The Colorado History Museum rarely presents exhibits that concern the fine and decorative arts. The museum's philosophy is more attuned to promoting what's called "material culture" -- a broad field that includes things like pickaxes and ski lifts. This is all well and good, but for those of us interested in the visual arts, it does decidedly limit the appeal of the place.
Right now, though, we've suddenly lost all our good excuses for not going over there, because Vance Kirkland: A Colorado Painter's Life -- Early Works and Beyond occupies almost the entire main floor. The full-tilt presentation takes a big-picture view of the middle decades of the twentieth century in Colorado, and the late, legendary Denver artist's paintings are used as the guiding light. The occasion for the show is the centennial of Kirkland's birth, which is coming up in 2004.
CHM curator Judy Steiner co-organized the exhibit with Hugh Grant, the director of the Kirkland Museum, which loaned all the Kirklands and most everything else. This was necessary because, sadly, the CHM has relatively few examples of the fine and decorative arts in its collections; fortunately, though, the Kirkland Museum has scads. It's a convenient affair for both, because the little museum -- which sits just blocks away from the big institution -- is crowded with art, while the CHM is mostly devoid of it.
Steiner and Grant established a number of ideological threads that they've used to examine Kirkland's oeuvre. The show grew beyond what would normally be found in a solo offering, and it includes lots more than the efforts of a single artist. Though Kirkland's work, which is hung throughout the show, is the dominating presence, it's seen in the context of Denver art in general, having been supplemented by other local artists' pieces. Not only that, but the subject of international modern design is also brought in.
As is obvious, these themes make Vance Kirkland very complicated and thus hard to follow at times. Sometimes the text panels are out of sync with the objects they're attempting to explain, which makes the situation worse. The effect is not unlike seeing a dubbed Japanese movie. This complaint is definitely minor, however, considering all the marvelous strengths of the show. And I hate to make even this negative observation, because the installation by David Newell, the CHM's exhibition designer, is otherwise wonderful.
When they enter the show, visitors will want to turn left to enter the gallery in which the earliest objects are on view. In this space, Kirkland's watercolors and works on paper dating from the 1920s and '30s are put together with pottery and furniture from the early twentieth century. The first thing anyone will notice is "Oklahoma Land Rush," a full-sized mural sketch of the U.S. Post Office in Sayre, Oklahoma, that's hanging directly across from the entrance. The sketch depicts pioneers on foot and horseback and in wagons, literally rushing to grab some free land in what had been Indian territory.
Stylistically, "Oklahoma Land Rush" is regionalist, and it closely relates to the contemporaneous murals by Colorado's old master of the medium, Boardman Robinson. This kind of realism was of interest to Kirkland for more than twenty years, and the first and second galleries include several additional examples, most in the form of velvety watercolors. Many are examples of regionalist hybrids that reflect the influence of various abstract approaches. The curators have dealt with this mixture by calling the hybrid-styled paintings "Designed Realism"; that label refers to watercolors such as "Nevadaville," from 1931, and "Central City Opera House," from 1933. In them, Kirkland employed a cubist conception of space combined with more typically regionalist conventions of literal representation.
Cubism wasn't the only modernist style that Kirkland explored. The watercolor "Railway Tracks" is precisionist, while several other works reference scuola metafisica, the Italian precursor to surrealism. Kirkland often traveled to Italy, and it was surely there that he became aware of what was then a fairly obscure movement.
The decorative-art pieces are arranged on platforms with clear plastic shields in front to protect against possible theft. The presence of the plastic is annoying but necessary. The furniture and pottery in the first two galleries are older than the art, but the pairing looks good. There is one serious problem, though: A table from the CHM's Byers-Evans House is purported to be nineteenth-century but is actually much newer -- or at least the top is -- so it shouldn't be on display at all.
Ignoring this boner -- and it really is a big one -- there are many standouts in this section, including two absolutely drop-dead-spectacular monumental vases by Artus and Anne Van Briggle, who worked in Colorado Springs at the turn of the century. Artus died in 1904, but Anne was teaching at the University of Denver when Kirkland arrived in 1929, and she introduced him to their work before she died later that same year. As a result of this meeting, Kirkland began to collect Van Briggle pottery before just about anybody else. Of the two Van Briggles in the show, the CHM owns one, the vase "Despondency," which is quite fine. Even though the CHM has several Van Briggle vases in its collection, I daresay none is so fine as this one.
