On December 14, I got a call from a good friend. Her tone was uncharacteristically formal, so I knew something was wrong. "Mark Travis was found dead in his studio," she stoically told me. This news was shocking despite the fact that Travis had been in declining health for years, and I think many in the community had the same reaction that I did. Travis had beaten the odds for so long, the idea that he might actually die from his infirmities had been pushed to the back of our collective minds.
Travis's body was discovered by a neighbor, and it's unclear how long he'd been dead. His obituary in the Rocky Mountain News noted that it was either December 12 or 13 when he suffered a fatal heart attack while working on a painting. He was only 55. The obit described Travis in its headline as a "consummate painter," and that's an apt description, though I think I'd prefer to call him an artist's artist.
A chain-smoking, hard-drinking swashbuckler who lived in poverty in his garret-like studio, Travis followed the romantic, if difficult, lifestyle of the starving artistic genius — just like artists in the movies do. He worked conventional low-end jobs only sporadically, earning a living mostly through the sometime sluggish sale of his paintings and the generosity of friends.
And he exhibited a key characteristic of the classic creative persona: He liked to outrage the bourgeoisie. Above all, he refused to sell out, which would have meant cooperating in his own success, a concept that may strike younger artists as bizarre, since for most, selling out is a mark of success. But for artists of Travis's generation, it clearly wasn't.
Here's an anecdote illustrating that. It was maybe five years ago that I found myself at a swank garden party at a luxurious Cherry Hills Village home. There were a lot of smartly dressed people there who were among the art establishment, including curators from the Denver Art Museum and many wealthy donors — you know, the kind of people who could help someone's career.
When Travis strolled onto the patio, he was a sight to behold. He was wearing a beret, as he often did, and one long dangly earring that terminated in a tiny inverted feather. But the pièce de résistance was a T-shirt emblazoned with the motto "Property Denver County Jail" — and it was no novelty-store item, but the real thing. He made an unforgettable impression, but I'm afraid it wasn't a particularly good one.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1952 to a middle-class African-American family, Travis came early on to his calling as an artist. His talent and interests, as well as the support of his family, allowed him to attend Interlochen Arts Academy, the Cooper School of Art and the prestigious Cleveland Institute. Travis frequently told a story about hiding in the Cleveland Museum of Art after closing time and spending the night with all the paintings that he loved so much.
Travis later earned his BFA at the Columbus College of Art & Design and an MFA from Ohio University in Athens. In 1979, he made his way to Denver.
I first became aware of Travis's work in the mid-1980s. As I remember it, his style combined abstract-expressionist brushwork and formalist compositions. Since he made little money for his efforts, he often drafted cheap non-art materials into service. I recall seeing paintings done on foam-core board, carried out in house paints. Travis was always vague about his methods, and nearly everything was labeled as having been done in mixed media. The ultimate expressions of this approach were his "red paintings," created in the early to mid-1990s. In these massive pieces, Travis incorporated found materials including signs, forklift pallets, tires and anything else he could get his hands on. A characteristic example is "Patchwork." In this very sculptural painting, Travis attached a handmade miniature ladder in wood and a ripped section of tire on top of a stunning, all-over abstraction done in gorgeous, vibrant colors. This painting and the other works related to it were unified by violent expressionistic brushwork featuring, of course, a lot of red.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote about a Travis show at Mackey Gallery for a weekly called Icon, saying there wasn't a single false note in the entire exhibit. Travis was at the top of his game at the time — not to mention the top of his fame, with pieces by him winding up in many private and corporate collections.
Then, for reasons known only to Travis, he dropped out of the scene and didn't return until 2002, with exhibits at Walker Fine Art and Studio Aiello. This was an example not only of his renewed ambition, but also his longtime disregard for the norms of the field — since neither gallery knew the other was doing a show! Such behavior also explains why he went through a string of venues over the years, finally landing at Space Gallery (765 Santa Fe Drive, 720-904-1088, www.spacegallery.org), which had planned a summer show to correspond with the upcoming Democratic National Convention here. It is thought that Travis was working on these paintings when he died.
The shows of the last five years revealed that Travis had radically changed his style during his hiatus. The bold colors were gone, and so, to some extent, was the powerful brushwork, with the newer paintings being more subtly hued and handled. The biggest change, however, was Travis's thorough embrace of representational imagery, notably the female nude, sometimes rendered literally, but more often conceived as a vaporous and ambiguous apparition. His earlier pieces did make references to recognizable objects, especially ladders and shelters, but they didn't dominate his pictures. I've been stunned by how many people I've talked with over the holidays who don't know who Travis was or, if they do, how many associate him with his figural abstraction from the past few years rather than the thoroughly abstract pieces that established his initial fame.
On December 21, Renna Shesso, Candice Pulliam and others organized — essentially overnight — an impromptu memorial to Travis at Pirate Contemporary Art (3659 Navajo Street, 303-458-6058). It is made up of works from his studio, some of them unfinished, supplemented by clippings of reviews written by Shesso, a predecessor of mine at Westword who wrote under the byline Nancy Clegg. Several years ago, Shesso, working with Artists Helping Artists (AHA), helped to stage a fundraiser for Travis, who was in poor health. She also established a website, www.marktravis.net.
Travis's death reminds me of John Haeseler, another once-prominent artist who died last year, also right before the holidays ("Absolutely Fabulous," January 11, 2007). The two couldn't have been more different, but they shared certain characteristics. Both were only 55 when they died and had been major players from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s before each dropped out of the local scene. Both lived their lives in uncompromising ways characterized by a dedication to their careers, and both tried to make a go of it through the sale of their art alone, a very difficult thing to do. They were classic personifications of the starving artist — bad habits and all.
In this job, I have a front-row seat to the spectacle of the art world, and part of the system has always troubled me. Because galleries, museums and art centers rely on the support of wealthy donors, they play to their tastes and usually allow these donors to call the shots in terms of what is presented. But artists like Travis, who refuse to play the game of pleasing the powers-that-be, pay serious consequences, often living in poverty.
I know I'm probably spitting in the wind here, but I hope some large venue presents a proper Travis retrospective before his works are scattered hither and yon. It's the least the community could do for someone who so clearly left his mark on the Denver scene of his time, even if many have forgotten that.
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