West of Center is more a cultural documentary than an art show
The art of the West's introduction to the world came in the 1970s, when paintings and photos from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suddenly became highly sought after in the marketplace. By now, this kind of emblematic Western work — stunning landscapes, charming scenes of cowboys and Indians — has solidified the region's worth in the hierarchy of world art. But there's been something in the wind carrying the idea that the culture quotient in the American West is due for an upward reevaluation.
Efforts in this campaign have been undertaken by a critical mass of disconnected individuals from Colorado to California — scholars, historians, critics, theorists, artists, curators, donors and others — who have approached the topic from many angles.
In Southern California, for instance, museums, galleries and art centers have coordinated exhibits under the guidance of the Getty Museum to highlight work done in greater Los Angeles from the mid- to late twentieth century. This blockbuster series of shows, collectively called Pacific Standard Time, successfully makes the claim that L.A.'s visual culture was never inferior to the New York scene — as has been taken on faith for over half a century — but was simply a worthy alternative to it.
Such a strong claim is bound to incite controversy, but I was struck when these shows in Southern California provided an unlikely opportunity for star art critic David Hickey to insult Denver. "It's corny," he said in the New York Times. "It's the kind of thing Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time."
This quote has gotten a lot of mileage, but it brings up two issues. First, one of the big problems with Denver is that the major institutions here don't really promote the local scene, so it really isn't like something we'd do at all. Second, Hickey's wife, Libby Lumpkin, mounted her own version of Mountain Standard Time at the Harwood Museum in Taos last spring called New Mexorado. The show generated hardly a ripple, however, in comparison to the commotion that Pacific Standard Time produced — something that makes me question Hickey's motives.
Though not part of an ambitious series of events like Pacific Standard Time, our own MCA Denver is participating in the same zeitgeist anyway, with West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977. The show, organized by director Adam Lerner and his wife and co-curator, Elissa Auther, sprawls throughout all three levels of the museum. Lerner and Auther also co-edited a scholarly catalogue on counterculture in the West, the scope of which is far greater than that of the exhibit.
The show isn't sequential; rather, it's made up of autonomous displays, each devoted to a different part of the topic. That means there's no particular order in which to see it. I'll start upstairs, because that's how I walked through the show with Lerner and Auther. The first vignette we arrived at was "Life Theater: The Cockettes & the Angels of Light," devoted to the San Francisco street drag-queen collective. Since most people would think first of hippies, communes and psychedelic posters when discussing the counterculture, putting drag queens here first struck me as being the intellectual equivalent of a pie in the face. Yet when you think about it, the curators were right: The Cockettes, who lived communally, were a part of the counterculture. In this section there are glamour-shot and candid photos of the guys, along with posters, memorabilia, a charming glitter-filled scrapbook and a spectacular costume and headdress.
Next is the section "Social Encounters: The Dance of Anna Halprin," which comprises video transcriptions of films and photos, many in black and white, that record Halprin's radical choreography as seen in workshops she held on the California coast. The wife of the late Lawrence Halprin, a premier landscape designer who did Denver's now substantially lost Skyline Park, Anna Halprin created works that completely align with the performance-art movement of the '70s; in them, performers closely interact with one another, though in a free-associative way. Unlike most of the others in this show, Halprin extensively documented what she did.
It's a very different spirit that informs the handful of pieces in "Political Graphics: The Posters of Emory Douglas," featuring broadsides done by this Oakland Black Panther. About half are related stylistically to the contemporaneous psychedelic posters, but in a few, Douglas delves into a Rodchenko-esque montage approach using photos combined with drawing that step it up into something else. One disappointing thing about this part of the show is that the posters are digital re-creations instead of originals.
This shortcoming stands out all the more because the faux Douglas posters are displayed right around the corner from lots of period artifacts in the form of photos, pamphlets and magazines related to the next section of the show, "Feminist Collectives: Womyn's Lands of Southern Oregon." For whatever reason, many feminist and lesbian separatist communes were established in rural Oregon, where they produced volumes of political and philosophical literature and staged demonstration-like performances and events meant to take apart the patriarchy by eschewing male-defined femininity. That meant that few members, if any, shaved their legs or put on makeup. Interestingly, the guys from the Cockettes did plenty of that — and actually performed at the Womyn's Lands.
The crescendo on the second floor is "Dome Architecture: Drop City and Beyond," a look at Drop City, an artists' collective established outside of Trinidad, Colorado. The show puts Drop City in a seminal position in the proliferation of domes in communal settlements and clears up a prime misconception I had about the name, Drop City. I always thought "drop" referred either to the idea of dropping acid or to dropping out of college, since both activities were standard features in the biographies of the founders. But it actually descends from "Droppings," the idea of integrating art into everyday life, exemplified by the small painted stones that Clark Richert and Gene Bernofsky dropped out of the window of their studio in Lawrence, Kansas, shortly before they came to Colorado.
To explain Drop City, there's a re-created dome fragment on which moving images of the place are projected. The domes at Drop City, some conceived by Richert, were made of cut-up car bodies and were covered with patterns created by the relationships between the different colored automotive lacquers used on the various parts. There's a wall panel with an interwoven triangular structure that's dotted with photos mapping out Drop City's influence on other collectives. And there are showcases in which items lay out the origins of the domes in a set of "Zome Tools," in the theories of Buckminster Fuller and in ads and articles in the Whole Earth Catalogue.
The salute to Drop City continues on the first floor with "Expanded Cinema II: The Ultimate Painting," a re-creation of a collaborative circular painting done by Richert, Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit and others. The original, which was lost after an exhibition in New York, survives only in a photo. Richert oversaw the creation of a full-sized digital image of the painting, which is mounted on a mechanism that allows it to rotate at a high speed. Reproduction or not, seeing it twirl is a great visual experience.
Across from the "Ultimate Painting" and housed in its own darkened gallery is "Expanded Cinema I: The Single Wing Turquoise Bird," a spectacular project that's a facsimile of a light show. The original members of the group made a new light show with a hard-driving soundtrack. And they outfitted the gallery with cushions, benches and a random placement of baffles. It's very hypnotic — though few will choose to watch the whole thing, as it runs close to an hour. Still, it is memorable.
On the lower level, there's a multi-part display devoted to "Nomadic Experiments: Ant Farm Inflatables," a collective that advocated for a mobile lifestyle facilitated by vans, trucks and inflatable buildings made of transparent plastic. This part of the show includes many notebooks, photos, back-lighted transparencies and publications, along with a re-created inflatable building and a model of a video van.
In truth, West of Center is more of a cultural documentary than an art show. Reproductions are rarely acceptable in a museum setting, but I fully understand why they were necessary here. The casual and roving lifestyles of many in the interlocking counterculture crowds didn't encourage the preservation of artifacts — Drop City, for example, is gone without a trace — and even much of what did survive the initial period was ultimately lost to the ages.
Slide show: View images from West of Center
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