RetroActive at Pirate Shows How Artists in the 1970s Launched the Scene We Have Now

Spark Gallery in the 1980s at 3300 Osage Street.
Spark Gallery in the 1980s at 3300 Osage Street.

RetroActive Pirate: Contemporary Art 3655 Navajo Street

The idea for Denver's Spark Gallery actually came about in Boulder in the 1970s. At the time, exhibition space for emerging artists was scarce, so a group of University of Colorado undergrads, graduate students, instructors and professors got together with the purpose of finding places to mount shows of their work. Some of those shows were in CU's Armory building. The group also founded a short-lived cooperative that they dubbed Edge (no relation to Denver's Edge Gallery).

See also: Review: DU's Faculty Triennial Shows How Vital Teachers Are to Colorado's Art Scene

"Untitled" by Charles DiJulio, acrylic on paper
"Untitled" by Charles DiJulio, acrylic on paper

Then, in 1979, some of the artists created a Denver outpost, which they called Spark Gallery, after Margaret Neumann's dog Sparky -- and the co-op is still going strong. Pirate, another early co-op, came on line just a few months after Spark, thus making both venues landmarks of the contemporary art scene in Denver.

Now, here's something to wrap your head around: The artists who founded Spark, which was the successor to Edge, are being featured at Pirate, in a Rule Gallery pop-up called RetroActive: Founding Spark.

The artists who created Spark were friends and colleagues, but they didn't share one particular style. Instead, two opposing tendencies predominated. One was abstract patterning, exemplified by the work of Clark Richert, Jerry Johnson, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Kallweit, Charles DiJulio and their mentor, George Woodman. (Unfortunately, there are no Woodman pattern paintings in RetroActive, only one of his later photo-montages.) The other was neo-expressionism, which came from Neumann, Suzy Roesler, Marcia Rehn and Jane Fudge.

The resulting aesthetic was hard-edged non-objective versus soft-edged figurative. The other artists among the Spark founders -- Andy Libertone, Paul Gillis and John Fudge -- each did their own type of work, with little connection to the others.

Jerry Johnson, "Terrane", acrylic on canvas.
Jerry Johnson, "Terrane", acrylic on canvas.

I've been interested in Denver's art scene for a long time, but I wasn't in town yet when Spark and Pirate opened, so this history is new to me -- and probably to you -- which makes it all the more interesting. That's why I'll be paying attention to the discussion "Early Collectives: Sparking a Revolution in Colorado -- especially since I'll be the moderator. It's slated for Saturday, February 7, at 2 p.m, with a last-minute change from Pirate to the Bug Theatre, at 3654 Navajo. Featured panelists include three of the Spark founders -- Libertone, Neumann and Richert -- along with Pirate's Phil Bender and Ken Peterson, who started Denver's Edge.

It would be great if RetroActive were used as a kind of laboratory for developing future shows that explored Colorado art from the late twentieth century.

RetroActive runs through February 8 at Pirate: Contemporary Art, 3655 Navajo Street. Get more information at 303-458-6058 or pirateartonline.

Margaret Neumann, "It's Only Magic", 1981, acrylic on canvas, 49.5 x 55.5 inches
Margaret Neumann, "It's Only Magic", 1981, acrylic on canvas, 49.5 x 55.5 inches

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