60 Years of Colorado Modernism and From Framing to Furnishing

The Kirkland Museum is an embarassment of riches that just got better with two new exhibits.

Hugh Grant, founder and director of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art on Capitol Hill, has been a kind of Santa Claus for Denver, bestowing gifts of support and exhibits on the art community. A few years ago, when the Kirkland was just getting off the ground, the museum was devoted to the life and work of the late Vance Kirkland, a giant in the state's modernist scene. Grant was a close friend, and he inherited, among other things, many Kirkland paintings along with the artist's handsome studio building on Pearl Street, complete with its historic furnishings.

Since then, Grant has added a wing that's a good deal larger than the original structure, and he's collected thousands of artifacts in a variety of categories -- with an enthusiasm that's unmatched in this time zone. At first the Kirkland purchased everything it acquired, but as more and more people have discovered it, donations have started to pour in. A recent example is the bequest of abstract painter Ruth Todd's estate, a bounty that includes many of her classic paintings and constructions.

The unintended though foreseeable consequence of all this collecting is that the Kirkland is virtually bursting at the seams. And since everything is more or less presented together, it is difficult to mentally separate the two exhibits there right now -- 60 Years of Colorado Modernism, 1915 to 1975 and From Framing to Furnishing: The Design of 60 Architects -- or to distinguish them from the permanent collection. This overcrowding and overlapping may seem to be an insurmountable obstacle to cogently taking in the shows, but what a wonderful complaint to have. That there is too much interesting stuff on view is what makes a trip to the Kirkland always worthwhile. To counteract being overwhelmed, I advise making two laps around the place, first checking out the paintings, then coming around for the design show.

"Landscape," by John Edward Thompson, oil on canvas.
"Landscape," by John Edward Thompson, oil on canvas.

The older pieces and the earlier stylistic sensibilities that are a part of 60 Years are in the smaller of the two main galleries. In this section are two paintings by John Edward Thompson, who was active in the early twentieth century and is generally considered to be the first modern artist to work in Denver. The earlier of his two paintings, 1915's "Landscape," is the oldest painting in the show and, interestingly, is more modernist than the newer one, "Studio of John Thompson," from 1943.

Thompson used the landscape as the basis for his slightly abstracted compositions, and most of the other paintings in this part of the show likewise refer to recognizable imagery in an abstract way. There are a group of cubistic Mary Chenoweths (and a later abstract-expressionist piece) and a pair of fully cubist Hugh Weller paintings that share the same earthy palette. I also loved the two Paul K. Smith pieces, the planar landscape "Fantasia" and the expressionist "Blackhawk" that hangs below it. Nadine Drummond likewise embraces a blocky abstract approach that reduces the landscape to its underlying geometry.

Grant gave over one entire wall in this gallery to surrealism -- an important category in Colorado modernism, but one that has been almost entirely ignored. Otto Bach, best known as the most important of the past directors of the Denver Art Museum, was an accomplished painter with remarkable technical skill, as is amply demonstrated by "Ghosts of Lukas Van Leyden" and "Saint Francis and the Little Red Bull," both of which include fanciful depictions of people. The unbelievably precise application of paint in both of these casein-on-panel pieces is breathtaking. Grant also uncovered several other Colorado artists who, at least occasionally, worked in surrealism, including Phyllis Montrose, Edward Marecak and Mina Conant.

In the larger gallery, Grant mostly installed monumental abstractions, several of which are examples of abstract expressionism, the style most people associate with Colorado modernism. Included in the standouts are Vance Kirkland's "Villa Dei Misteri," an oil on linen from 1956, and 1959's "Springfall," an oil on canvas by Jack Canepa. The Canepa is a recent purchase, as is a 1970s-era Ken Goehring that has a figural element, which is unusual for the artist's later work. Goehring just might be the most important Colorado artist who remains forgotten. Among the other creations on view in the larger gallery is one of Kirkland's famous dot paintings, as well as significant works by Boulder artists Virginia Maitland and Frank Sampson.

60 Years finishes up on the lower level, so head down the corridor to the large elevator that functions as an ad hoc exhibition space itself. (I told you the place was absurdly crowded.) One of the finest paintings in the show is in the elevator, Al Wynne's "Untitled (The Cocktail Party)," an oil on linen from 1965. Across from it is a marvelous Bill Hayes, but it's not part of the show, because it's newer than 1975.

The paintings on the staircase and the lower level span nearly the entire time frame of the show, with a 1930s Picassoid Roland Detre at one end of the spectrum and a 1960s David Yust at the other. In between are collages by Jim Mills, paintings by Poncho Gates and ceramics by Betty Woodman, Bob Smith, Martha Daniels and others.

The Kirkland is filling an obvious void, and though there are other collections of regional art at the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado History Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, none of these institutions are actively pursuing it, nor do any of them have as many pieces by so many different artists. This means that the definitive view of Mile High modernism can be found only at the Kirkland.

Another specialty of the Kirkland is decorative art, and pieces from this category are used to lay out 60 Architects. Unlike the 60 Years exhibit, the featured designers in 60 Architects are from around the world. The Kirkland's decorative-arts holdings include many first-class pieces, so distinguishing them from the things in 60 Architects might be difficult. Look for the small blue tags that have been appended to the identifying labels -- but you really have to pay attention to see them and to screen out nearby objects that aren't part of the festivities.

Grant has put some of the most important pieces in 60 Architects in the large main room, including a group of Gio Ponti items. The Kirkland owns a number of wonderful things by Ponti, the designer of the Denver Art Museum's North Building, including his famous "Superleggera" chair from the 1950s. Ponti's furniture is fairly rare, so this is a special chance to see so many of his pieces, particularly the elegant upholstered lounge with walnut legs and diagonal structural arms, and the luxurious console with an abstract enameled copper top by Paolo di Poli displayed in the old studio space. Ponti's sensibilities spanned tastes from the 1920s to the 1970s, but his greatest works are from the '50s, like this chair and console. Ponti took traditional forms and reduced them to their lightest and simplest expression.

The collection at the Kirkland is particularly rich in pieces by Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest American architect of all time. The floor lamp of 1915 for the Sherman Booth House masterfully demonstrates how Japanese ideas were essential to the creation of modernism. The 1951 dining room table and chairs from Broad Margin Plantation reveal how effortlessly Wright was able to update his Japanesque concepts into mid-century modernism. Both the lamp and dining-room set are handmade examples, but the Kirkland also has many Wright production pieces used throughout the museum. Other great architects with pieces here include Gerrit Rietveld, Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer and a host of over four dozen more.

60 Architects is an interesting idea for a show, but with all the distractions at the museum, it's harder to follow than 60 Years, even with those little blue tags. I think both shows would work better if Grant completely isolated them in dedicated spaces. But I know that will never happen as long as there are so many more good things in the collection than there is room in the Kirkland to show them -- a situation that will not be changing in the foreseeable future.

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