You'll want to run through Shake, Rattle and Roll, the Colorado History Museum's--excuse the expression--"exhibit" on the 1950s. And then you'll want to run away as fast as you can.
To say that this show is a total disaster barely hints at how bad it really is. I can't recall in my entire life another exhibition where high-quality material was so scrupulously excluded.
Shake, Rattle and Roll is the latest in a series of decade-by-decade exhibits that the CHM has mounted in recent years. The previous shows had their limitations--namely, some uninspired selections--but those curators at least did their homework. In the case of this show, though many factoids have been gathered and put up in text blocks on the walls, the information has very little to do with the "artifacts" on display.
And what "artifacts"! The team of show organizers apparently didn't know what they were looking at--several items included here are obviously from the prewar period and several others are clearly from the 1960s and beyond. Those pieces that are certifiable as being historically correct are mostly of such minor interest as to be instantly forgettable.
The minute you enter Shake, Rattle and Roll, you realize that something has gone terribly wrong. A single jukebox--handsome enough, but no more remarkable than any of the half-dozen one might expect to see at a typical antique show or specialty shop--is playing vintage rock and roll. Across from the jukebox is a two-paneled mirror, next to which is a guitar in a stand and above which is a television set showing a continuous loop of recorded performances by Elvis. Exhibition-goers, especially children, are encouraged to sway their hips Elvis-style while holding the guitar in front of the mirror (no, I'm not making this up).
Just inside the first room of this multispace exhibit is a riser set with furniture, clothing, toys and other objects of the consumer culture meant to suggest the "treasures" we'll find within. There are a pair of wrought-iron butterfly chairs, which were popular in the 1950s as they are even today, and these particular examples may even date from that time. But Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy was thoughtless enough to design them in the 1930s. Oops!
Then there are the brand-new canvas slings on the chairs. The curators didn't even go to the trouble of steaming out the creases of the very recently unfolded fabric. Even worse is the sad little blond-finished table--one of a legion of such miserable things here--which I'll eat if it wasn't both designed and made in the 1930s. The table has been placed between the '30s-designed--though perhaps '50s made--butterfly chairs.
The most egregious affront contained in this particular display is the poodle skirt, which has become a virtual symbol of the show owing to its inclusion in the museum's official public-relations photo. The trouble is, I don't believe it's authentic. My guess: It's a theatrical costume made of felt. It has been trimmed with pinking shears instead of having been hemmed. And it has a zipper of a fairly recent date. Most likely, the skirt was made for some high-school production of Grease or Bye, Bye, Birdie in the 1970s. A real poodle skirt, like the woman's wool suit seen elsewhere in this show, would reveal how common the luxury of fine fabrics, skillful dressmaking and careful design detailing were in even the most ordinary clothing of the 1950s--let alone in a boutique item like a poodle skirt, many of which were handmade in Paris.
As the viewer proceeds through the exhibit, small groups of objects have been assembled according to a number of topical categories. These vignettes, most of them displayed in small custom-made showcases, are organized into two overriding sets, one meant to evoke the everyday life of the time, the other featuring articles relating to the era's big historical events. The first part of the show features such cultural novelties as the family room and the department store, while the second half is made up of displays dedicated to topics like President Dwight Eisenhower and the Korean War.
Inexplicably, television--which came to Denver in 1952 via Channel 2--is marooned at the end of the second half of the show, isolated from, instead of linking up, the ordinary and the extraordinary. This despite the fact that that's what TV actually did and still does in real life. Come on: Ike was in the family room nearly every night--on television.
The section on Eisenhower is one of the only vignettes dominated by high-interest materials. However, when you realize that a hardwood-and-cane wheelchair belonging to the former president is one of the most memorable parts of a show that also takes up sweeping subjects like the baby boom and youth culture, you begin to grasp how far off the mark Shake, Rattle and Roll really is.
Let's not forget that the 1950s, the ostensible topic of the show, marked the first time that American culture--both high and low--extended its influence around the world. You'd never guess it from what's here.
The worst material in the show has to be the furniture and other decorative items, which are of a decidedly low quality, both in terms of original manufacturing and the sorry current condition in which most are found. To put it another way, Shake, Rattle and Roll is filled with a bunch of beat-up junk.
And though someone did think to use the 1950s icon known as the "ball clock" as a symbol for the show--plywood-and-plastic oversized replicas hang from the ceiling throughout--no one thought to include a real ball clock. Or, for that matter, anything else by the clock's designer, George Nelson, or any of Nelson's circle, who just happen to have been the most influential domestic designers on earth at the time. Still well-remembered--just not by the CHM--are '50s luminaries such as Charles Eames, Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen, among a score of others.
Heightening the disappointment in Shake, Rattle and Roll is how much expectations have been raised in recent years by the excellent shows seen elsewhere dealing with the same kind of non-fine-art material. The Denver Art Museum has, since 1991, turned its attention to domestic items like furniture with the opening of the Architecture, Design and Graphics Department headed up by Craig Miller. Miller's current show, New Concepts: 1750-1995, due to close by the end of the month, presents with great economy a survey of the major design trends in the furniture of the last two centuries. The show makes perfect sense. Inclusions have been thoughtfully chosen, and viewers leave the exhibit with a basic understanding of the subject's big picture.
And it's not just the art museum that leaves the CHM in the dust when it comes to exhibits of material culture. Even much smaller public venues in the area have set a considerably higher standard than that which was applied to Shake, Rattle and Roll. Two examples are the superb and engaging show of children's toys with a transportation theme at the Arvada Center last summer and (coinciding with the opening last spring of Coors Field) the assemblage of world-class baseball memorabilia at Metro State College's visual-arts center. Shake, Rattle and Roll not only can't compare with those shows, it lacks the quality we've come to expect from the rock-age memorabilia at a chain restaurant like Gunther Toody's.
It's hard to imagine how the CHM summoned the nerve to do such a half-hearted job. Information about the material culture of the 1950s isn't hard to find; sources are abundant and readily at hand. Not only has there been a flood of coffee-table books published on the topic in the last decade, but original sources are easy to come by since the decade was extremely well-documented by a timely publishing boom in books and magazines.
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Let's give the organizers of Shake, Rattle and Roll the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn't go to the trouble of actually cracking a book on the material culture of the 1950s. The alternative--that they actually did do research on the topic and still came up with this show--is a possibility too horrible to contemplate.
If you haven't gotten over to Camera Obscura Gallery (1309 Bannock Street, 623-4059) yet to see the spectacular retrospective of the photos of the Cuban father-and-son team of Osvaldo and Roberto Salas, do so at once. The exhibit, making its national premiere here, closes January 14.
The father, Osvaldo, was born in Havana in 1914 but lived in New York from the late 1940s through the 1950s before returning to Cuba in 1959 to document Castro's revolution. During his stay in the United States, working as a photojournalist, Osvaldo was able to snap some exquisite black-and-white celebrity shots, including a killer 1954 Mickey Mantle and several able publicity photos of the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Joe Louis and Louis Armstrong.
Back in Cuba, Osvaldo and his photographer son, Roberto, traveled with both Castro and Che during the heady early days of the revolution, clicking away on their cameras while history was in the making. In 1964 son Roberto went to North Vietnam, becoming a leading combat photographer. Since the 1970s, both Osvaldo, who died in 1993, and Roberto, who continues to work in Havana, turned their lenses on the effect of the U.S. blockade on the Cuban people.