Our local cultural institutions do a mostly inadequate (and sometimes dreadful) job of nurturing the art of our region. It's not as though there isn't enough exhibition space--not when the vacant The End show by Edward Ruscha has had five months to befoul the Close Range Gallery at the Denver Art Museum, or when the out-of-tune Shake, Rattle and Roll takes up the main exhibition space on the first floor at the Colorado History Museum all the way through August. More likely it's a lack of interest--and, as a result, a lack of vision.
That may explain why the spectacular Roland Detre Retrospective isn't showing at one of Denver's museums, the way it should be--and the way it would be if the artist were working in a place like San Francisco or Boston, where a more sophisticated museum hierarchy prevails. Instead, the accomplishments of this 93-year-old living treasure, a great painter who has spent the last forty years of his career in Denver, can be seen at one of the city's best commercial galleries, one that has often filled some of the most obvious and egregious voids left by our public institutions: Denver's Inkfish Gallery.
It's hard to believe that it was little more than a decade ago that Detre was pulled from the trash heap of history and put back into the city's art scene. An art-world household name in the 1950s and '60s, by the 1980s Detre had been forgotten (or never heard of) by any but the most hardcore Denver art-history junkies. It was one of the best-known of these art addicts--freelance art historian, curator and art appraiser Jack Kunin--who first put together a Detre biography in 1985. That was in association with a show focusing on the artist's career at the University of Denver's Shwayder Gallery. At that time, it had been more than twenty years since Detre had been afforded the luxury of a single-artist exhibit. But it took more than a DU show to reintroduce Detre to Denver's art world; fortunately, Inkfish Gallery director Paul Hughes picked up the ball and began exhibiting Detre in a series of shows beginning in 1988.
Born in Hungary in 1903, Detre was a prodigious artist from an early age. His work was accepted into juried exhibits as early as 1915, when he was only twelve. In 1920, when he was seventeen, he entered the painting program at the Budapest Academy, where he studied with the Paris-trained Hungarian artist Janos Vaszary. From that point on, Detre's work carried the mark of the School of Paris, as seen in the oldest piece included in the Inkfish show, a masterful 1924 painting titled "The Family." A picnic scene with conventionalized takes on a man, woman and child, it already shows the influence of Pablo Picasso's neoclassicism. The figures are boldly conceived, and the colors, mostly browns and golds set off by blues and whites, have been applied with the pigments nearly dry, heightening the impression of the brush by clearly recording its passage.
By 1926, Detre was living and working in Berlin, but as with so many of the artists of his day, especially those from Eastern Europe, he eventually gravitated to Paris, at that time the world's unrivaled art center. The Inkfish show includes several of Detre's Paris paintings, including two expressionist still lifes from 1934 and 1935. Those painterly efforts are all sketchy lines and brushy paint, predominantly in shades of ocher, sienna and white. There's also a gorgeous 1935 "Self Portrait," rendered in the same manner as the still lifes. The essentially brown palette of these paintings was all the rage at the time, a tip of the hat by more traditional painters like Detre to the work of the avant-garde.
More stylistically courageous is "Mirror," a 1935 oil on canvas that was part of a worldwide revival of interest in Cubism, a movement typified by the contemporaneous work of artists such as Robert Delaunay or Stuart Davis. Like Delaunay and Davis, Detre chose colors that were bright and toned-up, including red, yellow and black.
Working alongside Detre in the Paris of the 1930s were the great modernists of the day. And though Detre didn't have firsthand contact with them, the influence of artists such as Picasso and especially Georges Braque is easy to see in the paintings he created throughout the rest of his long career.
Afflicted with tuberculosis, Detre left Paris in 1936 to enter a Swiss sanitarium. It wound up being a stroke of luck for the Jewish artist, who, along with his first wife, Rose Szilard (sister of the renowned physicist Leo Szilard), weathered the Holocaust in the safe harbor of Switzerland.
Aided by the clout of his wife's family, Detre immigrated to New York after the war. And in 1952, tuberculosis again marked a stroke of luck--but this time for Denver--when he was forced to leave New York and seek treatment at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine. Aside from summers spent in Taos, Detre has been living and working in east Denver ever since.
Detre found great success here in the 1950s and '60s. And though, like now, the DAM did little for the local art scene, it was hard to ignore Detre. Not only was his work strong and individual, but his credentials were staggering--his paintings, after all, had been displayed in the Musee D'Art Moderne in Paris. Needless to say, such accomplishments were a rarely seen item on the resumes of Colorado artists, and Detre was one of only a handful of Denver artists whose work was regularly displayed at the DAM.
Detre's pieces from that period feature barely recognizable subjects seen through a heavy application of paint that is often three-dimensional. "The Stove," from 1955, allows the viewer to make out--with some effort--a woman beside an old wood-burning stove. In the 1957 painting "Model in Studio," Detre applies a more delicate touch to an equally fuzzy view of his own studio, a subject he has addressed again and again.
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In the 1970s and '80s, when the artist himself was in his seventies and eighties, he fell out of sight and out of mind. But he kept painting. Beginning in this period, his colors got noticeably brighter and clearer, a trend that has continued to the present. Detre has explained to gallery director Hughes that this was his response to failing eyesight. In a 1970s painting shown at Inkfish, "Reclining Nude," the palette includes pink, lavender, yellow, blue, red, gray and green--and all of them in many subtle variations.
The '70s and '80s also marked the first time Detre took on completely non-objective compositions such as the 1980 matched pair "Sylvan I" and "Sylvan II," two vertical panels adorned with vertical bars of color. The painter has blended the shades to reveal a gleaming and juicy array of full-bodied hues.
Though Detre has tried to retire--last year he even went so far as to dismantle his studio--he just can't bring himself to stop. The newest piece in the Inkfish show is just five weeks old.
Exhibits by artists with seven decades of credible work don't come around every day anywhere in the world, let alone here in Denver. And surely anyone with even the slightest interest in the art of painting will find inspiration in this breathtaking show.