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From Here to Modernity

"The Great Seal," by Bill Joseph, fabricated bronze bas-relief.
Anthony Camera

Though he'd kept a low profile during the past ten years and only rarely exhibited his work during that period, longtime Denver artist Bill Joseph remained involved in the city's art world until his death, on December 15. In fact, I ran into him in the company of his wife, Barbara, as recently as November 20. The occasion was the opening reception for Vance Kirkland: A Colorado Painter's Life, the Early Works and Beyond, now on view at the Colorado History Museum.

The title suggests a solo presentation devoted to Kirkland, but it's actually a group show, and Joseph and more than a score of other Colorado art wizards are included. Being part of this exhibition is an honor, as only the state's most significant modernists are represented. It's a virtual who's who of the arts in Denver during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

The Joseph piece, which was cited in my December 25 column, is "Woman," a modernist abstraction of a female torso made in 1970 out of fabricated steel that was bent and welded together and then finished in black. It was loaned to the CHM by the Kirkland Museum, which has a number of other Josephs in its collection.

When I saw Joseph at the reception, I found him to be charming and outgoing, as usual. True, he looked a little frail, and he was walking with the aid of a cane, but these factors were mitigated by his buoyant mood. When I spoke with him -- no more than to nod and say "Hello" -- he was smiling and very apparently enjoying the attention he was getting from being included in the show. Plus, it was a chance for him to catch up with his many old friends from the ever-smaller community of senior artists.

But even on that glorious night, there was a shadow of what was to come. Barbara, who is ordinarily bubbly, was in a serious mood. She pulled me aside and said Bill hadn't been doing so well lately, and if I wanted to interview him, I'd better do it soon. I never did call to set up a meeting, but I had little chance: Just days later, Joseph suffered a massive stroke. He ultimately died from its complications.

Fortunately, I had interviewed Joseph about his life and his art career a few years ago, when he was the subject of an exhibit at the O'Sullivan Arts Center at Regis University. But there's no denying that it would have been more edifying to have spoken with him one last time, and I'll always regret that I didn't promptly follow up on Barbara's advice.

In many ways, Joseph was quintessentially Denver. He was born here in 1926 and grew up in the city's Park Hill neighborhood, which is where he met Barbara. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Denver in 1949 and earned his Master of Arts the following year.

At that time, artists had little chance to exhibit their creations in Denver. There were few publicly funded art centers and fewer privately owned galleries. Instead, the exhibition scene was dominated by a handful of institutional venues -- only some of which are still around. Chief among these was the Denver Art Museum, where Joseph first exhibited his pieces in 1949. Not an inauspicious beginning to an emerging artist's career.

After graduation, Joseph briefly taught art at both the DAM and DU. In 1957, Loretto Heights College, a private women's institution, hired him as an art professor, a position he held for the next thirty years. The school, which is now Teikyo Loretto Heights University, was a very appropriate place for Joseph to work, because the college was also Roman Catholic. Joseph was a devout Catholic all his life, and his beliefs were manifested in his art. He received many commissions for religious artworks, most of them meant for Catholic chapels and churches. He created statues, crucifixes, tabernacles, screens, sanctuary lights and panels that mark the Stations of the Cross. He received his first liturgical commissions in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, they'd become a major component of his efforts. He continued making religious items up until just a few years ago.

Examples of Joseph's sacred sculptures abound in the area, though they're not limited to this region: He created works for churches in places as far-flung as Montana and New York. Among his notable accomplishments around here is the work he completed for Boulder's Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where, in 1963, he created a pair of life-sized cast-bronze sculptures of the risen Christ and St. Benedict. Stylistically, these sculptures are examples of a simplified representational style, with both figures being attenuated and having angular details. More completely abstract are the aluminum decorations he carried out in 1968 for St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Arvada.

At the same time he was creating this religious art, Joseph was pursuing a career as a secular contemporary artist. In the 1960s, while turning out the pieces he made for Sacred Heart and St. Joan of Arc, he became involved with The Fifteen. The group, which was made up of a lot more than just fifteen artists, advocated for contemporary art by presenting studio exhibits spotlighting the work of its members.

