You Go, Girls!
The first shows of the important fall season are just getting under way, and already there's an exhibit that is essential viewing for everyone: the scholarly and exhaustively titled Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-2000, which is the season opener at the consistently interesting Metro State Center for the Visual Arts.
The genesis of this exhibit came some three years ago when Metro Center director Sally Perisho decided to organize a historical survey on the topic of women artists in Colorado. "I wanted to do a century show," she says, referring to the raft of recent shows that have taken a look at art history in Colorado and given Denver gallery visitors an unprecedented opportunity to explore some of the many committed artists who have worked in this state.
Perisho took her idea to art consultant, art historian and curator Katherine Smith-Warren. "I was intrigued by the idea, and very excited," says Smith-Warren. "The changes that occurred in women's lives were vast during the twentieth century."
But Smith-Warren had two requests of Perisho before she agreed to curate Time and Place: first, that educational tours would be conducted; and second, that there would be a catalogue. "You work for years to put together a show, and without the tours and without a catalogue, all your work is gone in six weeks," she says. After Smith-Warren got the go-ahead, she began to develop a concept.
Her intention was to present the show with a strict chronology, the traditional method associated with art history, but one that sadly has largely been abandoned over the last decade. "I know it's out of fashion to look at art sequentially, but it's the way I prefer," she says.
True to her intention, the show begins with the years 1900 to 1910 in the entry gallery, with each consecutive space devoted to a decade.
The differences between the decades are further stressed by Smith-Warren's decision to have only one artist represent each decade. "I didn't want to do a grab-bag group show with lots of different artists, each with one or two pieces," she says. "Rather, I wanted to do fewer artists seen in depth."
(That self-imposed mandate is abandoned for the 1940s, however, since Smith-Warren selected twins to represent the decade.)
The first artist is Henrietta Bromwell, who represents the 1900s. The only truly obscure artist in the show, Bromwell is as little known in the art world as her work (although her family is prominent in Denver history, and Bromwell Elementary School is named for her father, Henry). So this exhibit represents her reintegration into the local art world after almost ninety years.
Bromwell studied art at the University of Denver in 1884. Within ten years, she had begun to sell her paintings, and by the turn of the last century, she was one of the city's most respected painters, exhibiting her work nationally.
Smith-Warren points out that in spite of the fact that Bromwell was essentially self-taught, her work is stylistically sophisticated and, as a result, looks much newer than it is. "Even before [Robert] Henri and the Ashcan painters back East, Bromwell was painting smokestacks and clotheslines hung with laundry," she says. This taste in subjects was unconventional, since most of her contemporaries, both male and female, were interested in capturing poetic, not prosaic, scenery. Bromwell's sketchy brushwork and her still-fresh palette also seem surprisingly forward-looking.
Bromwell shares the front gallery with Anne Gregory Van Briggle Ritter, who stands up for the 1910s. Van Briggle Ritter is much better known than Bromwell -- at least to aficionados of American art pottery -- since she and her first husband, Artus Van Briggle, founded the famous Colorado Springs-based pottery manufacturer, Van Briggle Pottery, in 1902. The cipher used to this day by Van Briggle is a conjoined double letter A, which stands for Artus and Anne.
Before coming to Colorado in 1900, Anne had traveled extensively, studying painting in New York, Berlin and Paris in the 1890s. It was in Paris that she met Artus Van Briggle. After his death in 1904, she took over the pottery. She built the Van Briggle Pottery Building (which still stands on the Colorado College campus) in 1908, the same year she married her second husband, Etienne Ritter. It was under her control that Van Briggle Pottery produced architectural tiles. She lost her financial interest when the company went bankrupt in 1913 and she returned to painting.
Smith-Warren has included examples of Van Briggle Ritter's early work in ceramics with a handful of later landscape paintings and several architectural tiles, and the pottery is exquisite. Her work was distinct from her husband's in that she preferred an ordered and hieratic approach to decoration, whereas he favored swirling intersecting lines. In this way, Van Briggle Ritter, more than Van Briggle, exemplified the Arts and Crafts movement.
The 1920s portion of Time and Place begins in the large set of spaces in the back with the work of photographer Laura Gilpin. Like Van Briggle Ritter, Gilpin is very well known and widely respected.
