Ethel Magafan, "Dark October," oil on panel.
Ethel Magafan, "Dark October," oil on panel.

Denver Artists Guild Founders and Colorado Art Before, During and After the Magafan Twins

The past ten years have been a remarkably interesting time for the fine arts in Colorado. The most obvious evidence of this cultural flowering has been the museum-building boom we've all witnessed. But there's also been a consequent growth in the commercial-gallery realm, with the emergence of many art districts. And the ranks of the artists themselves have also expanded, with hundreds of committed practitioners in all mediums.

Another relatively recent development is the rediscovery of Colorado's own art history. Twenty years ago, except among a handful of scholars — and a few speculators — there was scant interest in the art produced here. Then in the 1990s, with the millennium looming, people started to look at pieces produced in Colorado from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. This antiquarian interest snowballed, and today historical shows are common, with several such exhibits on view this summer.

As much as I've paid attention to this topic, there are some things new even to me, like the arts scene documented in Denver Artists Guild Founders, now on display in the Gates Reading Room, on the fifth floor of the Central Library. A ceremonial space with a large, Michael Graves-designed installation in the center, this area is not just inappropriate for a show, it's downright terrible. The mystery is why the Artists Guild display wasn't installed on the seventh floor, where there's a dedicated art space. But despite the limitations of the room, Steve Savageau did very well designing this exhibit, which was organized by collectors Deborah Wadsworth and Cynthia Jennings.

Wadsworth and Jennings wanted to document a group of artists who came together in 1928 and 1929 to promote art in the Mile High City. They managed to identify 52 people involved in the early Denver Artists Guild, then went looking for examples by each of them. Though they were unable to find pieces by a dozen of the founders, they did a good job in their sleuthing: Locating the work of forty artists who were active eighty years ago, many of them all but forgotten today, was no mean feat. Wadsworth and Jennings should be commended for their valiant efforts.

Not unlike the co-ops of today, there apparently were no established standards for members of the guild, so the work varies widely in quality. But while some of it is pretty bad, most is fairly good — or at least interesting. As might be expected given Denver's setting in the shadow of the celebrated Rockies, many of the artists chose mountain landscapes as their subjects, with some real knockout pieces resulting, notably those by David Spivak, Albert Bancroft, Charles Des Moineaux and Allen Tupper True.

Another category that's well represented is regionalism — in particular, figure paintings. Of special note is the extremely charming and very complex "End of Summer," by Louise Emerson Ronnebeck. This marvelous painting shows two girls entwined together, asleep on a seat in a railroad car. Ronnebeck was one of several female artists in a group formed at a time when women faced real discrimination in the art world. Another, Gladys Caldwell Fisher, was also doing regionalism, but she created sculptures rather than paintings, including two wonderful granite pieces, "Walrus" and "Moufflon."

The vast majority of the work in this show is representational, but a handful of the guild's members were early modernists, especially John Edward Thompson, Vance Kirkland and Frank Vavra. These artists — along with several others — are arguably better known today, long after their deaths, than they were during the heyday of the group. A good reason for that is the dedication of Hugh Grant, who promotes historic Colorado art at his Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, located just a few blocks east of the Central Library.

The Kirkland nearly always has a display devoted to local art history, and right now it's a wide-ranging presentation with the unwieldy title of Colorado Art Before, During and After the Magafan Twins. The show includes early landscapes and more recent abstracts by a variety of artists, but as the title indicates, it's anchored by a selection of works by the Magafan twins.

Identical twins Ethel and Jenne were born in Chicago in 1916 but raised in Denver, where they demonstrated an early talent for art. Their art teacher at East High School was so impressed with the Magafans' artistic gifts that he paid their tuition to attend Denver's School of Modern Art, run by Frank Mechau, a painter famous for his murals. Later, the twins studied at the Kirkland School of Art under none other than Vance Kirkland, who ran the place. In the 1930s they followed Mechau to his Redstone studio, and then to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School, where he was completing his renowned mural of running horses that serves as a frieze in the garden. A related painting, Mechau's "The Riders," is part of the show at the Kirkland.

The twins were at the center of Denver's regionalist scene during the Great Depression. In fact, both completed New Deal-era murals: Ethel at the South Broadway Post Office and Jenne at West High School. The show even includes a proposal for a collaborative mural, "The History of Food," which was apparently never executed. This proposal is the only piece in the exhibit that both Ethel and Jenne worked on, but in the '30s and '40s, their work was virtually interchangeable from a stylistic perspective.

When the twins left Colorado, they wound up in Woodstock, New York, then an artist colony. Days after returning from a trip to Italy in 1952, Jenne died suddenly of an aneurism. Ethel continued with her art career, periodically returning to Colorado. In the '50s through the early '90s, she embraced modernism, as exemplified by several abstracts in the Kirkland show, including the gorgeous "Dark October."

In addition to pieces from the Kirkland's formidable permanent collection, Grant has borrowed Magafans from David Cook Fine Art, a premier venue for historic Colorado art. Another gallery that specializes in this field is the fairly new Z Art Department on Speer Boulevard, owned by Randy Roberts and directed by Paul Hughes. Z is currently presenting a major retrospective of the work of husband-and-wife artists Edward and Donna Marecak, key figures in the development of modern art in Colorado. Simply titled Marecak, the show is incredible.

Edward was an idiosyncratic painter and printmaker who studied at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School in the 1940s, where he developed a highly original style that's simultaneously abstract and representational. Many of the paintings take on mythological topics; he was particularly interested in depicting witches, as seen in "Witches Flying Kites." Interestingly, his work seems more closely associated to post-war European modernism than it does to what was going on in this country, and he was never influenced by abstract expressionism, the great American modern style.

In 1947 he married Donna, a potter who would often decorate her pots according to Edward's designs. The large and handsome collection of Donna's precisely thrown, gorgeous pots on display here have only rarely been exhibited as a group.

Although the pair's creative heyday was the 1950s and '60s, both were rediscovered by the local art world in the 1990s, right after Edward died and Donna had retired. Paul Hughes, who was then running his own gallery, the long-gone Inkfish, was largely responsible for the revival, and now he's helped to bring the Marecaks' work to Z Art.

Hardly anyone in Denver has personal memories of the artists featured in these three significant shows; I know I don't. But we can reclaim the memory of them by taking in these marvelous exhibits.


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