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Curator Gwen Chanzit is the world's foremost authority on the late artist Herbert Bayer, and she has put this knowledge to good use over the past couple of decades as the keeper of the Herbert Bayer Archive and Collection held by the Denver Art Museum. It was started while Bayer was still alive — he died in 1985 — but has grown to include more than 8,000 artifacts. The DAM is the appropriate resting place for his work because Bayer, though originally from Europe, spent a good portion of his life in Colorado.
For a complete slide show of the exhibit, click here.
Bayer was born in 1900 in Austria and showed an early propensity for art; however, his plans to attend the Academy in Vienna were short-circuited by his father's premature death and his conscription into the Austrian army near the end of World War I. After the war, Bayer got a job as an architect's apprentice — first in Linz, and then in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1920. It was at this time that he first became aware of modernism, and a year after moving to Darmstadt, he headed to Weimar to enroll in the Bauhaus, Germany's preeminent design school.
At the Bauhaus, Bayer quickly moved from student to teacher, and in 1925, he was asked to head up the school's graphics department, which by this time was located in Dessau. Bayer's graphic design — in particular, his cover for the Bauhaus magazine — led to international recognition. The cover combines the doctrinaire constructivism of the Bauhaus style with the then-cutting-edge surrealist sensibility. The dialogue between rationality and irrationality is a key dialectic of modernism, and its effects are evident throughout the rest of Bayer's oeuvre. It was also during his time at the Bauhaus that Bayer designed his "universal type," a simple sans serif with no capital letters.
From early on, the Bauhaus struggled against reactionary forces that wanted to shut it down, meaning that financial support from the government was not forthcoming. As a result, the school sought out private clients, and Bayer's graphics department was very successful in that effort.
In 1928, no doubt encouraged by his success with commercial art, Bayer left academia and moved to Berlin to pursue a career in advertising. As could be expected, he became highly successful at it; more important, his graphic designs revolutionized the field and were internationally recognized for their daring innovations — especially his early use of photomontage. Because of the latter, he can be compared to the likes of Man Ray and Alexandr Rodchenko as one of the greatest photographers of the period.
As students of art history know, Germany was a great place to be a vanguard artist in the 1920s, but by the mid-1930s, it was one of worst. The Nazis embarked on an official campaign to snuff out modern art, and several Bayers were confiscated from museums and later included in the Nazis' notorious Entartete Kunst exhibition of so-called degenerate art.
With the handwriting on the wall, Bayer came to the United States in 1937, but he was asked to go back and retrieve Bauhaus-related artifacts for a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Literally risking his life to do so, Bayer returned to Germany to carry out the task; he returned to New York in 1938 with $20 in his pocket and the history of the Bauhaus in his luggage. But poverty was a passing issue, and he soon skyrocketed to the top ranks of Madison Avenue's advertising world.
In 1945, Bayer met industrialist Walter Paepcke, and the rest, as they say, is history. Paepcke invited Bayer to spend time at his winter home in Aspen and then convinced him to move to the former mining town. Bayer had free rein while living there, working as a planner and designer, overseeing the restoration of Victorian buildings such as the Wheeler Opera House and designing new buildings like the complexes he did for the Aspen Institute and Aspen Meadows.
At the same time, Bayer acted as an art consultant for Paepcke's Container Corporation of America and, later, Atlantic Richfield. He produced sculptures, tapestries, murals and environmental installations for these companies, including some of the earliest modernist earthworks ever done, a huge influence on later artists. And, as if all of that weren't enough for one person to accomplish, Bayer also produced a large volume of paintings and prints and continued his work in the field of photomontage. Wow.
Bayer stayed in Aspen until the 1970s, when health issues forced him to leave the high altitude. He retired to California.
Despite having a treasure trove of Bayer's work for so many years, it wasn't until earlier this summer that the DAM dedicated permanent space to display selections from it. The museum turned over the staircase, elevator lobby, conference room, auditorium and corridor on the lower level of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building for Chanzit to display Bayer's creations. These spaces — individually or collectively — are hardly ideal for exhibiting art, and they give the Vida Ellison Gallery at the Denver Public Library a run for its money as the worst-designed major-exhibition venue in town.
But keeper and curator Chanzit would have none of it. She's waited a long time for this opportunity, and she's making the best of it. Plus, she has a clever point about using these odds and ends of spaces: They are precisely the sorts of environments that Bayer dealt with during his long career as a corporate art advisor. I'll give her that, but when something is conceived from the ground up, as the Hamilton was, it's a major loss that proper spaces weren't planned for in the first place.
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