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A Wynne for Z Art Department

"Ca. Scape," by Al Wynne, oil on linen.

The sluggish economy has affected the bottom line for art galleries, just as it has other businesses, but you wouldn't know it from looking. In recent months, exhibits as good as, if not better than, ever have been unveiled one after another. And with the fall season now underway, you'd hardly know there was anything wrong with the world.

And if that wasn't strange enough, several new galleries have actually opened during this difficult time, one of the most important being Z Art Department, owned by Randy Roberts. Specializing in historic art, Z has already mounted several interesting shows about regional artists. But Black Forest Magic: Paintings & Sculpture by Al Wynne sets a new standard for the gallery. The exhibit was co-curated by Roberts and artist Robert Delaney, who's had a 25-year relationship with Wynne; Roberts organized it, while Delaney designed it and selected the lion's share of the works.

Wynne is one of the greatest artists to have ever worked in Colorado. His accomplishments rank right up there with those by acknowledged masters such as Vance Kirkland and Herbert Bayer. And his biography makes for a ripping yarn.

Born in Colorado Springs in 1922 to an impoverished family, Wynne and his three brothers were placed in an orphanage, the Myron Stratton Home, after his parents divorced. One day, Wynne decided to pay the princely sum of a penny to an itinerant calligrapher, who wrote the young man's name in fancy script; Wynne sees this as the beginning of his lifelong interest in art. But even more important was his exposure to painter Boardman Robinson at the Broadmoor Academy (later the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School). This surely makes Wynne one of the only living protegés of the great artist and teacher. Wynne has said that Robinson inspired him to become an artist.

After graduation from Cheyenne Mountain High School, Wynne attended the University of Denver on a scholarship from 1940 to 1942, which is also how he had been able to attend the Broadmoor Academy. While at DU, he worked with John Edward Thompson, Colorado's first modern artist, and Watson Bidwell and Carl Fracassini, representational painters who would later become abstractionists. Wynne quit DU to enter the U. S. Army Air Corps (later the Air Force), and he flew planes during World War II. After the war, he returned to DU and worked with Denver's most important artist of the day, Kirkland.

Wynne had also reconnected with Fracassini, and when Fracassini left DU to become head of the art department at Iowa Wesleyan College, Wynne joined him, ultimately earning his bachelor's degree there in 1948. During this time, he met and married his wife, Lou, a noted ceramics artist.

After Wynne earned his master's from the University of Iowa in 1952, the couple became vagabond art teachers, working in Tennessee and Alaska before returning to Colorado in 1961, at which time Wynne took a temporary job as an assistant art professor at the prestigious Colorado College, filling in for Mary Chenoweth, who was on sabbatical. In 1963, he founded the art department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. That same year, the Wynnes opened their own art school at their home/studio in the Black Forest, where they've lived and worked ever since.

The Z exhibit reveals Wynne's signature abstract-expressionist style. He takes an automatist approach to the composition, and his lyrical forms — which he creates with more or less unconscious painterly gestures — dance across the surface of the pictures. In addition, there's a smaller group of works that feature hard-edged shapes laid on flat grounds, resulting in work that's broadly connected to the color-field movement of the '60s and '70s, itself an outgrowth of abstract expressionism.

Despite this stylistic bifurcation, the show reveals Wynne as a tremendously consistent artist with an extremely high standard of work done over many decades. One aspect of his paintings that is true regardless of whether they are abstract-expressionist or color-field-related is his tremendous skill as a colorist. Wynne orchestrates a tremendous range of hues, sometimes ones that literally — if perfectly — clash with one another; in that way, he invariably comes up with an ideal balance of shades. Clearly, he was little concerned with making paintings that would match the couch, a shortcoming of many non-objective painters who choose a related set of tones and never stray outside those self-imposed limits. So Wynne doesn't create color schemes, but instead authors intelligent and insightful essays about color.

To view the show, it makes sense to begin with the abstract-expressionist works. One of the first is the stunning "Ca. Scape," an oil on linen, Wynne's preferred materials. The painting is done in a large horizontal format, perfect for a landscape. The only references to a natural scene, however, are the title — which could be translated as "California Landscape" — and a line that runs from side to side, dividing the composition into two parts, suggesting earth and sky. The painting itself features clusters of amorphous shapes that run through the bottom, with one in the top left corner, and their unlikely placement lends an asymmetrical balance to the piece. The colors, including bluish-grays and acid greens accented by touches of pinks and purples, are incredible.

Wynne's propensity to divide up the grounds into clearly delineated areas of color is seen in many of these paintings, including "Jewels of Some Reach" and "Abandonment." Others, though, such as "Hooawt," "Autumn Dance" and one of my personal favorites, "Calligraphy Series," have monochrome grounds with different colored forms that have been expertly placed on top.

The hard-edged paintings are clearly distinct. In fact, they are arguably the opposite of the abstract-expressionist pieces, with the former having obviously defined shapes and the latter having melting, indefinite ones. Nonetheless, both styles illustrate Wynne's winning way with color. In these hard-edged paintings, most of which date to the 1960s, the artist precisely catches the spirit of the times, both because of the colors he chose and the op-y, if not pop-y, shapes he employs.

In "Separation #2," a blue shape that's roughly geometric is vertically balanced by a half circle with pink stripes at the top. Interestingly, and despite the title, the two shapes are linked by a line. Among the other hard-edge works are "Big Brother," "Many Suns to Follow" and the image used on the show card, "Ole One Eye."

A handful of sculptures, made of rusted steel and often incorporating found objects, were also mostly done in the '60s. They clearly relate formally to the abstract-expressionist paintings, with linear elements that seem to have been done instinctually. It's interesting to link the lines of the sculptures to the lines in the paintings, and apparently that was Wynne's intention, because he pointed out the relationships to me.

For many years, when he wasn't teaching or making art, Wynne had a day job as a calligrapher, doing things like filling in the names of graduates on diplomas. This relates to his abstract-expressionist paintings, like the aptly titled "Calligraphy Series" — and their stylistic cousins, the sculptures — because the curving lines he embraces seem to come right out of fanciful cursive letters. It also connects back to that early-childhood experience of Wynne's having paid a penny to see his name spelled out in elegant print.

Probably the most amazing feature of the Z show is how fresh and new the pieces look. It's hardly a stretch to imagine them as having been made recently by a young contemporary artist instead of having been done decades ago by a guy who's now 87. Despite his advanced age and precarious health, Wynne participated in bringing the show to fruition and even appeared at the gallery. The least the rest of us could do is to show him the honor of checking it out for ourselves. I know that's what I did.


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