"Dorik and His Colt," by Frank Mechau, oil on canvas.
"Dorik and His Colt," by Frank Mechau, oil on canvas.

Painted Ponies

The second quarter of the twentieth century can be described as a golden age for Colorado art. Right after World War I, the Broadmoor Academy opened in Colorado Springs, developing a reputation as a nationally significant art school. But this was not the first aesthetic outpost in the Colorado wilderness; the Front Range town had been attracting artists since the 1870s.

The Broadmoor Academy brought in luminaries from across the country, both as teachers and students, and these immigrants bolstered the scene that was already there. The successor to the Broadmoor Academy was the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, opened in 1936 and still there in its John Gaw Meem masterpiece building.

Meem pulled out all the stops in creating the CSFAC, incorporating custom-made details in furniture, metalwork, synthetic stone, concrete and plaster. To top it off, he had spectacular murals created to decorate the interior and exterior walls. Surely the most elegant of these is "Running Horses," by Frank Mechau, who was on the faculty of the center and completed the piece in 1937. It is unquestionably one of the greatest works of art anywhere in the state.


Shooting Star: The Artwork of Frank Mechau (1904-1946)

Through August 30, Denver Central Library, 10 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-1814

The mural was painted on a horizontal frieze that runs above the glass-and-metal curtain wall on the outside of the building, facing the courtyard. It depicts running horses, an appropriately Western theme, but Mechau was a modernist, so he gave the familiar subject a twist or two. The horses were painted in different colors -- ones that aren't completely natural -- and were abstracted, with the figures flattened and most of the anatomical details left off. The animals are lined up in the tight space of the horizontal frieze, but Mechau introduces the illusion of depth by weaving them in and out.

The one other public Mechau mural in the area is in the Western History/Genealogy department of the Denver Public Library's Central location. "Horses at Night," done in 1934, is intimately related to the later "Running Horses," though it's only a fraction of the size.

I've always thought that "Running Horses" and "Horses at Night" were teasers for Mechau's career, because his stuff is so scarce, you rarely see anything else. I've long been interested in the art of our region and have taken in dozens of exhibits on the theme, but with the exception of some small drawings, Mechau has mostly been a no-show. I've almost never seen a piece by him for sale in a gallery -- not that I could afford one if I did.

Now, at long last, the pent-up desire to see more of his work is being satisfied. An in-depth exhibition of Mechau's oeuvre is on display in the Central Library, just a couple of floors above "Horses at Night." On the seventh level, in the Vida Ellison Gallery and adjacent corridors, is the riveting Shooting Star: The Artwork of Frank Mechau (1904-1946). This is the library's major art offering for the summer, and it's a worthy followup to the John Edward Thompson retrospective presented a few months ago. Like that outing, the Mechau extravaganza is part of an ongoing series of well-researched exhibits examining the region's rich art history.

A careful reading of Shooting Star's credit lines explains why Mechau's work is so rarely seen: His descendants have held on to as much as they could. Star includes loans from his widow, Paula, and his children, Vanni Lowdenslager, Dorik Mechau, Duna Stephens and, most notably, Michael Mechau, the keeper of the flame for his father's work and the principal impetus behind the display.

The Denver Public Library, which has an extensive collection of its own, has been showcasing local art for more than a hundred years, and though the Mechau exhibit might seem more appropriate in a venue such as the Denver Art Museum or the Colorado History Museum, the DPL can lay its own legitimate claim. For the past several years, these DPL shows have been coordinated and facilitated by Kay Wisnia, who works in the Western History department. Amazingly, Wisnia has been able to put them together while still completing her duties as a full-time librarian. In the process, not only has she distinguished herself as a complete pro, but she's gained the heartfelt respect of her peers in the art world.

It is difficult to hang a show in the Ellison Gallery, because there's hardly any wall space, with a big opening for the entrance and windows and doors lining the opposite wall. Architect Michael Graves was obviously more concerned with taking advantage of the view of the Civic Center than in providing proper exhibition space. As a result, the corridors are often drafted into service, making it nearly impossible to display works in chronological order. To solve this problem for Shooting Star, Wisnia put Mechau's earliest pieces in the gallery proper, with drawings hung in one corridor and paintings in the other.

