West of Center is more a cultural documentary than an art show

Slide show: View images from West of Center

The art of the West's introduction to the world came in the 1970s, when paintings and photos from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suddenly became highly sought after in the marketplace. By now, this kind of emblematic Western work — stunning landscapes, charming scenes of cowboys and Indians — has solidified the region's worth in the hierarchy of world art. But there's been something in the wind carrying the idea that the culture quotient in the American West is due for an upward reevaluation.

Efforts in this campaign have been undertaken by a critical mass of disconnected individuals from Colorado to California — scholars, historians, critics, theorists, artists, curators, donors and others — who have approached the topic from many angles.

In Southern California, for instance, museums, galleries and art centers have coordinated exhibits under the guidance of the Getty Museum to highlight work done in greater Los Angeles from the mid- to late twentieth century. This blockbuster series of shows, collectively called Pacific Standard Time, successfully makes the claim that L.A.'s visual culture was never inferior to the New York scene — as has been taken on faith for over half a century — but was simply a worthy alternative to it.

"Ultimate Painting" in front of Drop City's Theater Dome, photo by Richard Kallweit. Slide show: View images from West of Center
"Ultimate Painting" in front of Drop City's Theater Dome, photo by Richard Kallweit. Slide show: View images from West of Center

Location Info


Museum of Contemporary Art Denver

1485 Delgany St.
Denver, CO 80202-1100

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Downtown Denver


West of Center

Through February 19, MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, www.mcadenver.org.

Such a strong claim is bound to incite controversy, but I was struck when these shows in Southern California provided an unlikely opportunity for star art critic David Hickey to insult Denver. "It's corny," he said in the New York Times. "It's the kind of thing Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time."

This quote has gotten a lot of mileage, but it brings up two issues. First, one of the big problems with Denver is that the major institutions here don't really promote the local scene, so it really isn't like something we'd do at all. Second, Hickey's wife, Libby Lumpkin, mounted her own version of Mountain Standard Time at the Harwood Museum in Taos last spring called New Mexorado. The show generated hardly a ripple, however, in comparison to the commotion that Pacific Standard Time produced — something that makes me question Hickey's motives.

Though not part of an ambitious series of events like Pacific Standard Time, our own MCA Denver is participating in the same zeitgeist anyway, with West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977. The show, organized by director Adam Lerner and his wife and co-curator, Elissa Auther, sprawls throughout all three levels of the museum. Lerner and Auther also co-edited a scholarly catalogue on counterculture in the West, the scope of which is far greater than that of the exhibit.

The show isn't sequential; rather, it's made up of autonomous displays, each devoted to a different part of the topic. That means there's no particular order in which to see it. I'll start upstairs, because that's how I walked through the show with Lerner and Auther. The first vignette we arrived at was "Life Theater: The Cockettes & the Angels of Light," devoted to the San Francisco street drag-queen collective. Since most people would think first of hippies, communes and psychedelic posters when discussing the counterculture, putting drag queens here first struck me as being the intellectual equivalent of a pie in the face. Yet when you think about it, the curators were right: The Cockettes, who lived communally, were a part of the counterculture. In this section there are glamour-shot and candid photos of the guys, along with posters, memorabilia, a charming glitter-filled scrapbook and a spectacular costume and headdress.

Next is the section "Social Encounters: The Dance of Anna Halprin," which comprises video transcriptions of films and photos, many in black and white, that record Halprin's radical choreography as seen in workshops she held on the California coast. The wife of the late Lawrence Halprin, a premier landscape designer who did Denver's now substantially lost Skyline Park, Anna Halprin created works that completely align with the performance-art movement of the '70s; in them, performers closely interact with one another, though in a free-associative way. Unlike most of the others in this show, Halprin extensively documented what she did.

It's a very different spirit that informs the handful of pieces in "Political Graphics: The Posters of Emory Douglas," featuring broadsides done by this Oakland Black Panther. About half are related stylistically to the contemporaneous psychedelic posters, but in a few, Douglas delves into a Rodchenko-esque montage approach using photos combined with drawing that step it up into something else. One disappointing thing about this part of the show is that the posters are digital re-creations instead of originals.

This shortcoming stands out all the more because the faux Douglas posters are displayed right around the corner from lots of period artifacts in the form of photos, pamphlets and magazines related to the next section of the show, "Feminist Collectives: Womyn's Lands of Southern Oregon." For whatever reason, many feminist and lesbian separatist communes were established in rural Oregon, where they produced volumes of political and philosophical literature and staged demonstration-like performances and events meant to take apart the patriarchy by eschewing male-defined femininity. That meant that few members, if any, shaved their legs or put on makeup. Interestingly, the guys from the Cockettes did plenty of that — and actually performed at the Womyn's Lands.

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Peter I
Peter I

Yes, worth seeing this show, mainly to view and understand alternatives to ways we think we understand the 60s/70s counterculture. As a CO artist and one of the workers who installed the show over the course of 2 weeks, i was impressed by its authenticity and the messages that were germinal to things being discussed today: media in the hands of the people, Occupy, queer, etc.


The art that most of these collectives made wasn't made to last - their main artwork was their lives and their communities. That's what I got from seeing this exhibition. So, yes, it's a documentary, but it's also an art show about how art is more than just something you can put on a wall. PS "That meant that few members, if any, shaved their legs or put on makeup." Is that really all you have to say about the lesbian collective movement?

denver artist dude
denver artist dude

Museums are really just studios for curators...I'm so weary of the whole thing now.