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A Bold New Era Begins, The Eclectic Eye

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In August, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center unveiled its new wing, designed by Denver architect David Owen Tryba and his team. The addition is attached to the original John Gaw Meem building, which was built in 1936, a masterpiece of the art moderne that melds Pueblo-style design with early modernism.

I like Tryba, and when he and his talented associates put their minds to a task, they can hit a home run, as they did here; the FAC wing is about as intelligent, functional, beautiful and sensitive to the older building as it is possible to imagine. But he can also strike out, as with his idea to construct a new Colorado Historical Society museum inside Denver's Civic Center Park ("Going Under?" September 26).

Even more disappointing, however, was when Tryba, who is president of the Denver chapter of the American Institute of Architects, bestowed awards two weekends ago on three city officials whose acquiescence he needs to build his Civic Center fantasy: Kim Bailey, the unqualified director of the parks and recreation department, Peter Park, the uninspired planning director, and Tyler Gibbs, Park's top henchman.

This has to be the most shameless bit of self-serving careerism I've ever witnessed, and the three awards cheapened all the others the AIA handed out that night, in particular the one given to Tryba for his FAC addition.

Which brings us back to Colorado Springs.

Since I already reviewed the building ("Well Done," August 2), I now want to discuss the art on display. On the first floor is the installation of the permanent collection, which comprises seven exhibits and is collectively titled A Bold New Era Begins. On the second floor is the special exhibition The Eclectic Eye.

Shortly after the wing was completed, museum director Michael De Marsche left for Armenia, where he's been charged with creating and building a huge cultural center.

Although his take-charge attitude and demeanor, which some have described as abrasive, ruffled feathers at the CSFAC, two of De Marsche's accomplishments are undeniable, even to his most fervent detractors. First, he brought the new wing's construction campaign to a happy conclusion. Second, he hired the talented two-person curatorial team of Tariana Navas-Nieves — who specializes in historic and contemporary Native American, Spanish Colonial and Latin American art — and Blake Milteer, whose expertise is in historic, modern and contemporary collections. This dynamic duo oversaw the installation of hundreds and hundreds of works at the museum.

The art begins in the El Pomar Corridor with an incredible Rico Lebrun triptych. It's so fabulous, I'm tempted to tell you to put down this review immediately, get in your car and drive down to see it. The huge, three-part abstract piece was discovered stuffed in a basement corner and will only be up for a short time because of conservation issues.

Just off the El Pomar is an extensive set of mid-sized exhibition spaces, called the Katherine and Dusty Loo Wing in honor of the couple, who donated money to the capital campaign and have given the FAC many magnificent works of art as well.

In the initial space, the East Events Gallery, a handsome enclosed entry that does double duty as a serviceable exhibition room, is an array of Dale Chihuly "Macchia" vases, along with Colorado Artists, featuring pieces by Herbert Bayer, Vance Kirkland, Floyd Tunson, Sushe Felix, Tracy Felix and Chuck Forsman. It all looks great together and demonstrates the strength of our art scene. In fact, much of the first floor is about art made in the Western states, with a special focus on Colorado's best talents.

Off the entry are six formal galleries that flow into one another. In the first, the Blessing Family Gallery, is Colorado Sublime, a show made up of landscape paintings donated by the Loos, who collected with a fine eye. You can hardly go wrong with works by Albert Bierstadt, John Carlson and Birger Sandzén, among others. Colorado Sublime is installed in roughly chronological order so the sense of the sweep of artistic changes from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth is palpable.

In the Sallie E. Duff Gallery is Looking Forward/Looking Back, which examines the transition from traditional to modern art in the early twentieth century using many pieces associated with the FAC and its predecessor, the Broadmoor Academy. Between World War I and the end of the 1940s, the two institutions attracted numerous artists, making the Springs a major regional art center on par with Taos and Santa Fe. The new FAC curators want the town to reclaim that glory — and good luck to them with that.

Don't miss the drop-dead John Singer Sargent portrait of Elsie Palmer, or the iconic acrobat painting, "Trio," by the inimitable Walt Kuhn, which will move to Faces in the Crowd, at FAC Modern, a satellite space downtown, on October 13. Hopefully, it will then return to the theater lobby in the old building, where it hung for half a century.

Next up is Transfixed: Photography From the Permanent Collection, in the Marguerite and Otto Manley Gallery. As some will recall, co-curator Milteer was the Denver Art Museum's photo specialist, so, as could be expected, his selections are great. Among the array of internationally known photographers on view are bodies of work by two who lived in Colorado, Laura Gilpin and Robert Adams.

Then comes Modern America, in the Loo Family Gallery, where the FAC's strong modernist collection is shown off; significant examples include an Arthur Dove, a John Marin, a Marsden Hartley and a Richard Diebenkorn. As with the rest of the museum, Colorado art is shown cheek-by-jowl with these mainstays, and it's interesting to note that a world-class Diebenkorn doesn't overshadow a nearby painting by our own Mary Chenoweth. There's also a choice selection of small sculpture, including an early mechanical mouse by Claes Oldenburg and the model for the dismantled Larry Bell fountain that used to be in the courtyard.

Next up is Arte Americas, which examines the work of Hispanic artists, in the Donald C. and Elizabeth M. Dickinson Foundation Gallery. The first thing you see is a breathtaking Jean Charlot with the feel of a Mexican mural, which makes sense when you learn of his association with Diego Rivera. Charlot was the director of the FAC for a short time in the 1940s after he left Mexico. Also in Arte Americas is the Marisol, a found-object sculpture of John Wayne on horseback.

Last but hardly least is Inspired by Tradition, in which pieces from the FAC's stunning Native American collection, particularly blankets and baskets, are paired with Chihuly glass vases inspired by them. This show is installed in the Lane Family Gallery. Chihuly's work had a special appeal to De Marsche, but Navas-Nieves plans to rethink connecting it to the American Indian objects.

On the subject of Chihuly, I wish the FAC would move the chandelier that hangs to the floor in the middle of the Lane. It doesn't work there, and neither does the one in the Meem building entry, which all but ruins the original proportions of that glorious space. I think both chandeliers should be hung in the enclosed staircases in the new wing.

Either staircase, or the grand open one off the atrium, will take you to the second floor where The Eclectic Eye is ensconced in a monumental room. The traveling show features work from the collection of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation in Los Angeles. Beginning in the 1950s, Weisman collected with a voracious appetite for the hip and the new. There's an early Claes Oldenburg eraser sculpture, a full set of Warhol "Marilyn" paintings, and a quartet of his "Flowers." There's also a classic John Chamberlain sculpture made of wrecked car parts, a very cool Gilbert and George photo-based multi-panel piece, and that Keith Haring motorcycle; it's unreal.

The marvelous FAC exhibits show how great the results can be when curators like Navas-Nieves and Milteer are allowed the freedom to do what they're good at and don't have to run a gauntlet of designers, educators and marketing types whose input drains everything of its appeal, as seems to happen often at the Denver Art Museum. What I can't understand is why the DAM refuses to change course, since its programming philosophy has failed in its purported intent: to attract more visitors.

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