I said it just a few weeks ago: It's hard to believe how many first-rate art shows this season are devoted to that old warhorse, abstract painting.
There's no question that the current positive reappraisal of abstraction -- both of the historic and contemporary type -- is a train that's really going. And it's pulling into the station not only in Denver, but just about everywhere.
Simon Zalkind, director of the Singer Gallery at the Mizel Center, has long been interested in abstraction, particularly the abstract-expressionist wing of the New York School. For the fall opener at the Singer, Zalkind, who hails from the Big Apple, looked to his home town to put together two extremely compatible, strong solo shows.
In the center of the gallery is Milton Resnick: Works on Paper, 1966-2000, which highlights the work of one of the greatest living first-generation proponents of abstract expressionism. Installed around the Resnick show is Michael Rubin: Marks of the Absolute, which features recent paintings by a contemporary artist whose work is clearly inspired, if not influenced, by Resnick's.
Zalkind came up with the idea of putting Resnick and Rubin together after a friend back East introduced him to Rubin's work. His first thought was that there was an affinity between Rubin's paintings and the more famous Resnick ones. That observation was relayed to Rubin, and it turns out that Zalkind was absolutely right: Not only did Rubin look to Resnick for inspiration, but the younger artist had once rented a studio right across the street from the old master, and the two had become friends.
Resnick, who was born in Russia in 1917, came to the United States with his parents when he was five years old. In the 1930s, he studied at the Pratt Institute and the American Artists' School and later was enrolled as a Works Progress Administration artist. After serving in the armed forces in World War II, he returned to New York, where he found himself surrounded by abstract expressionism.
In the late 1940s, Resnick rented a studio on Eighth Street in Manhattan. The area was a hotbed of contemporary art, and many of the most significant artists of the time had studios there. One of them, Hans Hofmann, became Resnick's mentor.
It was with his abstract-expressionist paintings from the 1950s that Resnick gained prominence. His signature style was an all-over abstraction of repeated airy and lyrical brush strokes; they recall the later work of Claude Monet. Over the years, however, his paintings became more and more monochromatic, and that's the type of thing seen in the Singer show.
The Resnicks are hung on both sides of the gallery's diagonal walls. They are small, unframed and held up with pushpins. This is a shockingly informal way to exhibit such things, but according to Zalkind, it was done per Resnick's instructions.
A group of paintings on paper from the 1960s starts the Resnick show. The best are rich and visually juicy, jam-packed with squiggles and smears of color. These '60s pieces are followed by a selection of similar compositions from the 1980s.
On the other side of the walls are more paintings on paper, the "X-Space" series and the "Space" series, both from 2000. These are really different for Resnick, and in each, a pictorial element -- typically the letter X, or a couple of them -- is placed on top of his signature color fields. Also very unusual is a small painting of Resnick and his wife that's almost representational.
Although the Rubins are much larger than the Resnicks -- some of them approach mural size -- they relate perfectly to the latter, as Zalkind knew they would.
"Abraham VI," an acrylic-on-linen diptych, is entirely black, with astoundingly thick, built-up paint. The peaks and valleys of the heavily applied pigment create a wide range of shades, depending on the play of light and shadow. A similar diptych, "Ruth," is done in red and black, but seems at first glance to be entirely red.
All of the Rubin paintings are breathtaking, and it's easy to see why Zalkind plugged them in with the Resnicks. The most profound connection between the two artists is the way they both use color as their principal form.
Homare Ikeda is a well-known Colorado painter who's also interested in the relationship between color and form. But as demonstrated in the self-titled and out-of-this-world Homare Ikeda: Once Up On a Space, at the Carson-Masuoka gallery, Ikeda's odd aesthetic, which is only marginally related to abstract expressionism, is clearly his own.
Ikeda was born on Yoron Island, Japan, near Okinawa. He came to the United States in 1978, living in California before moving to Colorado in the mid-1980s to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder. There he received both his bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts.
One of his teachers at CU was Kay Miller. In many ways, the influence of Miller's style can still be seen in Ikeda's work -- in particular, the use of heavily impastoed surfaces and the awkward and tenuously balanced compositions that both artists prefer. But because Ikeda's vision is idiosyncratic, he merely responds to Miller's example, and then only in the broadest ways.
