It's an unexpected stroke of luck to find three of the most important cultural institutions in the mountain West conveniently lined up in a row along Denver's Civic Center complex. And you could hardly miss the Colorado History Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Denver Art Museum, housed as they are in architecturally distinguished buildings that clearly express their ceremonial roles as public institutions.
The three institutions variously date back a century or so, yet they've never come together to present a single event--until now. The result of that unprecedented act of cooperation is the riveting, over-the-top blockbuster The Real West.
If you're interested in paintings, prints, photographs, artifacts, documents, weaponry or a dozen other different categories, this is a show you'll want to see again and again. In fact, it's only through repeated viewing that a person could even hope to absorb and appreciate the divine glut that's inevitably created when 1,700 catalogued articles are brought together in spaces that combined cover more than 20,000 square feet. The Real West is quite simply the largest exhibition ever mounted anywhere, ever, on the topic.
Project director Andy Masich, vice-president of the Colorado Historical Society, says the show was four years in the making and took an army of more than 100 historians, art historians, curators, archivists, designers and experts of various stripes, culled both from the staff ranks of each institution and from outside consultants. Viewers can decide for themselves how best to approach the vastness of the show. My advice: Go west. Start at the history museum, proceed to the library and wind up at the art museum.
The Real West has been subdivided into eight distinct topics, which have been distributed among the three locations. The team leader for the history museum's presentation, titled "The Search for Wealth and Community," is longtime CHM decorative and fine-arts curator Georgiana Contiguglia. Her team's contribution includes some 900 articles divided into four themes: "Cowboy," about ranching and the wild West; "Windmill," which addresses farming, the difficult search for water and the role of women in pioneer life; "Gold," which represents the mineral wealth of the region and its exploitation; and, finally, "Main Street," which focuses on urban growth.
At the bottom of the CHM's grand staircase, in the cavernous galleries on the history museum's lower level, Contiguglia starts off with a shorthand glimpse of the exhibit beyond. There's an incredibly glitzy pair of brand-new women's cowboy boots by Dan Post that feature both traditional flame stitching and untraditional rainbow dyeing. There's a quilt in the windmill or pinwheel pattern dating from 1920-1930. There's a large mineral sample of pyrite--"fool's gold." And there's a 1983 oil-on-canvas that depicts a scene of downtown Denver: Bruce Cody's "View From Diamond Hill." The shorthand introduction makes sense, since once we're in the show, the four themes merge and intertwine--just as history itself does.
Entering the first of the principal spaces, you're confronted by the tail end of an 1824 "Conestoga-style Wagon" made by A. Hirsh in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Logically, this is the place to start our journey through The Real West. The wagon has been fitted out with a historically correct assortment of ironstone jugs, homespun comforters and spatter-ware pots. Theatrical lighting has been projected onto the restored canvas top of the prairie schooner to suggest the setting sun filtered through cottonwood leaves. Thanks to more theatrical lighting, projections of the wagon-wheel ruts on the floor link up to railroad tracks --and then are transformed into tire tracks, leading us on through the past 200 years.
The chain of events represented by the wagon, the train and the car has to do with inward migration. Other major topics tackled include the minting of coins by Clark and Gruber, a Denver outfit that was the only private mint chartered by the federal government; the Ludlow massacre of 1914; the all-black Bill Pickett rodeo; life on the prairie; life in a mining town; and the building up and tearing down of our cities. Even Baby Doe Tabor's ample red flannel undies from the nineteenth century get an airing.
Most of the best things at the history museum fall under the "Cowboy" portion of the show. The exhibit would be worth seeing if only for the unfinished 1928 cubist oil on canvas "Portrait of a Cowboy," by the great early modernist Andrew Dasburg--or for Fletcher Martin's 1940 oil-on-canvas scene of rodeo clowns, titled "July 4th, 5th and 6th." Also, don't miss Arthur Roy Mitchell's "Untitled" oil of a cowboy on a rearing horse from 1945. The "Cowboy" portion also includes one of the few sculptures on display at any of the three locations, a bronze model finished in a magnificent black patina for the 1918 "Bucking Broncho" sculpture at the Civic Center, by Alexander Phimister-Proctor.
Over at the library, up on the formerly vacant sixth floor, The Real West continues in "Colorado: One Land, Many Visions." This presentation was organized by a team headed up by Eleanor Gehres, long the manager of the library's Western history and genealogy department.
Gehres's team takes up three of the remaining four organizing themes: the "Tipi," concerning American Indians; the "Adobe Church," about Hispanics; and the "Fort," denoting the role of the military. And like Contiguglia, Gehres gives the viewer a sneak preview. In the entry hall are three niches. The first holds a pair of mannequin-like stands, one wrapped in an early-nineteenth-century Ute chief's blanket (actually a Navajo piece acquired through intertribal trading), the other covered by an 1880 Ute-made hide dress. In the second niche is a late-nineteenth-century wooden "death cart" by Jose Inez Herrera that includes a life-sized wooden skeleton. In the last niche is a bronze-and-wood "Mountain Howitzer" from 1847. This particular cannon was once owned by Confederate soldiers but is meant to refer to the role of the U.S. cavalry.
