The Denver Art Museum is riding high on the success of the traveling Impressionism exhibition, which pushed overall attendance to record levels -- nearly 100,000 visitors in October alone -- and following its $62.5 million capital improvement bond, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters last week.
The money, which will be combined with a similar amount from private sources, will allow the construction of a freestanding wing across 13th Avenue. This wing will be connected (preferably by an underground tunnel) to the existing DAM, a 1971 masterpiece by Gio Ponti of Milan and Denver's own James Sudler. The new building is meant to alleviate crowding and improve the museum's ability to present road shows like Impressionism. It will also include expanded galleries for contemporary art and design as well as more classrooms, offices and storage space and will free up rooms in the existing museum so that the African and Oceanic collections -- currently languishing in storage -- can be displayed.
The fine quality of the DAM's glass-tile-clad tower sets a high architectural standard for the new, yet-to-be-designed building. According to museum director Lewis Sharp, the proposed edifice will be a "world-class building," and to fulfill this tall order, an international competition will be staged to select an architect.
The competition will be similar to the one held for the Denver Public Library, which stands on the opposite side of Acoma Plaza. This should come as no surprise, since the success of that contest, in which Michael Graves emerged as the winner, was substantially predicated on the unofficial role played by the DAM rather than the DPL's official efforts. The DAM's curator of architecture, design and graphics, Craig Miller, got on the horn and alerted his many friends and associates in the world of top-drawer architecture and urged them to enter the contest. That's why superstars like Graves applied for the job in the first place. No word on precisely who will vie to design the new DAM wing, but expect a who's who from around the world to get a consideration.
Having addressed the DAM's strengths, it is also time to address one of its weaknesses: the too-small collection of pieces related to the history of regional art, a field that the museum has embraced in only a halfhearted way. In recent years, though a modest attempt has been made to gather up old Colorado landscapes, this effort was more than offset by the wholesale dumping of local art that was a low point of the otherwise mostly sensible deaccessioning of 1995.
Nothing better illustrates the gap in the collection than the fact that Colorado's most important landscape picture, "Mount of the Holy Cross," done in 1890 by Thomas Moran, is not in the DAM's permanent collection, where it should be. Instead, it is next door at the DPL. Many paintings with local subjects wound up at the library in the 1940s and '50s, when they were worth only a few thousand dollars -- if a buyer could be found at all. The DAM snoozed at the time and can't catch up now, because many of these works are worth millions and are out of reach for the cash-poor museum.
But if these paintings are out of the question -- save for the possibility of a future bequest or donation -- there is still a lot of first-rate Colorado material available on the market for a tenth or less of the cost. This is particularly true for work by artists associated with the Broadmoor Academy and its successor, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School. These institutions provided a focus for the visual arts in Colorado from the 1920s to the early 1950s. They attracted established artists from the East and Midwest and produced homegrown artists as well. It's a disgrace that the DAM has shown so little interest.
With the coming construction of the new wing, it's time for the DAM to make a real commitment to the region's art, and a good place to start is with the Broadmoor Academy artists.
How convenient for the DAM, then, and for the rest of us, that David Cook Fine Art is presenting a relevant exhibit, John F. Carlson and Artists of the Broadmoor Academy, which runs through the holidays.
The gallery, which is located right next to David Cook Fine American Art in the space formerly occupied by the CSK Gallery, is a relatively new endeavor for Cook, a longtime local dealer.
The expansion was made possible partly because Cook owns the valuable building, which he bought in 1990 (when prices were low) with Charles Callaway, a partner in the adjacent Oxford Hotel. The two subdivided the early-twentieth-century building; Cook got the two storefronts and the floors above and below, while Callaway got the back space for needed hotel ballrooms. "It's important for art dealers to own their real estate," says Cook. "Look at Santa Fe, where great galleries come and go because they don't own their real estate."
In 1994, after rehabbing the building, Cook moved his seventeen-year-old American Indian gallery in and rented the other space to CSK. Then, last year, Cook bought CSK out of its lease so that he could open his painting gallery. The time was right because collectors are "ready for the modernist paintings done in Colorado from the 1920s to the 1950s," Cook says, and amazingly, top-quality works are still available since they've been "underappreciated until recently."
Another reason he decided to open the new gallery was his purchase of a portion of the Carlson estate. An East Coast dealer had acquired it from the artist's descendants and sold Cook all of the Colorado landscapes. And although the fine art gallery has been open for months, the Carlson show is its official premiere.
