Art and Nature

The Colorado Rockies -- the mountains, not the baseball team -- have attracted painters for more than a hundred years. But it's the period between 1900 and 1950, without question, that is the most significant for Colorado landscape painting, with scores of accomplished artists working here at that time. It's no surprise, then, that this golden age is the focus of Colorado on Canvas, a gorgeous show at LoDo's David Cook Fine Art.

The three-part exhibit was such a huge success that it has been extended through the end of August. Many of the sold items have been removed, replaced with objects from Cook's remarkable back-room stock. So even if you've seen the show, you may not have gotten to see a lot of things that are in it now.

To look at local painting from this time is to acknowledge the primary role of the Broadmoor Academy, a nationally renowned art school that later became the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, though the art-school portion was closed in the early 1950s.

During its heyday, the Broadmoor attracted important artists as teachers, and it turned out students who became important artists. The stunning Cook show is packed with relevant examples, although Colorado on Canvas is not exclusively made up of works associated with the long-defunct art school.

But its domination is apparent right from the start, in the form of "In the Heart of the Rockies," a small gem of an oil painting from 1925 by Birger Sandzén. The exquisite painting, which faces viewers as they enter, is signature Sandzén; the forms have been conventionalized to recast the scene as an abstraction. The paint was heavily applied, using lots of visual brush strokes in remarkably bold colors. As tiny as it is, "In the Heart of the Rockies" has enormous power.

Equally powerful is another Sandzén in the show, "Rocks and Pines, Boulder, Colorado" an oil on board from 1941. This larger, easel-sized painting is a flat abstraction based on trees, mountains and clouds -- and it's fabulous.

Sandzén lived in Kansas, but he visited Colorado regularly, teaching at the Broadmoor Academy from time to time. Like other artists from the Midwest and East, he came to Colorado for the sights, and in the process of depicting them, the work changed. "Sandzén's Colorado paintings are more desirable than his Kansas ones, even in Kansas," says Cook director Norm Anderson. Considering the ready appeal of the mountain vistas versus the more majesty-challenged views of the plains, it does make a lot of sense.

Another out-of-state artist represented in Colorado on Canvas is Robert Reid from Massachusetts, who was instrumental in the founding of the Broadmoor Academy. Reid's 1910 "Western Landscape," hanging on the south wall, is an impressionist oil of a stream meandering through a high-country valley. It's very painterly, and the thickly done and expressionistically laid pigments are so bright that they seem to pop off the surface.

Just down from the Reid is another Broadmoor landscape, "Gray Barriers," by John Carlson, who lived in New York. Carlson's 1920 oil on canvas is moody, atmospheric and absolutely gorgeous.

Though artists with a connection to Colorado Springs make up the biggest part of the show, there are also Denver painters featured, in particular John Edward Thompson. Several of his early pieces are included, but the clear standout is the monumental "Mt. Sopris, Colorado, Sunset in June," an oil done around 1900. The subject itself forced Thompson to paint the top half a bright pink and blue and the bottom half in dark greens and browns -- and the result is hypnotic. "Mt. Sopris" hangs on the wall at the landing of the central staircase that leads down to two more galleries.

The works downstairs are more recent, falling into either the regionalist or early modernist camp. In the first gallery at the bottom of the stairs are paintings and watercolors by Charles Bunnell, a Broadmoor Academy-associated modernist who died more than thirty years ago but whose reputation has been on the upswing during the last five.

The show ends with a gallery full of lithographs, etchings and photogravures, which are again dominated by the Fine Arts Center crowd. Taking center stage are pieces by Lawrence Barrett, Peppino Mangravite and Adolf Dehn, though George Elbert Burr's photographic prints uphold Denver's honor, at least to some extent.

Colorado on Canvas surveys the history of art in the state and illustrates it with choice examples. Many artists came from elsewhere, but in dealing with our scenery -- and perhaps in dealing with each other -- they created styles unique to this region. It's as though the very atmosphere of the state made the artists create Colorado-style pieces. The same effect is seen with resident artists, only there's a double dose of it.

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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