"Mountain Picnic," by Louise Emerson Rnnebeck, oil on canvas.
"Mountain Picnic," by Louise Emerson Rnnebeck, oil on canvas.

Eight Painters & Sculptors at the University of Denver 1930-1965

More than any other institution in the city, the University of Denver should be credited with establishing and nurturing contemporary art in the early to mid-twentieth century. But despite the school's important role, the accomplishments of artists associated with it have not been properly documented.

Dan Jacobs, director of the Victoria H. Myhren Gallery in DU's School of Art and Art History, jumped into this intellectual void and pulled out Eight Painters & Sculptors at the University of Denver 1930-1965. It's only a modest beginning -- in fact, a couple of artists I expected to see in the show, Frank Vavra and Jack Ball, weren't included, even though they are better remembered today than some who are featured -- but it's a great start. And as Jacobs himself points out, more than eighty artists worked at the school during the target period.

After he'd made his selections, Jacobs, who also teaches at DU, enlisted graduate students to research them. In addition, undergraduate Alisha Stovall created a remarkable factual record by combing DU's own files, bulletins and class schedules for any tidbits she could find on the artists. To build the show, Jacobs pulled from DU's own collection, as well as from the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Northeastern Community College and various private collectors, especially Lee and Jennifer Ballentine.

He gave each of the eight a discrete section in order to reveal the flow of their stylistic interests over the course of their careers. Visitors can read an in-depth bio of each artist thanks to the students' research, but only in the gallery. These interesting profiles, strange as it seems, were not done as handouts for the public.

There's no particular way to proceed through the exhibit, but I was drawn to begin with the Vance Kirkland section, which is straight ahead, across the gallery. Kirkland is by far the most famous of the eight in the show, and his accomplishments are much better documented. That made student researcher Petra Sertic's job one of paring down Kirkland's information into a manageable form -- and she did. Sertic accounts for his academic life, both in and out of DU, and describes his commitment to experimental art over his long career. This characteristic distinguishes him from most of the others in the show, who were fairly conservative in their aesthetic pursuits. Though works in different styles are shown, the most striking of the Kirklands are those done in the '50s and '60s, which are examples of abstract expressionism and op art. The gorgeous "#25" is a riot of color and line, while "Space #10," one of his famous and colorful dot paintings, is carefully organized.

At this point you could turn in either direction, but I chose to take in the Arnold Rönnebeck portion. Rönnebeck, whom Kirkland hired in the mid-1920s to teach at DU, was one of the most significant sculptors in Colorado's history, and for a time, he was the director of the Denver Art Museum. The selection includes a regionalist-style portrait bust of the artist's close friend, Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as several pieces in his signature cubism. A fabulous example of this is "Trio and Tone Shapes," a plaster bas-relief in which abstracted references to a musical trio cover the rectangular slab. The piece is an unrealized commission for the Denver Public Schools done in 1939; also on display, however, is a brand-new bronze cast of "Trio," which will be installed in the Newman Center for the Performing Arts after the show closes. Laura Fry did the research on Rönnebeck.

Adjacent to the Rönnebecks is the portion dedicated to John Billmyer, with Neely Patton having done the research on him. Billmyer, who was one of Kirkland's students, was best known as a ceramics artist, and the pieces here reveal how much ceramics -- in particular, vessel-making -- has changed over the years. More accomplished are Billmyer's abstract paintings and drawings, such as the marvelous ink-on-paper "King and Queen."

Around the corner is the area featuring Louise Emerson Rönnebeck, who was Arnold's wife. Research on Louise Rönnebeck was carried out by Jillian Desmond. Rönnebeck's style was part of the regionalist movement of the '20s through the '40s, as exemplified by her marvelous painting "Mountain Picnic," in which a large group of people are gathered around two tables under the trees. The blue car in the background provides the perfect touch, grounding the piece in its time. Earlier, though, Rönnebeck had taken a more neoclassical approach, as seen in "Two Nudes," which also has an art-deco flavor.

The work of William Sanderson, whose career was accounted for by Lauren Fretz, is displayed on the other side of the entry. The Russian-born Sanderson joined the faculty at DU in the 1940s and was heavily influenced by cubism. He often used hard-edged shapes to represent not only the objects depicted in his compositions, but also the different spatial planes on which they reside, à la Cezanne. In a remarkable pairing, "Journey's End," a junkyard under sunny skies, hangs next to "East Wind," in which a small town is represented by cubist buildings under geometric clouds. The two paintings absolutely sing together.

The Sanderson part gives way to the area where Otto Bach's paintings are hung. Bach, who was researched by Petra Sertic, is a well-known name in the city's art history, though not for his art. Instead, Bach is recognized as a longtime director of the DAM, the one who hired Gio Ponti to design what is now called the North Building. In a way, it's too bad that he's remembered as an administrator, because he was one of the best painters of his generation. Bach, who rarely showed during his lifetime, was influenced by cubism, though his work is better described as precisionist, because he was highly accomplished in meticulously rendering detail in his pieces. "Glass Forms" is a horizontal composition of abstracted depictions of bottles, while "White Scantling Frame Abstraction" is completely non-objective. The word "scantling" refers to an old-fashioned construction tool.

Then there's the work of Mina Conant, who was married to John Billmyer. The two met when they were both DU students in the 1930s. Conant, researched by Kristin Bonk, was an extremely eccentric artist whose style could best be described as expressionist, and it seems to anticipate by twenty or thirty years the art of the 1980s. In the whimsical "Rush of Wings," Conant captures an angel flying across the sky, which reflects her deep religious faith.

The final chapter in the show is devoted to Marion Buchan, with research done by Neely Patton. Buchan is mostly forgotten, but based on the pieces here, she shouldn't have been. She worked in a range of sculptural materials, including wood, clay and cast metal, and also used a synthetic made from aluminum flakes and resin. This is the material that forms "Harlequin," a standing figure that portrays the famous jester from the Commedia dell'Arte. "Harlequin" is to be installed in the Newman Center along with the Rönnebeck bas-relief. The piece was tentatively dated to the end of Buchan's career, in the late 1950s, but I think it's actually from the 1930s. I base this observation not only on the style, which is very pre-war, but also because a similarly styled Buchan that was once installed on Speer Boulevard was done in the '30s. The most intriguing pieces by Buchan are the three abstracted figures displayed in a showcase, and though these treasures are diminutive, they are spectacular.

Eight Painters & Sculptors is an impressive show, and it's good to see DU starting to appreciate its own history. I hope it's only the first in a series of events based on the efforts of the art faculty of the past, because I know there's a lot more information and material yet to be uncovered.


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