Although Carlson was born in Sweden in 1875 and spent most of his life in Woodstock, New York, where he died in 1945, he is relevant to us because of the Colorado landscapes he painted during the two summers he lived here.
In 1920, he became the director of the Broadmoor Academy, which had been founded the year before. Since he was already famous, he commanded a high salary for the times -- the enormous sum of $1,000 a month. (This detail and many others are in a catalogue written by local art historian Stanley Cuba that accompanies the show.) After the 1921 summer session, Carlson resigned and returned to New York. Because he didn't live here long, his Colorado scenes are rare.
Carlson's magnificent "Shadowy Valley," an oil on canvas circa 1920, starts off the show in the lobby. If the DAM's staff were collecting Colorado material, they'd surely want to take a close look at this one.
Carlson adeptly paints an early winter scene that shows the Front Range being engulfed by snow clouds. In the background sit the shrouded mountains; the foreground is filled with evergreen trees. The essentially dark palette is exquisite. The deep purples and greens are particularly effective since they are used against the white ground and gray sky. Carlson's expressionist painting technique -- in which he applies the paint thickly and preserves the mark of the brush -- is stunning.
"Windy Headlands," an oil on canvas, also circa 1920, depicts a majestic sky floating above a well-lighted, rock-strewn field dotted with monoliths. Although clouds, trees and rocks gave Carlson an opportunity to explore abstraction, none of these paintings are truly abstract. But some come close, notably "Crazy Quilt Sketch," an oil on board.
As the show's title indicates, Cook has placed Carlson in the context of the other artists from the Broadmoor Academy and the CSFAC School. He sees Carlson, along with Robert Reid, Birger Sandzen and Ernest Lawson, as the "big four" of the Broadmoor Academy and has chosen some of their paintings for the show as well.
"View From a Mountaintop," by Reid, is a look at the back of the Broadmoor Hotel from the heights of Cheyenne Mountain. The palette is dominated by a creamy pink accented by sage green. It is an excellent example of his work. Like Carlson, Reid was hired to teach at the Broadmoor Academy in 1920, but he remained until 1927 and was one of the most important artists to have worked in the state. It would be a shame if "View From a Mountaintop" wound up hanging over some billionaire's fireplace -- which is what will most likely happen -- instead of in a local museum like the DAM.
Sandzen and Lawson are also represented by fine characteristic works. Sandzen's paintings are vividly hued and sport theatrical brushwork; Lawson's feature a quieter palette and a more restrained technique. The better of the two Lawsons, a 1920s-era oil on canvas called "Little Ranch, Colorado," is hung on the lower level at Cook's, as is another masterful Carlson, "The Barrier," circa 1920. This piece is every bit as good as "Shadowy Valley" and would look every bit as good at the DAM.
Elsewhere in the show is the work of many other artists from the Broadmoor Academy, as well as those who came to Colorado Springs after 1936, when the academy became the CSFAC School. These include the longtime director of the school, Boardman Robinson, who was there from 1930 to 1947, and Charles Bunnell, a student of both Robinson's and Lawson's during the 1930s.
Cook was able to purchase some 25 Bunnells from the estate, including "Hills and Houses," a mixed media on paper from 1934, and "Untitled Mining Town," an oil on canvas from 1933. Both of these are displayed upstairs, but there's an entire room downstairs devoted to Bunnell's later work.
Another room is given over to the lithographs produced at the nationally known printmaking facility that was part of the CSFAC School. Most of these were executed by master printer Lawrence Barrett, including examples by Ward Lockwood, Adolph Dehn and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.
Other artists presented downstairs include regionalist painters Fred Shane, Jenne Magafan, Lew Tilley and George Biddle, as well as modernists Willard Nash, Lloyd Moylan and Edgar Britton.
The exhibition catalogue and the presence of these masterpieces make this exhibit more like a museum show than a commercial gallery offering. It is a must-see, and it connects beautifully with Vanguard Art in Colorado: 1940-1970, at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. And the Boulder show is itself linked to the two-part Colorado Abstraction: 1975-1999 at the Arvada Center.
So for the next couple of weeks (since the Arvada show is set to close on November 21), it's possible in a single day to take in the big picture of artistic development in Colorado from 1920 to the present.
It's something, unfortunately, that's never been true at the DAM, so you can't pass up the opportunity.
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