"Mountain Rhythms," by Vance Kirkland, oil on linen.
"Mountain Rhythms," by Vance Kirkland, oil on linen.

15 Colorado Artists explores the state's modernists

The story of art in the twentieth century is well known. The center of the world in 1900 was in Europe, while American art was dominated by regionalism, a representational style derived from realism. With the rise of the Nazis and the advent of World War II, however, European artists fled to the United States. The impact of these aesthetic immigrants on the course of American art was staggering, shifting the main stage of world culture to this country and abruptly changing American art's stylistic development.

And while vanguard concepts from Europe were being absorbed and adopted by American artists within just a few years, the old-fashioned realist and regionalist styles still had their adherents. As could be imagined, this caused a lot of range wars between the old guard and the new. And that brings us to 15 Colorado Artists, at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, which explores a group of Denver modernists who broke off from the traditionalists to form their own advocacy group and, in the process, laid the groundwork for the modern art scene here over the following decades.

The show, which took two years to prepare, represents a great advancement in our knowledge of the period. It was co-curated by Kirkland director Hugh Grant and local collector and art historian Deborah Wadsworth, with a book on the subject forthcoming. The project involved documenting the establishment of "the 15," which wasn't that hard, as their appearance in 1948 made big news, indicating a major schism in the established art organization in the city, the Denver Artists Guild, which had been founded in the 1920s. There are few topics in the history of Colorado art — from any period — that were as well documented as the launch of "the 15," indicating just how earth-shattering it was for Denver's art world.

Grant points out that there were nearly a dozen articles in the Denver dailies focused on the break between the "radicals" and the "conservatives." In addition, "the 15" mounted an exhibit soon after the break that was presented side by side at the Denver Art Museum's Chappell House with one dedicated to the Denver Artists Guild. Luckily, the Kirkland's archives contain two copies of the illustrated catalogue of the original 15 Colorado Artists show; it includes a photo of one of the pieces each artist had in the exhibit as well as a list of their other included works. Grant and Wadsworth were also able to track down photo-portraits of each of the artists, which might have been the hardest part of the research portion of the project. 

Here's what happened in the winter of 1948. The Denver Artists Guild represented the lay of the land in the local art world. The styles embraced by the Guild's members varied a great deal, but there was a large contingent of landscape and Western-themed painters who produced work geared to the tourist trade. Perhaps the best exemplar of this group is Alfred Wands. Though Wands himself had earlier delved into cubism and surrealism, by the late '40s he had settled into a snow-capped-peak formula that the folks from back east and the Midwest just ate up.

But other members, like Vance Kirkland, had begun to work their way through surrealism on their way to abstraction, and it was these artists who formed "the 15." From the news accounts at the time, it's clear that Kirkland was the front man for the group, and his ideas and remarks are cited frequently. The split, he told Denver Post reporter Alex Murphree, was as much ideological as stylistic; some guild members "hooted at modern art" and "didn't want to keep up with what was going on in the field of art."

The subtext was clear: Kirkland and his cohorts were embarrassed by the hayseed Western artists in the Guild and needed to be rid of them. At first, Kirkland and his fellow faculty members at the University of Denver planned to form their own group, limited to the campus. But that idea blossomed into "the 15" when ten DU artists were joined by five outsiders, two of whom didn't even live in Denver.

Many of the press pieces are delicious to read today — their premises have been proven so wrong by the march of time. Lee Casey's everyman piece in the Rocky Mountain News is a great example. After noting that "decadent Parisians" had begun to influence art in the West, he goes on to say that "Santa Fe has been damaged by it and Denver has not wholly escaped the blight." He concludes by writing that "within a few years an original Picasso or Cézanne will be valued mainly for the frame."

So the details of the forming of "the 15" were available. The more formidable task was tracking down work by each of its members. Some were easy, since they went on to become household names in the world of mid-century modern art in Colorado. But most of the fifteen artists are forgotten today. Credit for finding their art, Grant says, goes to Wadsworth and Julie Anderies. Especially impressive is the fact that in some cases, the two were able to track down the exact piece that was in the original show.

The show at the Kirkland is installed in the two exhibition spaces on the main floor, with supplementary works on the lower level. Since the museum installs exhibits in and among its other displays, the wall panels marking the place of each of the fifteen artists were absolutely necessary. The exhibit reveals that Kirkland was not only the group's representative, but he was also doing the most important work, and a microcosm of the changes that were happening in the art world can be found in a group of delicately done works on paper that came out of surrealism's representational wing, like Salvador Dalí's style. But one piece here, "Mountain Rhythms," an oil-on-linen, is much more in the abstract-surrealist camp, like Joan Miró's approach. In that way, it's a signpost for the coming of abstract expressionism, which Kirkland embraced a few years later.

That representational surrealist current can be seen in pieces by many of the other artists in the show, such as Mina Conant, Moritz Krieg and William Sanderson. Not surprisingly, the Sandersons are all beautifully done. A standout among his works is "The Lovers," an oil on canvas that depicts a seated couple whose forms are biomorphic, resulting in a conventionalized version of a man and woman. "The Lovers" was not in the original 1948 show, but one that was, "Saturday Night," is closely related.

  Less well developed in the show — and in the work of "the 15" — is the abstract-surrealist trend, similar in intention to Kirkland's "Mountain Rhythms." In the very uneven group of paintings by Paul Kauvar Smith — his "Antlered Deer Head," which was in the '48 show, is absolutely hideous, for example — there are some marvelous abstract-surrealist pieces. Smith's "Abstract (History of Art)" and "Nocturne" are great examples of mid-century vanguard painting. Some of the Frank Vavra paintings — notably, "Revolt" — take a similar path, as do some of those by John Billmyer and Richard Sorby. If there's a revelation in the show, it's Eo Kirchner, whose abstract serigraphs are gorgeous.

The Kirchners, though, bring up a problem with the show: They date from the late '50s and early '60s. Some of the Smiths and the Vavras, as well as pieces by other artists, aren't from the '40s, either, which is when "the 15" came together. Some of the included pieces were done ten years earlier than the target date of 1948, while others were made twenty years later. However, I understand why this decision was made: The organizers simply couldn't locate enough pieces from the '40s to fill out the show. Plus, "the 15" stayed around for decades as an organization, so those later pieces — if not the older ones — do have a place in the show.

Twenty years ago, no one cared about the history of Colorado art. Now it's a major topic, and that has a lot to do with the Kirkland and with its penchant for presenting relevant shows like this one.


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