Last summer, the Denver Art Museum surprised everyone by announcing that it had received the Harmsen Collection of Western and American Indian Art as a gift. The locally famous collection, put together by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, is made up of thousands of pieces ranging from important paintings and sculptures to historically significant saddles and tack. There's even a stagecoach among the treasures.
The Harmsens built their collection in the 1950s, '60s and '70s by traveling around the West in a specially outfitted private bus with a kitchen and sleeping berths. They amassed the fortune necessary to carry out such a lavish and leisurely lifestyle by having founded and subsequently sold their Jolly Rancher Candy Company. (The Hershey Corporation, which now owns Jolly Rancher, revealed last month that it is closing the factory the Harmsens built in Wheat Ridge and that the classic Colorado candy will now be made in Pennsylvania.)
Shortly after the announcement of the Harmsen gift, the DAM surprised us again by creating the Western American Art Institute, surely inspired by the new additions. Interestingly, the nascent entity, which is headed by Joan Carpenter Troccoli, won't be limited to the Harmsen Collection, nor will it be restricted to what we think of as typically Western art, such as Remingtons and Russells. However, it will also include modern and contemporary Western art.
DAM director Lewis Sharp lays out the broad parameters of the institute by simply reeling off the relevant pieces that have been included. "There's 'Long Jakes,' by Charles Deas," Sharp says. "It's his finest painting. And there's not a better nineteenth-century bronze than our Remington ['The Cheyenne']. And our Russell ['In the Enemy's Country'] is considered one of his very best." In his next breath, Sharp connects these signature Western pieces with modern and contemporary art. "The museum's depth in Vance Kirkland, the James Turrell ['Trace Elements'] and the Bruce Nauman ['Setting a Good Corner'] -- even Andy Warhol's portrait of Russell Means is part of it," he says. "Now, with the Harmsen gift, which really represents a depth and breadth in Western art that we've never had before, it's very exciting."
If all of this weren't astonishing enough, there was yet a third surprise when the DAM announced that a Western gallery will be named for the Harmsens and given a prominent place on the second floor of the new Daniel Libeskind-designed wing, scheduled for completion in 2004. The Harmsen Western gallery will be positioned so that visitors will have to go through it to get to the rest of the museum. And across the planned sky bridge, in the existing Gio Ponti-designed building, American Indian art will be put on display, some of which will come from the Harmsens, too.
There are any number of reasons that this Western roundup is so unexpected, the biggest being that as recently as last year, the Harmsen Collection was slated for its own custom-built museum in Denver West, a multi-use development consisting of retail and office space, which, despite its name, is in Lakewood. That project began to stall, however, so the Harmsen Foundation, the legal caretakers of the collection, started to shop around for a museum that would be interested in taking it. They contacted museums in Arizona and California, but lucky for us, they chose the DAM. Word is the Harmsens themselves were interested in seeing the collection stay in Denver.
The Harmsens had actually first approached the DAM twenty years ago, but at that time, they placed restrictions on the gift, such as having a specially assigned curator to oversee it, conditions that the DAM could not accept. Now there are no restrictions on the gift, and the path has thus been cleared for the DAM to take it.
I'm glad the Denver West plan fell through. In that scheme, the Harmsen Museum would have been part of a shopping mall, and imagine how that would have been: SoundTrack, Old Navy, Macaroni Grill and...oh, yes...the Harmsen Museum. The hallowed halls of the DAM are a much better fit.
No discussion of Western art at the DAM would be complete, however, without noting how behind the curve the museum has been in the field. The quality is there -- as Sharp pointed out by listing some important pieces -- but until now, the quantity has been lacking. The reason is that during the 1950s and '60s, when a lot of important Western art was changing hands for peanuts -- for example, the things that the Harmsens were picking up -- the DAM's then-director Otto Bach turned up his nose at it, as did most others. Bach, who ran the DAM for three decades, truly hated Western art. He not only forbade curators to purchase it, but, unbelievably, even turned down important gifts.
Then, about twenty years ago, a decade after Bach had left, the DAM finally got interested in Western art. Unfortunately, so did everyone else, and prices began to skyrocket. This meant the museum could buy only a few things each year. So just as the Harmsen Foundation needed to find a museum like the DAM to house its collection, the DAM needed to acquire something like the Harmsen Collection to give it a respectable presence in the world of Western art. The museum's assortment of Western art is now four times the size it was back then.
The Harmsens and their family attended a private unveiling of the collection earlier this week, but a public sneak preview of the booty, titled The Harmsen Collection: A Colorado Legacy, opens the day after Thanksgiving. The show is installed on the DAM's seventh floor.
The first painting visitors will see as they approach the Adolph Coors Foundation Gallery, one of two galleries in which the Harmsen Collection has been ensconced, is "Rabbit Hunt," an undated (though it's probably from the 1920s or '30s) oil-on-canvas painting by E. Martin Hennings. A horse and rider dominate the composition. In the foreground are two Indians conversing, in the background are two more horsemen, and beyond are purple mountains with purple storm clouds above. The DAM used this painting in a variety of publicity materials for the show, including billboards, which is why curator Ann Daley chose to place it so that it can be seen way before visitors get to the Coors gallery. "I'm hoping people will see the painting, and then they'll be able to find their way to the show," she says.
Hennings is one of several New Mexico masters in the show, and the Harmsen collection is particularly strong in the Taos group. Several important paintings by other significant Taos painters flank the Hennings. To the left is "Eagle Fan," by Ernest Blumenschein, an undated -- though possibly from the 1930s -- oil-on-canvas portrait of an Indian holding an eagle-feather fan. It's a magnificent painting, and the colors are out of this world. To the right is a marvelous Oscar Berninghaus called "Morning Shade," probably from the '20s or '30s as well. All three paintings sport rich and dusty palettes juxtaposing purples with ochres, a combination that is solidly linked to the art colony in Taos.
