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Good Heavens

"The Living and the Dead," by Alice Neel, oil on canvas.

It is no exaggeration to say that Denver's entire art landscape changed for the better last week when Ron Judish Fine Arts cut the ribbon on its new and unbelievably grand gallery in Highland. The gallery had been located on Wazee Street in LoDo before shutting down in the middle of the summer in anticipation of the move. "Parking was getting impossible down there," explains gallery director Ron Judish. "Here we have our own parking lot."

The new location is on the ground floor of a stunning nineteenth-century Richardsonian-Romanesque church by Denver architects Franklin Kidder and John Humphries. Built in 1890, the church, which used to be called Asbury Methodist, represented a cutting-edge design and expressed the most progressive -- read: anti-Victorian -- architectural currents of the time. It has an incredible linear and graphic quality. On its walls, alternating gray and red stones are used to make checkerboards, stringcourses and interlocking arches. Standing at the corner of Thirtieth Avenue and Vallejo Street, the building is a genuine landmark; its steeple is visible from blocks around. Thus, even if you're unfamiliar with the neighborhood -- which, by the way, is difficult to navigate -- you can find the new Judish gallery.

The exterior is set to be restored this spring, and it really needs it, because a lot of the red-sandstone trim has been degraded through spalling. But the gallery already has a dramatic new entrance on Vallejo, featuring a recessed plaza defined by a curving concrete wall, which somehow works with the old building without damaging either of the principal elevations. The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission approved the design of the new entrance, which was done by Boulder's Winter, Kramer and Jessup, specialists in historic preservation. Eventually, an iron fence will be installed around the new entrance, and a sculpture garden will be built on the hill that rises behind that curving wall.

"I'm so happy we're able to offer something to the community that helps save the building," says Judish, who is a true believer in preservation. "And we plan to treat the outside respectfully when we begin the exterior restoration."

Descending into the outdoor entrance plaza, visitors pass a fabulous new stone-and-steel sculpture created by rising art star Emmett Culligan. "It works so well you'd think we commissioned it specifically for this space, but we didn't," says Judish. "In fact, I never even saw it until Emmett delivered it and put it in place."

The entrance itself is accessed through a pair of doors made of wood with metal hardware. The double doors have a minimalist industrial look and were made by a pair of young Denver sculptors, Jon Stiles and Joe Riché. Though the doors are very heavy, they are perfectly balanced and swing open with ease.

Inside the entry, Judish has hung the original presentation drawings of the church, done in ink on vellum. The delicate and beautiful drawings, which, according to Judish, were found rolled up in the basement, are signed by the architects, Kidder and Humphries. Judish has also hung an unusual, multi-part Bob Coller photo installation from the ceiling. Clear acrylic disks of various sizes float above our heads, held up by steel wire. The disks are reverse-decorated with translucent color photos of kaleidoscopes.

The entry space is a few steps above the main level of the gallery. As a result, the gallery proper unfolds before the visitor, providing a breathtaking vista of the main attraction, Alice Neel -- paintings and drawings. The show, meant to coincide with the Neel show at the Denver Art Museum, is a knockout. In fact, the two galleries full of Neels at Judish look like a continuation of the DAM show.

Asked how he was able to snag something of this caliber for his grand opener, Judish says, "I could not have scripted a better story. I was at a cocktail party last spring, and someone told me about the Neel show coming." As it happened, Dianne Vanderlip, the DAM's curator of modern and contemporary art, was also at the party. "I went over to her and asked how she would feel if we pursued getting a Neel show for our opening exhibit," Judish continues. "Dianne was very supportive and helped me secure the show through the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, which represents the Neel estate. It was really short notice, but the folks at Robert Miller bent over backward to make it all happen in time."

The show, which fills the two main gallery rooms and wraps around into a third gallery, combines a good selection of Neel's signature portraits in both paintings and works on paper; some date back to the 1930s, but most are from the '70s and '80s.

