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."

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.

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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