The earlier Gilpin photos, such as the undated "Class at the Broadmoor Art Academy," are examples of soft-focus pictorialism. In this photo, a group of student artists, mostly women, are seen -- improbably -- sketching a nude man. But Gilpin's later photos, those done after 1924, are sharp-focused and anticipate the straightforward style of the 1930s. Gilpin surely influenced a generation of modern photographers, including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
Arranged on a group of stands on the floor in front of the Gilpin photos are a cluster of small sculptures by Gladys Caldwell Fisher from the 1930s. "This may be the largest concentration of Fisher's sculptures ever presented anywhere," says Smith-Warren. That's because the sculptor's specialty was monumental public commissions, and what's here are essentially models for them.
At age 16, Fisher began to study sculpture with Robert Garrison, Colorado's greatest early-twentieth-century sculptor, and throughout her career, her work showed the influence of his simplified style. When she was twenty, Fisher left to continue her studies in New York, where she became a protegé of Alexander Archipenko and, later, of Jose De Creft. In 1930, her work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. She returned to Denver in 1932 and got a job teaching at Chappell House, where the Denver Art Museum was located at the time.
Time and Place is worth a look if only to see the marvelous and virtually never exhibited stone animals that were Fisher's signature. Also compelling are the plaster models for "Big Horn Sheep," the full-blown versions of which are on the Federal Building on 18th Street.
At the rear of the Metro Center are the twins chosen for the 1940s, Ethel and Jenne Magafan. Among the premier regionalists in Colorado during the 1930s, the Magafans studied at the Redstone studio of Frank Mechau, and later with Boardman Robinson at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. But in the mid-1940s, they left, going first to California, then settling in New York. That makes them an odd choice for this show, because although some of the paintings and prints were created in Colorado, most were done in New York.
Smith-Warren also made a curious selection for the 1950s: Boulder's Eve Drewelowe. Not only is Drewelowe more associated with the 1930s and '40s than with the '50s, but there is a much more obvious choice for the '50s: Mary Chenoweth. "A lot of people are mad at me for not picking Chenoweth," says Smith-Warren. Well, perhaps more disappointed than mad.
Her choice for the 1960s, Beverly Rosen, is more on point, because Rosen expressed her decade stylistically in a way that Drewelowe doesn't. Furthermore, had Chenoweth been chosen instead of Drewelowe, there wouldn't be the kind of stylistic chasm between the '50s and '60s that exists in this show -- and to an even greater extent in the catalogue.
Rosen employed hard-edged techniques to create gigantic, geometrical, pseudo-mathematical paintings based on the urban environment. They are broadly related to the work of other local painters from the period -- most notably, the members of Boulder's Criss-Cross group. Rosen is still living, but she no longer works as a painter.
For the 1970s, Smith-Warren throws a curve by choosing a weaver, Eppie Archuleta. Then again, the '70s was a time when craft artists were being re-evaluated and embraced by the larger art world. Archuleta, who lives in the San Luis Valley, is, according to Smith-Warren, "the preeminent Hispanic weaver in the entire country." The weavings fill a large side gallery at the Metro Center, and the tapestry titled "Rio Grande," so named because it's in the archetypal Rio Grande style, is breathtaking.
Facing these are a group of spectacular ceramic sculptures by Betty Woodman, who represents the 1980s. Woodman, who worked in Boulder for more than thirty years beginning in the late 1950s and now lives in New York and Italy, is without a doubt one of the most famous artists who ever lived in Colorado. Her signature pieces here, including a classic "Pillow Pitcher," are, as usual, exquisite.
The exhibit ends with an ambitious 1990s installation by Castle Rock's Virginia Folkestad that occupies the entire front gallery. The piece, "Distant Conversations," is made of lumber, metal screening and other materials and comprises five houselike structures loosely arranged in relation to one another. As is typical for Folkestad, the subject is house and home, and the craftsmanship is meticulous. Interestingly, Folkestad is the only artist in the show to deal with feminist subject matter.
Time and Place is the most expensive show ever put on by the Metro Center, and as Smith-Warren points out, "it's a tremendously ambitious undertaking for a gallery of this size. Credit for having that kind of vision goes to Sally [Perisho], who's been such a trouper -- Sally's just been there for me all the time."
Although the exhibit does have some weaknesses -- in particular, the exclusion of Chenoweth -- these shortcomings are far outnumbered by its bounty of strengths.
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