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Rear-View Mirror

"Concerning Scorpio, 10 Billion Years, BC," oil and water on canvas.

Oh, I know, there's that horrible hour-long drive. And not only that, but it's been so darn hot.

Well, too bad, because you're going to want to make the trip to the Loveland Museum and Gallery anyway to see the sweeping Vance Kirkland Retrospective. But get moving, because this stunning show closes Sunday.

I've seen a lot of Vance Kirklands over the years, but several of the pieces in this show were new to me. The exhibit was organized by Loveland curator Janice Currier with the help of Hugh Grant, director of the Kirkland Museum in Denver. "Janice came down with a group from Loveland; I showed them the work I had in storage, and then Janice selected the pieces that were ultimately included in the show," says Grant. "She did a wonderful job."

Currier's selections span Kirkland's career, from the late 1920s to 1981, the year he died. This period also encompasses the great paradigm shift in American art from realism to abstraction, which took place in the 1940s. That radical change in American art is evident -- and its exact nature fully laid out -- in Kirkland's oeuvre. It's obvious that, rather than representing a revolution for the painter, the road to abstraction was a logical path that he followed incrementally.

Over the decades, Kirkland's work went through a series of easy-to-understand steps that invariably led him to modernism. Apparently, the turn to modernism was not just the purview of New York artists, as some believe, but also of artists here -- and at exactly the same time. Moreover, Kirkland was not alone in the wilds of Colorado; on the contrary, he was part of a lively group of modernists that included Jack Ball, Watson Bidwell, Emerson Woelffer, Al Wynne, Ken Goehring, Mary Chenoweth and Charles Bunnell, among others.

Kirkland was born in 1904 in Convoy, Ohio, a small country town west of Cleveland. In the early twentieth century, Cleveland was a center for art in the Midwest. In 1923, Kirkland, a precocious artist since childhood, entered the prestigious Cleveland School of Art. He earned a diploma in painting from the school in 1928 and went on to do graduate studies at Western Reserve University and the Cleveland School of Education.

In 1929, armed with a Carnegie Foundation grant, Kirkland came to Denver to establish the School of Art at the University of Denver. Though he would eventually be associated with DU for decades, this initial job didn't last long, and he quit DU -- in disgust, mind you -- in 1932. Although his intention was to paint full-time, his students urged him to continue teaching. In response, he founded the Kirkland School of Art; classes, which were accredited by the University of Colorado, took place in his Denver studio, which is now the Kirkland Museum in Capitol Hill. He continued to run the school out of his studio until 1946, when he was rehired by DU and began his long tenure with that institution.

The Loveland show includes many pieces from the first fifteen years of Kirkland's Denver career. It's installed in rough chronological order so that his stylistic development is explicated; to view it this way, visitors must make a hard left immediately after entering the gallery, and this is not clearly indicated.

At the beginning of the show is an engaging watercolor -- an early medium of choice for Kirkland -- done in 1930, a year after he moved to Colorado. In it, Kirkland mixed surrealism with traditional realism, making it a fairly early example of American surrealism. (He had already been to Spain and France, two major hot spots of the genre.) Titled "Mountain Ruins," the painting is a moonlit depiction of a tumbledown house in the mountains. The nightshade colors Kirkland used -- lots of black and blue -- are marvelous, and the juxtaposition of these dark hues with white heightens the otherworldly effect of the scene.

Surrealism was a leitmotif in other Kirklands from the 1930s and '40s, but most of his work from that time was more in line with mainstream regionalism. The regionalist style was dominant then, and it flourished across the country, especially in cities other than New York.

As it happened, a regionalist art colony was installed nearby, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where the likes of Boardman Robinson, Adolf Dehn and Arnold Blanch were working and teaching. Kirkland watercolors, such as the gorgeous "Riders in the Garden of the Gods," from 1944, are apparently related to what could be called "the Colorado School." Interestingly, that sub-style represents a type of regionalism that differs greatly from its Midwestern variants.

By the mid-1940s, Kirkland was creating abstract surrealist compositions made up of reassembled details from his regionalist landscapes; these were done in gouache, an opaque watercolor medium. A good example is 1947's "Rocky Mountain Abstraction," in which jagged, swirling forms in black and white based on elements seen in the older "Garden of the Gods" piece are placed against a background of quasi-constructivist hard-edged shapes.

 

Even further from the regionalist landscapes and closer to pure abstraction is "Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," an oil on linen from 1948. Kirkland uses the hard-edged margins of the paint to divide up the picture's elements -- in this case, the mountains and the clouds -- which are flattened and tend to disappear under the weight of the overall abstract design to which Kirkland has subjected them.

