Critical Focus: Ian Fisher. This show, located in the informal Whole Room at MCA Denver, is made up of a group of mostly monumental paintings of the sky. It's the type of thing that has become the artist's signature. Though Fisher begins with photographs of clouds used as studies, the resulting compositions, though photographically accurate in their details, are clearly painted and not mechanical reproductions. Fisher has eliminated any reference to the ground — in essence, freeing the sky element of a classic landscape painting from its moorings — and that provides just enough frisson to give the traditionally painted renditions of clouds a contemporary feel. And though they all share the same formal vocabulary, the palettes of the paintings are diverse, reflecting the different atmospheric conditions each depicts. The show was curated by the MCA's Nora Burnett Abrams, who has laudably been mining the local scene to find subjects for museum shows — as she did with Fisher — and in the process giving them a breakthrough opportunity to promote their talents. Through April 13 at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org.
Joel Swanson. The elegant Joel Swanson: Left to Right, Top to Bottom is a conceptual show about words and their meanings, with the title describing the way English is read. For Swanson, the show represents his career high point, as it's his first museum exhibition. It was curated by the MCA's Nora Burnett Abrams, who noticed Swanson a few years ago and determined that his work would be a perfect fit for the institution — and she was right. The exhibit begins with a wall that's been covered with 25,000 hand-drawn ampersands; the results are hypnotic and reminiscent of a cross between an Agnes Martin and a Cy Twombly, something that lends an abstract context to the whole thing. To make his points, Swanson orchestrates an array of materials, including ink, aluminum and steel, neon, photography, and various digital forms. A number of pieces play with the meanings of words — one uses negative prefixes, another a set of homophones — but Swanson is also interested in the spaces between words. Joel Swanson is brilliant and beautiful. Through March 30 at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org. Reviewed March 6.
Modern Masters. The blockbuster formula continues to work at the Denver Art Museum — as is evident in the out-of-this-world Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons From the Albright-Knox Gallery. A traveling show, the Denver version was curated by Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum. (Sobel also did a companion exhibit there that can be seen with the same admission ticket.) The selections begin with the giants of post-impressionism — there's a Gauguin that will stop you in your tracks — and run up to the masters of minimalism and pop art. Truly, the strength of the collection is in abstract expressionism, with some of the greatest masterpieces of that movement on view, including major signature examples by the likes of Gorky, Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko and Still, among others. Visionary collectors and curators at the Albright-Knox were able to assemble such a trove of riches by often buying the pieces when they were still new and thus still affordable. These are some of the most important works of art to have ever been shown in Colorado. Do not miss this show. Through June 8 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.
Nature as Muse. This homegrown blockbuster — part of the Passport to Paris series — was curated by Denver Art Museum director Christoph Heinrich, who's proven over and over that he's a curator at heart. To organize it, Heinrich mined the rich vein of impressionism in the museum's permanent collection and combined works from it with selections from the collection of Frederic C. Hamilton, for whom the wing is named. These Hamilton paintings have for the most part not been exhibited in public in anyone's memory. The show starts with the foundational work of the realists and quickly shifts to the pioneering work of the impressionists; then there's a section devoted to American followers of the French-based movement, and finally, a salute to Monet, the star of Nature as Muse, many of whose paintings are included, notably the DAM's "Waterloo Bridge." In fact, right now there are eleven Monets on view at the DAM — an unprecedented number for Denver — with eight of them being paintings, and all but two of those are in this show. Through March 23 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org; tickets are required. Reviewed November 28.