Masterpieces of Colorado Landscape and Colorado & the West

Cruising the scenery.

The world-famous majestic scenery of the nearby Colorado Rockies — the gorgeous mountains, not the sorry baseball team — has attracted artists to our state for well over a century. In fact, Colorado, New Mexico and California all but cornered the market on Western landscape painting during the last part of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth.

This broad narrative provides a foundation for Masterpieces of Colorado Landscape, currently on view at Golden's Foothills Art Center. The show includes a large selection of these historic landscape paintings, some of which are superb, and juxtaposes them with an equally large assortment of contemporary landscape paintings, many of which are strong, too.

Masterpieces of Colorado Landscape is a traveling show that was organized to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the sometimes beleaguered Colorado Council on the Arts, which was formed in 1967 when Republican governor John Love signed the arts advocacy office into being. (That's right: There was a time in the not-so distant past when Republicans were actually a positive part of the cultural life of Colorado.) The show was put together by Rose Glaser Fredrick, a freelance curator. Sponsored by the CCA, along with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the El Pomar Foundation, this is a major effort. A show of this type, with a heavy historical component, usually takes years to put together, but Fredrick thought it up only last June — and the exhibition's tour started just over six months later, in February!

"Rain in Colorado," by Charles Bunnell, watercolor on paper.
"Rain in Colorado," by Charles Bunnell, watercolor on paper.
"A Mountain View," by Frank Vavra, oil on canvas.
"A Mountain View," by Frank Vavra, oil on canvas.


Through July 8, Foothills Art Center, 809 Fifteenth Street, Golden, 303-279-9470.

Through June 30, David Cook Fine Art, 1637 Wazee Street, 303-623-8181.

For the Masterpieces of Colorado Landscape slide show, click here.

For the Colorado & The West slide show, click here.

That's astounding, considering the fine result Fredrick came up with. Not only is the show large, but it's also logistically complicated, with Fredrick having drawn pieces from many different collections. There's even an accompanying catalogue. I can only say that Fredrick must be a workaholic and well-connected, given the loans she was able to arrange from such private collectors as the Loos and the Reigers, as well as the usual suspects, the Denver Public Library and the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

The historic part of the show occupies the intimate Metsopoulos Gallery, the anteroom beyond, and the Bartunek Gallery. An odd call on Fredrick's part was to organize the catalogue in chronological order according to when the artists first came to Colorado, especially since the show is hung in a more free-association way. As usual, I think it would have made more sense to arrange it by when the artworks were done.

Nonetheless, my first glimpse of "Grey's Peak, Colorado" — done by George Smillie in 1917 — just inside the Metsopoulos had me setting aside any concerns about organizational irrationality on Fredrick's part. Smillie, a New Yorker with direct connections to the Hudson River School, turned the heroic and rugged scene into a stunningly beautiful cotton-candy confection. Across the room, William Bancroft does essentially the same thing, if on a smaller scale, in "Pikes Peak at Sunrise," from 1900.

The creamy smoothness of these impressionist paintings gives way to the chewy roughness of expressionist-style pieces hanging in the Bartunek, including two paintings by Ernest Lawson from the 1920s that look like they were done in chewing gum — and I don't mean that in a pejorative way. Also as much about paint as they are about the landscape are the jarringly bright and roughly painted pieces by Frank Vavra and Birger Sandzén. And the cubistic panel "Cripple Creek Mine," done in 1936 by Charles Bunnell, as well as the surrealistic Vance Kirkland "Ruins of Central City," from 1935, are not to be missed.

At this point, the show hits a conceptual wall, transporting us decades forward into our own time, and it loses focus as it proceeds through the Waelchli and Quaintance galleries. It's not that there aren't some great things in this section, because there are, but it never jells as a coherent display. Among the standouts are works by Chuck Forsman, Tracy Felix and Joe Arnold, an artist hitherto all but unknown to me.

Sometimes when things are done quickly, ideas conceived on the spur of the moment wind up affecting the final product in unanticipated ways. One problem I see with Masterpieces of Colorado Landscape — one that would have been easy to correct by simply switching out eight or ten pieces for others — is the big hole that exists between the first part of the show and the second. But this gap was intended by Fredrick, who decided to compare and contrast work from the period of the 1890s to the 1930s with what's happening now and in the recent past. Obviously, that leaves a chronological, and stylistic, gap of fifty years.

Another problem is the way that Fredrick mixed the newer works. Neo-traditional paintings hang alongside non-traditional ones carried out in various contemporary-art styles. Denver Art Museum curator Ann Daley is a pioneer in this difficult juggling act, but she's got plenty of room in her galleries to bridge such aesthetic gaps and give space to the different sensibilities. For her part, Fredrick was forced by logistical issues at Foothills to hang paintings cheek-by-jowl in styles that are antithetical to one other.

None of these issues are fatal, though, and Fredrick's Masterpieces of Colorado Landscape is very impressive despite them. She should be congratulated for pulling off such an over-the-top show, and for doing it in record time.

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