In 1948, Kirkland was on the verge of total abstraction, smack-dab in the middle of the international currents of the vanguard art of his time -- despite being in the backwaters of Colorado. In the 1950s, he embraced non-objective painting completely and eliminated all references to external reality.

Kirkland came to abstract expressionism a few years later than the genre's earliest practitioners, such as Jackson Pollock -- who, by the way, executed work at the CSFAC on repeated trips to Colorado Springs in the '30s and '40s and, like Kirkland, worked his way from regionalism through surrealism to abstraction.

But Kirkland hardly missed out, because he is obviously a first-generation ab-exer, having turned to the style at approximately the same time as a number of more famous New York School artists, such as Helen Frankenthaler. Like Frankenthaler, Kirkland explored color-field abstraction as an extension of the so-called "action" painting movement.

Retrospective offers many fine examples of Kirkland's color-field abstract expressionism. These can be broadly compared with works by other abstract expressionists, including Frankenthaler, but Kirkland's have their own look.

In paintings such as 1955's "Uranium and Gold" or 1957's "The Mystery of Space," Kirkland floats amorphous shapes with indistinct margins on top of variegated color fields. In "Uranium and Gold," he uses real gold leaf, a material he would employ frequently over the next ten years.

"Black Lines With Blue, Orange and Yellow," an oil on linen from 1959, is masterful and monumental. On a ground that modulates between orange and yellow, Kirkland has inserted painted passages in blue on white and automatist scribbles in black. It's distinctive characteristics of Kirkland's abstracts are unforgettable. They were painted using a technique that was specially devised by the artist and kept secret during his lifetime -- a process in which he mixed the unmixable: water and oil.

Kirkland first put down a colored ground, often toned-up shades of red, orange or yellow. Next, he dropped water in small amounts on the surface of the painting, forming puddles. Oil pigment was then floated on the puddles, and using sticks to guide the paint into desired shapes and paper towels to blot the excess water, the artist was able to 'fix' the colors in place. There are quite a few paintings done this way in the Loveland show, including 1963's "Asian Dancing Forms" and "Space No. 1," from 1966.

The colors in both of these paintings are remarkably contemporary-looking, especially the green and red with lavender in "Space No. 1." Courageous and unexpected color combinations are a Kirkland hallmark, and it's amazing how prescient he often was. Many of his palette selections must have seemed awfully strange thirty or forty years ago, because they seem so 'right' now.

In any artist's career, having produced three credible bodies of work in three successive styles -- in Kirkland's case, regionalism, surrealism and abstract expressionism -- would have been a great accomplishment. But in the 1960s (when he was in his sixties), Kirkland began working with his "dot method," a stylistic development that, like the oil-and-water technique, was unique and of his own invention. Rather than brushes, Kirkland used wooden dowels of varying sizes for the dot paintings, dipping one end in paint and then pressing it into its chosen place.

As featured in Retrospective, Kirkland's dot paintings fall into two general types: those that are based on abstractions and those that are strictly geometric. The abstract-derived paintings look abstract-expressionist on the surface, but appearances can be deceiving, and considering the neo-pointillist method Kirkland employed, they are anything but expressionistic. Quite a few dot paintings, most of them in the abstract group, are on display in Loveland. Two notable examples are the majestic, mural-sized "Activated Blue Quartet in a Red Glow," from 1975, and the related "Concerning Scorpio, 10 Billion Years, BC," from 1977.

The show is supplemented with memorabilia and photographs related to Kirkland, and they help answer some questions. For instance, when he painted "Concerning Scorpio," the artist, who was just 5'2", was 73 years old and using a cane to get around. So how in the world did he do this gigantic painting? And how did such an old guy -- peering out from behind thick glasses in the photos -- come up with this wild, in-your-face piece?

 

A demonstrative model provides a partial answer. In the front space, one of the paintings has been placed on a table, face up. Above it are four straps suspended from the ceiling, which refer to the canvas slings Kirkland used to suspend himself over his paintings so that he could have access to the entire surface.

There is no explanation, though, for how the artist's work remained so vital, progressive and original even as his body increasingly failed him.

The Loveland show is a rare opportunity to see the breathtaking scope of Kirkland's work. And considering that the last full-tilt retrospective devoted to him was a memorial exhibition presented more than ten years ago at the University of Denver, it makes sense for anyone with an interest in art to get up to Loveland ASAP.


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