"Pilgrim Bottle" and "Rice-bale" vase, by Takashi Nakazato.
"Pilgrim Bottle" and "Rice-bale" vase, by Takashi Nakazato.

Here's Mud in Your Eye

Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee baseball legend who's known for his hilarious bon mots that seem to be oxymorons, once made an astute observation that would surely characterize the Denver Art Museum during the last few months: "Nobody goes there anymore -- it's too crowded."

The blockbuster exhibit Impressionism attracted about 200,000 visitors, making it by far the best-attended show in the DAM's history. According to surveys, nearly half of these visitors had never walked through the museum's doors before. Museum members, who also saw the show in record numbers, otherwise stayed away, however. The place was too jammed -- not just in the capacious Hamilton Galleries, but everywhere.

Since Impressionism required the purchase of specifically timed admission tickets, many visitors arrived early and occupied themselves by taking in other exhibits on other floors, meaning the entire museum was crowded. This was especially true of the sixth floor, where the department of painting and sculpture, headed by curator Timothy Standring, displays the DAM's permanent collection of European and American art.


The Clay Grows Tall: The World of Charles Simonds, through March 26; The Clay Vessel: Modern Ceramics From the Norwest Collection, through August 27; and Takashi Nakazato: Contemporary Pottery from an Ancient Japanese Tradition, through October 1 at the D

Now that Impressionism has closed, it seems like the right time to point out that one of the DAM's own Monets, "Waterloo Bridge," an oil on canvas from 1903, is as fine as even the finest painting in the traveling show. And there are other wonderful French paintings here, too. But despite the quality of the work, the sixth floor is annoying -- even though the crowds have moved on -- because of the ridiculous installation.

The display isn't historical, nor are stylistic distinctions clearly made. Done a few years ago by Standring, the presentation is an example of a current trend in museum installation in which artifacts are assembled according to subjective criterion, such as subject matter, and not according to objective ones like date and style. The results, as seen here, don't tell the viewer anything about the course of art history. Plus, the absurd juxtapositions that are inevitable with this approach make the pieces look bad. So what's the point?

The sixth floor fails the minute you alight from the elevator and are confronted with one of the worst pairings of objects imaginable -- well, at least until you proceed to the main galleries.

In front of us and to the left is the lovely "Bacchante and Infant Faun," an 1884 bronze by Frederick MacMonnies. It sits on a gorgeous though unidentified nineteenth-century Eastlake-style sculpture or plant stand. To the right is one of the museum's modern masterpieces: Alexander Archipenko's "Walking Woman" of 1912, which has been absurdly placed on a crudely made stand instead of on a period one like the MacMonnies. The neoclassicism of the MacMonnies crashes head-on with the post-cubism of the Archipenko; each makes the other look bad. It's the same with 1916's "Two Sisters," by Matisse, which completely glares out into oblivion from the track lighting, and "Childhood Idyll," by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, from 1900, which hangs below.

Here's a suggested New Year's resolution for Standring: Reinstall the sixth floor -- and hurry up, for heaven's sake.

Speaking of New Year's resolutions, here's one for Dianne Vanderlip, the omnipotent head of the DAM's Modern and Contemporary Department: Run the Vance Kirkland Close Range Gallery in a conscientious way as a showcase for local art.

Oh, I know the mandate of Close Range has been rewritten to the point that it has no meaning. Last summer, memos, faxes and press releases heralded the news that the Vance Kirkland Foundation had thrown a $250,000 gift at the gallery. But the announcement of the gift and the name change (it had been called the Close Range Gallery before) was accompanied by a subtle rewording of the definition of the space. It's no longer a regional venue, even if the name Close Range (which will probably be dispensed with sooner or later, anyway) is a play on Front Range. The artists who are now eligible for presentations in there are those who pass the muster of the rigorous standards of Vanderlip's whim.

The current show, The Clay Grows Tall: The World of Charles Simonds, makes the point clearly.

Simonds is a well-known clay artist who lives and works in New York; his most famous creations are the miniature landscapes he made with unfired clay, twigs and plaster that are related to the funk movement in ceramics. The show includes a single example of this classic type, titled "Floral Font," from 1989, and it's more along the lines of installation art than actually being a kind of ceramic creation, (it hasn't been fired, after all.) There are only three other pieces in the exhibit, seemingly unrelated wall-hung forms that are for sale, having been loaned by New York's Joseph Helman Gallery.

But The Clay Grows Tall will be open during the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference, to be held this spring in Denver. The conference will attract some 3,000 ceramic artists and teachers from around the world, a genuine who's who in the field. Surely, many of the attendees will be surprised to find the DAM's modern and contemporary department featuring a New York artist in a solo instead of one of the many nationally famous home-state talents who have worked or currently work here.

The names of world-class Colorado ceramics artists come quickly to my mind, as they surely will to the conferees: Betty Woodman, Paul Soldner, Richard DeVore, Maynard Tishler and Rodger Lang. Luckily, some of these artists, who should be shown in Close Range or elsewhere at the DAM, have been snagged by other institutions. Nan and Jim McKinnell will be the subject of a show at the Arvada Center, and Scott Chamberlin will be featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver. Martha Daniels, Brad Miller, Mark Zamantakis and many others will be included in ceramic group shows at private galleries in the area.

Vanderlip has skipped the locals, as usual, but this time, her seeming contempt for Colorado art will be exposed as it never has been before -- in the presence of an international audience of experts.

