For the last five years or so, the fine-art world has seen a major revival of interest in abstraction in its innumerable stylistic permutations.
Abstraction in painting and sculpture came into its own in the first few years of the twentieth century. Its audience among artists and collectors was small at first, but its appeal grew quickly, and it soon supplanted the representation of recognizable objects, a tried-and-true approach that had dominated Western art since the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Because abstraction represents such a big stylistic shift from what went on before, it is surely the quintessential twentieth-century approach in the fine arts.
And now, at the start of the 2000s, abstraction is still popular; in fact, it's more more popular now than it has been in twenty years, demonstrating that it has some long legs.
But there are some naysayers on the scene, especially those interested in conceptual art, who argue that abstraction's renewed vigor in recent times marks its institutionalization into a kind of traditional art, like realism or impressionism. In this scenario, contemporary abstraction is conservative, reactionary and -- worst of all -- safe.
There is a substantial problem with this theoretical pose, however. The truth is that for the vast majority of the public who are not specifically interested in art -- but still buy pictures to hang over their sofas -- abstract art is anything but safe. We know this because of the hostility manifested in jokes and put-downs directed at abstracts on TV sitcoms and in cocktail-party banter. Even more telling is the huge local market in traditional paintings of the landscape and the figure, the sale of which supports several of the toniest galleries in Cherry Creek North. No, abstraction, regardless of how safe it might be, doesn't enjoy anywhere near such a level of financial success, at least not in Denver.
Thus, contemporary abstraction is both old-fashioned and threatening, which is an interesting combination, to say the least. Maybe it's this internal contradiction that has kept it going for all these years.
Two opposing currents in abstract painting now seem to be the most predominant: There is the continuing influence of abstract expressionism, America's greatest painting style, which first appeared in 1940s in its full-blown manner; and there is minimalism, with its many theoretical progeny, which didn't take center stage until the 1960s. In a sense, the two are opposites, with the former being freely done and based on subconscious instincts and the latter typically precise and based on ideas, or even mathematical calculations. It's like the difference between beat pottery and calculus.
Two of the top galleries in town are now featuring shows that include some of the latest work by several contemporary abstract artists from across the country. At the William Havu Gallery is Intuition, which combines the work of Lynn Heitler, Neltje and Lynn Bernay. And at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery are two shows that have been installed as one, Charles Thomas ONeil: Recent Paintings and Richard Heinrich: Recent Bronze Sculpture. Most of the artists at Havu and Rule are present-day practitioners of abstract expressionism, but some of them have thrown in a little minimalism and even a touch of pop art.
The first of the three artists at Havu, Heitler, was born and raised in Denver in the 1960s and studied at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She received her fine-art degree in 1970 from the University of California at Berkeley and attended the Corcoran Museum Art School in Washington, D.C., in the late '70s. She returned to Denver in the 1980s and began to exhibit locally in the early 1990s. In this way, she established her reputation as a fine abstract painter and printmaker.
Heitler asserts that today's abstractionists may be understood as "yet another generation of artists" carrying on the work of the modern masters of the 1930s to the 1960s, and she is essentially right. But it could be added that there are now more than one generation of artists who are the aesthetic heirs of the abstract giants of the mid-twentieth century.
Havu has included a number of Heitler's largish paintings, including some recent work, in Intuition, along with lots of prints. Her work is installed in the center of the main floor and in the space under the mezzanine loft.
To the right as you enter the gallery is "Intuitive Recognition," an oil on canvas. Like many of the Heitlers in the show, this painting is made up of small, painterly passages in which light colors like yellow and white are surrounded by smears of gray. As we examine it, certain forms suggesting flowers or other plant shapes seem to emerge, but Heitler denies that the paintings are based on the landscape. Instead, she says, "they're all autobiographical." This explanation, as vague as it is, turns out to be standard. Abstract-expressionists really do think they are revealing their very essence in their paintings. I'm not so philosophical: I think abstract expressionism is mostly about paint, and that's good enough.
Other impressive Heitlers, which also evoke the landscape in the forms the artist assembles, include "Garden and the Room" and "Indoor Space." Both are luscious and painterly oils on canvas.
Supplementing the paintings are monoprints, some done at Denver's Open Press. Heitler is better known for these prints, including a grid of sixteen small ones, and a series of surrealist inspired pieces, both of which incorporate transferred photographic images.
Also on the main floor is the work of Wyoming painter Neltje. Skip the two combine paintings that incorporate found objects -- they're terrible. But her other work here is spectacular. (So why were the two weak sisters hung right inside the door instead of being slotted in more inconspicuous place? That question is one of many installation issues sensitive viewers will raise in regard to this show.)
Neltje, who studied art in New York at the Art Students League and elsewhere, moved to Banner, Wyoming, in the 1980s and began to exhibit in that state and later in Denver. Havu first showed Neltje's work in 1987 and has periodically featured her paintings and prints ever since. Neltje was formerly a neo-abstract-expressionist -- a form in which slapdash brushwork is used to convey a recognizable subject. At first glance, her earlier paintings looked like all-over abstractions, but with careful study, a nude woman at the center of each composition was revealed; Neltje had hidden the woman through the use of bold brushwork and even bolder color. In her latest paintings, however, she has completely abandoned the subliminal nudes, and the pieces at Havu are pure abstractions.