The same could be said for any comparison between Ikeda's approach and traditional Japanese art. It's a long trip from the minimalist brush painting of Ikeda's youth to the maximum oil-and-wax pieces that are his standard fare: Whereas Japanese painting is known for the staining of the paper, Ikeda's approach is to encrust his canvasses with heavy daubs of paint.
"Howling Rock " is a massive two-panel oil on canvas on display at Carson-Masuoka. It's crowded with clunky organic shapes evocative of mushrooms, flowers and jellyfish. Ikeda uses white and yellow ovals on top of orange and blue fields. He scribbles and scratches, building up the paint and tearing it down. The thick pigment, which has been made even thicker with wax, resembles icing on a cake.
Even more impressive -- and more heavily painted -- is another two-panel oil on canvas titled "In the Deep Forest." Here Ikeda has placed enigmatic forms in orange and white against a receding deep-blue ground. The brushwork is fanatical to the nth degree. It's hardly surprising to discover that Ikeda's been working on this piece, applying coat after coat of paint, for more than five years: It's a tour de force of technique -- and perseverance.
This don't-miss exhibit reveals Ikeda as a painter's painter. As weird and individualistic as his work is, he's found a good measure of acceptance for it over the years. Ikeda's paintings are included in many public and private collections and are widely shown here and in Santa Fe.
Another Colorado abstractionist -- one with a long track record, but whose work is unfamiliar to many -- is the focus of Ivan Wilson: Crystallized Embryos Among the Living Seed, at the Andenken Gallery. On second thought, it's an understatement to describe Wilson's work as unfamiliar. The truth is, this artist is almost completely unknown to all but a handful of old-timers.
Wilson was born on a ranch outside Greeley in 1939 and came to Denver as a young adult. He became a major player in Denver's art world in the 1960s.
I first came across Wilson's work about twenty years ago, when I saw one of his ceramic sculptures; I saw a second sculpture about ten years later. They were monumental abstracts covered with deeply incised, linear abstract decorations.Based on what I'd seen, I assumed that Wilson was chiefly a ceramics artist. But he is primarily a painter, as is thoroughly laid out in the strangely compelling but ultimately kooky show at Andenken.
So what happened to turn a prominent artist with good connections into a complete non-entity in the Denver art world of today?
Well, it turns out that Wilson left Colorado for almost thirty years, and for most of that time, he lived as a near-hermit in the deserts of Arizona. (He now lives in the small town of Nunn, Colorado -- wherever that is.) Not only did he hide out from society, but in a thoroughly misguided move, he turned his back on abstraction for a long time and created perfunctory still-life scenes of flowers that are only a notch or two above Bob Ross's landscapes on television. It's a shame that these flower paintings have been included at Andenken; not only don't they enhance the main attraction -- the abstractions -- but they almost discredit them.
The show is split into two parts, with a large selection of contemporary paintings on the first floor and a smaller group of older paintings, subtitled Private Collections, on the lower level. One drawback is that both parts are way too crowded, and the works suffer because they don't have enough breathing room.
The Private Collections paintings date from Wilson's years in Denver. On vividly colored grounds, Wilson has painted shapes that evoke twigs and leaves and other natural forms. The crisp divisions between the forms and the grounds are very nice.
The newer paintings on the main floor, most done in the last year or two, pick up the thread of the older ones (those ridiculous flower paintings were done in between). In both, Wilson arranges organic shapes on colored grounds. However, the recent compositions are more clearly unbalanced and formally off-kilter.
I'm not sure why -- it could be the lack of conventional pictorial balance -- but the Wilsons at Andenken remind me of those Ikedas at Carson-Masuoka. Perhaps both artists are doing the same thing: developing abstracts based on shapes found in nature as altered through their individual perceptions.
Needless to say, with Wilson not having shown his work in Denver in three decades, you should see this show before it closes on Saturday.
The abstract shows reviewed here -- Rubin and Resnick at Singer, Ikeda at Carson-Masuoka and Wilson at Andenken -- come hard on the heels of the Emilio Lobato exhibit at Havu (ending this weekend) and the now-closed Mark Brasuell presentation at Edge, both reviewed a few weeks ago. Such a wealth of exhibits makes this fall season the most abstract-friendly in memory.
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