In past years, the Denver Art Museum has usually seen the holiday season as an appropriate time to close some of its galleries and partially shut down -- strange, but true. In a dramatic change this year, however, all of the major galleries at the DAM are open, and the place is overflowing with glitzy attractions. I know it's cliche to say it, but there really is something for everyone somewhere in the museum -- and that, too, is unusual.
Let's say you're interested in classical antiquity. How about checking out that 4,000-pound Roman sarcophagus on the sixth floor? Made of marble, the piece depicts a group of figures from Greek mythology reclining on an elaborate divan. The sarcophagus, which debuted a few weeks ago, dates from the second century. Or maybe Oriental art is more to your liking. If so, then there are a couple of shows on the fifth floor, Sunken Treasures: Ming Dynasty Ceramics From a Chinese Shipwreck and China Meets the American Southwest, in which American Indian art is paired with Chinese.
More American Indian art can be seen on the seventh floor in The Harmsen Collection: A Colorado Legacy, which mostly features significant Western paintings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The work was collected by Jolly Rancher Candy Company founders Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, who gave it all to the museum earlier this year. Also on the seventh floor is Motion Pictures, which pairs the still photos of figures in motion by early-twentieth-century practitioner Eadweard Muybridge with similar pieces by mid- to late-twentieth-century photographer Harold Edgerton.
Of course, the DAM is showcasing some of its most important exhibits on the first floor, along with some choice individual pieces, including John DeAndrea's "Linda." This locally famous hyperrealist reclining nude from 1983 is back out for its annual appearance. And just debuting is Joan Mitchell's "Dune," the newly acquired 1970 abstract masterpiece given to the DAM by Charles Hamlin. Modern art fills the Stanton galleries in Alice Neel, a large survey of the career of the late but significant New York artist. Next door in the Vance Kirkland Close Range Gallery, postmodern art rules the roost in Bruce Nauman, a brief look at the work of the New Mexico conceptualist. Both of these shows close on December 30, so if you haven't seen them yet, you should make the effort.
There's a little more time -- but not much -- to catch the third show on the DAM's first floor, The Cos Cob Art Colony, in the Hamilton galleries. Set to close at the end of January, the exhibit began its tour at the National Academy of Design in New York; Denver is its last stop. Susan Larkin organized Cos Cob and wrote the catalogue for it.
Now, if you're like me, you've probably been asking this question: What in heaven's name is the Cos Cob Art Colony? It turns out it was an art colony in Greenwich, Connecticut, that attracted a number of prominent New York artists between 1880 and 1920. Stylistically, the Cos Cob artists were involved in impressionism and post-impressionism, as could be expected given the time period. But their work was distinct from that of their European counterparts.
The colony was partly founded by painter John Twachtman, who taught at the Art Students League in New York in the 1870s and moved permanently to Greenwich in 1878. Twachtman had been introduced to the area by friend and fellow New York painter J. Alden Weir. In the 1870s, Weir began spending his holidays and summers there while maintaining his New York studio. Twachtman, in turn, told his colleagues and former students about the place. Other artists who went to Cos Cob include Theodore Robinson and Childe Hassam, probably the most important post-impressionist painter in the United States. Hassam became one of the colony's most influential figures.
"The artists were looking for a place to go outside of New York City," says Ann Daley, the DAM curator who supervised the installation of the show here. "Someplace outside of the dirty industrial city...someplace that was picturesque, like Cos Cob."
The activities of the colony centered on a place called the Holley House. The habitués of this boardinghouse, which still stands, were bohemians and progressives embracing vanguard ideas about art, politics and even sexuality, Daley says. "Cos Cob was more than an art colony. It attracted not only artists, but writers like Willa Cather and muckraker Lincoln Steffens. The writers were attracted to the colony because there was a lot of freedom of thought in Cos Cob. It was quite avant-garde." But surely the real attraction was the artists. Twachtman and Weir taught summer art classes both in their studios and outside. "Twachtman sold very little during his lifetime," Daley says. "He was much more interested in teaching than in selling his work."