There are several standouts among the portraits, including "Man in a Plaid Shirt," an oil on canvas from 1959, which is hung in the first of the main galleries. In this painting, a young man in a pink-and-purple shirt strikes a tortured, reclining pose that fills the composition with opposing diagonals reinforced by the linear character of the plaid. As in nearly all Neel portraits, the subject stares back at viewers, but in this one, the young man seems to be giving us -- or perhaps Neel -- a dirty look.

 

On the back wall is another emblematic portrait, "Marxist Girl (Irene Paslikas)," an oil on canvas from 1972. In this painting, the largest and one of the most important in the show, Neel's flattened perspective and off-kilter sense of composition are clearly shown off in her depiction of Paslikas sitting in a purple, Danish-modern-style chair.

Another first-rate Neel portrait is "Charlotte Willard," an oil on canvas from 1967, which is hung on the opposite wall in the second gallery. It shows a woman in a blue dress and ethnic jewelry sitting in an old red chair.

An interesting feature of the show is the display of several lesser-known still lifes that are every bit as compelling as Neel's portraits. "Still Life, Spring Lake," an oil on canvas from 1969, shows a table in the foreground with an old refrigerator and a chair in the background. Freed from the curves of the figure, this painting has a more emphatic geometry than do the portraits. One unforgettable oil-on-canvas still life is "The Living and the Dead." The painting is barely stained in places -- a technique Neel increasingly used late in her life -- but the subject is easy to see: It's a skull on a table in front of a window. "The Living and the Dead" is one of the best paintings in the show.

Across from the Neel show, in the third gallery, is the second solo being presented by Judish, Heidi McFall -- new works on paper. McFall is an artist from Colorado Springs who's decidedly on her way to bigger and better things.

Judish practically discovered McFall. After seeing her work in a juried show at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, he invited her to display her work at his old gallery on Wazee Street; it was the first time she had shown in a commercial gallery. Last year, McFall went on to be seen in a gallery in Santa Fe, and this spring, her work will be shown at Annina Nosei's prestigious gallery in New York.

It's easy to understand McFall's success: She's a master of her technique, the unwieldy process of putting pastel on gessoed board. The pieces here are done so well that viewers will do a double-take to make sure they're not photos.

McFall uses a very subtle palette of black, white and a host of grays, including a chilly ice-greenish tone. All of the McFalls are large, and most feature only one model. In "Fitness Instructor #3," a young woman in a spaghetti-strapped blouse talks on a cordless headset. Only two include more than one model. One of these, "Fitness Instructors #4," shows two athletic young women smiling while they exercise. In the other, "Sarah in Conversation, Juxtaposed With Dena," the perky Sarah is seen talking on a cell phone, while Dena laughs and listens nearby.

Now, you might think three full-sized galleries would be more than enough, but astoundingly, there's a fourth gallery in Judish's new space. This gallery will be permanently devoted to changing displays of works by artists whom Judish represents. This is a really good idea, because most of the time, between shows, a gallery's artists have their work in storage instead of on the walls. But as clever as this is, few other galleries have the space Judish does, so they can't devote an entire room to such exhibits.

The pieces on display include a magnificent mixed media on wood called "Meeker," by prominent Denver abstractionist Jeff Wenzel. As he always does, Wenzel laid painted pieces of paper down on the wood and then painted them all over again. Across from the Wenzel is a remarkable John Hull acrylic-on-canvas painting, "The Getaway." Hull, who lives south of Denver, is one of the most important contemporary representational painters in the country. In this ironically titled painting, an edgy narrative is partly conveyed by a trio of down-and-outers hanging around a broken-down-and-out truck.