Also on the secular front, in 1965 Joseph received a commission for the first of his high-profile public pieces: "The Great Seal," a bas-relief abstraction of the Great Seal of the United States. The sculpture is mounted high above the street on the side of the United States Courthouse at 19th and Stout streets downtown. Made of bronze mounted on travertine panels, the fifteen-foot-by-fifteen-foot piece includes the outline of an eagle with an olive branch in one talon and a quiver of arrows in the other. Joseph's handling of the forms makes it look as much like a drawing as a sculpture. "The Great Seal" had been in declining condition, but, happily, it was restored a couple of years ago.

The commission for "The Great Seal" and for another piece for the courthouse, "Justice, Freedom and Release," was given to Joseph by James Sudler, one of the building's architects. "Justice, Freedom and Release" is a carved wooden screen with attenuated and abstracted figures in various evocative poses interspersed with patriotic symbols such as a simplified Liberty Bell and a conventionalized "scales of justice." Unfortunately, the screen is not widely seen by the public, because it is inside the building, and admittance is limited to those with legitimate courthouse business only.

These two commissions marked the beginning of Joseph's most prolific period, and it was during this time that he became famous locally. In 1970 he created "Columbus," a ten-foot bronze-and-stainless-steel sculpture on a ten-foot aggregate pedestal that was installed just northeast of the Greek Theater in Civic Center Park. "Columbus" depicts Christopher Columbus as an abstracted figure with multiple profiles contained within a skeletal sphere. The impressive sculpture works beautifully with the more traditional pieces that accent the Civic Center.

"The Great Seal," "Justice, Freedom and Release" and "Columbus" are all examples of figural abstraction. Denver, like the San Francisco Bay Area, had many contemporary artists interested in figural abstraction, including Joseph, Edgar Britton, Roland Detre, Edward Marecak and Frank Vavra.

During the 1970s, Joseph turned away from the figure and toward organic abstraction -- though it would ultimately prove to be a short detour. The Beaumont Fountain, from 1975, another downtown public project, exemplifies his then-new interest in organic abstraction. The fountain, at Broadway and 18th Street, has an aggregate bowl with an eight-foot bronze pile rising out of the middle of it serving as the water spout. The bronze forms were welded together in a puzzle-like arrangement to make an upright cylindrical form. The Beaumont, like the city's other fountains, has been turned off for years, and it appears to be in bad shape and in need of maintenance.

The last of Joseph's significant public commissions was from the City of Littleton, where his 1979 "Water Sculpture" is installed. The fabricated bronze fountain is situated in a gorgeous courtyard at Lincoln Center, Littleton's municipal complex at 2225 West Berry Street, just north of the old central business district.

"Water Sculpture" is one of Joseph's greatest pieces and is well worth seeking out. The center of it is formed by four structural supports that suggest geometric tree trunks with four vertically mounted half cylinders hanging down from the top of them. These cylinder shapes guide the water's flow into the concrete-and-brick basin. The green patina on the fountain that was naturally produced by the effect of the moving water is breathtaking. However, like the Beaumont Fountain, "Water Sculpture" looks like it could use some tender, loving care.

Joseph retired from teaching at Loretto Heights in 1987, not long before the college closed. Afterward, he devoted himself full-time to art and continued to produce sculpture into the '90s. During this period, religious art became predominant. One of his last major sculptures was a life-sized wood carving of the Virgin created for the St. Anthony Mausoleum at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, done in 1992. Fittingly, Joseph was buried at that same Catholic cemetery a couple of weeks ago.

In the last decade of his life, Joseph increasingly turned to painting. He was a superb painter, with the medium having been a part of his career all along -- although it had long been overshadowed by his sculpture. Making sculpture is a very physical activity, and it became more difficult for Joseph to do it as he got older, so painting became his main artistic activity. His gorgeous paintings, which have only rarely been shown, feature abstracted figures reminiscent of European modernism and often include religious themes.

Joseph was 77 when he died. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Barbara, along with his three children, nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild. But those of us who are interested in Denver's modern art should be counted among his heirs and beneficiaries, too, because his marvelous creations can still be found all over the metro area.


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