Before I recommend that you take the time and trouble to check out the impressive if misleadingly titled Impressionist and Modern Masters From the New Orleans Museum of Art at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, I want to say a word or two about Blake Milteer, a newish curator down there. A former photo specialist in the Denver Art Museum's Modern and Contemporary department, Milteer was hired last year to run the CSFAC's department of 19th- through 21st-century American art, and he's apparently been doing a great job.
Last summer, working with the only other curator there, Tariana Naves-Nieves, Milteer dove into the permanent collection and discovered that Colorado Springs was a real art colony from the 1910s to the 1950s. The CSFAC has the forensic evidence — in the form of works of art in its warehouses — to prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt. Milteer put many of these works on display on the first floor of the new wing.
Though I've known Milteer for years through his time at the DAM, he has always kept his hand close to his vest, so I never knew what his beliefs were when it came to art or, in particular, work made in Colorado. Aside from the Western art galleries, overseen by curator Ann Daley, there's very little Colorado art to be found at the DAM. And that museum isn't alone in its lack of institutional support. The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver opened with seven solos, not one of which featured a Colorado artist. The Colorado History Museum, for its part, seems to feel that art isn't even part of the state's history — unless it's an amateur effort by a member of the Smaldone family, that is.
In Denver, the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, under the direction of Hugh Grant, has been the only place that has paid serious attention to Colorado art. And now, with Milteer at the helm, the CSFAC is starting to follow suit. When I was in Colorado Springs last week, Milteer excitedly told me about a number of recent acquisitions of pieces by contemporary Colorado artists, specifically mentioning a Pard Morrison from his show at Rule Gallery ("Medium in the Middle," November 22). "We have an obligation to show great art," says Milteer, "and there's a lot of great art being done around here." Amen to that.
But in his job, Milteer has to be a generalist, looking at art made elsewhere, like Europe, where most of the artists in Impressionist and Modern Masters hail from. This large show has been wonderfully installed in the series of galleries on the second floor accessed via the grand staircase at the east end of the El Pomar Corridor. Though the impressionist pieces hang in the Steiner Gallery, visitors also have immediate access to the two-story El Pomar Gallery, where works from the 17th and 18th centuries have been hung. This Old Master-ish stuff is a completely unbilled component of Impressionist and Modern Masters, which is why I said the show has been incorrectly titled.
The explanation for the disconnect between the exhibit's title and its content has to do with what's happened to the New Orleans Museum of Art since the Katrina disaster. No artwork was damaged during the hurricane, but the building and its nearby sculpture garden were. The museum also lost its audience for some time and had to lay off all but a skeletal staff of employees. So this traveling show is meant to bring attention to the beleaguered museum by showcasing its collection and also to remove a good deal of it from New Orleans while the NOMA undergoes reconstruction.
So the Impressionist and Modern Masters exhibit is more of a broadly based greatest-hits survey of the NOMA's painting collection, with a three-dimensional piece thrown in here or there. No one curator is credited with putting this wide-ranging show together, as several professionals, including Milteer, made suggestions of what to include.
The initial section is dominated by French artists — reminding us that New Orleans was originally a French colony — but also includes artists from America and other European countries, such as Italy's Tiepolo. Some works, like "Mary Antoinette," by Mary Vigeé-Lebrun, from 1788, are a little over the top; others, like Francois Boucher's "The Surprise," from 1723, are positively florid. They reminded me of the recently closed Louvre show at the DAM.
But there are also more powerful works in this first section — in particular, Adolphe-William Bouguereau's "Whisperings of Love," from 1889, an allegoric painting that depicts a woman in ancient dress being approached by Cupid. One of the most interesting things about this marvelous painting is that it's the kind of thing that the revolutionary artists known as the impressionists were already rejecting as contrived and too proper in subject and style. We all know today who wound up on the right side of that argument — and it wasn't Bouguereau.
The impressionists begin with an assortment of wonderful landscapes by the likes of Monet, Alfred Sisely and Camille Pissarro. Compared with the earlier pieces, which are precise in their details and execution, the characteristics of impressionism are easy to discern here, including the casual rendering and the consequent painterly surfaces. The most important goal of the impressionist artists was capturing the look of the air itself, so that atmospheric conditions became key aspects of these landscapes.
Opposite the landscapes are five works by Degas, including a bronze horse and a bronze ballet dancer — his signature subject — a couple of drawings, and an unusual and spectacular painting of his sister-in-law, "Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas." This monumental painting of his brother's pregnant wife arranging flowers was painted in proto-impressionist realism in 1872. That was the same year Degas lived in New Orleans, an often overlooked part of the Parisian artist's biography. If not the most important painting in Impressionist and Modern Masters, it is surely one of the most compelling.
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On the opposite side of the Steiner is Rodin's famous "Age of Bronze," a life-sized statue of a male nude. Though this is not an original 1876 casting, it was cast during Rodin's lifetime.
The final chapter of the show deals with modernism, and there was a smoother transition from the impressionists to the modernists than from the Old Masters to the later artists — both in art history and in this show. As the modernist part gets under way, viewers pick up the story of what happened in the immediate wake of impressionism, with examples of the fauvist movement, such as the vibrant pieces by Maurice de Vlaminck and Andre Derain. It continues into Braque's post-impressionism before getting to the full-blown modernism of Picasso's cubism, exemplified by the 1913 collage "Table With Bottle and Violin." There are also several other Picassos, the most ambitious of which is "Woman in an Armchair," a monumental portrait done in 1960.
The modernist section includes quite a few interesting things, but some pieces, such as Kandinsky's "Sketch for Several Circles," from 1926, are unforgettable. Also in this category is the striking and forward-looking Miró, 1935's "Portrait of a Young Woman," which looks like it could have been done yesterday, and the early drip painting by Jackson Pollock, "Composition," from 1948, in casein on paper. It's a classic example of abstract expressionism.
Truth be told, Impressionist and Modern Masters, isn't made up of the world's most important paintings, but it does include pieces by the world's most important artists. That's why this blockbuster represents a completely solid offering that has a lot to teach viewers about the development of painting in Europe and the United States over the past several centuries. And the intelligent installation, which is based on a historic perspective, dividing the material into three distinct phases, underscores the sequential nature of the development of art as it turned toward modernism.