Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp is a genuine visionary. Over the fifteen years that he's run the museum, he's made so many brilliant decisions that it would be impossible to list them all here.
Among his greatest accomplishments is surelythe flawless way he handled the hiring of an architect to design a freestanding and badly needed museum wing, which will be located on Acoma Street between 12th and 13th avenues. Simply because the museum chose Daniel Libeskind, who is pulling out all the stops, the DAM's profile has soared, nationally and internationally. In the process, Sharp accomplished something else: By preserving the museum's marvelous main building -- designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler -- instead of tearing it down, he's emerged as a preservation leader.
If Sharp has made the most of what the DAM already has, he's also attempted to right some wrongs by establishing new departments, such as the Architecture, Design and Graphics department. This opened up a collecting area -- the decorative arts -- that had heretofore been ignored by the DAM.
Another area that Sharp has moved into in response to the neglect of previous DAM regimes is Western Art. It seems insane, but for decades, the DAM completely ignored Western art, which is how the Denver Public Library wound up with important paintings by the likes of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and how the Colorado Historical Society was able to get that tasty William Henry Jackson archive. It was probably a kind of civic low self-esteem that got the museum into this situation; I think Western art embarrassed people because it seemed so naive when compared to the art of Europe or New York. But under Sharp, the DAM has become more and more Western-art friendly.
Two dramatic developments have illustrated this directional shift.
The first was the acquisition of two important collections: In the mid-1990s, the DAM purchased the Wolf Collection, a large body of historic Western photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and last summer the museum was the recipient of the incredible collection of Western art and artifacts assembled by the late Bill Harmsen and his wife, Dorothy.
The second development, also last summer, was the establishment of the Institute of Western American Art, which works among curatorial departments and interfaces with other institutions and private collectors.
The IWAA's director is Joan Carpenter Troccoli, formerly the DAM's deputy director, a Western-art specialist and scholar. She has a Ph.D. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and she served as the director of Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum -- which has one of the country's premier collections of Western art -- before coming to Denver in the mid-1990s. Troccoli also has an inside track to the fabulous collection of Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, and it was Troccoli who put together the Anschutz-collection blockbuster presented at the DAM in the winter of 2000 ("Pilgrims' Progress," November 23, 2000.)
Now Troccoli, along with fellow DAM Western-art curator Ann Daley, have organized the first official show under the aegis of the IWAA, West Point/Points West, in the Gates Gallery on the museum's seventh floor.
The Harmsen Collection: A Colorado Legacy, which opened last fall and is still on display, was also an IWAA-sponsored exhibit, but it was rushed into place, Daley explains, so Bill Harmsen could see it before he died. Given the urgency of the situation, there wasn't time to do a proper catalogue, but plans are in the early stages to readdress the collection with the full IWAA treatment. Therefore, West Point is the first show to be accompanied by "Western Passages," a scholarly journal published by the IWAA. The principal essay in the journal was written by Troccoli.
Now, if you're like me, you wouldn't have thought of art and the United States Military Academy at West Point at the same time. So I wondered if this show was part of the current wartime spirit that has taken hold of the country. One second in the Gates Gallery is all that's needed to dispel these wrong impressions, though. The very interesting exhibit demonstrates that art and West Point are far from mutually exclusive; in no sense does West Point glorify war. In fact, the chosen pieces mostly depict the sites observed by one of four nineteenth-century survey parties that scouted the West.
"This is everything that we talked about the Western American Art institute doing," says Daley. "We said that we were going to take unusual and unexplored topics and develop them, and that's what we've done here." (This year is also the 200th anniversary of West Point -- part of the impetus for the show.)
Oddly, the exhibit isn't going to travel to West Point and will only be seen in Denver. But if the academy wanted it sometime in the future, it could be easily reassembled, Daley points out, because nearly everything in the show is from Denver. Many of the pieces are from the DAM's own collection or on loan from the DPL, the Anschutz Collection or, most important, the collection of Denver-area residents Tom and Jane Petrie. Tom Petrie is a West Point graduate and, according to Daley, was a guiding force behind the exhibit.
One of the first surprises in the show is learning that West Point had one of the earliest studio-art programs in an institution of higher learning in the United States. Apparently, officers were expected to be able to draw accurate battlefield maps, so artists were employed to teach the cadets to draw.
