The Colorado Springs FIne Arts Center celebrates its modern history

"Trade and Commerce in the United States — The Twentieth Century," by Boardman Robinson, automotive paint on canvas.

When people think of Colorado Springs these days, right-wing Christian fundamentalist politics come to mind more than art does. But for much of the twentieth century, the city at the base of Pikes Peak was the unrivaled center of the state's art world. The best evidence of this is the spectacular Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which was designed by John Gaw Meem and is now celebrating its 75th anniversary.

CSFAC visual arts director Blake Milteer points out that this particular birthday is somewhat misleading, however, because the institution can trace its origins back to 1919, when its predecessor, the Broadmoor Art Academy, was founded. Still, to celebrate the milestone, Milteer has reinstalled the permanent collection galleries for the 75th Anniversary Exhibitions on the first floor in spaces that showcase the strengths in the CSFAC's American Indian, Hispanic religious, and modern and contemporary collections, especially from Colorado and New Mexico. And on the second floor is Boardman Robinson: The History of Commerce, a cycle of ten murals that were created for Kaufmann's department store in Pittsburgh in 1929.

To get at the museum's history, I'll begin in 1917-1918, when wealthy Colorado Springs philanthropist Julie Penrose and her husband, Spencer Penrose, built El Pomar, a grand mansion sited right next to their brand-new Broadmoor Hotel. The new digs meant that the Penroses had an extra mansion near the intersection of Dale Street and Cascade Avenue that they had no use for. The Penroses were renowned for their generosity to the community, and it was consistent with that spirit when, in 1919, Julie decided to turn the downtown mansion into the Broadmoor Art Academy.

The BAA hosted national teaching luminaries including Robert Reid and John Carlson, who were the subject of the academy's grand-opening show, as well as Ernest Lawson, William Potter and Birger Sandzén. As could be surmised from those names, the aesthetic was dominated by impressionism, post-impressionism and expressionism.

In a CSFAC gallery given over to works associated with the BAA, there are a number of paintings and works on paper by some of these early professors. The featured piece is Carlson's "Timberline Austerities," a moody post-impressionist landscape that is the kind of thing that helped establish the first phase of the Broadmoor style.

(It's interesting to note how some of the artists, like Sandzén, who were central to the BAA, are only represented by modest examples, while others aren't there at all. It made me think of how much the CSFAC needs the promised gift of Kathy Loo's collection and others to fill in the gaps.)

In 1930, Boardman Robinson was brought on to head up the school. Although he had completed the "History of Commerce" murals now on view upstairs at the CSFAC a year earlier, they are nonetheless good exemplars of the style he worked in during the time he was here. In fact, Robinson's presence would represent a stylistic sea change for the BAA as he launched the school's second predominant style, regionalism.

For the murals, Robinson conjured up ten vignettes, each made up of small groups of people set against landscape and cityscape scenery. Taken together, they march viewers from ancient history, with "The Persians and the Arabs — Before the Christian Era," to the modern era, with "Trade and Commerce in the United States — The Twentieth Century." The murals reveal a lot about Robinson's picture-making concepts, notably his interest in a volumetric conception of the figures, with the artist using cylinders and hemispheres to convey conventionalized human forms. The various elements of the pictures — the figures and the backgrounds — are clearly differentiated, creating a well-expressed sense for making the compositions an emphatic part of the murals. As could be expected, considering that the commission for the murals came from a department store and that the topic was business, there is little political content except for Robinson's decision to devote one of the works to "Slave Traders in America — The Eighteenth Century," a charged choice in the pre-civil rights era.

Under Robinson, the BAA enjoyed increasing success and began to outgrow the mansion in which it was housed. Eventually, Julie Penrose got together with two other wealthy philanthropists, Alice Bemis Taylor and Betty Sage Hare, and the three culturally minded women conceived of the then-radical idea of having an art school, galleries, a theater, studios, music rooms and a Southwestern museum all housed under the same roof. Although these types of venues are common now, CSFAC was one of the first of its kind anywhere in the world — and may even have been the first.

The women were frequent visitors to Taos and Santa Fe and had become aware of New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem, who was designing in a vernacular Southwestern style. They commissioned him to design a modernist edifice that would satisfy their programmatic desires. The result is by far the most significant work Meem ever did, and it's definitely one of the finest buildings in Colorado. It's a cast-in-place concrete structure built on canted walls made of river rock and detailed with aluminum and black synthetic stone. Stylistically, it's a cross between the pueblo style and art moderne. The distinctive landmark still catches the eye, 75 years later.

Robinson became the director of the CSFAC's art school and recruited friends like Arnold Blanch, Adolf Dehn, Peppino Mangravite and dozens more to teach in the new building. He also hired former student Lawrence Barrett to run the lithography studio, arguably the most important part of the school. Barrett's many surviving prints attest to the fact that he was one of the best lithographers of the period.

In the current exhibition, the gallery with the Carlson in it also highlights this era, but again, many players are missing. There's a marvelous self-portrait by Robinson, and a matching one, also by Robinson, of Percy Hagerman, an artist and wealthy supporter of the CSFAC. In addition, this gallery sports a suite of Barrett prints, each with the same image — his pet eagle — done in different-colored inks.

Robinson oversaw the second golden age of the school, but he was forced out in 1947, an ignoble end that had to do with both art and politics. After the war, a new art paradigm was established, and the rise of modernist abstraction made regionalism old hat. At the same time, the Red Scare affected many regionalists due to their pesky left-wing associations, none more so than Robinson, who had been a Marxist.

Beginning in the late 1930s, there was an abstract undercurrent at the CSFAC as exemplified by teachers such as Vaclav Vytlacil, Guy Mccoy and Jan Matulka. As an extension of this, in the '40s and into the '50s, an abstract figuration current prospered and included two artists who would later become mainstays of the Denver scene: Edgar Britton and Edward Marecak. This period is underrepresented in the exhibits, and many important artists are not in the show, though there is a fabulous Jean Charlot included.

Also coming out of this modernist wing of the CSFAC were the abstract expressionists. This group has an even smaller presence in the show, though there is a great Mary Chenoweth that stands on par with the Robert Motherwell hung next to it. Motherwell was one of a number of CSFAC visiting artists in the 1950s. There is also a choice Charles Bunnell that Milteer has cleverly paired with a much older Walt Kuhn.

The art-school part of CSFAC closed in the '60s, and the institution waned as a center for art-making. Today the city is way down on the list of the state's art scenes, with those in Denver, Boulder, Aspen and Fort Collins all being more developed. Despite this, the CSFAC is still one of the top museums in the region, and for the next few weeks, it's an essential place to be for those of us who are interested in the history of Colorado art.

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