Andrew Kalmar and Ron Judish suit Denver to a T

The art tidal wave that's hit Denver in the past few years hasn't just led to a museum-building boom. It has also led to an explosion of galleries. I haven't sat down to count all the commercial art venues in town, but I know it numbers more than a hundred. Despite that, there are still only a handful that could be called top-tier. So it's all the more astounding that the new kid on the block, T gallery — or simply T — has become one of the city's most important spots. How can I make this claim, since T's inaugural show just opened last week? Trust me, I'm right on this one.

It all started last February, when Andrew Kalmar began scouting for gallery space. Kalmar had moved from the New York area four years earlier, an auspicious time to hit town for someone interested in the arts, because in the period since, the Mile High City has witnessed a major qualitative shift as well as a quantitative one. I needn't list the litany of advancements, but they include a new wing on the Denver Art Museum and a new building for MCA Denver.

Only 29, Kalmar grew up in New Orleans, attended Princeton University, then took a hedge fund job in Jersey City. But he's not a cold-hearted pencil pusher, as you might expect, and has a wide range of interests and pursuits. He was trained as a classical pianist, for instance, and was a serious amateur fencer during his student years. He comes by this last avocation naturally: His father was an Olympic fencer for Hungary who defected in the 1960s.

Kalmar came to Denver to take another job as a hedge fund manager and wound up falling in love with the place, perceiving how great the potential was for cultural growth. "I've done well for myself, relatively speaking, and one of the dreams I've always had was to deal with the arts," he explains. "My father is an art collector, and I come from a family with a long tradition of art collecting, so I thought it would be cool to start this place. I couldn't really do something like this in New York; it would be the size of a closet."

After exploring different areas, he ultimately chose to locate his gallery on Santa Fe Drive because it's an up-and-coming art district, though few of the galleries on the strip are noteworthy. "It's trying very hard," says Kalmar. The building he rented had been a light manufacturing facility where trophies, plaques and other engraved metals were made. He designed the interior himself, creating three clearly defined exhibition spaces. There's a warm, almost residential character to T that Kalmar created on purpose. "I was conscious about the atmosphere I wanted, and I made a decision that the gallery would not be bleach-white, so that you could look at art in a setting that wasn't so stale or sterile." He also installed state-of-the-art lighting and a sound system.

He decided to call the place T for several reasons, the first of which is in honor of a friend, Tasha Gal, who has been a tremendous inspiration to him. Kalmar also suggests that the letter T is an intersection of lines, the way a gallery is an intersection of art and viewers. "You come to the intersection and you're never the same again," he says. The T also refers to the intersection of artists who will be featured at the gallery: young and established artists, international and local, abstract and representational, and so on.

As the remodeling of the building was coming to completion a few months ago, it was time for Kalmar to starting thinking about hiring a gallery director. Being a successful businessman is a full-time job, and although Kalmar is astonishingly driven, ambitious and committed to T, he knew he'd need help running the place. The suite next door to T is leased by Alan Kirchner, who runs Artwork Network, a consulting firm for commercial clients, and Kirchner had an idea of whom Kalmar needed: Ron Judish. One of the best-known gallery directors in Denver, Judish is well remembered for the museum-quality art shows he mounted at his namesake operations in LoDo and then Highland in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Kalmar remembers that when he first approached Judish, "Ron made all the obligatory remarks, like, 'You're not going to make any money' and 'It's hard to sell art in Denver.' And I finally said to him, 'Do you want the job or not?'" Needless to say, Judish did want the job, and the two began laying out plans last summer.

Judish understood that in order to make an initial splash, T had to have a show that would make people sit up and take notice. It's what he did at his own gallery when he opened with an Alice Neel solo. Partly inspired by a show at the MCA, Judish decided to pair mega-art star Damien Hirst with another big-time artist, Jeff Koons, for the prosaically titled Hirst/Koons. Made up of editioned multiples, the show includes three pieces by Hirst and four by Koons. The small number of pieces underscores the fact that both artists are hotter than hot, so their works are hard to come by. It's the same reason there are only four Hirsts at the MCA.

The Hirsts are hung together on the wall to the right in the southern gallery, which is where special exhibitions will be presented. There are two from Hirst's butterfly series and one from his work about medication. The butterfly prints are photo-based, with the beautiful insects perfectly conveyed. Interestingly, the two included in this show have radically different compositions. In "Soul of Jacob's Ladder," there's a single, oversized creature, while in "Sceptic," there's a mosaic of butterflies that looks something like a church window.

The medication piece looks like a direct appropriation of a prescription-drug package complete with its functionalist label — at least until you read it and notice that the "drug" is called "Cornish Pasty," a meat pie, and that users are advised to "take by mouth" with peas and chips. Titled "Last Supper (Cornish Pasty)," it manages to refer to both pop art and its antithesis, minimalism, simultaneously.

On the opposite wall are the four Koons, all from his "Monkey Train" series. In these pieces, a photo-based image of the head of a blow-up monkey toy is laid on grounds that are different but connected. In three of them, Koons uses found imagery as the background, on top of which is a silkscreen print of a train and a horse-drawn wagon. In "Monkey Train (Birds)," the background is an old print depicting birds, and their dignified renderings provide quite a contrast to the goofy monkey.

This small selection of pieces by Hirst and Koons is supplemented by an Emmett Culligan abstract sculpture and a Matt O'Neill portrait of a Chihuahua. In addition to the work of these two Denver artists, other hometown favorites include William Stockman, Kirk Robinson and Robert Delaney, with pieces on display in the middle gallery. Also included is a major painting by Rex Ray and, adjacent to it, an important Terry Winters. The Winters is an example of art on the secondary market, which is another specialty of the gallery. This kind of stuff, older works consigned by collectors, is very hot right now, and Judish has access to several people interested in selling their pieces. Other items of this sort, installed in the northern gallery, include a Nancy Graves sculpture and a painting by David True. Also in this space — the most inviting of the rooms, with a wall of old brick and large potted plants — are two artists that Kalmar brought into the mix, painter Myrtle von Damitz III and conceptual photographer Susi Brister. Kalmar knows both of the young talents, who live in Louisiana and Texas, respectively, and has collected their work for several years.

Kalmar is excited about being on the exhibition scene in Denver, and I predict that T will be greeted with excitement by the community. And having Judish's aesthetic sensibilities back on view? Well, that's the gravy.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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