The show actually starts in the museum lobby, before the Gates Gallery, with the mural-sized oil on canvas "The Landing of Henry Hudson," by Robert Weir, from 1838. It's been loaned by the Petries. One of several Weirs in the show, the piece is astounding. In the foreground, a group of Indians awaits the arrival of Hudson and his crew, who are coming to shore in small boats (Hudson's schooner is seen in the background). The scale of the painting and the use of shadow and light (the Indians are in the shadows, the sailors in the light) infuse the composition with an appropriate monumentality.
Weir taught art at West Point for more than forty years, beginning in 1834. Before that, he studied in Italy and in his hometown of New York City.
The show proper begins with a masterpiece (also loaned by the Petries), John Mix Stanley's "The Buffalo Hunt," an oil on canvas from 1855. A wounded buffalo is seen in the center of the picture with Indians on horseback -- one of whom has lost his mount. The buffalo and the horses and Indians are arranged to create an elaborate contrapasto composition that guides our eyes around the group.
Stanley didn't teach at West Point, but in 1853 he traveled with the survey of the 47th to 49th parallels carried out by the Army Topographical Corps.
Other notable Stanleys, hung across the room, include the marvelous "Fort Benton Indians, Fort Benton, Montana," an oil on canvas from 1853.
Another big-name Western artist in the show is George Catlin, who was actually turned down for a job teaching drawing at West Point and never accompanied an Army survey party. One of his only direct connections to West Point are the two views of it in the show, both titled "West Point Parade," that Catlin painted in watercolor in 1828. But Catlin did visit many of the U.S. forts in Indian territory, and his brother was a West Point graduate.
Much less well-known is Seth Eastman, a real revelation of the show. Eastman graduated from West Point in 1829 and afterward taught drawing there for seven years; he also wrote an important topographical-drawing manual.
Among several Eastmans in the show is the gorgeous "Worship of the Sun -- Dakota Dancers," a watercolor from 1832. Though the painting is only six by nine inches, it has tremendous visual power. Bracketing the center is a pair of opposing diagonals: The one on the left is created by tepees, the other by the tree on the right. In addition to the dancers mentioned in the title, there are groups of Indians seated on either side. Eastman's touch is sensitive, as is his loving depiction of the Indians -- but it's a little out of step, especially considering the coming storm of the Indian wars.
In an entirely separate section is a show within the show, organized by John Pultz. It's a photo solo devoted to Timothy O'Sullivan, one of the most significant photographers of the nineteenth century. O'Sullivan had no direct connection to West Point, but from 1871 to 1874, he accompanied Lieutenant George Wheeler's surveys for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His photos are staggeringly beautiful; it's hard to believe that they were done in the 1870s, because they look so modern. O'Sullivan's instinctual sense of composition is invariably perfect, and his range of tones, from the darkest blacks to the lightest whites, seems to anticipate the zone system that developed more than half a century later.
Take a look at "Rock Carved by Drifting Sand, Below Fortification Rock, Arizona," an Albumen print from 1871: It really could be an Ansel Adams from the 1930s. Even more modernist is "Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock, New Mexico," an albumen print from 1873 that takes up the almost conceptual topic of a few lines of cursive text in Spanish carved into a rough rock wall. It could almost pass as contemporary.
West Point is an unusual show, but a compelling one. I can say with certainty that it holds up to repeated viewings, because I've seen it twice, and it was better the second time. The show also marks a dignified start for the IWAA and indicates the potential for a lot of good exhibits ahead.
Living in the West means, among other things, that there is always the danger of the hills going up in flames. But I never expected a fire on one particular hill: Denver's Capitol Hill.
That's exactly what happened last week, though, when an unidentified idiot, doing some outdoor cooking on a day marked by sixty- to seventy-mile-per-hour winds, left to do some shopping. While she was gone, her townhouse balcony caught fire, and the blaze quickly spread to an adjacent townhouse, three mature evergreen trees and a large house at 813 Pearl. All were severely damaged, but luckily, firemen controlled the blaze before it consumed the entire history-rich block. The house, a Denver Square built in 1904, was the home of renowned Denver artist Vance Kirkland from 1941 to 1981, the year he died. It is only blocks from his old studio, which is now the Kirkland Museum, at 1311 Pearl. Thank goodness the fire was nowhere near that.
Drop a stone in Capitol Hill and you'll hit something with cultural, historical or architectural value. Sadly, a fire causes much more damage than a stone.
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