Old Times

Untitled, by George Cecil Carter, painting.

In a way, the historically important and aesthetically compelling Vanguard Art in Colorado: 1940-1970, which just opened at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, provides a background for Colorado Abstraction: 1975-1999, the spectacular two-part exhibit now playing at the Arvada Center. Taken together, these shows provide a good big-picture look at the development of abstract painting and sculpture in the state since the mid-twentieth century.

The planning for Vanguard Art began about two years ago, when physician and art collector John Woodward approached BMoCA director Cydney Payton with the idea for an exhibit that would focus on the mostly unknown history of early abstraction in Colorado. At first Payton and Woodward attempted to coordinate with the Arvada Center, but the collaboration never happened. In spite of that, the exhibits are related, even if they spotlight different eras.

This is the second time that Payton and Woodward have teamed up to present an exhibit; the Dorothy Dehner retrospective, done a few years ago, was also presented at BMoCA. The two met more than ten years ago when Payton owned a Denver gallery and Woodward was a budding collector. Woodward and his wife, Karen Hall, have since built a serious art collection with holdings that include a range of material, from old landscape paintings to contemporary abstracts. They are interested in the art of Colorado, New Mexico and California, as well as modern art glass, ceramics and design.

They began collecting in the late Seventies, with Hall leading the way and Woodward joining in soon after. They haunted antique stores as well as contemporary galleries in their quest. It was in the antique market that they first encountered the work of the state's earliest modern artists. At the time, there was little or no interest in this material, and the couple built their collection readily and cheaply, something that is no longer possible.

In addition to loaning many pieces to the show, Woodward -- who is responsible for most of its content -- borrowed others from a number of private collections and several local institutions, including the not-yet-open Vance Kirkland Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (CSFAC) and the Fremont Center for the Arts in Cañon City. Because of a scheduling glitch, he was unable to borrow from the Denver Art Museum, but he easily found replacements.

Woodward is the chairman of the Denver Cultural Council (DCC), the organization that doles out the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District money to smaller (tier III) art organizations, a category under which BMoCA falls. But he is quick to point out that he does not feel this is a conflict of interest, since he is an unpaid volunteer in both instances. In fact, Woodward provided a good deal of the funding for Vanguard Art out of his own deep pockets.

With her usual hands-on direction, Payton supervised the installation, and she doesn't mince words when evaluating the results. "It is the pinnacle of my professional career in Colorado," she says. "It's a wonderful occasion."

Payton also makes the ironic observation that although the topic of Vanguard Art is artwork from the past, the exhibitionis filled with fresh material: A good deal of the inclusions have not been exhibited publicly for decades, and some items have never been shown before. "It's so exciting to be a part of something new, something that's been secret," she says. "The show sets a precedent, providing historic context for the current generation of artists." And, it might be added, for the rest of us, too.

Woodward's inclusive approach, in which he brought together scores of artists working in dozens of different ways, is seen immediately as we enter the front galleries. On the wall directly opposite the entrance are a group of diverse paintings hung salon-style in a cluster. In front is a single sculpture.

Most of the artists in the show have been all but forgotten, but there are several in this first group who are genuinely famous, like Vance Kirkland and Herbert Bayer. Though both are still widely exhibited, it's a rarity to see their works hung side by side, as they are here.

Painted by Kirkland in 1970, Vibrations of Two Blues, Green, Violet on Yellow, an oil on linen, is one of the newest pieces in the show. It represents the late artist's final phase, in which he used wooden dowels instead of brushes to make op-art dot paintings. The title of the piece is thoroughly descriptive, and if you look at it long enough, the colors will start to vibrate. More than anyone else, Kirkland was responsible for the development of modern art in Denver. Moving to the city in the 1920s, he painted for more than fifty years and taught for decades, both at his own art school and at the University of Denver. He also served as the DAM's volunteer curator of contemporary art. Through his example and his teaching, he engendered an entire scene here. Many of the artists in Vanguard Art were influenced by him.  

The Bayer painting, Untitled (Linear Structure Series), an oil on canvas from 1961, is a signature piece. On top of a handsome blue ground, Bayer places black and white lines in a formal, hieratic arrangement. The crisp, straightforward design recalls his Bauhaus background -- the Austrian-born artist was both a student and a teacher at the famous German art school. Like many of his colleagues at the Bauhaus who fled the Nazis, Bayer wound up in the United States. Lucky for us, he settled in Aspen in the 1940s, where he lived until shortly before his death in 1985.

Bayer also worked in Colorado Springs in the 1940s and '50s, when the city was the center of the state's art world, rivaling Santa Fe and Taos. It's not surprising, then, that the other painters featured in this first section are associated with Colorado Springs. Of these, the best known is Mary Chenoweth, a painter and printmaker who died earlier this year. Chenoweth taught at the now-closed CSFAC art school and later joined the faculty of Colorado College, where she taught from the early '50s to the late '70s. Marabout II, an abstract-expressionist oil and collage on canvas from 1958, is marvelous. Interestingly, its companion, Marabout I, was exhibited this summer in the Chenoweth memorial show at the CSFAC. It's too bad the paintings weren't brought together in either show.