In the first gallery at the DAM are two major Twachtmans that demonstrate why demand for his work is greater now than it was then. In "Snowbound" and "Connecticut Hills in Winter," both oils on canvas from the 1890s, Twachtman records snowstorms. In his handling of the snowy ground and cloudy sky, he predicted -- in retrospect, anyway -- the future of American art, New York School abstract expressionism.
In the two similar paintings, which are hung side by side, Twachtman scumbles the white-on-white (on white-on-white) paint, and though the subjects -- Twachtman's home and studio -- can be made out, the pieces are very abstract, especially considering the time period during which they were painted. Interestingly, "Connecticut Hills in Winter" was not a part of the traveling show, but is an add-on from the DAM's permanent collection.
The next section of the show concerns Cos Cob's architecture. Twachtman's "Old Holley House," an oil from the 1890s, depicts the beloved rooming house, again in a snowstorm, and again in a way that's very abstract for the time.
"Twachtman always painted from nature and often painted snow scenes," says Daley. "He would paint out of doors in the snow, and there are many examples of this kind of work." He also painted outside in the spring, summer and fall, but these paintings are much more traditionally representational. In them, Twachtman reveals his interest in painterly flourishes; the surfaces of all of his paintings feature lively brushwork and heavily applied gobs of paint.
The third section of the exhibit concerns portraits and figure paintings of women and children. There are two important Hassams here, painted in his characteristic expressionist style, which is marked by frenetic brushwork. Both indicate how much Hassam was influenced by Japanese art. This is clearly seen in "Listening to the Orchard Oriole," from 1902, in which a woman dressed in a kimono stands on a porch looking over a stand of trees. Nearby is "Bowl of Goldfish," from 1912, in which the same woman stands before a window open to the wooded landscape. Sitting on the table is a bowl of goldfish. (Curator and catalogue author Larkin gives the piece a feminist reading, comparing the women of the day to the goldfish, but I think this political exegesis creates an inappropriately heavy burden for this sweet little painting to carry.)
Beyond is a section devoted to prints, mostly done by Hassam but supplemented by a handful from other artists, notably Kerr Eby. Much younger than Hassam, Eby nonetheless instructed the elder artist in the art and craft of etchings. Eby was a printmaker whose home and print shop, nicknamed Casa Eby, was a famous Cos Cob gathering place.
The last section of the show features paintings of the life of the harbors, rivers and lakes of the region, among them several Robinson paintings of ships in the harbor. Robinson's style is much like Twachtman's; it includes a painterly quality with scuffs and stains that seems to anticipate abstract expressionism. Also in this section is a fine Ernest Lawson painting, "River Scene in Winter," from 1899. Lawson provides an unexpected Colorado connection: He came to Colorado Springs in the late 1920s after the scene around Cos Cob had wound down and the one around the Broadmoor Academy was just heating up.
"It seems like the time is right to do a Broadmoor show soon," says Daley, "especially in light of the new focus on regional art brought on by the Harmsen gift." I can't wait, but I'd be surprised if anything of this sort happened before the museum's new wing is completed, still five years in the future.
The show ends with a single major painting, installed all alone in the egress space. It's another heavy-duty Twachtman, 1895's "Sailing in the Mist." This is an extremely modernist painting, with the sailboat, the sea and the misty sky all carried out in gestural scribbles of blue and white.
Seeing Cos Cob is like taking an imaginary trip to New England -- which is the only way most of us will get there this year.
Just across Acoma Plaza, the topic is a lot closer to home; in fact, it's right in our own back yard. Up on the seventh floor of the Denver Public Library, in the Vida Ellison Gallery, is Denver Park and Parkway System: A Legacy of Design. The exhibit is more a history show than an art show, one that includes drawings, period photos, brochures, blueprints, plans and even a souvenir or two.
It was Kay Wisnia who decided on the varied material selected for the exhibit. Wisnia, a respected and well-known reference librarian in the Western History and Genealogy department, also works with the DPL's important art collection. Thus she was ideally suited to select the tasty mix of art, historical documents and memorabilia that make up the show. "In picking the items for the exhibit, I tried to give people an idea of the range of the collection," she says. Making those choices must have been a daunting task, since there are more than 7,000 relevant artifacts and documents at the DPL.
