Believe it or not, in the 1950s, Colorado's main art scene was seated not in Denver, but in Colorado Springs, of all places. The most sophisticated art in the region was being created by a loosely affiliated group of artists who were based down there and who represented a veritable school of Western abstract expressionism. Most of these vanguard artists were alumni -- or students of alumni -- of the once-famous Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School. That long-gone institution and the Broadmoor Academy, its direct predecessor, were the reasons that city was Colorado's art hot spot for most of the twentieth century.
In the 1960s, some Denver artists pushed to promote the Mile High City as the new contemporary-art capital of the Rockies, and, eventually, they won. That's partly because the creeping conservatism in the Springs did nothing to encourage cutting-edge artists, while a more progressive crowd up here was open to new ideas.
Another reason Denver had become the state's unrivaled art center by the mid-1970s is that the city was booming in the late '60s and early '70s and was starting to get rich. This created the perfect conditions for launching a new era in art appreciation in Denver -- something Beverly Rosen helped to do.
Rosen was born Beverly Ullian in Massachusetts in 1924. She met her future husband, Bernie Rosen, while on summer break from Simmons College in the 1940s. In 1951 the couple moved to Denver, and Bernie's career as an insurance executive took off. As was typical for the Leave It to Beaver era, Bev stayed home and raised four children. In her spare time, she created abstract-expressionist paintings, such as 1953's "Symphony," which was exhibited at the Denver Art Museum's 60th Western Annual, held in 1954.
In the late '50s, Bev decided to go back to school to hone her skills as an artist. She applied to the University of Colorado at Boulder but was rejected, so she sought admission to the University of Denver. She was accepted and completed her BFA there in 1960. She then earned an MFA in 1963 and immediately went on to teach at DU. The character of her work at that time is best revealed by her thesis topic: "Energy of Pigment." According to Bernie, "Bev loved splashing paint around." While at DU, she was mentored by Vance Kirkland, then chairman of the art department.
In the mid-'60s and into the early '70s, Rosen shifted gears radically, abandoning expressionism completely in favor of hard-edged painting. The turn was partly predicated by her interest in American Indian art that featured geometric motifs, especially rugs and pottery. Another source of inspiration was the building boom that had just started in Denver and crowded the skyline with the straight lines of all the skeletal steel frames being erected. It was the paintings Rosen did during this period that would gain the widest local acclaim and establish her as one of the city's most important contemporary artists. These stripped paintings, which she dubbed "Cityscapes," are considered her signature works, as are the closely related "Girder" paintings of the same period.
A good example is "Collimation," from 1972, which is on display at the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art. At first I thought she'd made up the title, but it's actually a real, if rarely used, word. It means rendering something so that it is parallel to a certain direction. That's a perfect description of this painting: Rosen divided her composition into several angular sections and then filled each with stacks of parallel bars. The orientation of each section is different, so that the bars collide where the parts intersect. Surely one of the most important aspects of this enormous painting is its stunning array of colors. There is essentially a complete prism, with the bright and vibrant shades ranging from reds and pinks at one end of the spectrum to greens and blues at the other. "One thing that nearly everyone said about Bev was what a marvelous colorist she was," recalls Bernie.
In addition to painting and teaching and raising kids, Rosen was also one of the city's greatest advocates for contemporary art. In the late '60s, she was a founder of Friends of Contemporary Art, which put pressure on the DAM to present contemporary art and, ultimately, to hire Dianne Vanderlip as the institution's first paid curator in that field. (Kirkland had served in the same role earlier, but he was a volunteer.)
Rosen was also the catalyst for the Denver Sculpture Symposium of 1968, which ultimately became Burns Park, located at the northeast corner of Colorado Boulevard and Alameda Avenue. "It was 9:30 on Thanksgiving night of 1967," recalls Bernie, "and Roger Kotoske and Wilbert Verhelst rang our doorbell after having had a fair amount to drink. At about 3 a.m., and after we'd consumed four bottles of wine, Roger was complaining that there was nowhere to show sculpture in Denver. Bev said, ŒLet's vow tonight to have a sculpture park in Denver.' The idea was radical, as there were no sculpture parks anywhere in America at that time."
