A Wynne Wynne for Denver's Kirkland Museum
Hugh Grant, director of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, has relentlessly carried the torch for Colorado's art history, doing more to promote awareness of this important legacy than anyone ever has. He began his promotion with the work of Vance Kirkland, for whom the museum has been named and who left Grant his work, but has since branched out to include other major artists who worked in the state, most notably the almost forgotten modernists who were active from the '50s to the '70s.
Grant has previously saluted Edward and Donna Marecak, William Sanderson and the Vavra family in solos at the Kirkland, and is now featuring Wynne/Wynne, which highlights Al and Lou Wynne, an abstract painter and a modernist ceramicist, respectively. The Wynnes have lived and worked in the Black Forest, north of Colorado Springs, for decades, and during that time, each has created a significant body of work. Further, Al is definitely among the most important abstract painters to have ever worked here.
Exhibits at the Kirkland have a "Where's Waldo" character to them, since Grant shoehorns in the relevant material without taking away the permanent collection that's on view in the same spaces. So it becomes a challenge to know what's in the exhibit and what's not. This issue is an ongoing discussion I've had with Grant over many years, and I've done little more than bang my head up against the Kirkland's walls, because Grant believes he's right about this approach. You'd think I'd shut up about it, but I can't.
Wynne/Wynne was co-curated by well-known painter Tracy Felix, who selected all the works. Apparently, putting on a show at the Kirkland made Felix go native, if you will, since he exacerbated the display problems by choosing diversity over cohesiveness. Felix dug into Al's studio, pulling material out of every nook and cranny and following the artist down any number of winding roads. The result is that Al's aesthetic doesn't stick out, making it all but impossible to figure out that he actually had a signature style. (In contrast, the co-curator was able to coherently survey Lou's career.)
Al was born in Colorado Springs in 1922 and later placed by his mother in the Myron Stratton Home, which included an orphanage. In 1934, when he was only twelve, he earned a scholarship to study at the Broadmoor Academy with Boardman Robinson. In an interview conducted by collector John Woodward nearly a decade ago, Al said, "Robinson made me want to be an artist." From 1940 to 1942, he studied at the University of Denver, taking classes from John Thompson, Carl Fracassini and Watson Bidwell. He left school to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps, later known as the Air Force, and was a pilot during World War II. In 1946 he returned to DU, where he worked with Vance Kirkland. He then followed Fracassini to Iowa's Wesleyan College, where he received a BFA in 1948 and met Louise Doughty. Al got his MA from the University of Iowa in 1952 and then became something of a gypsy art teacher, living in Tennessee and Alaska. He and Lou moved permanently to Colorado in 1961 and opened their own art school, New Art-Crafts, two years later. It closed in 1969.
At that time, Colorado Springs was home to a circle of significant abstract painters who were doing some of the most advanced work in the region. Wynne was surely one of the top players in this group, which included Charles Bunnell, George Cecil Carter, Harvey K. Litvack, Ken Goehring and Mary Chenoweth. Here's a funny story: I met Al some years ago and asked what he thought of the other artists from his era. He had little or nothing good to say about any of them save Chenoweth. "I'll say this about Mary Chenoweth," said Al. "She was the only other artist around here who had balls." Soon after, I spoke with Chenoweth, and when I told her what he had said, she replied, "I'll take that as Al intended — as a compliment."
Al's first notable creative period occurred between the mid-'50s and late '60s, when he embraced abstract expressionism, working the paint based on his subconscious. This automatist approach comes out of Picassoid surrealism, and Al was clearly influenced by the great modern master. The sensational "Orange Over Red" reveals Al's expert handling of color, balancing bright and vibrant shades with dark and recessive tones, and his interest in calligraphy, with the lyrical black lines that run down the right side looking something like Japanese characters. These attributes also appear in "Shapes in Orange."
The culmination of this style of painting is seen in "Blue Jazz," "Departure I" and "The Procession." In these, Al has assembled a group of painted shapes in toned-up colors set against deep, dark grounds that suggest assemblies of figures. These types of paintings, like the earlier ones, hark back to Picasso's surrealism, though Al's work is more firmly positioned in the pure-abstraction camp than is Picasso's.
Another important period for Al was in the 1970s, when he pushed the distinction between figure and ground, seeming to set shapes in space against flat geometric color fields. The real standout from this time is "Little Pink," in which what could be a standing figure, reduced to a set of un-detailed shapes, stands out against a creamy geometric abstraction.
In the '80s, Al's palette became darker and his compositions more spare, as in the "Untitled" composition from 1984 in which three rows of vertical brushstrokes emerge from a dark-blue ground. In contrast is 1986's "Color Kings," with its return to bright colors and Picassoid approach, in which somewhat recognizable things are arranged like a still life across the picture plane.
Al's late work is difficult for me to discuss, because beginning in the early '90s, he began to partly repaint older pieces and date them to when the additions or paint-outs were done. These works are often quite beautiful, which may explain why the Kirkland Museum acquired some of them — even putting one on the cover of the catalogue — despite the problematic issues they raise.
If the arch of Al's career extends from the '50s to the '80s, his wife's is notably later, running from the '70s to just a few years ago. Lou was born in Iowa in 1930 and met her husband while in school at Wesleyan; the couple married in 1951. The next year, Lou received her BA, and within five years, the pair had three children. Though she'd been doing ceramics all along, Lou also worked in other mediums. In the early 1970s, however, she studied with legendary ceramics artists Nan and Jim McKinnell at the University of Colorado in Boulder and dedicated herself completely to clay. Though the potting pair is almost always mentioned together, Nan's style comes out of modernist industrial design, while Jim's is part of the Shoji Hamada-Bernard Leach school of Asian-influenced ceramics. Lou obviously melded the two, and her pieces sometimes reveal relationships to both or neither of her teachers.
Boulder in the '70s was a hotbed for advanced ceramics, with the likes of Betty Woodman, Gene Lang and Paul Soldner in town from time to time. Lou doesn't consider herself to be a student of Soldner's, but she did follow workshops he conducted, and his influence is easy to see in the torn and irregularly shaped flats she did, such as her platters from the 1980s.
Lou was adept at throwing on the potter's wheel, but she also liked to do slab building, and it's this method that led to some of her most unique pieces, such as her "Pyramidal Vase" and "Castle Vase," but, more significantly, her garden tables and benches. These slab-built structures are remarkably engineered and convey an architectonic crispness in their minimal details.
Al and Lou Wynne are cultural treasures and important figures in Colorado art history. Although I take issue with some of Felix's selections, which I think are too broad in scope, and in Grant's installation, there's a lot worth seeing in Wynne/Wynne, and Grant and Felix should be lauded for bringing Al and Lou back into the limelight.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.