Twenty years ago, there was little if any interest in the history of Colorado art, aside from turn-of-the-last-century landscape painting; that stuff never got old, while everything else did. But as the 1990s dawned and people began to think of the imminence of the 21st century, there was a lot of looking back, and curators, dealers, collectors and scholars began to discover Colorado art from the early to mid-twentieth century.
So while regional art was more commonly found in thrift shops than in galleries in the '80s, today you'll pay top dollar for the best work — if you can find it. And historical shows have become something of a regular feature on the exhibition calendar.
Though he jumped into the fray just a few years ago, the leading collector of Colorado material in town is Hugh Grant, director of the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art. This is partly because Grant had a head start, having inherited many Vance Kirklands in the 1980s. Despite its name, however, the museum is given over not just to Kirkland's work, but to an enormous and wide-ranging assortment of pieces by other Colorado artists, as well as thousands of examples of modernist design and decor. Even without a show on view, the place is crowded beyond belief.
When there is an exhibit here, viewers must be highly disciplined visually, and mentally edit out the things that are nearby. The Kirkland doesn't have a gallery set aside just for special exhibitions, so shows are installed together with the permanent collection. (It's an irony that the Colorado History Museum, just a few blocks away, has so much space with so little of interest for art lovers.)
Grant's latest offering is Marecak Diptych, which begins with the work of Donna Fortin Marecak and then switches to that of her husband, Edward Marecak. Donna's accomplishments are not nearly as well known as Edward's, but neither has been the subject of an in-depth display for more than a decade, so this represents a rare opportunity to take in a shorthand version of their respective life endeavors.
Donna, whose birth name was Theresa Madonna Fortin, was born in Illinois in 1922, and she originally set out to become a nurse. In 1940, however, after a visit to the Chicago Art Institute, she decided to quit nursing school and take a job as a waitress so she could enroll at Hull House, the Windy City's version of the Emily Griffith Opportunity School. Through friends, she met then-prominent artist Edgar Britton, who encouraged her to enroll in CAI, which she did, studying there for a couple of years.
In 1944, she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps and wound up at the Army Photography School at Colorado's Lowry Field. Britton had moved to Colorado Springs to get treatment for tuberculosis, and he and Donna renewed their friendship. After her discharge from the WACs, Donna stayed in Colorado to study with Britton at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. It was there that she met Edward.
Born on a farm outside of Cleveland in 1919, Edward demonstrated his artistic bent as a youngster by painting scenery for puppet shows. In his senior year of high school, he was hired by the National Youth Administration of the New Deal to document in watercolor the old barns of Ohio, for which he was paid 75 cents an hour. He then attended the Cleveland Institute of Art on a full scholarship, earning a diploma in painting in 1942. He went on to the Cranbrook Academy, but his studies were cut short when he was drafted by the Army for service during World War II. When his hitch was up, Edward came to the CSFAC in 1946 to study with muralist Boardman Robinson.
He and Donna met there and were married in 1947. After a brief return to Cleveland in 1951, the couple, now with two children, settled permanently in Denver.
In Marecak Diptych, Donna's work is featured in a series of showcases and on stands and tables. A master of technique, she should be better remembered than she is, since it's apparent that she was a world-class ceramics artist. There are some vessels that preserve her finger marks from the wheel throwing when the clay was wet, no doubt related to the work of Colorado potter Ed Oshier, with whom she studied in the 1950s. But her signature creations are very finely finished, with precise, smooth surfaces.
One way that Donna shows off her virtuoso talents are the many lidded pieces she did. In these, tops and bottoms fit together as though a machinist had done them instead of a potter, and I hardly need to tell you that's no mean feat. Also unusual, considering when she made these pots, is her taste for decoration, both hers and her husband's. A number of pieces feature Edward's drawings on Donna's pots. She also made tiles and tables with tile tops, which are absolutely marvelous. Donna died in 1998.
The show picks up with Edward's paintings and works on paper. The earliest date to the 1940s, such as "Pace Pace Mio Dio," in which a grotesque skeletal figure peers out at the viewer. This demonstrates Edward's interest in surrealism, a source of his later idiosyncratic style, as illustrated by paintings such as "Witch Singing to the Sun and Moon" and "Witch With Pink Dish," both from 1949. These paintings made me think of Pollock's proto-abstract expressionism of the mid-1940s, in which myth and fantasy were laid out in a modified Picassoid format (think of "The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle"). It's interesting to note that both Pollock and Edward worked with Lawrence Barrett at about the same time. I don't know if Edward ever met Pollock, but he was surely aware of the soon-to-be-famous artist's visits to Colorado Springs.)
Unlike Pollock, Edward combined figuration with abstraction for the rest of his career, meaning he didn't move toward abstract expressionism, but to its only credible rival in mid-century modern painting: figural abstraction. This links his work to that of Britton, Donna's old mentor, who was Colorado Springs's premier sculptor of the time.
By the mid-1950s, Edward was laying out complicated scenes that were typically organized into overall patterns made up of simple geometric shapes, especially rectangles and triangles. In many of the paintings, he puts together big shapes of often dreamy colors like the pieces of a puzzle. One notable example is "The Potter," from 1959, an abstracted portrait of Donna working on a chalice at the potter's wheel. In this way, the pictures read like stained glass, quilts or even tapestries. There are also several of Edward's hooked rugs in the show, including one of the Trojan War, a favorite topic.
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Edward's technique features roughly and expressively painted elements, and he often preserved brush marks in the pigment so that they stand out from the surface, thus establishing secondary patterns within the overall framework of the compositions. In "Seven Wise and Foolish Virgins," from 1966, the cartoon-like and whimsically depicted women are conceived as vertical elements à la caryatids; they are lined up across the picture and reduced to decorative patterns created from decorative shapes.
His work of the 1970s follows a similar course, though many of the pieces are notably simpler in composition. A good example is "Witch Confused by Perspective," from 1976, where a woman, seated at a table, disintegrates before our eyes into clusters of parallelograms and rhomboid shapes.
Toward the end of the 1980s, Edward subtly changed direction. Though still interested in fantasy — all those witches — his paintings became denser and darker as he approached the end of his life. One particularly haunting piece, 1993's "Mother Earth Watching Over Them," is a flattened and stylized rendition of Edward and Donna in their graves with an old woman looking down at them. The conventionalized trees across the top and the checkerboard details of the snow-covered graveyard across the middle mask the somber subject with lyricism. Edward died that same year.
As the saying goes, "Life is short, but art is long," and Marecak Diptych proves that a decade after their deaths, Donna and Edward still have something to show us.