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New Directions

"chandelier," by Dale Chihuly, assembled blown glass.

There are a number of noteworthy changes under way at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Now, surely I'm not the only person in the area who cringes when the word "change" is used in the same sentence as "Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center." Others will recall, as I do, the scheme the powers that be put forward a couple of years ago to pop an addition onto the front of the building! And we're not talking about any old building either: We're talking about one of the finest buildings in the entire Mountain time zone. Built in 1936, the CSFAC is a deco masterpiece based on the ancient Pueblo architecture of New Mexico. The concrete structure sits on the brow of a steep hill and is the greatest accomplishment of architect John Gaw Meem.

The idea to defile the landmark was cooked up by a trio of individuals: donor Diane Sikes, former director David Turner and former development director Carolyn Moershel. But luckily for the CSFAC, these three stooges flew to the four winds, and the venerable building is safe from their deadly attentions.

To fill the vacancy caused by Turner's abrupt resignation last year, Michael De Marsche became president. I'm wary of De Marsche, but that suspicion might be a holdover from the Turner era; after all, so far, he's only begun to make small changes. But as minor as most of them are, several have big implications -- and I'm not totally comfortable with all of them.

The change in mission of the Taylor Museum is a case in point: The Taylor Museum, once dominated by Hispanic and American Indian art, has absorbed the previously separate Fine Arts Center collection, which is predominately made up of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. This was done with the stroke of a keyboard, and presto-change-o, one whole curator's job disappeared. However, it will be a more difficult trick to make the newly reconstituted Taylor work as well as it had. I predict that the Hispanic carvings and Indian rugs will lose out to the realist paintings and abstract sculptures -- which is really a shame.

But De Marsche deserves kudos for some of the things he's done -- especially reopening the window walls in the Garden Gallery and the skylights in the Great Hall. In both cases, the ambient natural light is sumptuous as it bounces off these world-class interior spaces.

Also in De Marsche's "plus" column are some major acquisitions. One is a "chandelier" by the great Dale Chihuly, which is the first thing anyone sees when entering the building. Chihuly's "chandelier" series is made up of ceiling-mounted sculptures inspired by Venetian glass chandeliers. Various blown-glass forms based on fruits and vegetables, done in icy gold, amber, rose, blue and green, are wired together in a shape that loosely approximates an inverted cone. In the case of the CSFAC "chandelier," Chihuly used hundreds of glass forms, making it the kind of showstopper that's his signature.

This "chandelier" is not actually a light fixture, even if it looks like one: It's illuminated by gallery spots mounted on the ceiling. I have only one reservation about the Chihuly: Even though it was commissioned, it's too big and thus hangs down too low. This puts the "chandelier" in harm's way, because those prone to jumping could actually touch it -- and I don't even want to consider the effects of that. The temporary solution the CSFAC has come up with is the installation of four metal stanchions connected by velvet-covered ropes that are arranged to keep people from getting under the "chandelier."

Speaking of Chihuly, the CSFAC also has An Exhibition by Dale Chihuly, featuring his 1970s pieces inspired by Navajo weavings. These items have been paired with actual Navajo weavings. It's a clever idea, and like so much else now at the CSFAC, bears the unmistakable De Marsche stamp.

Though the Chihuly vases are on loan to the CSFAC, the weavings are from the permanent collection of the Taylor Museum, indicating a new focus on highlighting that collection. This makes sense both because it's cheaper than bringing things in and because the CSFAC has a great collection -- most of it in storage. There are two shows on now that sample the stash of long-hidden works, and both presentations are absolutely great.

The first, Realism and Illusion, is installed just off the main lobby where that Chihuly "chandelier" is hanging. The exhibit is about representational images, and that means that lots of different styles in a wide variety of mediums qualified. I have to say that the typically larger and always bolder paintings overwhelm most of the works on paper and all of the photos. There are no sculptures in the show.

This exhibit includes another major recent acquisition: Paul Cadmus's painting "Study for David and Goliath," an acrylic on canvas from 1971. The painting is in Cadmus's realist style and is, as expected, a fairly homoerotic scene. It includes a self-portrait in the foreground (with Cadmus himself playing the vanquished Goliath), with a nearly nude young male model (who is clearly David) lying on a bed in the background. It's a racy theme -- especially considering the Biblical reference -- for a "fundy" town like Colorado Springs.  

