Although 1999 may not be the last year of the century, as sticklers for accuracy have pointed out, it is the last of the 1900s. So it seems only natural to reflect on the century -- or at least the last part of it. That's exactly what the Arvada Center's museum director Kathy Andrews does in the triumphant Colorado Abstraction: 1975-1999.
The gigantic exhibit is separated into two distinct presentations. Part I focuses on artists who arrived at the forefront of the local art scene in the 1970s, pairing an older piece with a newer one. Part II looks at artists from the 1980s, again pairing old work with new and adding single examples from those who have emerged in the 1990s. Taking in both parts at the same time may prove exhausting, at least aesthetically, for many visitors. My advice is to see one portion at a time, starting with Part I.
Andrews began preparing for Colorado Abstraction in the summer of 1997, when she met with Cydney Payton, the director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, and John Woodward, a physician, collector and freelance curator. Payton and Woodward were planning an exhibit that would examine abstract art from the 1930s to the 1960s, and they wanted Andrews to do a companion show bringing us up to the present. (Payton and Woodward's Vanguard Art in Colorado opens next week at BMoCA.) It soon became apparent, however, that coordination was not going to work. "John had distinct ideas about the show he wanted us to do, and I had different ideas," says Andrews.
It's too bad that things didn't work out, because one of the most important and influential artists in state history, George Woodman, is given short shrift. There will be Woodmans in the BMoCA show, but they predate his most important accomplishments, the pattern-paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Denver Art Museum assistant curator Jane Fudge discusses this obvious shortcoming in an essay she wrote for the brochure that accompanies Colorado Abstraction. Fudge notes that Vance Kirkland is also missing, but in this case, it could be argued that although he was still active in the 1970s, he came of artistic age in the 1930s. Kirkland's work will be seen in some depth at BMoCA, which is more appropriate.
Also not included is another big-name Colorado artist, Herbert Bayer, who worked in Aspen from the 1940s through the 1980s. Then there's Angelo di Benedetto; I can still remember the di Benedettos that adorned the lobby of the original Arvada Center. Fortunately, Bayer and di Benedetto will be shown at BMoCA.
Curators, dealers and art historians have begun to examine Colorado art historically, and they must be careful to reflect the real picture. Luckily for Kirkland, art patrons Hugh Grant and Merle Chambers, the forces behind the Vance Kirkland Foundation and Museum, are tireless in their promotion of his work. But Woodman is being quickly forgotten except by his aging former students, including many who make appearances in Part I of Colorado Abstraction. Bayer, on the other hand, has immense posthumous fame but is increasingly viewed as not having been a real player in the local art world. This isn't true, as he frequently exhibited in Denver and Colorado Springs. Sadly, di Benedetto is already all but forgotten.
Andrews says she left out Woodman, Kirkland, Bayer and di Benedetto because she "decided to only include artists who were still living here." Woodman retired in 1996 to his New York loft and Italian farmhouse. Bayer, Kirkland and di Benedetto made more emphatic exits -- all three are dead.
To create Colorado Abstraction, Andrews began by compiling a list of relevant artists. "I wanted to look at the 1970s, because people still remember what happened," she says. "I wanted to do the show before that period was forgotten."
Andrews, who has been connected with the Arvada Center for ten years, five of them in her current position, included a number of artists in Part I who have previously been the subject of solo shows that she organized or who have appeared in group shows. She has done a good job over the years featuring the best local talent, and it may be said that if artists want to make it in Denver, they've got to make it out of town first -- in Arvada.
The final list for Part I contains most of the great abstract artists working in the area in the 1970s; interestingly, most of them are still regarded as being among the best on the scene.
Part I begins outside the main entrance to the Arvada Center with a few sculptures by three of the state's acknowledged masters of the medium -- Jerry Wingren, Bob Mangold and Chuck Parson. Although this prelude may lead some to think that the show is mostly about sculpture, it's actually dominated by painting.
Wingren is represented by two pieces. The first, "Cut and Fold #15," was made in 1982 of aluminum. It sits on the lawn across the driveway from the entry courtyard. It's a simple folded plate, pierced by a rectangular cutout; the color and the minimalist style create an industrial aesthetic. That's hardly the effect of the Boulder sculptor's more recent piece, "Takoma Ovoid #2," which is at the southeast end of the courtyard. Though equally minimal, it's more organic in feeling. Created in 1998 and 1999, "Takoma" is a tall spire constructed of two metal poles on a pair of concrete bases; a simple lozenge shape carved of Western red cedar is skewered at the top. The title and the carved wood link it to the Indian art of the Northwest Coast, an important recent influence for Wingren.
On the sidewalk at the west end of the courtyard is Mangold's "Tetrahedral Hypersphere #13," a rusted-steel construction done in 1979. It looks a little like an Oriental temple gate but is actually, as revealed by the title, a detail of a hypothetical geometric shape. Mangold's sculptures are about the relationship of materials (which he regards as real, and therefore calls himself a realist) to the infinite bounds of space. The arch shape here is meant to suggest one small element of the enormous, imaginary tetrahedral hypersphere.
Finally, just outside the main entrance is Parson's monumental "Frame for a Caret." The two-story sculpture is made of white painted steel beams that are braced by cables and form a crossed pair of vertical frames. Hanging on cables from the center top joint are stacks of cut stone that sit in the center, close to the ground. The stone has been counter-weighted by boulders held in chains near the top. Parson's industrial style looks like it's based on science, but there's also some romantic content. Many of the elements are there not to function mechanically, but narratively. The joinery, for example, is meant to refer to the connections in human relationships.
