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The Modernaires

I've recently wondered why everyone seems to be so retrospective right now, with so many of the latest exhibits highlighting the state's glorious aesthetic past. In the last several weeks, I've promoted a group of these shows, including the groundbreaking Decades of Influence, Colorado 1985--Present, being jointly presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, the Center for Visual Art, the Gates Sculpture Triangle and the Carol Keller Project Space; The Armory Group, featuring artists who met in Boulder in the 1960s, at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture; and VAVRA Triptych, at the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, which looks at three artists from the Vavra family. The final note in the summer-long nostalgic cavalcade is Colorado Modernism: 1930-1970, which opened last week at Foothills Art Center in Golden and is one of the best of this very strong lot.

I won't be the first to say that Colorado Modernism is one of the most beautiful shows ever presented at Foothills, but I'll say it anyway. This observation provides the perfect cover for my only real complaint about the show: There's no catalogue. Oh, I know budgets are tight, but it strikes me as the height of irony that such virtually worthless shows as this year's Colorado Clay and North American Sculpture Exhibition both had catalogues while this very worthwhile effort does not.

Colorado Modernism was put together by Tracy Felix, one of the state's best-known painters. In addition to making his own work, Felix has organized a number of exhibits focusing on the history of Colorado art over the past twenty years. He first became interested in local art history while employed at Frameworks in Colorado Springs. Owned by sculptor Bill Burgess, it was both a frame shop and a gallery that featured small exhibitions of work by local artists. In the mid-'80s, Felix and his wife, Sushe, opened their own gallery, Tracy Felix Artspace, in downtown Colorado Springs. A sophisticated big-city gallery, it might have flown in Denver, but it closed after just a few years in the Springs. Though Felix was finished with art retailing, he was thoroughly hooked on old Colorado art, and he avidly collected a ton of it.

The show at Foothills is one of his most ambitious undertakings as a curator, surveying forty years of modern art and using nearly forty artists to make the case. Felix zeroed in on painting and only briefly touches on other mediums such as sculpture or photography.

Even limiting his story in this way, it's still an elaborate tale, so Felix broke up the enormous exhibit into a number of different sections. The first part is out in the Carol and Don Dickinson Sculpture Garden, where three Robert Mangold abstract steel sculptures are installed. Mangold has been a major player in Denver art since the 1950s and is best known for his kinetic sculptures, though none of the pieces at Foothills are kinetic. Instead, he is represented by two examples of his "I-Beam" series and one from his "Tetrahedral Hypersphere" series.

The "I-Beam" sculptures, in which an I-beam has been cut and reassembled, represent a stunningly simple idea, and the result is minimalist formal essays that stand straight up like beefy spikes in the garden. The "Tetrahedral" sculpture is more elaborate, cantilevering over its integral base. All of the sculptures have earthy, naturalistic patinas.

The show proper gets under way in the intimate Metsopoulos Gallery, just beyond the admissions desk, where Felix has installed a group of smallish works that reveal the influence of cubism and other European vanguard styles on Colorado painters. In the late '20s and into the 1940s, artists throughout the West were making pieces based on the landscape tradition but using then-current contemporary approaches. For this first leg of Colorado Modernism, Felix assembled a group of these artists, showing off how they cut up their compositions by introducing linear elements and conventionalized and simplified volumes into their mountain scenes. The Charles Bunnell lithograph "Evolution" is instructive because it perfectly exemplifies what was happening at the time. Bunnell's taking-off point is the mountain landscape, but he converted the mountains and clouds into geometric forms. It's easy to see how pieces like this Bunnell and his watercolor, "Trees and More Trees," influenced Felix's own work.

The only truly large painting in this first group is "Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," by Vance Kirkland. In this work, Kirkland has flattened the landscape, turning it into a decorative pattern, with the land and the sky essentially overlapping one another. On either side of the Kirkland is a pair of cubo-regionalist style landscapes by William Sanderson, one of which was done only thirty years ago. Sanderson is a rare example of an artist who continued to work in the early-modern style throughout his career, never embracing any of the fully abstract manners that dominated contemporary art from the '50s through the '80s. Also in this initial section are fine examples of cubistic paintings by Mary Chenoweth and Martha Epp, two of the most influential artists of the period.

These mostly early hybrids of representation and abstraction operate together as a wholly independent exhibition within the larger display. It's necessary, though, because they are stylistic prerequisites for the rest. I also realized that Felix had inserted a hidden element: an attempt to bring different art scenes together, since most of the artists involved were not even acquaintances, though they worked in similar styles. Bunnell and Chenoweth were part of the crowd working in Colorado Springs, the center ring for contemporary art in the state at the time, but they hardly knew one another; Kirkland and Sanderson were associated with the University of Denver, another important art center around here; and Epp taught the likes of Dale Chisman and John De Andrea at North High School. Believe it or not, the Denver Public Schools are also part of the region's art history.

The next gallery, the Kiln Room, has an in-depth solo of abstract photos by James Milmoe. Although Felix arranged for this section by contacting Milmoe, the photographer put it together himself. Because it's a solo -- and a large one at that, with thirty photos -- I'm reviewing it separately in this week's Artbeat. And I would advise viewers to skip the Milmoe part of the show initially and return to it after taking in the rest of Felix's selected paintings. That way, the story told in the rest of the exhibit doesn't get interrupted by the very different ideas inspired by the photos.

The paintings pick up again in the Bartunek Gallery. As in the initial section, these paintings are about abstractions based on recognizable subjects. But unlike in the case of the cubo-regionalist works, the artists didn't use straight lines and blocky volumes; instead, they chose a feathery expressionism in which subjects melt in flourishes of paint. A subtext is other paintings that border on surrealistic transcendentalism. There are so many gorgeous pieces in this part of the show that it's impossible to identify standouts -- and I looked carefully at everything. Again, Felix has reached out to cover separate scenes, including artists such as Ethel and Jenne Magafan, Harvey Litvak, Herman Raymond and Guy Maccoy from Colorado Springs; Jack Ball from DU; and Edward Marecak, who taught in DPS.

In the Waechli Gallery, which opens to the Quaintance Gallery, Felix assembled mostly paintings that are thoroughly abstract and do not refer in any way to conventional subject matter. Though many of these works are classic examples of abstract expressionism -- notably the Watson Bidwells and the two wonderful paintings by Gene Matthews -- there's also a variety of other stylistic approaches.

I've been looking at these early-modern paintings by Colorado artists for years, and I've noticed that a whole group of them were doing a kind of expressionist constructivism; Felix picked up on that, too, and the Foothills show spotlights many of these. The style can be traced back to those cubo-regionalist compositions at the beginning; a good example of this approach is "Untitled," by Ann Sink (now Ann White). In this painting, jagged, vaguely rock-like shapes are interrupted by triangular forms filled in with smears of color applied with knives. Another constructivist-related piece is "The Hatch," by Emerson Woelffer, in which a triangle and a circle, among other shapes, run across the top of a heavy rectilinear shape below. This painting relates to the contemporaneous "Yellow Abstract," by Mary Chenoweth, a colleague of Woelffer's, and to the pair of wonderful George Cecil Carter paintings.

Again, different circles or groups are referred to covertly by Felix: Bidwell was a DU artist; Matthews was up in Boulder; Sink was a member of "The Fifteen" here in Denver; Chenoweth and Woelffer were part of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Colorado College scene; and Carter was in Bunnell's circle, which had broken off from the CSFAC group.

I absolutely loved Tracy Felix's Colorado Modernism at Foothills, and I think there are far worse ways to spend a summer afternoon than to take off, make the drive to Golden and check the whole thing out.


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