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Broad Strokes

"Shapes on Orange," by Al Wynne, oil on linen.

Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art was founded in part to provide a venue for shows like the spectacular 5 Abstract that opened this past weekend. That's because this exhibit gives major artists from Colorado the kind of serious attention that only a museum show can deliver, something that 500-pound gorilla on the Civic Center, the Denver Art Museum, rarely does. All of this gives 5 Abstract an added urgency and luster.

The show is the kind of thing we expect from the MCA, and from its director, Cydney Payton. During her tenure as director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, the job she held before taking over at the MCA last year, Payton established a record of organizing a group of related shows that explored modern and contemporary art in Colorado. "I've been ruminating about this show for probably five years," she says. "5 Abstract is one piece of a larger grouping I want to do, and have done. And it's part of an ongoing interest of mine to document Colorado art by interviewing artists, and that will be done in conjunction with this show later on."

It's also the first major show of any kind that she's organized at the MCA. And it was worth the wait: 5 Abstract is the best thing the museum has ever presented, which says a lot, as this fledgling venue has hosted some pretty good shows. Payton has brought together a group of the most significant, well-established and best-known contemporary artists who have worked in Colorado over the last 35 to fifty years. They are: Robert Mangold, Clark Richert, Dale Chisman, Bev Rosen and Al Wynne. "It's amazing, but they have never been shown together before," notes Payton.

Stylistically, the five artists can be bracketed into two basic types: Mangold, Richert and Rosen have all done work based on some kind of geometry, whereas Wynne and Chisman are expressionists. And although connections can be made between the five, each takes a distinctly individual path to abstraction. Furthermore, they don't represent a single era or generation. Mangold, Wynne and Rosen came of age in the late 1950s and early '60s, while Richert and Chisman appeared in the mid-'60s, a very different time.

So why -- or more to the point, how -- did Payton come up with this particular group? "The thing that I wanted to do is to showcase what I think is the most significant work by living artists in Colorado," she says. "They are all artists who have matured in their mediums and have contributed to the welfare of the artistic community in some significant way, and all of them were innovative in their practice."

I hate to second-guess Payton, since the show is such a knockout, but I have a duty to mention that Ken Goehring, Bill Hayes and David Yust are also masters of Colorado abstraction who should have been included. They fit Payton's fairly loose criteria perfectly, and they, too, came of age in the late '50s or mid-'60s.

"I limited the show to five because I wanted to present each of the artists in depth," Payton explains. "Our space is so limited, and remember, this is only the first show of this kind at the museum. I plan to do many more. I'd love to include Bill Hayes sometime in the future -- I adore his work -- but I just didn't have the room this time."

Payton has done her typical expert job with installation. Each artist is given a discrete and fairly cogent space, at least considering the limitations of the museum. As did her predecessors at the MCA, Payton uses the handsome courtyard at Sakura Square, where the museum's main entrance is located, to display outdoor sculpture. In this case, it is the work of Mangold (the only sculptor in the show), whose specialty just happens to be outdoor sculptures.

Mangold first came to Denver from Illinois in 1960. At the time, he was already an accomplished modernist sculptor and had created his first kinetic sculptures, which he sees as responses to constructivist Naum Gabo and, to a lesser extent, George Rickey, with whom Mangold studied. In the more than forty years since he arrived here, Mangold has created a body of work, much of it monumental, that has made him internationally known.

The oldest Mangold at MCA is the gigantic "Tetrahedral Hypersphere," from 1971. The cantilevered construction is made of mild steel, which has been allowed to rust and thus acquire a rich brown patina. The piece, as well as the others in this series, illustrates a key concern of Mangold's: the exploration of physical space. The sculpture deals with the intersection of four cylinders that, when combined with a tetrahedron, form a hypersphere.  

The newest Mangold in the group, "Point Traveling Through Space at an Erratic Speed," from 1997, is also concerned with defining imaginary spaces. Here the trajectory of a hypothetical object is seemingly frozen in polished stainless-steel pipes. The remaining Mangold sculptures, "Anemotive Tower" and "Anemotive," done in 1995, are from the artist's most recognized series, and involve spherical kinetic sculptures made of bars and cone-like aerodynamic wind foils. One of the steel sculptures has been polished, while the other has been painted in a kaleidoscope of gorgeous colors.

Inside the museum, the first section has been devoted to Richert.

Richert moved from Kansas to Colorado in 1963 and has lived in Boulder, Denver and Drop City, the famous hippie artist commune he founded near Trinidad. All along, he's done paintings -- as well as drawings and buildings -- based on mathematical formulas that determine their design.

