the later fashion illustrations is a cautionary tale for any fine artist thinking about going into commercial art. That decision also ensured that she would be remembered as a commercial artist and thus much less significant than her husband. Kathleen Huffman Vavra died in 1984.

The show at the Kirkland concludes with a wall's worth of prints and other works on paper by Diana Vavra, Frank and Kathleen's youngest child, who was born in 1938. Interested in art from childhood, she earned a BFA in 1961 at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where she was a student of Richard Diebenkorn's. She then got an MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she taught printmaking in the early 1970s. Her prints are triumphs of technique, and many feature embossed passages that add compositional elements without using ink. Her drawings are also done with novel methods, such as her use of turpentine washes over pencil or ink on paper. Diana also did sculptures, such as "Untitled (Woman)," which is made of cast concrete and stone aggregate; mosaics such as "Mask," a tile tabletop; and enamel on copper, a medium also embraced by her father. Looking at her prints and other pieces, it occurred to me that the time was right for Denver art audiences to rediscover Diana Vavra's accomplishments, and the Kirkland show provides the perfect opportunity to do so.

I won't deny that there are problems with VAVRA Triptych, mostly that it doesn't make sense. This lack of clarity is exacerbated because the show is displayed in and among the Kirkland's permanent collection. Nonetheless, I recommend the show wholeheartedly since it includes so many wonderful things by the members of the Vavra family.

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