Walter Ufer, "Return From Winter Pasture," oil on canvas.
Walter Ufer, "Return From Winter Pasture," oil on canvas.

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Even on an ordinary day, the Foothills Art Center is uncommonly picturesque. It's situated in an old red-brick church and a pair of adjacent -- and matching -- Victorian houses in Golden; this charming assemblage perches on a steep hill, high above the street, with the mountains in the background only blocks away. For the holidays, the nostalgia effect has been kicked way up, too. The buildings are covered with twinkling white lights, bedecked with evergreen boughs and wreaths, and dusted with snow.

Gosh, right now Foothills looks like a quaint, pre-sprawl setting for one of those Dickens-meets-John Denver Christmas specials from the 1980s. And all this romantic Western imagery makes it the perfect setting for Horse & Rider in the Harmsen Collection of Western Art, an exhibit of early twentieth-century paintings and sculptures of cowboys and Indians -- all of which feature subjects mounted on a horses.

The show isn't located in the main part of Foothills, though; all those galleries have been converted into the annual Holiday Art Market, which features a wide variety of artworks and craft items, all with a seasonal theme, all offered for sale. While the main galleries are serving as salesrooms (the Market ends Saturday), the former gift shop located in one of the houses has been drafted into service as a gallery and lightly remodeled with a fresh coat of paint and the installation of some track lighting.

"I'm calling it Foothills II, and I plan to use it for exhibits from now on," says Foothills director Carol Dickenson. "There's so many things in the 'Only Colorado Art' show (coming up later this winter), it's going to spill over into Foothills II -- it's got to -- and other shows will, too."

"Horse & Rider," the first exhibit to be presented in this newly re-dedicated space, features a dozen works lent by Dorothy and Bill Harmsen, nationally renowned art collectors now in their eighties. The Harmsens moved to Colorado in the 1940s and soon after opened an ice cream shop in downtown Golden called the Jolly Rancher. "It was right next to the arch," says Bill Harmsen Jr., the eldest of the three Harmsen sons, and executive director of the not-yet-built Harmsen Museum of Art and the force behind "Horse & Rider."

The Jolly Rancher ice cream shop itself is history. It soon gave way to the Jolly Rancher candy company, which gave the couple the necessary funds to pursue their real passion, collecting, an endeavor they took up full-time after selling their company to Beatrice Foods in the 1960s. Over the years, the Harmsens have acquired more than 5,000 works, including paintings, sculptures and a wide range of artifacts.

"My parents were driven to collect," says Harmsen. "Their collecting stemmed from an innate sense for finding adventure. Plus, my father loved to do a deal, and my mother has a wonderful eye. They loved the chase, they loved negotiating with artists and dealers, and we kids encouraged them because it was really fun."

Their timing was right, because prices were low in those days. Only over the last ten years or so has Western art begun to hit market heights, and the Harmsen collection has been essentially static during that time. "There will be no new acquisitions until the museum is up and running," Harmsen explains. Although he hopes to see the 60,000-square-foot building completed in a year and half, construction has yet to begin: The museum was conceived as part of the Denver West shopping center, and that project has been on hold for years.

The delay is one reason that Harmsen recently returned to Denver from his home in Mexico. "My mother e-mailed me and asked me to come back and help," he says, adding that he's optimistic that Denver West is finally coming back on line. But since there was nothing he could do to speed up construction, he decided to get the Harmsen collection out into the community now by placing exhibits at existing venues. He worked with Dickenson to put together "Horse & Rider."

As you enter Foothills II, the first object that catches your eye is a tabletop bronze with a monumental quality. Adrien Voisin's "Happy Hunting Ground" depicts an Indian on horseback bearing down on a charging buffalo. Done in 1930, Voisin's tableaux was old-fashioned even when new -- which is particularly interesting because the piece was not made in some prairie backwater, but in Paris, where Voisin lived and worked. Next to the Voisin is a painting that was actually created out west: Walter Ufer's "Return From Winter Pasture," an oil on canvas painted in Taos, undated, but likely from the 1930s. Some of the best pieces in the Harmsen collection are by the masters of Taos. On the other side of Foothills II's entrance is another fine example of this New Mexico town's formidable artistic history, Oscar Berninghaus's "Morning Shade," also undated but probably done in the '20s or '30s. And in the tight hallway between the two front galleries is a tiny modernist gem by John Marin; don't miss "Near Taos, #5," a watercolor from 1930 that should be more prominently displayed.

