In the early 1990s, with the millennium approaching, scholars, curators, collectors and writers in the art world were in a retrospective mood. Because of this, they began, for the first time, to look seriously at the history of art in Colorado. What has since surfaced from their sleuthing has been quite impressive.

For more than a century, artists from around the country have come to Colorado, attracted by the scenery and the pure, clean light. And though I have frequently noted that Colorado has the misfortune of being both too far from New York, long the nation's art center, and too close to New Mexico, the West's art powerhouse, it is clearly among the top ten most important locations in terms of its fine-art traditions.

Hugh Grant, the director of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, was well positioned to ride this wave of interest into the 2000s. The museum's namesake, Vance Kirkland, had died in 1981 and bequeathed his studio and its paintings, furniture and other properties to Grant. Kirkland was Colorado's premier modern artist from the '30s to the '70s; he was also a prescient collector, acquiring the work of other artists as well as significant pieces of design and craft. But it was Grant who was almost entirely responsible for assembling the collection at the Kirkland Museum, which has two main poles of interest: international design and Colorado art.

"Mines and Mountains," by Charles Bunnell, oil on board.
"Mines and Mountains," by Charles Bunnell, oil on board.

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Through April 4, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org.

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Collecting with a relentless passion, Grant quickly amassed a collection of hundreds of paintings, sculptures and works on paper; in the process, the Kirkland became the state's most important repository of Colorado art. And by promoting what he'd found, Grant wound up doing more for Colorado art appreciation — and I mean that both spiritually and in terms of market value — than anyone ever had. In fact, it could be argued that Grant has done more for the history of Colorado art in the few short years that he's been collecting than the Denver Art Museum has done in a century.

He's also been generous about lending his pieces to other exhibition venues, which brings me to Kirkland Museum Collection: 100+ Years of Colorado Art, now midway through its run at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.

The idea for the show, which includes over 165 pieces — enormous, by exhibition standards — was originally suggested by Gene Sobczak, the Arvada Center's executive director and interim director of the art program. Sobczak has promoted the idea of partnering with other Front Range arts institutions, and when he contacted Grant and asked him if he'd like to present a show at the center, the Kirkland director readily agreed.

The Arvada Center has an advantage over the Kirkland. Unlike the small Capitol Hill museum, the suburban center has six large and impressive spaces in its Lower Galleries and several second-floor spaces called the Upper Galleries. Given the staggering amount of works in the Kirkland's holdings, it was no problem for Grant to fill all of these galleries to capacity.

To organize the wide range of work, Grant created seven divisions: realism, impressionism, surrealism, referential abstraction, pure abstraction, works done after 1975 (all in the Lower Galleries), and works on paper (in the Upper Galleries.) These categories aren't parallel to one another and are somewhat fluid and open-ended. Thus, for example, some of the pieces in the realism section could easily have been put in the one dedicated to impressionism, and so on. Also, "referential abstraction" (a term coined by Grant) and pure abstraction cover a variety of styles under their respective umbrellas, whereas work after 1975 and works on paper are not style-defined at all.

This looseness in the application of terminology is a minor complaint, though, because the show also demonstrates Grant's great strengths. Chief among them is his ability to acquire master objects in widely varied styles from the past century, as well as the late nineteenth and early 21st centuries. Though I consider myself to be somewhat knowledgeable in the subject, as I walked through the show, I marveled at one thing after another that had been formerly unknown to me. I also saw many pieces by artists I'd never heard of.

Just about all of the big names from the past are represented, however, and the show could easily be used as a short course on the history of art in the state. Early practitioners among the realists and impressionists include Hamilton Hamilton, Charles Partridge Adams, John Edward Thompson, Elisabeth Spalding and David Spivak. The Adams, "Sunset Shade — Mt. Sopris," is out of this world, both in terms of its palette and the way the paint has been applied. And Spalding's dreamy "Central City of July 1922" has to be one of the most accomplished things she ever did. Then there's a breathtaking Frank Vavra piece, a classic impressionist work of a mountain scene. Regionalist compositions by Frank "Poncho" Gates, Paul Kauvar Smith and Clarence Durham are also very fine.

The show really gets going in the surrealism and referential abstraction rooms, and it's here that works by some of the most significant of the early modernists are on display. Julio de Diego's "Mechanism of a Capitalist" is a real eye-catcher, depicting the capitalist of the title as a wolf-like creature. Nearby is a standout Edward Marecak, "Mother Witch and Child," with an incredible scabrous surface depicting a figure rising up over the picture. Very painterly is Nadine Drummond's "Untitled (Mountain Scene)," as is Charles Bunnell's "Mines and Mountains." Both illustrate the debt to cubism that many Colorado artists had. The Bunnell is particularly interesting, as it represents a work that connects his early expressionist landscapes to his later abstract-expressionist pieces, in which he left nature behind.

The pure abstraction section carries on the momentum of the show, which makes sense when you consider the type of work Kirkland himself did, as in his "Nebula Near Jupiter," one of his hypothetical outer-space vistas. Also first-rate are the Jack Canepa, the Watson Bidwell, the Al Wynne, the Gene Matthews and the David Yust. Though most of these artists are associated with abstract expressionism, the Yust, "Circular Composition #44," exemplifies the hard-edged abstraction that found fertile ground in Colorado in the late '60s and early '70s.

The last group in the Lower Galleries includes pieces done since 1975, or what could be called contemporary art. In this section are some of the most prominent and established artists currently working in the area, including Clark Richert, Ana Gola-Kumor, Bill Hayes, Roland Bernier, Emilio Lobato and Amy Metier, as well as deceased artists such as Kirkland and Bev Rosen.

This is also the only section in which the sculptures — a small Bob Mangold and major pieces by Charles Parson and David Mazza —relate directly to the paintings. In the rest of the show, the sculptures are more freely distributed and often not connected to the paintings they are shown with. Among the most impressive of those are Elizabeth Yanish Shwayder's "Wings of Gold #2" and Edgar Britton's "Commedia dell'Arte Troupe."

The exhibit concludes in the Upper Galleries with the works on paper; it's the perfect capper to the show, because printmaking is such an important tradition in Colorado. Among the mostly regionalist works, with a nice selection of Broadmoor Academy/Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center works, are newer prints by Dale Chisman and John Haeseler, both of whom died in recent years.

Grant has done an awe-inspiring job of laying out 100+ Years of Colorado Art, a display that is so large and impressive, there's no way I could even get to all the high points on this page. Sobczak told me that he'd like to partner with Grant again; given the volume of material at the Kirkland, a second major effort is easy to imagine.

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