Mind and Body
Edgar Britton was Colorado's most significant and successful sculptor of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. He was to modernist sculpture what the late Vance Kirkland was to modernist painting. But unlike Kirkland, whose fame has grown since his death, Britton, who died in 1982, is known only to a smallish group of local art history enthusiasts, as well as art world old-timers.
That may be changing, though, as Britton's work is being re-explored in a new book, in two excellent shows in Colorado Springs and, as always, here in Denver, where his public sculptures have been on permanent display for years.
Britton was born in Nebraska in 1901 and enrolled in dental school in Iowa in the 1920s before dropping out to become an assistant to regionalist master painter Grant Wood, who lived in Des Moines. In 1925, Britton moved to Chicago and fell in with a group of artists who were well-known at the time, most notably Edgar Miller. In the early '30s, he got involved with the Work Projects Administration in Chicago, completing commissions and serving as an administrator of the public-art program. In 1941, still working for the WPA, Britton was diagnosed with tuberculosis and advised to move to a drier climate. He and his wife, Margaret, relocated to Santa Fe; shortly thereafter, he was offered a job at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center by the art school's renowned director, Boardman Robinson. Britton taught there until 1950.
While he was at the school, Britton, who had heretofore been a consummate representational painter in the tradition of Wood and Miller, began to experiment with abstraction and with different mediums. In the mid-'40s, under the influence of Lawrence Barrett, printmaster at the Fine Arts Center, Britton began to make monotypes (that's right, the medium wasn't invented in the 1990s), and by the late 1940s, he was scultping conventionalized and simplified figures. Stylistically, his work of this time can be closely compared to the sculptures by Denver artist Gladys Caldwell Fisher, who was a few years younger than Britton and died in 1952.
In 1950, Britton left teaching and declared himself a sculptor. Stories have it that he decided to take advantage of the dearth of Colorado sculptors. At about the same time, he and Margaret divorced. With no wife or job to hold him, Britton moved to Denver in the early 1950s, just in time for the post-war building boom. The activity here allowed his career to flourish and provided him with commissions for public sculptures.
The physical evidence of Britton's career isn't hard to find, at least outdoors. There are several Brittons in downtown Denver, including "Map," from 1955, at the corner of 18th Avenue and Grant Street. This piece, whose stepped sides are ornamented with abstract and evocative symbols emblematic of the country, is in the form of the map of the continental United States. Nearby, at 17th Avenue and Grant Street, is 1965's "Tower of Prometheus," an organic spire that culminates in the image of a flame. Both of these pieces were originally sited a few blocks away, in I.M. Pei's 1950s Mile High Center at 17th Avenue and Broadway. Mile High Center, a masterpiece of architecture and planning, was partially lost, however, when an atrium designed by Philip Johnson replaced the open plaza in the 1980s.
Britton had an inside track on both commissions since his pal, prominent Denver architect James Sudler, designed the United States Bank (now Wells Fargo), where "Map" was originally on the wall, and worked on the Pei design team for Mile High Center next door. And Britton got a number of other commissions through Sudler as well, including the bronze sun-breaker screen and several other pieces at the 1960s Rodgers Federal Building at 19th and Stout streets. Sudler was the principal designer for the federal building and the adjacent courthouse.
There's also a nice Britton in Cherry Creek North, a fountain called "Yin and Yang," at First Avenue and St. Paul Street in front of the nondescript 1st Bank. The fountain is made up of a square pool with a pair of figured organic abstract elements that formally interact with one another. Quite a few other Brittons have been placed in and around the city's public and private buildings all over town.
Denver's streets may be lined with Brittons, but don't expect to see his accomplishments shown off at the Denver Art Museum. His work hasn't been exhibited there for many years, which is partly why he is so little known. Some may assume this has to do with the DAM's longstanding practice of ignoring local art, but it's even worse than that.
The DAM actually had a tidy collection of Brittons at one time, comprising a half-dozen or so of the artist's major pieces. The collection had been put together by Kirkland, who, in addition to being a painter, a University of Denver art professor and one of Britton's longtime friends, was the curator of contemporary art at the DAM in the 1960s and early '70s. This was an informal, volunteer position for Kirkland; Dianne Vanderlip, hired by the DAM in 1978, was the first paid curator of contemporary art in the museum's history.
It was Vanderlip who decided to get rid of the Brittons as part of the great DAM deaccessioning that culminated in the liquidation auction of 1995, held at the museum and conducted by Christie's. Only one Britton was included in the auction, however, since nearly all the others had already been quietly transferred to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which has exhibited them only rarely.
Although it was misguided of the DAM to toss out their Brittons, the Fine Arts Center is an appropriate repository for them since the artist was a teacher at the now long-closed but still venerated art school that was once a part of the institution. The Fine Arts Center had been unintentionally collecting Britton's pieces for decades because so many of them were bequeathed to the institution by collectors. Currently, the Fine Arts Center owns scores of Brittons, including sculptures, paintings, works on paper and even stained glass. Nonetheless, like the DAM, the Fine Arts Center hasn't deigned to mount a major exhibit devoted to the artist.
The Fine Arts Center did mount a modest presentation on Britton in 1997, however, as part of a series of small shows featuring artists associated with the institution and its predecessor, the Broadmoor Academy.
And humble as it was, the show's impact was great, because it inspired Colorado Springs-based author Jane Hilberry to record Britton's life and to explore his work in her recently released but somewhat misleadingly titled The Erotic Art of Edgar Britton. The book, published by Ocean View Books, is available at the Tattered Cover.
The book, in turn, has inspired a pair of exhibits based on it, and again Hilberry has taken the reins by organizing both shows. The Erotic Art of Edgar Britton is at the Coburn Art Gallery on the Colorado College campus; just a block south, at the Fine Arts Center, is The Lyrical Line: Edgar Britton¹s Passion for the Human Figure.
