The Art of Politics
The process by which an architect will be chosen to design the Denver Art Museum's new freestanding wing is coming along nicely. A couple of weeks ago, the City Selection Committee, a mixed bag of politicos and others appointed by Mayor Wellington Webb, narrowed the list of eighteen architectural firms that had submitted proposals down to the five. On May 22 that will be cut down to three, and the ultimate winner will be announced by the end of July.
The DAM's board of trustees worked with museum director Lewis Sharp, Architecture, Design and Graphics curator Craig Miller, and Modern and Contemporary department head Dianne Vanderlip to put together its own list of ten recommended architects who were then contacted and asked to apply. These ten then became part of the master list of eighteen.
Interestingly, all five of the finalists chosen by the selection committee first appeared on the trustees' list.
The list consists of two acknowledged masters of contemporary architecture, Robert Venturi and Arata Isozaki, and three hotter-than-hot contemporary architects, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind and Thom Mayne. We really can't go wrong with any of these choices, and it should be smooth sailing from here, even though the DAM's board of trustees will have no further opportunities to influence the selection committee.
Chief credit for the success so far -- though a foundation for the new building has yet to be dug -- goes to Sharp. He has expertly guided the process, from requesting a capital-improvement bond in the first place to making sure the unreliable selection committee had nothing but plums to chose from.
His political savvy has also shown itself in the area of programming: The blockbuster Impressionism exhibit worked just the way it was supposed to last year by attracting large numbers of people who then went to the polls and helped the museum win its capital-improvement bond election last November.
Maybe he can use his programming skill to reorganize the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department as well, which is itself the product of a reconfiguration that only dates back five years.
With the dawn of the 21st century, 20th-century art will become increasingly distinct from contemporary art. For this reason alone modern art needs to be separated from contemporary. Many museums have separate modern departments, and 20th-century departments are appearing in some places in Europe. It needs to happen, and until it does, modern will take a backseat to contemporary at the DAM, as it has for many years.
Nothing like this could possibly happen before the new building is completed in a few years. But maybe by then the need will be understood by everyone.
And in that same time frame, maybe everyone at the Jewish Community Center will get on board for a proposed facility there that will house a combined Mizel Museum of Judaica and Singer Gallery of the Mizel Arts Center.
The sticking point seems to be the chosen site for the new building, which is currently occupied by the tennis house. Being an oddball, I'm more interested in art than sports, so I have a hard time sympathizing with the tennis members who want to keep their facility. Plus, the tennis house itself is one of the ugliest buildings imaginable -- standing out even on Leetsdale Drive, a center for urban ugliness.
One proposed idea is to construct a new tennis facility on land not ten minutes away, at Lowry. The lot, which is adjacent to the Allied Jewish building on Quebec Street, is already owned by the JCC. This sounds like a pretty good compromise. Another idea being volleyed about -- to put the tennis courts on the roof of the new building -- is not so good, because it would unnecessarily tie the hands of the architect.
Some of the city's top talent is being considered for the new structure, including ArchitectureDenver, Oz Architecture and David Owen Tryba. As is the case with the new Denver Art Museum building, the new Mizel is envisioned as an important building and not simply a shed, like the current tennis house.
We can't be too hard on the tennis players at the JCC, however, because their protests, complete with placards, petitions and anonymous phone calls to the newspapers, are simply the latest example of the long Jewish tradition of embracing social and political activism. And from this perspective, we may view them as an ad hoc feature of the multidisciplinary project Jewish Descent/Jewish Dissent: Jews and the Art of Conscience, being presented through the spring at the Mizel Arts Center at the JCC.
The project encompasses many elements. Some events have come and gone, like the staging of Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock," an opera from 1937. The Work Projects Administration's Federal Theatre Project had originally commissioned the opera, but the feds got cold feet over the pro-union plot and canceled its premiere.
Original producer John Houseman and the opera's young director, Orson Welles, rounded up another theater, but since the FTP forbade the actors from taking the stage, they spoke their lines from seats in the audience. The performance thus entered the history and legend of American theater.
Still ahead is a film series, Advise and Dissent, which will run through May. The series, a screening of four protest-theme films, is being presented in cooperation with the Denver Film Society. And on June 4, the MAC will host a symposium titled "Limits of Dissent."
The visual-art component of the project is a two-part exhibition with the quasi-biblical title of Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: Jewish Artists of Conscience in the 20th Century. It's on display through June in the Singer Gallery. In the main space, gallery director Simon Zalkind has assembled prints, photos and paintings concerning social commentary that date from the 1930s to the present. In an annex to the Singer, a room that at times serves as a nursery for toddlers, he has put together a show of posters, an art form particularly rich in political and social imagery.
Zalkind started by compiling a wish list of artists he wanted to include in Justice, Justice. "At first there were a few key people who I knew had to be included," he explains. "Ben Shahn, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero were automatically on. In a sense, they suggested themselves through their work. Raphael Soyer, as well." Along the way, he discovered other artists as he ferreted out relevant work from local collections and galleries.
In contacting artists, Zalkind was struck by the kind of people who do political art. "They were mostly completely free of postmodern irony. They were absolutely genuine; they didn't have cleverness. It was refreshing. It was very nice to be in touch with artists who are sincere."