On the DAM's second floor is another ceramics show that will be open during NCECA, The Clay Vessel: Modern Ceramics From the Norwest Collection. It's the third installment of a series showcasing graphics and decorative arts dating from the early twentieth century. The pieces were collected by the Norwest Corporation in the 1980s.

Norwest, which has since merged with Wells Fargo, a bank with its own Western-themed art collection, gave its modernist pieces to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts earlier this year, where it is still known as the Norwest Collection.

Like the Close Range show, the Norwest exhibit doesn't include examples by Colorado artists, and that's egregious, especially in the case of Artus Van Briggle, an important art potter who worked in Colorado Springs at the turn of the last century. But architecture, design and graphics curator Craig Miller was limited by what was available from Norwest. He could have added a showcase adjacent to the Norwest show to highlight Van Briggle's accomplishments, however. And it's not too late! There's still time to do so before the ceramic circus rolls into town in March. Because it will be outrageous if during NCECA, there are no Van Briggles on display somewhere in Denver as they are in New York or Paris.

Aside from the irksome fact that Van Briggle's been left out, The Clay Vessel is gorgeous, demonstrating the connoisseurship of both Norwest curator David Ryan, who put the collection together, and Miller, who presents it in an economic and thoroughly cogent way.

Miller has laid out a grid of six showcases, each of which briefly but intelligently surveys a different current in early-twentieth-century ceramics from the United States and Europe. The first case, devoted to arts-and-crafts-movement ceramics, is a knockout, with three monumental American pots. They're as good as ceramics gets.

A strikingly beautiful vase, circa 1900, by George Prentiss Kendrick, for the Grueby Pottery of Boston, has a low relief of leaves following the contour of the elegant vertical baluster form. Next to it is another baluster vase, this one from 1901 and made by Ohio's Rookwood Pottery. The vase has been decorated with an almost photographically accurate scene of a clutch of tulips painted by Sturgis Lawrence. Also in the first case is a Prairie-style masterpiece, a large Teco vase circa 1910, with heavy buttresses serving as handles. The vase was made by Gates Pottery of Illinois and designed by owner William Gates.

The other showcases explore other styles, including art nouveau, art deco and modernist. This show may be small in size, but it's large in scope. Credit for that goes to Miller -- but I do wish he'd get more interested in local stuff.

There's yet another ceramic show at the DAM that will be open during the NCECA conference. On the fifth floor, which is devoted to Asian art -- a strong area for the museum -- there's a large and handsome presentation installed in the temporary-exhibits gallery just off the elevator lobby. Titled Takashi Nakazato: Contemporary Pottery From an Ancient Japanese Tradition, it is downright fabulous.

Now, not even I would expect Ron Otsuka, the DAM's curator of Asian art, to have included Colorado pottery in this show. But guess what? All of the ceramics in Takashi Nakazato were made by the legendary Japanese potter at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass. So even though the DAM's modern and contemporary department and its architecture, design and graphics department couldn't find Colorado material to feature during NCECA, somehow the Asian art department could. And that's what makes Otsuka such a treasure.

Otsuka first took over the department in 1973, when the building was just two years old; he succeeded Robert Moes. Though Otsuka is modest, pointing out that the Asian collection was already there when he came on board, it's not an exaggeration to say that the department as it exists today is mostly the product of his efforts.

The Nakazato show also owes a lot to Otsuka, since he not only put it together, but personally introduced the Japanese potter to the Gilpin County facility where all the pots were made. Beginning in 1994, Nakazato has come to Anderson Ranch twice a year to produce pots.

Nakazato represents the thirteenth generation in his family to have made pottery in the Japanese town of Karatsu. His father, Muan Nakazato, who died in 1985, was declared a "Living National Treasure" of Japan in 1955.

Japanese ceramics, however, present a special problem for Western audiences, since a lot of it looks contemporary, even when it's 400 years old. Nakazato, according to Otsuka, is "not avant-garde, but is not strictly traditional, either."

The show begins in the lobby, with a group of large storage vessels. On one side of the gallery entrance is a stand on which a jar from 1998 has been placed. The untitled jar, which is stoneware with slip decorations, was soda-fired, which helped produce the elegant iridescent glaze. It was made with coiled clay that has been compressed with a wooden paddle. Many of the pieces in the exhibit are made in this way, but Nakazato is also an expert at the kick wheel, and a number of other pots show off this skill.

Working with traditional forms and coming from a family tradition has led Nakazato to the production of articles used in the tea ceremony, including bowls and a dish with a handle, all of which were soda-fired. "Nakazato has a good reputation for his tea-ceremony objects," says Otsuka. "There is a special clientele in Japan for the tea ceremony, and Nakazato's pieces of this type are very costly -- way out of line in comparison to his other pottery made for ordinary functional use."

Otsuka points out that in addition to very Japanese things like tea-ceremony objects, Nakazato's Colorado pots also include forms that are outside his traditions, such as dinner plates and mugs with handles. Otsuka also notes that the clays and glazes Nakazato uses in Snowmass are distinctive from those he employs at home in Karatsu.

One very uniquely Colorado piece, in a Western form, is the flat-sided "Pilgrim" bottle from 1997. It's displayed next to a traditional Eastern-style "Rice-bale" vase from 1998, in which two thrown forms have been joined laterally to create the void of the vessel.

The Nakazato show is where East meets West -- literally -- and it is not to be missed. The fact that it has a local angle, unlike most of the offerings at the DAM, ceramics or otherwise, makes it all the more compelling. As a result, it's a big feather in Otsuka's cap.


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