Mechau was born in Kansas in 1904, but he moved with his family to Glenwood Springs when he was just a small child. He showed an early interest in art and was also a serious athlete. In 1922 he was awarded a one-year boxing scholarship to the University of Denver, where he studied art history. Around the same time, he also studied at the long-gone Denver Art Academy. In 1924 he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but its formal, traditional program didn't sit well with him; he dropped out in 1925 and returned to Glenwood.

Like so many artists before and since, Mechau went to New York, where he met his future wife, Paula Ralska. In 1929 the couple moved to Paris. They remained there until 1932, when their first child, Vanni, was born, at which time they moved to Denver.

Most of the oldest works in the DPL show were done during Mechau's Parisian sojourn and in the first years after his return to Colorado. These pieces reveal the absorption of the early modern art that was developing in Paris, as well as the influence of regionalism, which was all the rage around here. There's a definite surrealistic quality to many of them, as exemplified by the gorgeous "Rodeo Pickup-Man," in which cowboys on horseback were distilled into shallow shapes carried out with piles of thick paint. The wonderful "Football Abstraction," an oil on canvas from 1932, is even more surrealistic. In this horizontal composition, Mechau reduced the figures of the football players into simplified solids done in bright colors. In a lot of ways -- the long narrow shape, the reductionism and the elaborate arrangement of the figures -- this painting anticipates the later "Running Horses" and "Horses at Night."

Even more abstract, and therefore more modern, is "Indian Fight #2," painted in Denver in 1934. Mechau cut up the forms of the equestrian Indians so that they are treated like puzzle pieces. He outlined jagged fragments of his subjects in paint, dividing the picture into areas that are independent of the expected contours of Indians on horseback.

In Denver, Mechau taught at the Kirkland School of Art, and later established his own Mechau School of Modern Art. In 1934 he received the first of a series of Guggenheim fellowships and was awarded his first federal commission as part of the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project. It was for "Horses at Night." The mural was exhibited in New York and Washington, D.C., before coming back to Denver. It was so well received back East that it led to additional commissions for Mechau in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas and the nation's capital.

The DPL show includes a study for a pair of murals, "Pony Express" and "Dangers of the Mail," that were created for the United States Post Office in Washington. "Dangers of the Mail," which features pioneers being set upon by marauding Indians, has created controversy -- twice. When it was unveiled in 1935, it caused outrage because it features pioneer women stripped naked by the Indians; in the late '90s, the mural again raised the ire of viewers, this time because self-appointed critics felt it defamed Indians. The second controversy was more effective in achieving the protesters' goal of censorship and led to the mural's being permanently draped. (Score one more for art haters.)

In 1937, Mechau's success with federal and private commissions allowed him to move with his family to Redstone, Colorado, where he established a studio. That year and the next, he taught at the CSFAC, spending the term in Colorado Springs and the rest of the year in Redstone. He then took a job as the head of the drawing, sculpture and painting department at Columbia University in New York City, a position he held until 1943, at which time he moved back to Redstone.

In the later '30s and into the '40s, Mechau's style became increasingly less abstract as he turned to the magic-realist wing of the regionalists. This was really swimming upstream for Mechau, because at the time, abstraction was starting to come on strong in American art, quickly replacing regionalism as the national style of choice for artists. There are quite a few examples of this later work, with its stilted perspective and crisp margins between the forms, in Shooting Star; they include "Dorik and His Colt," an oil on canvas, and "Forest Fire," an oil and tempera on panel, both from 1944.

This magic-realist work would be the end of the line for Mechau. In 1946, when he was just 42, he suffered a heart attack and died while visiting his father in Denver.

It's been a generation since there's been a Mechau show in town. That makes it an understatement to say that Shooting Star: The Artwork of Frank Mechau (1904-1946) is one of the top attractions of the year.


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