Al Wynne's legacy continues at Z Art Department
“Ole One Eye,” by Al Wynne, oil on linen.
Colorado Springs is hardly the cultural center of our state — it's more accurately described as the provincial capital of Teabagistan — but for a good deal of the twentieth century, it was at the heart of Colorado's art world.
A major part of the story was the existence of the Broadmoor Academy and its successor, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School, a nationally renowned institution for art instruction. The Springs produced crop after crop of young artists over the decades and attracted already well-established artists who wanted to teach there.
In fact, the scene there — it lasted from 1920 until around 1970 — blew the much more sophisticated Boulder, and the much larger Denver, right out of the water. In the case of Denver, that fact is easy to establish, because so many of the most important artists working during, for example, the post-war period — Nadine Drummond, Edgar Britton, Edward Marecak, to name just a few — came to Denver by way of Colorado Springs. Denver did have a modernist genius working here, in the form of Vance Kirkland, but down there, a coherent modernist scene emerged with the likes of Charles Bunnell (who was just the subject of a retrospective at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center), Mary Chenoweth, George Cecil Carter, Ken Goehring and many others.
Among the most prominent abstract painters to emerge from this environment was Al Wynne, who studied at the Broadmoor Academy as a child, taking drawing lessons from Boardman Robinson, and then bounced around the country in the '40s and '50s, studying and taking various teaching jobs. He returned to the Colorado Springs area in 1961 with his wife, ceramics artist Lou Wynne. The couple bought a house in the Black Forest area and greatly expanded it by adding a studio for Al's painting and for Lou's ceramics.
For the next half-century-plus, the two lived in the woods, producing their work and quietly building reputations among the top artists in their respective fields. Al died in 2009, but in the decade or so before his death, he'd been rediscovered in Denver and had his work displayed in venues ranging from MCA Denver to the Kirkland Museum, as well as at a series of now mostly defunct galleries, before landing at Z Art Department a few years ago, making the gallery his last representative.
But on a beautiful day last June, something unimaginably terrible happened to interrupt Al's posthumous career: Smoke began wafting down the road where the Wynnes lived. It was the beginning of the Black Forest fire. Lou, daughter Marsea and son John packed as much as they could in their cars — though many of Al's pieces were way too large to fit — and made their way out of their beloved wooded neighborhood among the stream of fleeing residents. It was probably later that same day (though the exact time is unclear) that the fire took the Wynne home and studio, destroying some 400 of Al's paintings and works on paper along with much of Lou's oeuvre. The loss is incomparable.
I've been in a lot of studios, as you might imagine, and typically there is a fifty-fifty mix of pieces that work and those that don't. But not in Al's case: He must have hit an average more like eighty-twenty, with the vast majority of works coming together brilliantly.
It has been estimated that there may be only a hundred of Wynne's pieces remaining in various collections, including those of the El Pomar Foundation, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the Kirkland Museum, which holds the largest hoard — nearly twenty works — in its permanent collection. The rest are in private hands, but in many cases, those collectors are unknown, since Al's records were destroyed in the fire as well.
If there was one bright spot in the aftermath of the conflagration, it was that there were just over thirty works, nearly all of them major oil paintings, safe from harm while the fire raged. They were stacked up in the storage room at Z Art Department, on Speer Boulevard.
Now, get this: Gallery owner Randy Roberts and Al's widow, Lou, had agreed a couple of weeks before the fire that these works would be returned to the studio. But in a happy accident, logistics got in the way and the gallery's delivery truck had mechanical trouble. The delivery date was pushed back, saving the irreplaceable creations.
The current Wynne solo at Z Art Department, elegantly and simply titled Al Wynne, is made up of about half of these surviving paintings. This is the third Wynne show at the gallery over the past few years, and some of the pieces in the current presentation were exhibited in the earlier ones — but others have never been exhibited before. Sadly, many of the unsold paintings from the previous two shows were sent back to the studio, only to be destroyed in the fire. Though the works in the Z show are among the last of their type, the exhibit is not a collection of odds and ends, because they were vetted by the gallery as being top-tier pieces in the first place, which is why they were safely stored there.
The show economically surveys Wynne's key stylistic phases, which overlapped at times. There are some abstract-expressionist pieces — both early and later ones — that show off Al's gift for lyrical automatism combined with an always-on-the-mark instinct for choosing just the right colors. Among the standouts is "C.A. Scapes," but every one of them is worth seeing.
Similar, though distinct, are the paintings in which sinuous shapes that also were apparently derived from spontaneous gestures float over multiple color fields. In paintings like "Untitled" and the nearby "Abandonment," Al steps away from abstract expressionism, arriving at a simpler destination featuring a formal and textural economy as compared to the denser abstractions that came before and would eventually come after. Both kinds of work show the importance of calligraphy for Al, who learned the craft as a child and, as an adult, worked for many years as a professional calligrapher.
An heir to this calligraphic approach, though in a very different way, is the group of paintings with boldly graphic compositions done in toned-up, contrasting colors. In some of these hard-edged paintings, Al placed poetically conceived concentric circles or ovals and other outlined shapes, as in the gorgeous "Ole One Eye" or in the marvelous "Woman." They are striking, to say the least.
As you walk through the show, you can't help but think not only about what's on view, but also all of those works that were their kin and have been irrevocably lost. If you care about mid-century modern art in Colorado, do not miss Al Wynne, because I have a feeling it's the last solo he's going to get for a long, long time.
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