Also in this gallery are a couple of examples of the current craze for color field and post-minimalism, including a luscious orange diptych by New Mexico artist Paul Sarkisian and a creamy, gorgeous lavender painting by emerging Denver artist John Morrison. (A sublime Bruce Price painting of red diamonds, also in the post-minimalist line, is hung in the adjacent office. It's an example of the kind of thing we'll see in his show, planned for the gallery in December.) Other highlights include two juicy color photos of what I think is the moon, by Denver's Sarah Timberlake. These are next to an elegant transparent-plastic wall hanging by Kate Petley, of Pagosa Springs. In the middle of the room are a couple of rather outrageous -- and anatomically correct -- bronze figures by Michael Brohman.

 

As I wrapped up my tour, I still could hardly believe what I'd seen: Not only does Judish's new gallery favorably compare to the best of the city's commercial galleries, but it gives some of the mid-sized museums and art centers a run for their money. (Speaking of money, Judish's silent partner must have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull this off.)

"Never in my life did I imagine anything on this scale," says Judish.

Hey, that goes double for the rest of us.


In a sad though not unexpected development, Roland Detre died on October 30. Detre, an abstract painter, remains in death what he was during his lifetime -- one of the most important artists in the state's history.

Detre's classic paintings are simple abstractions of everyday subjects such as figures or sailboats. One of the most remarkable aspects of his paintings is the gorgeous scabrous surface he created by applying the pigments when they were nearly dry. His powdery palette, which ranged from pastels to jewel tones, is also worth noting. "He was a mystic," says Jack Kunin, Denver's premier art appraiser, "and his medium was painting."

Born in Budapest in 1903, Detre had a precocious talent for art. At the age of twelve, he was already exhibiting his work in galleries, and he entered the academy in Budapest in 1920, when he was only seventeen. At the academy, Detre studied with noted Hungarian painter Janos Vaszary, who had been trained in Paris.

Detre left Hungary in 1926, going first to Berlin, which was an important art center at the time. Then, after marrying Rose Szilard, a fashion designer from Budapest, he moved to Paris in 1930. The time Detre spent in Paris would have a lifelong effect on his style of painting, and his work always carried with it the tradition of School of Paris modernism. The influence of Braque is obvious, as is that of Matisse.

In 1936, playing the starving artist in depression-ravaged Paris, Detre got an unlikely lucky break when he came down with tuberculosis, just like Mimi in La Bohème. What made this a stroke of luck for the artist (though, alas, not for poor Mimi) was that it meant Detre, a non-practicing Jew, was safely off in a sanatorium in nominally neutral Switzerland when the Nazis invaded France just a few years later. Tuberculosis literally saved Detre and his wife from the horrors of the Holocaust. After the war, Detre moved to New York with the sponsorship of his wife's brother, Leo Szilard, a key figure in the history of physics.

Oddly, tuberculosis was also a lucky break for Denver, because Colorado, like Switzerland, was a famous center for the treatment of the disease; that's why Detre first came here in 1951 after a relapse.

Detre's sophisticated pieces were readily embraced by the Denver art world, and his work was often exhibited at the Denver Art Museum in the 1950s and '60s. The museum even acquired two pieces for its permanent collection, "Corn" and "Adobe Wall." By 1970, Detre, nearly seventy himself, slowly disappeared from public view, but he didn't stop painting. Then, in 1985, the University of Denver put together a retrospective that reintroduced Detre to the public. For many, it was the first time they had seen his work.

After the DU exhibit, several solo shows were mounted in the '80s and '90s devoted to Detre's accomplishments, both at the now-closed Inkfish Gallery and at Elizabeth Schlosser Fine Arts, which has also closed. Paul Hughes, who owned Inkfish, is now a private dealer working out of his home, and he still has a limited number of Detre paintings for sale. Detre's work has also been included over the last few years in shows at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and at the Mizel Museum of Judaica.

But it's been at least a couple of years since Detre's paintings were displayed somewhere, and more than fifteen years since that DU retrospective, so wouldn't now be the perfect time for some local art institution to start planning a memorial exhibit? I for one, would love to see it.


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