There's been so much going on in the Denver art world that we reached a critical mass of activity during the last month or so, especially considering that spring is typically light. In addition to multiple shows at the Denver Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, there was the Month of Photography in March, which inspired dozens of events and a relentless string of shows from the region's co-ops, galleries and art centers.
And don't forget the many art-related announcements, such as the unveiling of the design for the Clyfford Still Museum, details of the "Biennial of the Americas," and publicity for "Dialog: City," an art festival to coincide with the Democratic National Convention.
This crowded situation makes my job a puzzle, with all of these activities being the pieces. Determining where a piece fits often depends on the date that a show comes down. Last week I plugged three photo shows and a painting exhibit, all of which are no longer available to would-be viewers. Unfortunately, I have to do the same thing this week by recommending something that has only a couple of days left.
To make matters worse, the show I'm talking about, Good Impressions: American Master Prints of the 1920s, 30s & 40s From the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Arts & Culture Center, is spectacular. The hundred or so prints — representing a third of the Mayers' holdings — were selected and have been perfectly installed by Singer director Simon Zalkind.
Frederick Mayer, who died last year, and his wife, Jan, were avid collectors with wide-ranging interests. The couple is probably best known for their pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial pieces, many of which they gave to the DAM. But they also collected other things, including these early-twentieth-century prints.
Zalkind is well-connected and has a well-established reputation as a curator, so he simply rang up Jan Mayer and asked if he could display selections of her print collection — and she readily agreed. The Mayer collection has its own curator, Ann Daley, who's also a curator at the DAM, and she helped Zalkind access the prints.
Back in the 1980s, the Mayers took an interest in collecting works related to the American scene movement of the first third of the twentieth century, in which artists recorded the modern sights of both urban and rural life in a variety of styles then in vogue. Even two decades ago, paintings by the most important of these artists were fairly expensive, so Zalkind and other consultants and curators recommended that the Mayers gather prints from that period as a way of assembling a great collection for relatively little money.
The turning point came when the Mayers saw two important print collections, one at the High Museum in Atlanta and another at the Dallas Museum of Art, and dove headlong into the field. The prints were relatively cheap twenty years ago, and even today, they are comparatively affordable, ranging in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each. It's interesting that the prints in this show, which were originally meant to gain a wider audience for art appreciation, still play that same role.
The show's subtitle suggests that the oldest pieces in the show date to 1920, with the newest no later than 1949, but Zalkind softened the edges by including works from the 1910s at one end of the time range and the 1950s at the other. Even so, it's the prints of the 1930s that take center stage — both in this exhibit and in American printmaking as a whole — since this was the high point for interest in the medium.
During the time frame that Good Impressions examines, there were a number of stylistic changes, from the Ashcan works that are related to impressionism, to exemplars of regionalism, including social realism, and finally to prints that reflect the influence of cubism and other later modernist expressions. It's a lot of content in a relatively short time, which is probably why Zalkind elected to install the show according to thematic considerations and affinities of subject matter instead of following the dictates of stylistic analysis. So there's a wall documenting urban life, for example, and another about life on the farm, plus a Western section and one focusing on nudes, and so on.
Given their substantial resources — applied to an undervalued category — and the time period in which they began collecting, the Mayers were able to acquire first-rate examples by some the biggest names of the period. Among the top-tier artists, none are as famous as Thomas Hart Benton, and the show includes several of his signature pieces.
Benton's style, which has something of a cartoon quality, as well as a whiff of surrealism, depicted country life of fact and fiction. In "Haystack," from 1938, Benton captures a dramatic scene. In the left foreground, providing viewers with an entry into the picture, a farmhand works a pump to fill a bucket with water. In the mid-ground, in shadows, is another hand leading a horse out of a barn, and in the background, a haystack is consumed by fire. The drafting is exquisite and finely detailed, and though it was done in black ink on cream-colored paper, many surprising effects are achieved, such as the blank space surrounding the silhouetted horse that suggests the brightness of the raging fire.
Other highly regarded artists are also part of Good Impressions. Opposite the Bentons is a tremendous Grant Wood and, in other parts of the show, important prints by Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, Rockwell Kent, Paul Cadmus and John Steuart Curry, capturing in fine art the everyday life of America of that time. These regionalists were widely influential during their careers and afterward, during a revival in interest in their work. It could also be said that they helped spark abstraction — but mainly as a reaction to their work rather than a direct influence; Pollock, remember, said that Benton, his most significant teacher, had taught his star student how not to paint.
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Nonetheless, in the Singer show, it's possible to see how the regionalist ethos was bent toward abstraction by some of the artists in the movement itself. A good case in point is Denver's own Vance Kirkland. In "Ruins of Central City," from 1935, the scene has a planar and thereby cubist sense of space. And the overall feeling of alienation symbolized by the dead tree at the center refers to surrealism.
Speaking of Kirkland, a gap in the Mayers' collection, as displayed in this show, is the lack of Colorado artists — other than Kirkland and a few others.
Zalkind has noted how well-received the show has been and believes it's because this kind of work is so viewer-friendly. Viewers don't need to be steeped in theories to understand these pictures. They have recognizable subjects, mostly people, and the use of narrative in the form of metaphors and even parables that underlie the compositions — dead trees taking on psychological meanings — are pretty simple and straightforward.
I've noted it before but will point it out again: Even with a very modest facility — even with the installation of new, state-of-the-art lighting — and with a woefully small exhibition budget, Zalkind somehow pulls together some of the best art exhibits in town. Needless to say, he's done it again with American Master Prints.