"As I looked at the show back in 1997," Hilberry says, "I realized how amazing it was that we had this important local artist. I had never heard of him before, and so I became curious about him.
"I went to the bookstore and asked Chris Jones, the manager, if there was a book on Britton," she continues. "He told me there wasn't one, but that I might want to talk to Katie Dodge." Dodge, who lives in Denver, was Britton's companion during the 1970s, the last decade of the artist's life.
Hilberry repeatedly interviewed Dodge, who led the writer to others with firsthand knowledge of Britton's lifestyle and career.
Although Hilberry is not an art historian, she is an associate professor of English at Colorado College and a published poet and prose writer, and she did a superb job with her study of Britton, taking an unusual psychosexual approach toward the artist's life. Despite the limitation of this psychological slant, the book fully accounts for Britton's life in a conventional sense, and Hilberry went to a lot of trouble to track down many details for the biography.
The shows themselves are quite similar; one is essentially a continuation of the other. In both, Hilberry focuses on Britton's figural abstractions in sculpture and works on paper, including monotypes, oils and watercolors. Interestingly, many of Britton's major public sculptures in Denver are abstractions, or, in the case of the screen at the federal complex, non-objective. He apparently alternated between figural abstracts and pure abstraction in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Although Hilberry has included a few early works, most of the pieces are from the tail end of an art career that spanned half a century. This is appropriate, since Hilberry has borrowed many of them from Dodge and has constructed her narrative in the book and in the shows through the prism of Dodge's memories. Dodge has also generously donated to the Fine Arts Center many of the works on paper seen in that show.
The Lyrical Line is in the vest-pocket space at the Fine Arts Center called the East Two Gallery. But as small as the space is, Hilberry, with help from curator Judy Burdick, has filled it to the limit with remarkable treasures. The selection reveals that Britton was clearly influenced, not by the New York School developments of the 1940s and '50s, but by the earlier School of Paris modernism of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse. Like his European predecessors, Britton captured the images of male and, more often, female nudes in repose, in action, and entwined with one another.
One of the oldest pieces in the show demonstrates this debt to Paris. "Waterfall," a tempera on board from 1945 that depicts a group of hefty female nudes frolicking in the water, is in complete homage to Cézanne. Another overtly Parisian-inspired piece is "The King Was Tired," an ink on paper from 1975 that recalls Picasso's neo-classicism.
This show also has a nice group of mid-sized and smaller sculptures. One of the standouts is "Torso of a Woman," a carved abstraction of a nude in which the figure's face, arms, breast and body have been reduced to rounded, non-distinct shapes. This piece, which is from the Fine Arts Center's permanent collection, has been dated to 1961, but I think it's about ten years older. The same approach to figural abstraction seen in "Torso" is evident in "Daphnis and Chloe," an undated bronze of a seated, embracing couple.
There is also a group of very small tabletop bronzes of lithe figures based on circus topics -- another peculiarly French convention. These shiny, gold-colored bronzes, such as "Acrobats," from 1976, in which a male nude supports an inverted female over his head, have a visual lightness that make them seem to soar, despite their diminutive size.
One very unusual piece is "Return of Ulysses," from 1970, a fabricated bronze in which a group of figures are used to tell a story. All of the figures are placed within a skeletal structure that takes the form of a house.
The other show, The Erotic Art of Edgar Britton, is similar to the first in that Hilberry has supplemented a large selection of newer pieces with a handful of older ones. And again, the influence of the School of Paris shows itself in pieces such as the very Matisse-ian "Seated Nude," a 1940s monoprint.
There is another of those strange narrative groups contained in a bronze house, as well. This one, "Solomon and the Shulamite," is from 1969 and is obviously a prepatory piece for the later and larger "Return of Ulysses."
In addition, there is a good selection of small bronzes, both fabricated pieces and castings. One of the choicest is "Apollo and Daphne," which was completed in 1981, the year Britton died.
There are nearly fifty pieces on display between the two shows, and when you consider that Hilberry limited her selections to depictions of the figure and included mostly pieces from the 1970s, you get some idea of how prolific Britton was.
"He did so much and he was so good, it would be sad if he fell through the cracks," Hilberry says.
But you know what? Even though it's been nearly twenty years since his death and he's been mostly ignored by local museums, we're still talking about him. And that says something.
No column that mentions the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center these days is complete without a note about the goofy expansion fantasy that the center's powers that be, including director David Turner and former board of trustees president Diane Sikes, have in mind.
After a two-year process led by Minneapolis-based architects HGA (Hammel, Green and Abrahamson), they've come up with the clumsy idea of slamming a big-box addition onto the front of the building -- a building that just happens to be a world-class modernist masterpiece from 1936 by John Gaw Meem ("Nightmare on Dale Street," March 15). Fortunately, however, the Fine Arts Center doesn't own the land on which its leaders want to erect their monument to architectural insensitivity. Nor do they have the money to build it. (Whew!)
Oddly, as concern about the plans has grown in recent months, so, too, have the dimensions of the would-be addition. When I first heard about it in January, Turner described it to me as being 20,000 square feet. Then in March, in a chillingly titled pamphlet called Envision the Future, which was passed out at a public meeting, the addition was described as being 50,000 square feet. And just a couple of weeks ago, the Rocky Mountain News reported that the atrocity is conceived to be between 60,000 and 80,000 square feet! I'm no math wizard, but at this rate, it looks like the wing could wind up comprising millions of square feet by the end of the summer. That is, if, like the Tower of Babel, it doesn't fall under its own weight by then. We can always hope.
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