Charles Bunnell's constructivist oil on board, Man and Wife, from 1940, is remarkably similar to Bayer's painting, in terms of both palette and technique. Bunnell, a Colorado Springs artist who is seen in some depth in this show, is not as well-remembered as he should be. But increasing exposure to his work is sure to guarantee the late artist his place in the sun. Woodward calls Bunnell "the godfather of modernism" and has included many of his works.

The opening pastiche also includes two artists who worked only briefly in Colorado Springs, Emerson Woelffer and Janet Lippincott. Woelffer taught at CSFAC (and hired Chenoweth) before moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s. Lippincott spent almost her entire career in Santa Fe, where she moved permanently in the 1950s, though she frequently worked in Colorado through the 1970s. Both painters are retired.

In front of this handsome group of paintings is a kinetic sculpture by Denver's Bob Mangold, who is still an active sculptor. Mangold is one of three artists seen at both BMoCA and the Arvada Center. The two others are Gene Matthews and Bev Rosen. Mangold's Anemotive Kinetic #2, made of polychromed painted steel and dating from 1959, is an early example of the sculptor's interest in movement. The piece is stunning. On a delicate armature made of thin steel rods, Mangold has mounted a series of brightly painted cones that are designed to turn when they catch the breeze. In the placid museum environment, though, they remain essentially still.

The "official" start of the show begins behind us to the left, where Woodward and Payton have mounted some of the oldest pieces. The first is by John Edward Thompson, a post-impressionist painter who achieved local fame prior to 1920. Many consider him the state's first modern artist.

This painting, a tiny, dreamy oil-on-canvas landscape titled Pine, Colorado, is undated, but it was likely done circa 1917. Observers will notice immediately that this is quite a bit out of the show's date range. In fact, there are also pieces from the 1920s and '30s, and even some from after 1970. Woodward's explanation? "The artists broke all the rules, and so does the show," he says. His glib retort is clever, but I do wish that curators would simply dispense with dates in their show titles if they're not going to honor them. Broadly speaking, Thompson cannot be properly called "vanguard," either. But Woodward felt, and he was right, that given the artist's well-established place in the region's modern art history, he couldn't be left out.

That's also the case for another group of artists -- all of them deceased -- who were the forebears of modernism in Colorado. Clustered together are examples by Lawrence Barrett, Boardman Robinson and additional works by Kirkland, Bayer, Bunnell and Thompson. This approach, in which various artists are brought together in stylistic groupings, is done successfully throughout the show. Barrett and Robinson both worked at CSFAC in the 1930s and '40s, Barrett as the master printer at its printmaking facility -- which was internationally known at the time -- and Robinson as the longtime director of the art school. Like Kirkland and Thompson, Barrett and Robinson influenced generations of Colorado artists.  

The rest of the show is hung in roughly chronological order. Pieces from the 1940s are installed in the north half of the front, and pieces from the early 1950s are in the south half.

From the 1940s are several paintings by Bill Sanderson, a teacher at DU who combines cubism and regionalism in much the same way that his boss at DU, Kirkland, combines surrealism and regionalism in his Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains, an oil on linen from 1948. Another DU teacher, the late Jack Ball, uses representational images that he cuts up with jagged lines and shifting planes.

There is also a silkscreen print by Guy MacCoy, who worked at CSFAC from the 1930s to the 1950s. MacCoy created some of the first fine-art silkscreens in the country, gaining lasting fame in the history of that medium. Edward Marecak, who lived first in Colorado Springs and later in Denver, perfected a kind of decorative painting that is related to the hard-edged pattern painting of twenty years later. Marecak's friend, sculptor, painter and printmaker Edgar Britton, also divided his time between Colorado Springs and Denver. None of these artists were truly abstractionists, even if they all occasionally strayed into the field. Instead, they were concerned with a modernist approach to recognizable images.

The early-1950s section features a handful of abstract-surrealist paintings by the late J. Richard Sorby, who was connected to DU. Roland Detre, one of Denver's old masters, also created in a surrealist style in Seascape, an oil on canvas from 1950. Other noteworthy artists in this section include Elise Train, Eve Drewelowe, Doug Denniston and Frank Vavra.

Only a few of the artists in the front room worked in an abstract-expressionist style, notably the totally forgotten Harve Litvack and George Cecil Carter. In Untitled, a 1955 oil on board, Carter lays on a pattern of heavy smears in a cool gray palette offset by hot orange.

The back gallery is filled with abstract expressionism and other non-objective styles. Two of the greatest abstractionists in the region, Ken Goehring and Al Wynne, are seen here in some depth. Goehring is meticulous in his technique, while Wynne is more gestural. Both were students of Robinson's at CSFAC, and both are now retired.

The late Nadine Drummond and Yvonne Thomas, who is retired, also worked in abstract expressionism. Drummond, who lived in Denver, is better known for her conventional landscape paintings, but she turned to abstraction at the end of her life. Thomas, who divided her time between Aspen and New York, was nationally famous, though unknown around here.

The show concludes upstairs with a selection of minimalist and geometric painting from the 1960s and '70s. Pattern-painting pioneer George Woodman from Boulder and Central City's Angelo di Benedetto, an early proponent of the shaped canvas, are among the real standouts in this small section.

BMoCA should be lauded for the impressive achievement of Vanguard Art of Colorado. Its success is the result of Woodward's connoisseurship and Payton's ongoing commitment to local art.

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