A traveling show at the DAM reveals much about the work of Colorado photographer Robert Adams
In the late 1960s and early '70s, Colorado photographer Robert Adams used his camera to record rapid development on the Front Range. In creating photos that were both traditionally beautiful and conceptually disturbing, he managed to turn the entire tradition of the Western landscape on its head and garnered international fame.
His work also took place at precisely the same time that the environmental movement was taking off. Thus, these brilliant photos provided the perfect aesthetic corollary to it. So Adams was right on time — stylistically and politically. In fact, you could say that his early work proves that the idea of being timeless in the arts is overrated; rather, it shows that being timely is what art is really all about.
The problem, however, is that Adams's early work is so damn good, it's overshadowed everything he's done since. Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a traveling show organized by Yale University and now on view at the Denver Art Museum, aims to correct this by highlighting Adams's much more varied oeuvre.
Adams was born in 1937 in New Jersey, but moved with his family to Wheat Ridge when he was a teenager. He attended the University of Colorado, the University of Redlands in California, and the University of Southern California, in each case majoring in English. In 1962 he took a job as an assistant professor of English at Colorado College. There he met Myron Wood, a serious fine-art photographer who taught him to take and print photographs. Wood, who had himself learned from the great Laura Gilpin, made a profound impression on Adams, one that can be seen in some of his earliest works — romantic depictions of small-town life on the plains — like "Arriba, Colorado," from 1966. After five years of teaching at Colorado College, Adams quit to devote himself full-time to photography, which is what he's been doing ever since.
The DAM exhibit, which includes more than 200 black-and-white prints, was put together by Yale University Art Gallery curator Joshua Chuang and the institution's director, Jock Reynolds. But for its stop in Denver, DAM photo curator Eric Paddock, a longtime friend of Adams's, tweaked it, leaving some images out and adding in others. In that way, he's not just the host curator, but a co-curator. As I walked through the Gallagher Family Gallery on level one of the Hamilton Building, where The Place We Live is installed, Paddock pointed out pieces that he'd specially chosen, such as the spectacular opening series, which is based on a beleaguered cottonwood tree; he also talked about others he left out, like views of the Pacific Ocean. And it was immediately apparent that he'd made the right calls to give the show some additional local relevance.
Those "Cottonwoods" photos — nearly thirty of them — were produced between 1973 and 1975, and they are gorgeous. At first the tree — the same one in each picture — is verdant and set in a seemingly pristine landscape. Then, in one iteration, you can see some heavy equipment way back on the horizon. Eventually the tree is covered in debris and is starting to die back. The final image is the broken stump, destroyed by the road-graders.
Though these "Cottonwoods" photos relate to Adams's classic images topically, it's in the "New West" and "Summer Nights" groups, which are near the front of the show, that he really started cooking. One of his best-known images is "Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado," from 1969. It has a well-lighted Frontier gas station in the foreground, with a silhouette of the famous mountain against the darkening sky at dusk. Another famous view is "In a New Subdivision, Colorado Springs," also from 1969.
In the mid-1990s, Adams retired to Oregon, but he's continued to take photos, and the show includes works from the last few years.
The Place We Live reveals many things about Adams. The first is how intimate his pieces are, owing to their small size. Even his larger prints are small by today's digital billboard scale. Second is his unexpected debt to the great survey photographers of the nineteenth century — notably, Timothy O'Sullivan. From these artists he inherited a heroic sense for composition, even if his subjects were not so much humble as anti-heroic. Finally, there's the incredible high quality of his prints from a technical standpoint, which likewise recall historic landscape photos. As I examined the images closely, I realized how meticulously done the prints are — and the closer I looked, the better they got. This aspect is easy to overlook at first because the subjects — housing developments, clear-cut forests, gouged mesas — are so powerful. But such technical prowess is apparently as much a key to Adams's early success as are his chosen images.
The show has been a surprising hit with museum-goers, and the Gallagher is often thronged with viewers. One thing I noticed was how quiet they all are, speaking in whispers. It's the only way to act when faced with the gravitas of Adams's vision.
There are several other worthwhile exhibits on view at the DAM right now in addition to the Adams show. First is Focus: Earth and Fire: Works by Vance Kirkland, which sports a selection of paintings by the famous Denver artist; these begin in the atrium and culminate in the Chambers-Grant Gallery just beyond it. The collection includes both the artist's surrealist paintings of driftwood done in the 1940s and his late dot paintings from the 1970s, which were meant to conjure up outer space. There are also some pieces from in between. Though the other parts of Earth & Fire are dominated by works of various artists from the museum's permanent collection, many in the Kirkland display are on loan from the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. These pieces are stunning, and they demonstrate Kirkland's stylistic advance from representational imagery to abstraction, making it a marvelous complement to the upcoming Clyfford Still career survey set to open in a few weeks at the brand-new Clyfford Still Museum.
Also relatable to the soon-to-open CSM is the twenty-piece presentation in Focus: Robert Motherwell, which showcases works by the master abstract expressionist. Late in his life — he died in 1991 — Motherwell established the Dedalus Foundation to administer his work after his death, with the idea that public institutions like museums could acquire examples of his work for a fraction of their market value. In the early 1990s, representatives of the DAM approached the foundation. When its administrator, Richard Rubin, realized the museum's commitment to acquiring a nice selection of Motherwells, he decided to offer twenty works that surveyed the artist's career at the bargain-basement price of $1 million. This treasure trove was unveiled at the museum in 1995 ("Holy Motherwell!," November 15, 1995). Over the years, the various pieces have been displayed from time to time, but this is the largest concentration of them to be put on view since they were initially displayed.
Adams and Kirkland both spent the most significant parts of their individual careers in Colorado, but New York-based Motherwell — unlike Still — also has a connection to our state, having served as a visiting faculty member at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School in the early 1950s. Motherwell was a perfect fit there, since Colorado Springs was then the center of abstract expressionism in the state, with a critical mass of vanguard painters living and working in the city at that time.
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