Payton has selected Richert paintings dating from the '70s and '80s, along with a single recent work. The older pieces are examples of pattern painting, in which elaborate combinations of lines, bars and squares are used to cover the picture. Sometimes Richert's paintings seem like a kind of fool-the-eye op art. An example is 1979's "Frequency Modulation," an acrylic on canvas that is so densely detailed it almost hurts your eyes to look at it. Contemplating this painting and a couple of others, it's amazing that Richert went neither blind nor mad doing such fanatical work.

Chisman's paintings are installed in the spacious gallery overlooking the courtyard. A Denver native, Chisman also spent time in New York, where he still maintains a studio, and in London, where he studied at the Royal College of Art. But he has always preserved his Denver connections and has exhibited around here since the early '60s.

Stylistically, Chisman does expressionist paintings, exploring both neo-abstract-expressionism and neo-color-field abstraction. The line between the two is pretty blurry since, even when exploring color fields, Chisman is fairly expressionistic. The color-field paintings are the ones Payton has focused on here.

The sparely painted "Solo a Dos Voces," an oil and wax on linen from 1995, is immediately to the right as you enter the room. This is an unusual painting for Chisman because so much of the golden-brown linen has been left blank and exposed, becoming the ground of the painting. Especially striking is the large, black angled form placed in the bottom half of the painting and balanced by white scribbles across the top half.

The use of significant areas in which little is going on, offset by smaller, yet stridently painted parts, is seen in all four Chismans here, though the color fields are painted in the others. That's the case with the mammoth "Lugar Sagrado," an oil on canvas from 1995 that's hung on the back wall. It's fantastic. A rich and complex white color field predominates, although Chisman has done a lot of underpainting in blue, quite a bit of which bleeds through to the top white layer. Roughly in the center is a blue cocoon-like shape, and below to the left is a large right angle formed by thick bars of red. The composition is intuitively balanced and features automatist passages of gestures, scribbles and brushstrokes.

A corridor from this room leads us to a gallery that runs back to the museum's entrance. In it, Payton has installed five big, in-your-face Rosen paintings from the late '60s and early '70s. These geometric abstracts were carried out in over-the-top psychedelic colors.

Rosen, who is now retired and in declining health, is perhaps not as well known today as Mangold, Richert and Chisman, but she was once a one-woman art world, and everyone knew who she was. Among other things, she was a teacher, a painter, a sculptor, an installation artist and a performer. She was a patron of the arts, along with her husband, Bernie, and she was an art advocate. "I've always respected Bev," says Payton. "But looking through her slides, getting ready for this show, I realized how really great she is."

The paintings at the MCA are from Rosen's "City Series," in which hard-edged lines are diagonally set. In a piece such as "Structural City/Red Platform," an acrylic on canvas from 1969, lines of various widths are placed in different arrangements. Some are parallel to one another; others are laid in the opposing direction. All of the paintings are essentially three-dimensional, with the illusion of physical space created by large diagonal clusters of lines that appear to be right up against the surface of the picture plane. The opposing, more complicated diagonals appear to be set back in space.

Rosen told me years ago that these paintings, and a related series, were inspired by the building boom of the '60s and '70s. (The colored bars were meant to be iron girders.) She had a ringside seat at the time, from her studio in what is now LoDo. She also opened the first gallery in the neighborhood, St. Charles on the Wazee, located on the two floors above her studio in the 1800 block of Wazee Street. It was the only occupied building on the block.  

The last artist, Wynne, who lives north of Colorado Springs, is given the entire gallery on the mezzanine upstairs. Like Rosen, he was better known a generation ago.

As an abstract-expressionist, Wynne is the genuine article, in that he began working in the style in the '50s as part of a whole group of Colorado Springs-based artists, including the late Mary Chenoweth and the aforementioned Goehring. Until 1960 or so, that city was the art center of the state.

Wynne, who was born in 1922, studied as a teenager with Boardman Robinson at the defunct Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School and has been exhibiting since 1948. Although he still paints, the work Payton chose dates back forty to fifty years.

Every Wynne here is superb, but a couple are even better than that. "November 22, 1963," an oil on linen from 1963, wasn't done to memorialize the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but painted earlier that same day. Wynne once pointed out to me how weird it is that the completely abstract piece suggests a crowd gathered around a fallen figure. Also great are "White Fusion" and "Shapes on Orange," both from 1959.

Payton has done it with 5 Abstract. It may only be January, but I'm sure I'm not just whistling Dixie when I say that it's definitely one of the most important exhibits of 2002 and, as such, a must-see for everyone.


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