There's good news and bad news these days at the Denver Art Museum. We'll start with the good: After years of being on the road or in storage, the DAM's own stash of modern and contemporary art is back on display with the opening of Welcome Back! Selections From the Permanent Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art.
This is no ordinary occasion for an institution whose sizable collection has long gathered dust because of the lack of galleries in which to display it. "I've only had gallery space for five of the twenty years I've been here," notes exhibit organizer Dianne Vanderlip, head curator of the Modern and Contemporary collection. But there's space now, and thanks to Vanderlip, it's chock-full of material that's either new or hasn't seen the track-light of day in more than a decade.
Now for the bad news: Adjunct curator Nancy Tieken has resigned from the DAM and is set to leave town--perhaps permanently--this summer. Though Tieken has kept a low profile appropriate to her self-effacing personality during the few years she's been in town, she's had a major impact--not just on the museum, but on the city at large. Using the sizable fortune of her NBT Foundation, inherited from her grandfather, George Babson, an early partner of Thomas Edison's, Tieken has been one of the city's premier art connoisseurs. In 1996, for instance, she donated Mark DiSuvero's "Lao Tzu" to the DAM, in the process providing the city with its single finest piece of public sculpture. She's also given the DAM a number of other large sculptures and installations, many of which are featured front and center in Welcome Back!
Tieken first came to Denver in 1991 for health reasons, taking a leave from her job as education curator at New England's Currier Gallery of Art. After spending her first three months here in a hospital bed, she was finally released but had to spend an additional three months recuperating under a doctor's supervision, which left her bored out of her mind. To relieve the tedium, Tieken began to volunteer at the DAM.
"At first it was in the publications department, and later in education," she recalls. "I don't know how she did it, but Dianne [Vanderlip] discovered me and offered me a job. They came up with the title 'adjunct curator of modern and contemporary art,' which provides great amusement for my mother. 'You're the only adjunct curator of modern and contemporary art that I know,' she tells me," Tieken says with a laugh. "I'm the only one I know, too."
An art historian for her entire career, Tieken traces her interest in the field to her childhood in Chicago. Her mother was what Tieken describes as a "lay archaeologist," traveling to sites in the Middle East to assist with digs being conducted by the University of Chicago. Tieken often accompanied her mother to these exotic locales, and when she received her BFA in art history at Radcliffe College in 1963, her specialty was the art of the ancient Near East.
Tieken later became interested in more recent art, and in the 1970s she began a long relationship with Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, a small museum without a permanent collection. She remains a member of that museum's board of trustees.
Tieken says she has no firm plans for the future beyond a six-week vacation in La Jolla, California. "I need to regroup and decide where to put my energy," she says. But as a parting gift, she has purchased for the City of Denver--as opposed to the DAM--Donald Lipski's "Yearling," a monumental sculpture of a chair with a horse on it. It will be placed on the lawn of the Denver Public Library, near the children's wing.
It's not inconceivable that Tieken could enter the realm of public sculpture with both feet in the future. By placing large and important sculptures by significant contemporary artists in our parks and along our parkways, she could make a singular contribution to Denver's cultural life--which could really use such a boost. With luck, her departure from the museum will mark the beginning, not the end, of her Denver chapter.
Welcome Back! begins appropriately enough with a piece that reflects Tieken's curatorial skills rather than her role as a donor: one of the cache of Robert Motherwell paintings she helped the DAM acquire in 1994. (Tieken was part of the team that selected the Motherwell paintings, along with Vanderlip and DAM director Lewis Sharp.) Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic (With Blood), #172," an acrylic on canvas from 1989-1990, is the last in a series that occupied the artist for nearly forty years. Because of the space limitations under which the department operates, it's the only Motherwell included in the show. But it's all that's necessary to underscore the wisdom of the '94 acquisition.
In a small gallery to the left of the Motherwell is the first of Tieken's gifts included in Welcome Back!, an untitled installation from 1968-1969 by pioneer light-sculptor Robert Irwin that's never before been exhibited in Denver. The Irwin piece is a back-lit acrylic disc mounted on the wall and painted with a horizontal stripe in acrylic lacquer. Irwin's intention is to alter our visual perspective, and in that he's successful. The disc creates an otherworldly atmosphere that will make viewers wonder if they're looking at a work of art or standing in it.
"I guarantee this piece will be one of the public's favorites," says Vanderlip, who predicts it will be as popular as John DeAndrea's sculpture "Linda" (which is not in Welcome Back!) and James Turrell's "Trace Elements" (which is). In "Trace Elements," a mixed-media installation from 1991 that's been reinstalled in its own gallery just around the corner, perceptualist master Turrell gets the same light-driven effect as Irwin, but on a much larger scale. His piece comprises a darkened room with a dimly lit horizontal rectangle that seems to hover at one end. This stunning, all-encompassing environment is another gift from Tieken.