The Cadmus is hanging on a wall facing viewers as they enter the main space. Opposite is the CSFAC's famous John Singer Sargent, "Young Lady in White," from 1889-1890. For some reason, the center's other Sargent, "Count Albert de Belleroche," has been left out. Too bad, because its depiction of one of Sargent's lovers relates both to "Young Lady in White" as well as to the gay-friendly Cadmus. Also nearby is the CSFAC's well-known Walt Kuhn, "Trio," from 1937, an oil on canvas.

In this impressive group is a stunning painting by Colorado's Edgar Britton, who is remembered best for his sculpture. The painting shows Britton made up as a clown, and it looks incredible in conjunction with the Kuhn, which also has a circus theme. On an equally raucous topic is the transcendent work on paper by Reginald Marsh, "The Kid From Brooklyn in Technicolor," done in 1946. An don't miss that great Philip Pearlstein, "Female Model Seated on Mexican Blanket," from 1972.

Old paintings anchor Realism and Illusion and steal the spotlight, but newer things were also included, and they look great in the distinguished company of their elders. A good example is the wonderful Tracy Felix, "Storm in the Sangres," from 1991.

The second show culled from the permanent collection is Art for Art's Sake in which abstracts -- many of them not seen in decades -- have been brought together. This show is absolutely tremendous, with one great piece after another overflowing into the hallway. In fact, two signature Britton sculptures, a bronze and a carved travertine figural abstraction of women, are found there.

The show proper starts with a couple of paintings by two artists associated with the abstract-expressionist scene in Colorado in the '50s and '60s: Mary Chenoweth and Ken Goehring. The Chenoweth is one of her peace paintings, in which collage is combined with expressionist-style painted passages. The Goehring is a classic example of his work, in which organic forms emerge from color fields that are blended smoothly and seamlessly. Since Goehring's paintings are rarely exhibited, this is a great opportunity to see one.

Old modern art is something the CSFAC has in spades. In addition to the homegrown talents of Chenoweth and Goehring, national figures such as Richard Diebenkorn and Harry Bertoia are each represented by a significant early work. The Diebenkorn, "Urbana #4" from 1958, is from his most important aesthetic phase. The out-of-this-world Bertoia, 1959's "Untitled," likewise dates from the sculptor's creative high-water-mark period. Contemporary artists are part of the festivities, too, notably Sushe Felix, who also has her work currently on display at the Denver Art Museum and the Mizel Center.

I've already listed more than enough reasons to take the time to check out the offerings at the CSFAC, and I haven't even gotten to the star attraction: Emerson Woelffer: Life in the Abstract. Woelffer, who died in 2003, spent most of his adult life in Southern California, but as a young man in the 1950s he ran the now-long-closed art school at the CSFAC. He was part of a whole crowd of abstract expressionists -- including the aforementioned Chenoweth and Goehring -- who made Colorado Springs, as preposterous as it may sound today, a center for abstract expressionism in the post-war period. The same could not be said for Denver or Boulder, oddly enough.

It's difficult for me to admit it, because I hate to give him credit for anything, but it was former director Turner who booked the Woelffer retrospective. Guest curator Hunter Frost organized the show, and he did an admirable job. It demonstrates that Woelffer's best work was done in Colorado Springs, even though he became famous in California. The show also proves that Woelffer's style underwent a radical shift when he moved to our state, similar to what happened to Herbert Bayer.

Woelffer's works like "Family Group," from 1947, done before he arrived in Colorado, are surrealistic and Picassoid. After he got here, his work was more fully non-objective in the manner of doctrinaire abstract expressionism -- as in "Untitled," from 1953, a bona fide masterpiece.

I believe I know what happened: Woelffer met the likes of Chenoweth, Goehring and others working in the Springs at the time, and he became heavily influenced by the highly original work they were doing. Woelffer did catch a second wind in the '80s with some very Miró-esque compositions in white and bright colors on black fields; these broadly recall his great '50s pieces.  

I have to say that, so far, I'm impressed with what De Marsche has been doing -- in particular the inspired programming he's orchestrating. But there is that precious John Gaw Meem building to consider, so as much as I want to like what's going on, I haven't let my guard down. De Marsche moves very fast, and that's scary, because he's holding that fragile gem of a place in the palm of his hand.


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