Carolyn Etter, who served as a consultant for the show, has a lot of familiarity with the city's parks and parkways. She and her husband, Don, first demonstrated their interest and expertise by co-authoring a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the parks and parkways in 1986. The next year, they were appointed co-directors of the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, a job they held until 1991.
Throughout the Etterses' tenure, they strove tirelessly not only to preserve the parks and parkways, but also to conserve the historical material related to them. They had discovered that a huge volume of fragile old drawings, photos and correspondence were piled up willy-nilly at the department, while similar things were in the nooks and crannies of the Department of Public Works. The Etters began a more-than-decade-long effort to transfer this booty over to the DPL's Western History collection, a project that continues today.
Fortunately, the Etters weren't impeded by their successor, B.J. Brooks, who ran the department from 1991 to 2001. The Etters worked around Brooks, who resigned after a number of departmental scandals earlier this year. But the comparison between how the Etters ran the department and how Brooks did is a perfect parallel to the differences between the administrations of former mayor Federico Peña and current mayor Wellington Webb. The Etters got their job because they were knowledgeable about the parks and interested in their history. Brooks, who now works in the city's planning office, was hired because she is a political associate of Webb's. And though the parks system has been greatly expanded under Webb -- in the Platte Valley, at Lowry, at Stapleton -- there has been no consequent increase in funding. As a result, except for City Park and the Civic Center, where armies of volunteers supplement municipal maintenance crews, Denver's beloved green spaces look pretty rundown.
One revelation of the show is the rediscovery of an important figure in the history of Denver's parks: landscape designer Reinhard Schuetze, who was born in Germany in 1860. The Etters have written an informative and generously illustrated monograph on Schuetze that is available in the DPL's gift shop. "Schuetze had been trained at Sanssouci, the royal Prussian horticulture school," Etter says, before attending the Koniglichen Forstakademie Eberswalde, Prussia's forestry academy. He moved to Denver in 1889 -- most likely for health reasons, Etter says, since he suffered from tuberculosis and the area was a center for the treatment of the disease.
Schuetze's first great accomplishment was the laying out and landscaping of Fairmount Cemetery, a project he began almost as soon as he got here. "He knew how to grade," says Etter. "He knew how to create a water drip system; he knew how to find water. He was highly experimental and discovered what would grow here, and he introduced an incredible variety of plant materials to this then-barren landscape."
Schuetze spent the next 21 years -- until his death, in 1910 -- landscaping the State Capitol grounds, redoing City Park, designing Cheesman Park, Washington Park and a number of others, and operating a successful private landscaping practice. A photo, "Pavilion, Cheesman Park," taken by Louis McClure in 1915, records a part of his legacy: Though most of the photos in Legacy of Design are set in the spring or summer, this one demonstrates the appeal of the city's parks even in the dead of winter, something that was doubtless of interest to Schuetze even before he left Prussia.
The DPL show includes a good deal about Schuetze's successor, Saco DeBoer, as well. Interestingly, DeBoer also came to Denver to seek relief for tuberculosis. One notable piece is a marvelous photo of DeBoer's now-lost Sunken Gardens on Speer Boulevard. DeBoer was a landscape architect and, more or less, the father of city planning in Denver.
The exhibit also includes modern designs and designers, including material related to Burnham Hoyt's 1940s Red Rocks Amphitheater and Lawrence Halprin's beleaguered and endangered Skyline Park, from the 1970s.
Sadly, the cut-off date for the collection is 1990. "The department began to use computers at that time," says Etter, so paper documents have been replaced by virtual ones, many of which are already lost in cyberspace.
The Denver parks system is world-famous, thanks to enlightened landscape designers, park planners and political leaders. However, "Denver wasn't always a place with beautiful parks," Etter reminds us. "And it won't be in the future if there isn't a renewed public commitment to them."
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