The Rosens' house became headquarters for the effort. Bernie hit up a politically connected neighbor to secure the land, then just a vacant, weed-strewn lot, not the beautiful park it is today. He also secured a donation of marine-grade plywood to be used to build the sculptures. Bev brought in Central City artist Angelo di Benedetto, who got some friends from New York interested in the project, including Robert Morris. The Rosens had signed a contract with the city agreeing to remove all of the sculptures by the end of the summer, but the park was such a hit with the public that Mayor Tom Currigan stepped in and asked that they be left in place, which they were. Sadly, a number of them have been lost over the years, including the one by Morris. But the marvelous Tony Magar, a simple, black angular form that rises out of the grass, still stands in the park, along with three others.
Personal tragedy struck the Rosens in the early '70s when their only daughter, Jane, was diagnosed with lymphoma. According to Bernie, "She just slowly faded away and died." This caused Bev to give up on the boldly colored and high-energy "Cityscapes" and turn to making small black-and-white works on paper that have rarely been exhibited.
In the mid-'70s, the Rosens established an alternative space called St. Charles on Wazee in a three-story building at 1843 Wazee Street. On the first floor, Bev had her painting studio, with the gallery occupying the top two floors. "Bev was one of the first people to see the potential of those old warehouse buildings," says Bernie. "At the time, she was the only person occupying a building on that block." The building is now gone, and the site is a parking lot.
St. Charles on Wazee focused on showcasing contemporary artists working in Colorado, and among those who presented shows there were Roland Detre, Chuck Parson, Carley Warren and Stan Meyer. But Rosen also brought in high-profile players from New York such as Peter Schjeldahl, Ivan Karp and Robert Pincus-Whitten, who presented well-attended lectures. Rosen also showed her own work there, including an installation in which she collaborated with ceramics master Maynard Tischler.
The brick walls in her studio inspired a return to brightly hued paintings, the first Bev had done since Jane's death. In these "Brick" paintings, rectangles evocative of bricks were freely arranged across the canvas. Sadly, I never got to see any of these St. Charles shows, because I hadn't yet moved to Denver.
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In 1982, both Rosens retired from their respective careers and relocated to St. Croix, where they lived for five years. The style of Rosen's paintings changed during the sojourn, and her work of the late '80s and early '90s marked her return to abstract expressionism. In a solo show in 1993 at Payton-Rule Gallery, Rosen showed her then-recent paintings, brushy color fields that incorporated passages of poetry that she'd written. "She'd been writing poetry since she was a little girl," says Bernie. The Payton-Rule show was the only Rosen solo I ever saw.
Though no one realized it at the time, Rosen was already showing subtle signs of Alzheimer's as early as 1996. By 1998, things had gotten bad enough that she had to give up painting. Even as she declined physically, though, her art remained relevant into the 21st century. In 2000, curator Katherine Smith-Warren chose to include Rosen in Time and Place, a traveling show documenting women artists in Colorado that originated at the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts ("You Go, Girls!, September 14, 2000). In 2002, Rosen was included in 5 Abstract at the Museum of Contemporary Art ("Broad Strokes," January 24, 2002), for which museum director Cydney Payton chose the five artists whom she considered the most important abstractionists in Colorado. It's interesting that Rosen would be featured at the CVA and the MCA, because spiritually, her St. Charles on Wazee was a forerunner to both institutions.
At about the time of 5 Abstract, Rosen, who had lost the ability to walk or recognize her surroundings, entered a nursing home, where she remained until her death on May 5 at the age of 81. "It was a long and terrible illness," Bernie says with a sigh. In accordance with Rosen's wishes, there was no memorial.
Rosen's paintings have been blown to the four winds, and since she was represented by galleries not only in Denver, but also in New York, Chicago and Miami, the whereabouts of many works fall into the "unknown" category. In Denver, there is the one at the Kirkland, though, and two in the Auraria Library, and the family has retained a representative sampling. This sets up the possibility for a posthumous retrospective -- and it's not like the art world around here doesn't owe her one.