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Vance Encounter

Vance Kirkland was the biggest name in Denver's art world for much of the twentieth century. From the 1930s through the 1970s, he dominated the local art scene, not just as the city's premier modern painter, but also as an influential art teacher and a powerful force at the Denver Art Museum. In spite of his many successes, however, it's been only in the past decade that Kirkland has achieved genuine international fame. Unfortunately, it's a distinction that eluded Kirkland during his lifetime--he died of cancer in 1981.

Kirkland's posthumous revival began in 1994, when a television documentary lauding his career was aired nationally on PBS. This was followed last year by the organization of an in-depth survey of his work that is now midway through a tour of European museums. Of course, we can't see that traveling show, but as a consolation prize, we can catch a small but wonderful exhibit currently at the DAM titled Vance Kirkland: The Late Paintings, a showcase featuring eleven pieces that marked the final phases of the artist's long career.

Credit for all of this Kirkland-mania--including the show at the DAM--must go to Hugh Grant, Kirkland's friend and protege who today serves as director of the Vance Kirkland Foundation and Museum. That foundation was set up by Kirkland and primarily funded by Grant and his wife, Merle Chambers. Grant has kept the torch burning for the late artist since Kirkland's death, at times carrying on his campaign single-handedly, especially during the lean years of the 1980s, when many local know-it-alls openly questioned Kirkland's value as an artist. But times change, and so do tastes, and Kirkland's work is looking great again--even to some former naysayers.

Certainly the renewed interest in Kirkland wouldn't have happened if things had been left to the DAM, which does very little for even the best local artists. In fact, Vance Kirkland is the museum's first exhibit in more than twenty years to focus on the artist's work--even though, from 1958 to 1965, Kirkland served without pay as the DAM's first curator of contemporary art. In the kind of scheduling snafu that's all too common at the museum, the show, in the Close Range Gallery off the elevator lobby, has wound up being the only exhibit on the first floor. The recently inaugurated Hamilton Galleries and the extensive Stanton Galleries, both of which are between shows, are closed off. This gives an eerily vacant quality to the first floor that may actually serve to repel visitors.

Worse yet, at least for the Kirkland show, is that the large doorway on the left side of the Close Range rooms has been left open. This provides museumgoers with a distracting view of the ladders and paint cans that have been gathered in preparation for another exhibit that will open in April, after the Kirkland show closes. (That show, by the way, will contain quite a surprise: the return of the important 1937 "Still Life" oil painting by Picasso that's been out of sight for years. The museum had announced last fall that the painting was among a group of 41 works slated for deaccessioning. But let's not complain about the DAM curators' indecisiveness; let's just be happy they changed their minds.)

Like a number of other Colorado artists who managed to get into the DAM's permanent collection, Kirkland himself was subject to deaccessioning. He left some 300 of his own paintings to the DAM, not knowing that the museum would choose to keep only 30 and sell the rest. The dozens of deaccessioned Kirkland paintings didn't appear at the on-the-premises auction conducted by Christie's a few years ago but instead were quietly purchased in bulk by the wealthy Kirkland Foundation. By doing so, the foundation averted flooding the market and driving down the value of the artist's work. Now, a few years later, the foundation is in a position to lend pieces--such as those that make up this new show--back to the DAM.

The paintings in the exhibit were selected by DAM curator Gwen Chanzit, who acknowledges the contributions of foundation director Grant. The works chosen by Chanzit and Grant range in date from the late 1950s to just before Kirkland's death in 1981. For many artists, twenty years would represent an entire career. For Kirkland, it's just a couple of chapters.

Born in 1904 in rural Ohio, Kirkland moved at age nineteen to Cleveland, then a center for regional art, and attended both the Cleveland School of Art and Western Reserve University, which jointly awarded him a degree in art education in 1928. He came to Denver the following year, outfitted with a Carnegie Foundation grant and determined to start an art school.

Upon his arrival, Kirkland founded the Chappell School of Art at the University of Denver, the predecessor to DU's School of Art and Art History. In the beginning, the school was housed not on campus but in the Chappell House, a mansion that once stood at 14th and Logan Streets. At the time, Chappell House also served as a home for the DAM. Kirkland went on to establish a BFA program at DU--then a rare offering--but left in 1932 when the university refused to grant fine-art degrees.  

Kirkland toyed with the idea of giving up teaching altogether and devoting himself to painting full-time. But he yielded to the wishes of the many students who urged him to continue, and in 1933 established the Kirkland School of Art, located in a distinctive barrel-vaulted building at 1311 Pearl Street. Kirkland taught at the school, whose classes were accredited by the University of Colorado, until 1946, when he closed up shop and returned to DU, where he remained until his retirement in 1969. However, the Pearl Street building, which was constructed by Denver painter William Henry Read in 1911 to serve as the Student's School of Art, still stands and today serves as the headquarters for the Kirkland Foundation and Museum.

