On September 3, I made my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver as I've done so many times since the new building opened last year. But this time I wasn't in pursuit of an art show. Instead, I was headed, along with a few hundred others, to the memorial service for one of the MCA's founders, abstract painter Dale Chisman.
As could be expected, I had a heavy heart, but on top of that, I was also a little nervous, because Chisman's daughter, Rebecca, had asked me to speak about his work. Needless to say, I was honored by the request; however, in the preceding days, it had been impossible for me to organize my thoughts about him. I almost never get writer's block, and I believe that everyone has a right to my opinion — but this time, I just didn't want to do it. I didn't want to face the fact that Chisman, who relentlessly enriched the art community here so much over the decades, had actually died.
Chisman's death wasn't surprising to those of us who had kept up with him, as he'd been sick for several years, but it was surprising — and gratifying — to see how many people turned out to bid him farewell. Nothing underscored his preeminent position in the world of contemporary art in Denver more than the cast of characters who filled The Whole Room at the MCA that morning. The standing-room-only crowd, which spilled out into the corridor and into the stairway, represented such a big chunk of the Mile High City's art infrastructure, it was mind-boggling. There were the other top artists of Chisman's generation — he was 65 when he died on August 29 — as well as younger artists who had met him when they were fresh from art school twenty years ago. There were dealers, donors, collectors, Chisman's former students, and representatives of the MCA and many other local art institutions. As one artist remarked, if a bomb had gone off, there essentially would have been no art scene left in town.
Three Chisman paintings were displayed in The Whole Room. The first was a small piece Chisman had recently done in a collaboration with Jesús Polanco, a Mexican-born New York artist who worked in Denver for a few years. Polanco had returned to town to work as Chisman's assistant in a series of planned monumental paintings.
It was a personal favor on Polanco's part, since he himself is a significant artist who shows his work internationally. But his dear friend Chisman needed his help, and Polanco dropped everything to be there for him. Chisman was set to create eight billboard-sized paintings based on the theme of the four seasons for a show scheduled for next year at the MCA. The plan was for Polanco to do all the heavy lifting while the ailing Chisman conceived of the pieces and filled in the details. Chisman had told me that he asked Polanco because they communicated as painters. During the summer, plans for the series were abandoned as Chisman slipped closer to death.
On the north wall of The Whole Room were the two other paintings, both of which were in his studio at the time of his death: the recently finished "Puppet Show" and an untitled, unfinished painting that he was working on until a couple of weeks ago.
The fact that these paintings exist at all is testimony that Chisman lived as he died: painting. And both the finished work and the unfinished one prove that he continued to work at the highest level right up to the end.
"Puppet Show" is remarkably beautiful; it's signature Chisman, and definitely a part of the same train of thought that led to his triumphant solo in May at Rule Gallery. In the piece, his quiet palette is dominated by creams and beige but offset by black, which sets up a tension between quasi-geometric lines and organic forms. Some of the shapes cast shadows, and that sets up another dialogue, this one between flatness and three-dimensionality.
The other painting is almost entirely made up of a field done in an indescribably vibrant green bracketed by two very black shapes placed on either side of the canvas. As Chisman's last gesture, this painting seems so right for the moment, so transcendental in mood with its seemingly infinite depth of green space held in by two poles of blackness.
"Puppet Show" and the unfinished green painting are the last of the series seen at Rule. I gave that show a rave review, but after my column came out, I got a phone call from an old friend, art appraiser Jack Kunin, who told me that I'd missed a big part of what the paintings were about. "He's dealing with his own death," Kunin said, bolstering his interpretation by pointing out the dark blobs, the brightly colored shapes reminiscent of internal organs, and those shadows they cast onto the otherwise boundless space of the indefinite color fields on which all the paintings are anchored. As I sat in The Whole Room, waiting for the memorial to begin, I looked at "Puppet Show" and the unfinished painting and knew Kunin had been right.
Kevin Causey expertly presided over the memorial, which began with a marvelous short film, "Tribute to a Colorado Artist," done by Ronnie Cramer in 2005. The film is all about Chisman, who speaks at length about his influences and his experiences as an artist. It was a perfect way to start, having Chisman's voice ringing in our ears.
I was one of five speakers, including Chisman's longtime dealer, Robin Rule, and the former president of the MCA's board of trustees, Karl Kister. But the most poignant remarks were delivered by Chisman's contemporaries and longtime friends, Margaret Neumann and Clark Richert, both of whom are accomplished painters.
Neumann played a large part in getting Chisman through his everyday life, ferrying him around town after Chisman gave up driving ten years ago. She was his emotional Rock of Gibraltar, and she came across poised in her remarks, even getting the crowd to laugh with a story about Chisman honking the horn of his motorized shopping cart at little kids as he made his way through a grocery store.
If Neumann is solid, I think of Richert as being made of steel, a prairie Mennonite with a taste for mathematics. But I guess my impression of him was wrong, because his voice cracked as he read messages sent by those who couldn't attend, including George and Betty Woodman. Soon there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
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Neumann, Richert, Chisman and John De Andrea had been part of a group of young artists working in Boulder in the 1960s. Most attended the University of Colorado, and many were protegés of George Woodman, but some, like Martha Daniels, were not.
It's funny that this then-ragtag group would emerge in the 1980s as the masters of contemporary art in Colorado. It was at that time, in 1984, that Chisman returned to our state after fifteen years in New York, where he exhibited in top galleries and museums. Despite this experience, Chisman's visual language was developed here — not just in Boulder, where he earned both his BFA and his MFA, but earlier in his art education. A Denver native, Chisman went to North High School, where he studied with Martha Epp, an important mid-century modernist. He also followed a workshop at Colorado College with Mary Chenoweth, one of the great abstract painters of the twentieth century.
After the eulogies were finished, MCA director Cydney Payton read a poem by Octavio Paz in English while Polanco read the passages in Spanish. Payton has been one of Chisman's greatest supporters, including him in innumerable shows over the years, and she had planned Chisman's now-canceled "four seasons" show. But Payton is leaving the MCA this fall. Had she already left, this memorial might never have happened. After all, it's likely that the next director, to be hired after an international search, will have never heard of Chisman and would hardly be interested in presenting such a tribute.
At the end of the service, Rebecca took the podium and gave those of us in the art scene a different perspective on Chisman — that of loving father and doting grandfather. I knew Rebecca was very important to him, but I wonder if she knew before the memorial how important he was to us.