Colorado Dreaming

"Mountain and Stream," by Ethel Magafan, oil on board.

The swank David Cook Fine Art has been riding the recent wave of interest in the art of the American West, a formerly untapped treasure trove. One way the gallery has done this is by presenting consistently great shows on the subject, filling them to the brim with first-rate pieces.

For the past five years, a highlight of the exhibition calendar has been Cook's summer group show featuring the crme de la crme of the gallery's stock, which is heavy on new finds uncovered by David Cook himself or by his staff. To create Colorado & the West this year, Cook tapped a Denver collection and the estate of onetime Colorado artist Ethel Magafan. The show is gorgeous, and it tells us many things about what the best and brightest artists in the region were up to fifty to one hundred years ago, including impressionism, post-impressionism and other kinds of modernism.

I've seen the four previous Cook summer annuals, plus many other exhibits on the topic elsewhere in the area, so it's really remarkable to me that nearly everything in Colorado & the West is completely new. It's an interesting contradiction that's often seen in art-history shows such as this one: The pieces are almost a century old, but everything still seems completely fresh.

The star of Colorado & the West is clearly Birger Sandzén, a Swedish-born Kansas artist who spent summers here and produced his iconic Colorado landscapes, the most important work of his long career. Sandzén taught summer sessions at the Broadmoor Academy in the 1910s and 1920s, and like the other artists associated with that school, his work was influenced by European vanguard art. Then again, Sandzén had been trained and had come of age as a painter in Europe.

Directly across from the front entrance is a classic Sandzén landscape titled "In the Mountains, Manitou Springs, Colorado," an oil on canvas from 1920. A rugged, treeless peak fills the center of the composition, and there's a group of oddly shaped trees in the right foreground and a lively cloud-filled sky in the background. A couple of things make this painting forward-looking, considering its date: Sandzén's outrageous palette, with tons of hot pinks and lavenders offset by plenty of icy greens and blues; and his painting technique, in which globs of oil paint are smeared over the surface, almost in the same way an abstract-expressionist painting is handled. The strong colors laid on in heavy blobs create a spectacular effect that looks like cake icing or chewed gum.

Other Sandzéns in the show include two marvelous landscapes, a pair of very unexpected still-life scenes and some prints. Though smaller than the masterful "In the Mountains," these pieces are pure Sandzén in both style and execution.

Of all the artists associated with Colorado, I think Sandzén will wind up being the most important. It's amazing that no museum has thought to pair his works with those of an abstract expressionist -- Willem De Kooning comes to mind -- to show how modernist abstraction is just a step or two from what Sandzén was doing decades earlier.

If Sandzén could be called cutting-edge for his time, Ethel Magafan, who is represented in the Cook show, was much more conservative. Her "Mountain and Stream," an oil on board from 1950, is no more modernist than any of the much older Sandzéns. But that's not a shortcoming, because "Mountain and Stream" is fabulous. Magafan lays on strong colors in jagged shapes. Like the Sandzéns, the Magafans are almost, though not quite, abstract-expressionist -- but unlike the Sandzéns, which were done so much earlier, they are contemporaneous with abstract expressionism.

Falling somewhere in between Sandzén and Magafan is New Mexico artist Fremont Ellis. His "New Mexico Landscape," from 1935, sports loose brushwork that's been used to convey a fairly representational depiction of aspen trees by a creek.

Near the Ellis is a Vance Kirkland. Now, it's hardly unusual to find Kirkland's work being a part of some art-history show around town, but it is strange to see one that's actually for sale. Cook had the watercolor "A Misty Landscape" available, but naturally, it was snapped up as soon as the show opened. The scene, which might be Roxborough Park, is somewhat surrealistic, with the rock formations being rendered as though they were on the verge of churning, like waves at sea. The palette is somber, dominated by browns and greens, but the picture itself is theatrical, with the vista unfolding in a series of progressive spaces defined by a push and pull of lights and darks.

The show continues on Cook's lower level where there are some choice impressionist paintings by Charles Partridge Adams, along with more modernist works by Paul Kauvar Smith and Frank Vavra. Both Smith and Vavra went on to do bodies of abstractions, but these earlier paintings are brushy, expressionist landscapes of local scenes. One of the Vavras, "Up Red Canon, Rabbit Ear Range," is spectacular and is the finest painting by him that I've ever seen. The trees in the foreground, their leaves in autumn gold and red, are used to create a pierced screen through which the namesake mountain range can be glimpsed. This effect is marvelous. Vavra has not yet been given his due, though the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts is in the planning stages of a retrospective for the artist's long career in Denver.

Also downstairs is an assortment of less expensive prints and drawings, which makes collecting this kind of material possible for people who aren't among the wealthy. There are also additional pieces ensconced in the separate space dedicated to Cook's selections of American Indian art, including a very nice Doel Reed painting from the '60s, "Los Cordovas Sheep Village," in which the village, the hills and the sky have been reduced to hard-edged shapes.

Colorado & the West at David Cook Fine Art is a wonderful show that's worthy of a top museum. The handsome exhibit has much to say about the course of local art of the past, and that's why it shouldn't be missed by anyone who lives here.

Ten or fifteen years ago, a lot of people in the Colorado art world, including dealers, collectors, scholars and curators, became enamored of the rich vein of fine art done here in the 1900s. This interest in old stuff was spurred in part by the then-imminent end of the twentieth century, which put many people in a retrospective mood and made looking backward a very popular pastime in the 1990s. As a product of all this reflection, formerly archaic styles became relevant again.

But even if a lot of the things brought on by New Year's Day 2000 have passed by the wayside -- like the hysterical talk of Y2K disasters or the overuse of that weird word "millennium" -- the interest in that old art has not. That fact is objectively illustrated by the sky-high prices that are being achieved by the best material. You don't have to be much of a prognosticator to foretell even greater market appreciation in the future: The paintings from this time and place are so easy to like.

Learning about the historic-art scene in Colorado and the other Western states has been one of the true perks of my job as an art critic. Sure, all of the dozens of shows I've been to were free and open to the public, but I know what a procrastinator I am, and surely I'd have missed most of them if I didn't have this job to do. Chances are, dear readers, that without that push, you've missed many of the great exhibitions. Well, it's time to play catch-up this summer and take in a convergence of art shows being presented on our local art history.

Colorado & the West, which closes in a little over a week, would make the perfect starting point, as it showcases the earliest pieces included in the summer events. Chronologically speaking, the next show you'll need to take in will be Colorado Modernism: 1930-1970, set to open in mid-July at the Foothills Art Center in Golden. This exhibit, which is being organized by artist Tracy Felix, will explore the rise of abstraction in the state. Then there's the fortieth-reunion celebration for a bunch of '60s artists who worked in Boulder, which will be featured in The Armory Group, a show that's being organized by Simon Zalkind. It opens in about a month at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. Cydney Payton, director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, will take viewers from the '80s up to the present in the mammoth yet highly personal Decades of Influence: Colorado 1985 to Present, which is scheduled to open in a few weeks. This sure-to-be-over-the-top extravaganza will be presented not only at the MCA, but also at other venues, with parts of it at the Center for Visual Art, the Carol Keller Project Space and the Gates Sculpture Triangle.

Taken together, these four shows will provide viewers with the equivalent of a college survey course on the topic -- but with no term papers or tuition bills. Trust me on this: If you see all these historical shows, you'll not only feel like an expert in the field, you'll practically be one.

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