But in the same way that Heitler picks up shapes from the landscape, Neltje has continued to use forms suggestive of the female figure even though she's abandoned her covert use of it.
Neltje's application of paint is lush and thick, and her color sense is spectacular; she summons a palette ranging from white to the primaries and secondaries, all the way to black. Several of the paintings are breathtaking, including the triptychs "Roll My Bones," on the impressive back wall, and "While I Lay on the Rocks," which is sadly shoehorned into a corner. Both mural-like pieces were done in acrylic on canvas.
The work of Lynn Bernay, the last of the Intuition artists, is installed upstairs, where it shares space with ceramic sculptures by Margaret Haydon and Martha Daniels. Havu has been representing Bernay in Denver for almost ten years.
Bernay, who hails from Los Angeles, studied art at UCLA and in New York at the Art Students League, where she was a student of Theodoros Stamos. The formal compartmentalization in her compositions are apparently a response to Stamos's work. The handful of Bernay prints at Havu, though incorporating photo transfers and text in print and script, are handled abstractly; any narrative content they may have is impossible to pick up.
All in all, Intuition is quite interesting, even if it could have been more cogently arranged.
Intelligent and handsome installations are something of a specialty of Robin Rule, the director of Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, which focuses on abstract art. In the old storefront located directly across Broadway from the Mayan Theatre, Rule has installed two solo shows in the same space. On the walls is Charles Thomas O'Neil, which comprises the artist's recent paintings; scattered across the floor on fussy pedestals that were stipulated by the artist are the sculptures that make up Richard Heinrich.
O'Neil is a New Mexico artist who studied at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and at New York's Skidmore College. For a time in 1987, he worked as an apprentice to Red Grooms -- an interesting association, since O'Neil apparently rejected Grooms's cartoonish style as completely as is possible to imagine.
In this show, O'Neil's paintings combine abstract expressionism with minimalism, not unlike the color-field painting of the '60s and '70s. Though some of O'Neil's pieces are monochromes, layer after layer of different colors come together to make a single muddy shade. The most minimal is "Untitled (C 1017)," which consists of three one-foot-square oil paintings on copper panels. The panels are painted a putty color, a warm off-white and a sumptuous charcoal gray, respectively. The metallic glint of the copper is seen only along the edges, where it serves as an ad hoc frame. The copper mounting is stepped back into a diagonal molding that sits behind the picture surface, so that the paintings stand out distinctly and at a small distance from the wall.
Most of the other O'Neils are similarly painted on these custom-fabricated armatures of copper or brass. Some of the paintings in the show have compositions made from the pairing of two distinct colors, typically a light shade and a dark one. In a few of these, the division, which is blurred yet essentially straight, runs up and down; in others, it runs from side to side.
On the back wall are a dozen miniature O'Neil abstracts hung in an open grid. The best of these are not the ones that are simply smaller versions of the bigger paintings, but those that more readily fall into the abstract-expressionist category, complete with scribbles and subconscious organic shapes.
Heinrich has exhibited his sculptures nationally, and his work has been seen in Denver on many occasions during the last 25 years. But the Rule show is his first in-town solo since the 1980s.
The sculptures that make up Heinrich are a handful of tabletop bronzes of the highest quality. Stylistically, they are examples of classic New York School sculpture, which is not surprising, since Heinrich has lived in New York City ever since graduating from Cornell University in the '60s.
His sculptures are related to abstract-expressionist painting, but only in a formal sense. The medium is problematic for sculptors who work in bronze, since making bronzes is a precise technical process involving blast furnaces. They can't throw one piece of bronze against another and expect it to stick the way paint does to canvas. Even if it did, the artist would perish in the flames or have badly burnt hands. Abstract expressionism is easier for sculptors who work in ceramics, polyester foam and other materials that are liquefied, or at least malleable, at room temperature, and are therefore subject to gestural manipulations.
The five sculptures in Heinrich are all similar. The artist has clustered planes, some accented by squatty cylinders expressing connection, which make them look like conventionalized bolt heads. And they have all been finished in the same way, in a version of the time-honored Renaissance brown patina. In this case, the patina is impressively rich and even, having been expertly applied. Every one of the Heinrich bronzes is wonderful, all expressing the same standard of compositional skill and technical achievement. "American Flyer" is typical: A jumbled stack of interlocking planes at the base supports a vertical element, which in turn features a cantilevered piece hanging off and above.
The sculptures look good in relation to the very different yet oddly complementary O'Neil paintings, and they really express that good old modern feeling that so many have come to love.
Abstraction may have been the most significant art movement of the last century, but I think abstract art will be around well into the 21st century. At one hundred years old, it is still constantly changing and, in that way, moving forward. In fact, it may last to the 22nd, because it's hard to imagine anything that could possibly displace it.
There's only one potential fly in the ointment: With virtual art on the Internet, this whole painting and sculpture thing -- abstraction and all -- may be out of business. Fortunately, with things moving as slowly as they do in the art world, I'll be long dead by then.
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