There are several other eye-popping decorative items in this first part of the exhibit. Take note of the gorgeous prairie-style pedestal by E. E. Roberts, which was made of oak and white marble for the Masonic Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Adjacent is a hand-carved and -painted trunk by Colorado artist Kathleen Vavra, and around the corner, in the second gallery, is a sublime moderne mirror by Warren McArthur.
The next part of the show is all but a period room -- or two of them, actually. I say "all but" because, technically, the room does not replicate a space that actually existed, but rather is a hypothetical historic room. CHM designer Newell lined the walls with light-colored wood panels reminiscent of mid-century treatments. This fantasy of a 1950s interior is a tour de force. The L-shaped space, which is raised up on a stage, has been outfitted as a living room on one end and a dining room on the other.
The living room includes a Hans Wegner "Papa Bear" armchair and ottoman, a Bruno Mathsson table and a nest of Italian tables by an anonymous designer. The dining room is furnished with a table and a buffet by Russel Wright, a pioneering modernist designer best known for his dinnerware, which is also displayed here. Wright was one of Kirkland's favorite designers, and he frequently served his guests meals on Wright-designed plates. Next to the Wright table set with Wright china is a small cabaret table made by Denver ceramic wizard Donna Marecak.
These "rooms" have been further accessorized with paintings and sculptures. One, "Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," an oil on linen from 1948, is by Kirkland, but the other paintings are by his peers, including Edward Marecak and Frank Vavra. The Vavra, titled "Diana," is a modernist portrait of the artist's daughter done in oil on panel. The essentially abstract painting is perfect for this show, because it incorporates into it the image of a butterfly chair.
Also on display in this section is "Woman," an elegant fabricated-steel sculpture done in 1970 by Bill Joseph, an important figure in Denver's modern-art history. On a sad note, Joseph, who attended the show's opening with his wife, Barbara, died last week.
Grant nicknamed these period setups "the cocktail party" because they well express Kirkland's love of entertaining. The artist was an avid host and had many parties, receptions, exhibitions, recitals, lectures and all manner of events at both his mansion and his studio. Interestingly, several of the pieces in this section came not from Kirkland's estate, but from Grant's childhood home. Kirkland was good friends with Grant's parents back in the early 1950s, and he helped them pick out their furniture.
The show continues in the large gallery that leads toward the front of the museum. This space holds all the paintings for which Kirkland is best remembered today. The oldest pieces date from the 1940s and are surrealist; they are extensions of the ideas he worked out in the earlier metafisica-inspired pieces. These are followed by the abstract-expressionist compositions he began doing in the 1950s, which represent a total break with his earlier work, including the surrealist paintings. Finally, this part of the show concludes with Kirkland's signature dot paintings that he began doing in the 1960s and continued creating until his death, in 1981.
The abstract-expressionist paintings show off one of Kirkland's many inventions -- the mixing of oil and water. The artist would shake up oil paint in water and fling the mixture onto the canvas. As it settled, the water evaporated and allowed the oil paint to adhere to the picture's surface in its original water-borne shape. The dot paintings represent a take on this technique: Kirkland would first put down an oil-and-water layer and then, following the spontaneously produced contours that resulted, carefully put on dots using sticks and dowels in lieu of brushes.
The final part of the show includes the most recently done compositions in the exhibit. There's a stunning David Yust from the 1970s and a bronze figure by Edgar Britton done at the same time. There are even some works created after Kirkland's death -- notably, new paintings by Tracy and Sushe Felix.
In this same category of recently acquired works are several older ones that are displayed throughout the show, such as ceramics by Nan and Jim McKinnell and Mark Zamantakis. (Coincidentally, Zamantakis is currently the subject of his own solo; see Artbeat.)
Hopefully, this show will be only the first of many partnerships between the Kirkland and the CHM. In fact, I suggest that Vance Kirkland be used by the CHM as a kind of laboratory for future shows, one in which individual components could be extrapolated into full-blown exhibits. Within Vance Kirkland are the seeds of an American art-pottery survey, an arts-and-crafts exhibit, a deco display, a show on abstract art in Colorado, a 1950s furniture exhibition and a contemporary ceramics outing, among others. And happily, as we can see, the Kirkland Museum could provide all the material without affecting its own magical ambience and distinguished character one little bit.
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