In the entry lobby is a sculpture by yet another local household name, Andy Libertone. "Wedge Head," from 1988, is constructed of meticulously painted wood. Libertone's sculptures, which often have a retro character, generally refer to architecture, but they also make references to roadside elements such as signs and gas pumps. The bright colors of "Wedge Head" are typical for Libertone, who often uses color to enliven his three-dimensional work, blurring the distinction between sculpture and painting. This is also what he was doing two decades ago, as revealed in "Flatbush," which has been mounted on the wall in the lower-level galleries with the rest of Part 1. This piece is made of wood, metal and grass-green flocking.
As the inside show begins, several painters are grouped together, their work accented by a couple of titled sculptures by Bill Cordiner.
Dale Chisman, one of the city's most important abstract artists, is represented by a large acrylic on canvas from 1974 titled "Ode." This painting is predominantly white, with a black form that is vaguely suggestive of a bust at the bottom left. Chisman also incorporates a representational element in "King of Blue," an acrylic on canvas from 1999 that is situated around the corner. In the top right of a blue field with white gestural bands is a red flower. While neither piece is in the classic Chisman style, both reflect the relentless experimentation that has long been his signature.
Nearby is a marvelous Joe Clower acrylic on canvas called "Make Your Job Easier." Clower uses simplified recognizable images assembled sparely and enigmatically. (Some may note that the piece is from 1973, which is earlier than the date spread of the show's title.)
Across from the Clower is Virginia Maitland's "Bright Red," an acrylic on canvas from 1998. Maitland is quite a colorist; the vertical linear divisions in this piece are filled in with broad, flat areas of color, adding visual organization to her composition.
In the north gallery is a rich array of abstract paintings that are literally eye-dazzling. First up are two wonderful paintings by the legendary Bill Hayes. According to Andrews, many of the other artists in Part I hailed Hayes as the key figure of the group. "Spaghetti Confetti" is a monumental pattern painting done in acrylic on canvas. Unlike most pattern-painters of the period, such as those in the Criss Cross group in Boulder, Hayes applies his paint expressively and not evenly. He is better known for his luminous all-over abstractions created with squeegees and transparent acrylic stains. The other Hayes in Part I is of this type. "Barrier," from 1984, has the depth of stained glass, the result of Hayes having applied between sixty and eighty coats of paint. Since the paint is almost clear, even the first layer contributes to the surface effects.
Another painter concerned with luminosity is Gene Matthews. He is represented by four pieces, three from the 1970s and one from this year. Both the older works and the newer one have a shiny metallic quality. In the older compositions, Matthews achieves this in the absence of metal-colored paint.
These paintings are joined by several Elaine Colzolari sculptures, including two that incorporate moving water. These are doubtless models for monumental outdoor sculptures, Colzolari's stock-in-trade.
In the next gallery is the work of highly regarded structural abstractionist Clark Richert, a founder of Criss Cross. "Argon Period," an acrylic on canvas from 1977, is sublime. Richert is still concerned with repeated forms today, but no longer with regularity, as evidenced by "H-Eka Radon," a brand-new acrylic on canvas. Whereas the older painting has an even all-over pattern rendered flatly, the newer one has a non-repetitive character and illustrates three-dimensional space.
Non-repetitive hard-edged paintings were a specialty of David Yust of Fort Collins, as shown off in his "Circular Composition #58" from 1973, a tondo in acrylic on canvas (his recent work is more expressionist). Yust's painting is pushed off the wall from behind by a hidden armature, thus breaking the tradition of a flat surface.
Pushing aside established practice was something that was in the air in the 1970s. That's surely why Stan Meyer started using painted tarpaper woven together instead of paint and canvas to create his dramatic and richly dense wall hangings. In the back gallery are two of his works: "Shooting Star," from 1979, which takes the form of a gothic arch, and the constructivist-style "Drape," from 1998.
As we head around the corner, we're flanked by the paintings of Jeremy Hillhouse, which are expressionist views of nature. Also expressionistic but with a folkloric twist is Bev Rosen's 1977 piece "Doubled Up," in fabric and acrylic on canvas. It's disappointing, though, that one of Rosen's hard-edged paintings wasn't included here.
The atrium gallery is the perfect setting for Ken Iwamasa's "La Niña." At first glance, this accomplished oil-on-Masonite mural looks abstract-expressionist. But then we notice the stenciled words "Prompt and Delayed Effects," which are barely visible across the entire eight-by-twelve-foot panel. Also here are large sculptures by Myron Melnick. Especially good is 1999's "Symphonic Composition," a cluster of primordial forms made of white burnished cast paper that lean against the wall. Melnick's ceramic "Birthday Installation," from 1977, is a reminder that he used to work in clay. Also highlighted in Part I are the works of sculptors Erick Johnson and Carley Warren, painter Jerry Johnson and computer artist Cath Murphy.
It should be mentioned, too, that there is a small painting in the entry by John Fudge, which is not part of the show. Fudge was of the same generation as the artists in Part I, but he was anything but an abstract painter. Nonetheless, the exhibit is partly dedicated to him because of his untimely death this summer. Fudge was married to Jane Fudge, who wrote the aforementioned brochure. The show is also dedicated in part to Bruce Bee, a local art collector who died earlier this year.
Part I of Colorado Abstraction is extremely good and will silence all who say that there's little of interest in the state's artistic past. No one can now deny the sophistication of the art scene here 25 years ago -- or even today.
Next week: Part II of Colorado Abstraction at the Arvada Center.
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