As word traveled about the show, more artists contacted Zalkind. "Leon Golub -- Leon Golub! -- called personally to make sure he was in the show and to make sure we had something right for the show," Zalkind says. "He wanted to send a large painting, but we couldn't afford the insurance." But that kind of commitment was common among the artists, collectors and dealers who cooperated with the show.
Zalkind believes Justice, Justice taps into an important part of Jewish American history. "Social activism is something noble that Jews are associated with. Every Jew, even the most privileged and well-to-do, can identify with this, because political allegiances are informed by being Jewish," he says. "My own parents are Holocaust survivors who taught me to support the underdog."
The show has not been arranged in a strict chronological order, but Zalkind has separated the historical material from the contemporary pieces. Basically the large front section of the Singer is given over to the work of the social realists of the 1930s and '40s, while the two smaller spaces are filled with more recent pieces in a wide variety of styles. Special attention has also been given to lithographs and photos, each of which have been exhibited in their own distinct sections.
The show begins with a jewel of a small painting, "God Bless America," by Philip Reisman, from 1940. The expressively painted scene captures a gaunt, elderly man in ragged clothes walking against a cold winter wind. He clutches a banner that reads "God Bless America," below which hangs a price tag that reads "50 cents." The painting is about poverty and the loss of values.
The suffering of others was a dominant theme among the social realists. But other works depict the nobility of labor and laborers, such as Harry Gottlieb's pair of studies and his pair of screen prints that concern two rock drillers at work side by side. In all four pieces, conventionalized figures have been caught in candid poses; Gottlieb uses modernist compositions and colors while retaining literal and narrative representation.
William Sanderson's "Le Comedie Human," from 1961, is done in a similar style, but the topic is human foibles, not the dignity of work. The painting reveals a cross-section of a house with four rooms. In each of the rooms, some drama is unfolding. In one, a child is being spanked on his mother's knee; in another two lovers embrace.
Sanderson, who died in 1990, spent most of his career in Denver. He's one of a handful of local artists included in this nationally oriented show. Another artist with ties to Colorado is David Fredenthal, who was associated in the 1930s and '40s with the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School, the successor to the Broadmoor Academy. Zalkind has included two Fredenthals, "The Plow," an oil on board from 1941 that depicts a muscular farmer mopping his brow, and "Men Playing Cards," a lyrical watercolor of farmers at play.
Opposite these paintings are a group of black-and-white lithographs. Notable among them is "Dress Circle, Carnegie Hall," a 1936 print by Minna Citron. The regionalist-style scene shows those in standing room only, sitting on the stairs and leaning against the walls. In contrast to this lively group are the dour faces of those in the dress circle of the title placed at the bottom left of the picture.
The same cartoonish approach is seen in Hugo Gellert's "Pieces of Silver," also from 1936. The subject is Father Charles Coughlin, an infamous anti-Semite who had a national radio broadcast in the 1930s. Standing behind a microphone on which Christ is crucified is Coughlin, his hand raised in a pastoral gesture of blessing. There is no mistaking to whom Gellert is linking Coughlin: Hitler himself. Notice that Coughlin's eyes are blank and that he holds a money bag in one hand.
As we round the corner, Zalkind swiftly changes gears, and we are immediately in the context of contemporary art. The first pieces are by artists from the former Soviet Union; they were lent to the Singer by the Sloane Gallery in lower downtown. This group includes 1999's "Molotov Cocktail," a mixed-media work on paper by Alexander Kosalapov, in which the flaming incendiary device is held aloft by a beautiful woman set before type that spells out "Molotov."
Hung next to it is a major painting by the famous Komar & Melamid, "The Third World War Ends," an oil on canvas from 1982-1983. The humorous painting apes the bombastic style favored by the political establishment that ran the Soviet Union, and by making fun of it, Komar & Melamid turn it upside down. In the painting, a beefy blond Soviet soldier holds a sword in one hand and cradles a black baby, symbolizing the United States, in the other. The figure and infant are lit against a recessive dark ground, a technique reminiscent of Rembrandt.
Other contemporary political works include an Art Spiegelman print, two signature prints by Philip Guston, and Golub's disturbing "White Squad," a lithograph from 1987. This piece shows a gun pointed at the head of a black man. Golub frequently uses abstractions of scenes of violence by whites against blacks as his subject. On the opposite wall are photos, including a two-headed self-portrait from 1940 by Weegee, and the creepy "Patriotic Young Man With a Flag, NYC" from 1967, by that champion of creepiness, Diane Arbus.
Next door, Zalkind has placed a group of posters, including famous anti-Nazi ones from the 1940s by Ben Shahn and 1990's "Holy Homophobia," by Robbie Conal. Especially charming is 1969's Picassoid "War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things," by Lorraine Schneider. This anti-Vietnam war poster, done for the Mothers for Peace group, was a dorm-room standard a generation ago.
Aside from bringing together more than half a century's worth of political art, Zalkind's greatest accomplishment with Justice, Justice is that it is didactic and intellectual as well as being visually stimulating and, at times, downright beautiful. It couldn't have been an easy result to achieve.
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