The gallery adjacent to Turrell's is the largest of several devoted to Welcome Back!, and two-thirds of it is filled with another Tieken gift, Jeanne Silverthorne's dense and disturbing rubber-and-polyester installation "The Studio Stripped Bare." Silverthorne, an up-and-comer in the installation world, has reproduced her workshop-style studio in black rubber; replicas of fluorescent light fixtures hang from the ceiling, sculptures sit on work tables, and the floor is an abstract-expressionist tangle of phony electric wires. A piece this edgy is sure to be a controversial one.
Opposite the Silverthorne are several abstract paintings, including "Abacus Sliding," a smeary but spectacular Sam Gilliam from 1977 that combines abstract expressionism with minimalism. Falling completely within the abstract-expressionist camp is a magnificent untitled 1956 piece by Cy Twombly, on loan to the DAM, in which the artist has laid scribbles in crayon and graphite against an oil-painted field.
Gifts from Tieken crop up again in two of the smaller back galleries dedicated to Welcome Back! Jim Dine's monumental 1989 polychrome bronze "Wheat Fields" combines brightly painted castings of objects, including an oversized skull, that have been mounted on a casted tiller complete with tractor tires. In another gallery, just to the left, is "Untitled (For A.C.)," a signature piece by Dan Flavin from 1992 whose colored fluorescent lights create a geometric relief. The Flavin is placed just across from a piece that has been acquired not by Tieken, but for her. Richard Serra's "Basic Maintenance," a forbidding hot-rolled-steel sculpture from 1987, was purchased by the DAM in honor of Tieken's contributions.
Welcome Back! also includes displays that can be viewed as individual exhibits within the larger show. In one side gallery are a dozen type-C print photographs by Sean Scully that provide a tease for the watercolor show devoted to Scully scheduled for this June. In another side gallery--soon to be known as the "Merage Family Photography Space"--are photographs gathered from the DAM's collection by photo curator Jane Fudge. These experimental, oversized works deal with conceptions of the body; standouts include the vaporous purple and black 1989 portrait "Methane Breather," by Todd Watts, and pioneer deconstructivist Robert Heinecken's 1967 "Breast Bomb," a cut-up and reassembled figure study.
An especially topical exhibit within Welcome Back! is the one dedicated to images of smoking. Some of the pieces, such as Luigi Lucioni's spectacular 1934 oil painting "Portrait of Stanley Lathrop," make smoking look glamorous. But most take a stand against the habit, including 1995's infamous "Party-Time," by Damien Hirst, which consists of a white-plastic ashtray filled with cigarette butts and spent matches. The piece has been praised in the national art press and lampooned by Morley Safer on 60 Minutes. Though this marks the first time it's been seen in Denver, Vanderlip's been fielding complaint calls about it for more than a year. "People swear to me they've seen it at the museum!" she says incredulously. Well, now they really can see it at the museum--and the complaint calls are not likely to stop.
Controversial acquisitions aren't the only way in which Vanderlip has demonstrated the courage of her convictions in Welcome Back! According to museum director Sharp, his outspoken curator also single-handedly stopped the DAM from making a serious tactical error: the deaccessioning of an important surrealist Picasso. That painting, the oil-on-canvas "Still Life" from 1937, which anticipates the artist's famous "Guernica," one of the great paintings of all time, had already formally been let go when Vanderlip spoke up in protest. She rallied friends in the art-history community to write the board of trustees and urge its members to reconsider. Thankfully, Vanderlip won the fight, and the Picasso stayed.
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"Still Life" shows up in a gallery devoted to modern art from the early to mid-twentieth century. The selection includes another Picasso, this one on loan, the fabulous 1946 surrealist oil on canvas "Femme Assise." Other highlights include two spectacular cubist works: "Still Life With Bottle of Bordeaux," a 1919 oil on canvas by Juan Gris, and the 1921 "Femme a Genoux," by Fernand Leger. Interestingly enough, the DAM's Picasso, the Gris and the Leger were all gifts of Denver artist Marion Hendrie. Like Tieken, Hendrie had a huge impact on the museum's collection when she donated the paintings in 1966.
These older modernist paintings will remain on display for some time, but much of Welcome Back! will be coming down next month, so don't put off making a visit. And though the show may prompt some melancholy feelings over Tieken's departure, don't cry just yet. In the fall, the DAM will present a show organized by Tieken, an exhibit focusing on the Poindexter collection of abstract-expressionist paintings from the Montana Historical Society. Until then, the best way to bid Tieken a fond farewell is to go see Welcome Back!
Welcome Back!, through May 31 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.