"Colorado: One Land, Many Visions" is essentially about the potentially politically explosive topic of Manifest Destiny. And to their credit, the organizers have tackled difficult issues while--apparently--managing not to alienate any of the various groups depicted.
There are some remarkable things in the "Tipi" section. Two full-scale dioramas opposite each other detail a typical Ute camp and a Cheyenne one. Each diorama includes historical clothing and domestic articles. Among the standouts here are a nineteenth-century Cheyenne woman's dress of harness leather and silver and a Ute cradle-board exquisitely decorated with beadwork. Even more compelling are a pair of miniature toy versions, one complete with its original doll.
Another Native American display concerns the Sand Creek massacre directed against the Cheyenne. There's the 1865 "Treaty of the Little Arkansas," the violation of which set the stage for the massacre, along with Chief Black Kettle's pipe bag, found in the ashes of his tipi at the destroyed Sand Creek settlement. DAM Native Arts curator Nancy Blomberg has also included videos of current-day Cheyenne passing on the oral history of Sand Creek as it has been handed down to them by their ancestors.
The key role of Catholicism receives prominent treatment in the section that deals with the Hispanic legacy of the region. Beautiful Spanish ecclesiastical furniture and artwork is seen in abundance at the library, mostly drawn from the art museum's considerable holdings in the field. One of the loveliest articles is the polychromed wood statue of St. Francis of Assisi, made in Puebla, Mexico, sometime in the early nineteenth century. Also included in this section is a virtually complete chapel, with folk-art wood fittings that include an altar piece, a crucifix with straw inlay and a large candleholder. More timely elements include "Adam and Eve in the Garden," an unforgettable group of small sculptures carved by George Lopez sometime in the 1940s or 1950s. Here the apple tree is the Devil himself, hand-carved of either cottonwood or juniper--the library apparently is unwilling to drill it open to find out which.
Since the military is rarely associated with art, it's not surprising that the "Fort" section is the least interesting, visually. However, the intelligent way the "Fort" theme winds through here reveals to us something we might not think about--that at one time Colorado was occupied by the U.S. military.
As with the library, the art museum's portion of the show occupies some brand-new exhibition space. The old restaurant, a gorgeous multi-story room that will be missed by many, has been transformed into a series of galleries called Morgan Court for the final leg of The Real West. Titled "Colorado: Visions of the Land," it takes up the one remaining topic: "Rocky Mountains."
The team that put together the exhibit was led by the highly regarded Gwen Chanzit, an associate curator of modern and contemporary art and the curator of the Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive at the DAM. As good as the other two venues are--and they are very good--the DAM's part of the show is far and away the best of the three.
"Colorado: Visions of the Land" begins in the realm of history. Old maps are on display here, one a Spanish example illustrating the "Regni Mexicani" from 1775. So fragile that it is to be withdrawn mid-show, the map is thought to be the oldest document in the world to record the Rockies. Then there are the accoutrements of some of the first explorers: Zebulon Pike's sword and scabbard, Kit Carson's 1851 buckskin-and-wool coat, and Edward Berthoud's nineteenth-century survey equipment and correspondence. Pike, Carson and Berthoud are just three of the many people featured throughout The Real West for whom pieces of Colorado's geography have been named.
As you move through the galleries, the show very soon becomes what you would expect from the DAM: one dominated by the fine arts, especially painting. One of the most beautiful and memorable paintings is the library's famous 1877 oil on canvas by Albert Bierstadt, "Estes Park, Colorado," which has pretty much been on permanent display somewhere around the Civic Center for the last forty years. But it's never looked so good before--not because it's been draped with green velvet in the manner of the last century, but because it's possible at the DAM to stand back far enough to actually appreciate its size and scale. (It's a shame the new library didn't have space specifically designed to accommodate this enormous masterpiece. Maybe the library should loan the painting to the art museum indefinitely instead of shoehorning it back into the small gallery adjacent to its Western History department.)
Other magnificent examples by notable figures in the history of art include four paintings from Thomas Moran, including his world-famous "Mount of the Holy Cross," an 1890 oil on canvas that's part of a mini-show of the oft-depicted mountain by a variety of nineteenth-century artists. Also memorable are two large, luminous paintings by Harvey Otis Young that record the very atmosphere: the breathtaking 1876 oil on canvas "A Mountain Lake" and the barely-there "The Heart of the Rockies," another oil on canvas from 1899.
As it continues, "Colorado: Visions of the Land" marches us through art history right up to the present. And laudably, local art has been given its place in the spotlight. Dating from the turn of the century is the DAM's just-acquired oil by Colorado painter Charles Partridge Adams, "Moraine Park." Another recently acquired painting is "Long's Peak and the Flatirons," an oil on Masonite by contemporary Colorado painter Tracy Felix that was completed just last year. A far different vision is provided by another Colorado artist, Herbert Bayer, whose abstract "Colorado Mural" dates from the 1940s.
By the end of the show, viewers may be exhilarated mentally and exhausted physically. But if you're anything like me, the first thought that will cross your mind is: How soon can I get back to see the whole thing again?
The Real West, through September 15 at the Colorado History Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Denver Art Museum, 640-4433.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.