Over the more than fifty years he was active as a painter, Kirkland embraced a number of different styles. The Kirkland Foundation has identified five distinct periods in his career, though there may be even more. In the 1920s and '30s Kirkland worked in the American scene manner associated with his training in Cleveland, which the foundation calls "designed realism." Then, in the '40s, he worked in "surrealism," and in the 1950s he delved into "abstractions from nature." Kirkland's foray into abstract expressionism also began in the 1950s (the foundation prefers to call these works "floating abstractions"). His fifth and final stylistic stage comprises his famous "dot paintings." The Kirkland show at the DAM takes up a few examples from the abstract-expressionist period but mostly devotes itself to the dot paintings.

The oldest painting in the show is the marvelous "The Mystery of Space," from 1958. This beautiful abstract-expressionist piece is dominated by a white field over which Kirkland has laid gestural passages of blue, gray and black that suggest a landscape. As implied by the title, the painting has the illusion of depth, a device heightened by Kirkland's unexpected use of watercolor and oil pigments that seem to float above the surface. This technique was Kirkland's own invention, since, ordinarily, oil and water won't mix, but he took the secret process he used to blend the two elements to his grave.

Another notable abstract-expressionist piece is "Nebula Near Saturn," a 1959 work that's so abstract that Kirkland himself made no distinction between its top and bottom. Like its 1958 cousin, "Nebula" sports a white ground, but the colors are much bolder; in it, smears of red, pink, blue and yellow have been streaked with spatters of black and white.

Perhaps the greatest abstract-expressionist painting in the show is 1961's "Painting No. 20," composed of three painted forms placed over an extremely dark ground of blue and black. The tension between light and dark changes as the viewer examines different parts of the painting; also distinctive is Kirkland's incorporation of geometric lines that frame the organic shapes.

By the early 1960s, Kirkland began to include thick dots of paint into his abstract-expressionist works, as can be seen in 1963's "Memory of India," an oil paint, watercolor and gold leaf on linen. At first Kirkland painted his dots conventionally. But he soon began to apply them with wooden dowels that had been dipped in paint, resulting in the creation of thick dots with a raised center.

At the same time, Kirkland began to use a movable sling of his own design that allowed him to suspend himself above the oversized paintings he had lain on the floor of his studio. In this way, he could work on the entire surface of a large painting at once, pulling himself across the surface and thus avoiding the use of a ladder or scaffolding. Also, the sling encouraged Kirkland to envision his paintings as having no specific directional reference, and in fact, many of his paintings have hardware on the back that allows them to be hung in a variety of ways. However, Kirkland's prominent signature across the bottom of his pictures indicates the suggested direction of each painting, and the DAM has hung all the paintings here accordingly.

A great example of Kirkland's classic dot series is "The Energy of Explosions of the Sun Sixty Billion Years B.C.," a gigantic oil paint and watercolor on linen from 1978. The huge painting is covered with thousands of small dots of paint in fiery shades of yellow, red and orange. The amount of work Kirkland put into this painting is remarkable, especially when one considers that he was seventy years old when he did it. Also seeming somewhat out of character for an elderly artist is the exuberant use of strong colors, a feature that continued right up to his death.  

The show includes two paintings from the last two years of Kirkland's life, including one that was left unfinished when he died at age 76. This last piece, titled "Forces of Energy From a Sun in the Great Star Cloud K2," has never been exhibited before. "Forces" is presented as a spiral that's teal at the top and red at the bottom; swirling around the middle are large yellow dots. This teal, red and yellow palette gives the painting a joyful quality that seems at odds with the reality of Kirkland's great physical suffering at the time he painted it.

One last complaint about the DAM's presentation of this show is that, as is now standard practice at the museum, the paintings have not been arranged chronologically. Kirkland's last painting, for example, is one of the first pieces a visitor encounters. It is thus hard to see his development over the nearly three decades covered by the exhibit--unless viewers carefully read the identifying labels and choose to laboriously hunt out paintings by date. But aside from this annoying but ubiquitous element, Vance Kirkland: The Late Paintings is a must-see. It gives local viewers a brief but satisfying glimpse of Kirkland's great accomplishments. And it will make them yearn for a European vacation; for now, sadly, that's where they'll have to go to see more of this great Denver artist's oeuvre.

Vance Kirkland: The Late Paintings, through April 5 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.


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