For a long time, art done in the Western states during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was held in low regard. It suffered in comparison to both earlier Western art and art done in New York during the same time period. But things have started to change during the past couple of decades, as dealers, collectors, scholars and curators have become increasingly fascinated by the once-reviled field. This dramatic turnaround shouldn't come as a surprise; in retrospect, it seems inevitable.
For one thing, it's hard not to like this stuff -- it really is. Representational imagery -- in particular, charming views of the landscape -- is something that's totally accessible. For another, it's a stylistically rich period with a dizzying range of aesthetic manners: realism, tonalism, impressionism, expressionism, cubism, regionalism and a raft of other modernisms. Crowd-pleasers, each and every one. Plus, there's no shortage of relevant, talented artists who worked with art schools such as the Broadmoor Academy in Colorado Springs and full-blown art colonies in Taos and Santa Fe. And finally, there's the dramatic scenery itself, which lured still more artists to the region.
Art of this sort is the stock in trade of David Cook Fine Art on Wazee Street, which has presented a number of shows over the past several years highlighting the historic artistic accomplishments of the region. The latest in this series is The Painter's Eye: Colorado and the West, which is currently on view in both the main- and lower-level galleries. Owner David Cook and gallery director Norm Anderson organized the show collaboratively, choosing fresh material that has never before been exhibited here.
The Painter's Eye is a group presentation, with most of the included artists represented only by a few pieces. However, two of the artists in the show, Charles Partridge Adams and Birger Sandzén, are seen in such depth that it's almost like having a pair of small solos within the larger whole. You'll have to use your imagination to envision either an Adams solo or a Sandzén one, though, because their work is evenly distributed throughout the large show rather than being hung in individual groupings.
It seems appropriate to begin with Adams, who was part of the first generation of Denver artists. Born in Massachusetts in 1858, he moved to the Mile High City in 1876, when he was still in his teens. Self-taught as an artist -- though encouraged by painter Helen Henderson Chain, herself a student of George Innes -- Adams launched his art career in the 1880s, exhibiting his landscape paintings around the city. By the 1890s, his work was selling briskly enough that he could afford to open a Denver studio, and in 1900 he began working in Estes Park during the summer months. In 1920, Adams's health declined, and he moved to California, where he died in 1942. Today, his renderings of the Colorado high country, created from the 1890s to the late 1910s, are considered to be his greatest pieces.
One of the first paintings in the show is a classic Adams landscape, "Untitled (Colorado Mountains)," done in oil on canvas laid on board. One of several of its type on display here, it's a little jewel depicting a cloud-shrouded mountain at the height of the spring, with the creek overflowing and the grasses a bright green. Adams daubed on the paint in thick piles in the foreground, conveying not just the image, but also the texture of the trees and shrubs, while the sky is vaporous, with the paint laid on in thinner veils.
Chain gave Adams only one degree of separation from Innes, and that definitely shows in a circa-1915 watercolor in Cook's lower level, "Golden October, Estes Park, Colorado," that looks as if it owes a thing or two to the work of the master. In this piece, which resembles a photograph, Adams expertly creates the illusion of reflected sunlight shrouded in mists -- something that's not easy to do with watercolor and paper.
Sandzén, a Kansan artist with significant long-term connections to Colorado, was born in Sweden in 1871 and immigrated to the United States in 1894, making him a generation younger than Adams. He taught at the Broadmoor Academy in the 1920s, and later at Chappell House in Denver. During the next couple of decades, before his death in 1954, Sandzén used the Colorado mountain scenery as inspiration for some of his most important works. The Cook show includes several major paintings in addition to a number of marvelous prints.
Sandzén is hot right now and getting hotter, with his works being avidly sought out and selling for record-setting prices. I think this is partly because his idiosyncratic style looks pretty contemporary right now, especially his toned-up colors. Another reason for all the excitement is the way Sandzén smeared the paint on in big, thick strokes, making his paintings seem like immediate predecessors to abstract expressionism -- which is what I think they really are.
Facing visitors as they enter the gallery is the first Sandzén in the show, "Abandoned Mines, Nevadaville, Colorado," an oil on board from 1941. The old mine buildings and hills in the painting seem to be animated. The surface is encrusted with paint that appears to have been put on with spatulas, like cake icing. The colors are eye-popping, especially the purple-y blues that make up the mountains and the sky in the background. On the back wall is "A Farm in the Foothills, Boulder," a closely related oil on board that was also done in 1941. Sandzén did both on the same summer painting trip.
The greatest of the Sandzéns at Cook has been hung on the lower level. "Edge of the Range, Manitou," an oil-on-canvas masterpiece from 1919, absolutely stopped me in my tracks. The composition is outrageous and enhances the painting's modernist feel. On the left side, there's a rock outcropping and a gnarled, weather-beaten tree in the foreground; on the right side, the mountain cliffs fall away in the distance. The surface of this highly abstracted landscape is breathtaking, as is the wide array of sparkling colors used by Sandzén, who made the picture with nothing other than short jagged smudges and smears.
If The Painter's Eye had nothing more in it than those Adamses and Sandzéns, it would be worth the effort to check it out, but it's got a lot more going for it than that. Surely among the other top attractions is the elegant, gauzy landscape by Boardman Robinson called "Mountain Anatomy," an oil on board from 1944. It's very unusual to see a Robinson painting, because he mostly did murals like the one at the Englewood Post Office. In "Mountain Anatomy," Robinson scribbled in an outline of the structure of the hills, then minimally filled them in, giving it the character of a Japanese print. Robinson was the director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center school, the successor to the Broadmoor Academy, from 1936 until he was ignobly forced out as part of the Red Scare in 1947. He had earlier been a left-winger, and his activist work was published in The Masses, a socialist magazine.
The Cook show also has pieces by several of Robinson's protegés, such as George Vander Sluis and Ethel Magafan, and several of his colleagues, notably Peppino Mangravite. Hung across the room from the Robinson are two paintings by Mangravite, both depicting women in the landscape and having a surrealist cast that is enhanced by the figures' awkward poses. Another surrealistic work, "Early Morning Near Death Valley," an oil on canvas from 1945 on view downstairs, is by James Swinnerton, an artist better known for his realistic paintings.
Though material associated with Colorado is the predominant element in The Painter's Eye, artists from throughout the West are also part of the show. Several who worked in New Mexico are featured, including Alfred Morang, Andrew Dasburg, Gustave Baumann, Doel Reed and Freemont Ellis. The Ellis, "Horses in Santa Fe Canyon," an oil on board from 1935, is electrifyingly luminous, with the sun raking across the scene, lighting up parts of the picture while casting others in shadows. It's an impressionist work set in the Southwest -- and what could be wrong with that?
Truth be told, the paintings in the Cook show are pretty pricey, and few people I know have the resources to buy even one. It's almost a public service, then, that the gallery has included an entire room of much more affordable lithographs, woodblocks and aquatints by the same artists who did the paintings. There are several great Sandzéns, as well as works by Robinson, Mangravite and Reed, among others. Many of the prints were pulled by Lawrence Barrett, print master at the CSFAC's art school. Barrett was one of the greatest lithographers in the world during that time, and he lived right here in Colorado.
By continuing to highlight the work of artists in the West, David Cook Fine Art has long filled a void in the city's exhibition schedule. Our public institutions -- chiefly the Denver Art Museum and the Colorado History Museum -- have done so little with the topic (and shame on them) that others have had to pick up the slack. If you have even the vaguest interest in the art of our region, don't even consider missing this wonderful, treasure-filled experience.
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