Foothills II is not an ideal exhibit space. The character of the original house, while very nice, is still fairly emphatic. The small, residential size of the rooms is the building's principal limitation; it's impossible to put large pieces in these spaces, and contemporary work of any size will have a hard time competing with all that traditional woodwork. But for the exceptional group of small historic paintings and sculptures in "Horse & Rider," Foothills II works just fine.

Other parts of the Harmsen collection are highlighted in Portraits From the Old West... Selected Pieces From the Harmsen Museum Foundation, now on display in Lakewood's relatively new Civic Center South Gallery. Although this space isn't far from Foothills, it's a world away in character.

If Foothills exudes charm, CCSG eludes it. It's located in the recently constructed Lakewood civic center complex, not so picturesquely located on South Allison Parkway right behind a Cub Foods store. (I hope this isn't what the Harmsen Museum will look like.) And not only does the space lack a certain je ne sais quoi in terms of its atmosphere, it has functional problems, too. For example, it's not easy to see an art show there -- and I'm not referring to that pair of annoying traffic circles on the way in, but the fact that once you do get to the place, it's closed. CCSG has absurdly limited weekday hours -- the lights are turned off at 2 p.m -- and it's shut down completely on weekends.

But "Portraits" is worth the effort it takes to see the show. It's even better than "Horse & Rider," with several important paintings by the biggest New Mexico names. "I think these are the finest portraits in the collection," says Harmsen. "I love being a curator, because I can pick what I want to include. For this show, I chose some of my favorite things."

His favorites also happen to be some of the strongest and most significant items in the collection, including Robert Henri's "Tom Po Qui," a three-quarter portrait of a festively dressed Indian woman wearing a squash-blossom necklace. The 1914 oil painting is forward-looking and expressionistic, and anticipates the modernism of later, more abstract paintings, such as Nicolai Fechin's "Mexican Cowboy" from 1935 and Howard Cook's "Pueblo Chieftain," undated but probably from the 1940s.

"Portraits" and "Horse & Rider" are mere teasers for what we someday will be able to see at the Harmsen Museum; we'll get a more substantial look at the collection this summer at the Arvada Center. That show, which will be organized by Arvada exhibition director Kathy Andrews, will later travel to Europe.

What with the Harmsen shows and the Anschutz collection blockbuster now on display at the Denver Art Museum ("Pilgrims' Progress," November 23), it would appear that all the interesting Western art was snapped up long ago by millionaires like the Harmsens or billionaires like Anschutz. But as Colorado and the West: Works on Paper 1900-1970 at David Cook Fine American Art demonstrates, that's not entirely true -- because everything displayed here can still be bought.

The large show installed on Cook's ground floor and its two lower-level galleries includes more than a hundred pieces, mostly fine prints, by a trio of noteworthy artists: George Elbert Burr, Ross Braught and Gene Kloss. Although the three artists do not have their own individual sections -- their prints and other works on paper are all mixed together -- it's not hard to distinguish one from another. Each artist has a distinctive, signature style.

Burr began his art career in the late nineteenth century. When he came to Denver in 1906, he was already an internationally known etcher; he continued his work here until his death in 1939. As revealed by this show, Burr had an impressive technique, and his specialty was the use of ultra-fine lines to convey atmospheric conditions in the landscape. Several wonderful examples of Burr's color etchings, an extremely rare type of print for an artist who typically limited his palette to black and white, are also displayed here. "Before I found this group, I'd only seen a handful of color etchings by Burr," gallery owner David Cook says, "and all of these in this show are from the same collection." That would be the Gano estate; Denver collectors Pauline and Merritt Gano had originally purchased many of the works directly from Burr.

Although Braught never lived in Colorado, he did travel extensively through the state and the rest of the West. His brawny, regionalist style is reminiscent of the work of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, with whom he studied in Kansas City in the 1930s. Braught didn't copy Benton's style; instead, he pushed it to its surrealistic limits. But unlike Benton's most famous student, Jackson Pollock, Braught did not push it all the way to abstract expressionism. In addition to a large selection of Braught prints, the exhibit includes a couple of his handsome oil paintings.

The last of the featured artists is Kloss, the famous Taos printmaker who recorded the life of the Indian pueblos and the Hispanic villages and also created one stunning landscape after another. Kloss's characteristic style is lyrical and expressive, with an innocent quality that's reminiscent of the illustrations in a children's book. Her works are enchanting, as is the entire exhibit.

The David Cook show and the other Western exhibits in the area right now present local art lovers with an unprecedented opportunity to see more than a century's worth of our region's best art -- art that the rest of the world is beginning to appreciate, too.

"It's amazing how strong the Western image is worldwide," says Bill Harmsen Jr.

And, I might add, how strong it's becoming around here.


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