The classic realism of Hennings, Blumenschein and Berninghaus is in contrast to the striking early modernism of an incredible -- and gigantic, by the standards of the artist -- Marsden Hartley painting, "New Mexico Recollection #6." In this fabulous oil on canvas from 1922, a red mesa is transformed into an expressionistic fantasy. Even more dreamlike is the transcendental masterpiece "Pueblo Series, Acoma," a 1927 oil on canvas by Raymond Jonson.
I've seen a lot of these Harmsen paintings in various exhibits around the area over the last five years or so, but I have never seen this incredible Jonson before. It's staggering.
In the El Pomar Foundation Gallery are some extremely important nineteenth-century paintings, most notably George Catlin's "The Cutting Scene, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony," done in 1832. It's as non-decorative as is possible for a painting to be. It depicts a scene in which Mandan Indians are suspended from a timber by rawhide cords attached to splints that pierce their skin -- certainly not the kind of thing you'd want to hang in the dining room. "It showed real courage for the Harmsens to buy something like that," Daley says. ("The Cutting Scene" is actually one of four Catlin paintings depicting different phases of this Mandan ceremony; the other three are in the Anschutz collection and were included in last year's Painters of the American West at the DAM.) In this same early-nineteenth-century vein is Charles Bird King's "Eagle of Delight," a classical portrait of an Indian woman.
Further on in this second gallery are several more New Mexico artists, including a very handsome Walter Ufer piece paired with an even more handsome Victor Higgins work.
The paintings have been supplemented with various Native American artifacts, including a turn-of-the-last-century Apache storage basket, a Cree or Metis beaded leather vest, circa 1880, and two sets of sterling-silver figures, one Navajo, by Mary Morgan, the other Zuni, by Ida Poblano. These represent 1980s-era Indian jewelry-store metalwork.
The best thing about the Harmsen gift, however, is that Bill and Dorothy Harmsen -- who are both in their nineties -- were able to live long enough to see their collection where it belongs.
The Loveland Museum and Gallery is also fitted out in Western dress this winter with an incredible show called Colorado Landscapes and the New Age of Discovery. I know it's a long and fairly monotonous drive to Loveland, but this is really worth it, because it's quite a bit bigger than the Harmsen exhibit.
The Loveland show was conceived by guest curator Doug Erion, who also wrote and published a handsome, if fairly quirky, little catalogue that's a must for the home art-history library. It's chock-full of factual and biographical information about the included artists.
A collector and a painter, Erion's chief interest is Colorado art. "I'm provincial," he says, only half kidding. "I like American art and I like Colorado art." (I say "only half kidding" because Erion picked up some of his own Colorado paintings at places like Christie's, the famous New York auction house, which strikes me as a very non-provincial thing to do.)
For Colorado Landscapes, Erion has laid out local landscape painting from over the past hundred years or so, neatly segueing from romanticism to modernism in a series of mid-sized galleries. He begins with late-nineteenth-century East Coast artists like Thomas Moran, who was only passing through the state -- one of several "hit-and-run" artists, according to Erion. He then moves forward decade by decade, ending up with mid-twentieth-century artists such as Eve Drewelowe, who, like many in her generation, spent her entire career here.
Several of the paintings in the show come from Erion's own collection; many more come from the important Dusty and Kathy Loo Historical Colorado Collection. The Loos, from Colorado Springs, made a fortune when they sold their Loo-Art greeting-card company some years ago. (What's making me think of the Harmsens?) The Loos are obviously connoisseurs, (though the Harmsens really weren't), and many of their paintings are the finest work by the particular artists. That surely goes for that spectacular Frank Vavra they've lent.
Among the most remarkable features of the show are several portions in which certain artists' work is seen in depth. For instance, there's an entire section devoted to New York artist John Carlson, one of the teachers at the now-closed Broadmoor Academy. Carlson was an early modernist, and his "Crazy Quilt Sketch," circa 1920, looks like a Cézanne on drugs. "The Barrier," in a myriad of blues and dark greens, is an expressionist masterpiece. Another section is devoted to Kansas painter Birger Sandzén, who was also a Broadmoor Academy part-timer. Sandzén's paintings are really wild, with a slashing brushstroke and an almost psychedelic palette of acid greens and shocking pinks. Although they were done in the 1910s and '20s, they look like '60s work. In terms of palette, and in the emphatic painterly character of the surfaces, the Sandzén paintings seem to anticipate New York School abstract painting.
A couple of the painters, Vance Kirkland, of Denver, and Charles Bunnell, of Colorado Springs, are bona fide modernists and abstractionists, even if they are not of the New York School stripe. Kirkland, as we all know, was Colorado's most significant modern painter of the mid-twentieth century; his work was loaned by the Vance Kirkland Foundation. The Bunnells have mostly come from David Cook Fine Art in LoDo. The gallery purchased the estate of Laura Bunnell, the artist's widow, and it's got a marvelous selection of the only recently rediscovered Colorado modern-art pioneer. There are several cool Bunnells, notably the cubo-regionalist "Untitled, Mining Town," an oil on canvas from 1933 that clearly depicts Ute Pass and Pikes Peak.
The show in Loveland and the one at the DAM have a lot of obvious things in common. But the Loveland show also reminds me that it's full of things the DAM really needs and doesn't have. This may come as a shock, but aside from lithographs, the Denver museum has no meaningful holdings related to the Broadmoor Academy. The need for this kind of thing is even greater now with the new focus on Western art.
Here's an idea: The DAM should invite Erion over for a couple of drinks -- and make sure he brings the Loos along.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.