The late Dale Chisman put Denver in the picture

On September 3, I made my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver as I've done so many times since the new building opened last year. But this time I wasn't in pursuit of an art show. Instead, I was headed, along with a few hundred others, to the memorial service for one of the MCA's founders, abstract painter Dale Chisman.

As could be expected, I had a heavy heart, but on top of that, I was also a little nervous, because Chisman's daughter, Rebecca, had asked me to speak about his work. Needless to say, I was honored by the request; however, in the preceding days, it had been impossible for me to organize my thoughts about him. I almost never get writer's block, and I believe that everyone has a right to my opinion — but this time, I just didn't want to do it. I didn't want to face the fact that Chisman, who relentlessly enriched the art community here so much over the decades, had actually died.

Dale Chisman, "Puppet Show," oil on canvas.
Dale Chisman, "Puppet Show," oil on canvas.

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Chisman's death wasn't surprising to those of us who had kept up with him, as he'd been sick for several years, but it was surprising — and gratifying — to see how many people turned out to bid him farewell. Nothing underscored his preeminent position in the world of contemporary art in Denver more than the cast of characters who filled The Whole Room at the MCA that morning. The standing-room-only crowd, which spilled out into the corridor and into the stairway, represented such a big chunk of the Mile High City's art infrastructure, it was mind-boggling. There were the other top artists of Chisman's generation — he was 65 when he died on August 29 — as well as younger artists who had met him when they were fresh from art school twenty years ago. There were dealers, donors, collectors, Chisman's former students, and representatives of the MCA and many other local art institutions. As one artist remarked, if a bomb had gone off, there essentially would have been no art scene left in town.

Three Chisman paintings were displayed in The Whole Room. The first was a small piece Chisman had recently done in a collaboration with Jesús Polanco, a Mexican-born New York artist who worked in Denver for a few years. Polanco had returned to town to work as Chisman's assistant in a series of planned monumental paintings.

It was a personal favor on Polanco's part, since he himself is a significant artist who shows his work internationally. But his dear friend Chisman needed his help, and Polanco dropped everything to be there for him. Chisman was set to create eight billboard-sized paintings based on the theme of the four seasons for a show scheduled for next year at the MCA. The plan was for Polanco to do all the heavy lifting while the ailing Chisman conceived of the pieces and filled in the details. Chisman had told me that he asked Polanco because they communicated as painters. During the summer, plans for the series were abandoned as Chisman slipped closer to death.

On the north wall of The Whole Room were the two other paintings, both of which were in his studio at the time of his death: the recently finished "Puppet Show" and an untitled, unfinished painting that he was working on until a couple of weeks ago.

The fact that these paintings exist at all is testimony that Chisman lived as he died: painting. And both the finished work and the unfinished one prove that he continued to work at the highest level right up to the end.

"Puppet Show" is remarkably beautiful; it's signature Chisman, and definitely a part of the same train of thought that led to his triumphant solo in May at Rule Gallery. In the piece, his quiet palette is dominated by creams and beige but offset by black, which sets up a tension between quasi-geometric lines and organic forms. Some of the shapes cast shadows, and that sets up another dialogue, this one between flatness and three-dimensionality.

The other painting is almost entirely made up of a field done in an indescribably vibrant green bracketed by two very black shapes placed on either side of the canvas. As Chisman's last gesture, this painting seems so right for the moment, so transcendental in mood with its seemingly infinite depth of green space held in by two poles of blackness.

"Puppet Show" and the unfinished green painting are the last of the series seen at Rule. I gave that show a rave review, but after my column came out, I got a phone call from an old friend, art appraiser Jack Kunin, who told me that I'd missed a big part of what the paintings were about. "He's dealing with his own death," Kunin said, bolstering his interpretation by pointing out the dark blobs, the brightly colored shapes reminiscent of internal organs, and those shadows they cast onto the otherwise boundless space of the indefinite color fields on which all the paintings are anchored. As I sat in The Whole Room, waiting for the memorial to begin, I looked at "Puppet Show" and the unfinished painting and knew Kunin had been right.

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