Art Review


The new Schlessman Family Branch Library is a big improvement over its predecessor, the Montclair branch. For one thing, the new Denver Public Library outpost is in its own flashy, custom-built building designed by Denver architect Michael Brendle, while the old library was crammed into a couple of shops in a strip mall on Jersey Street. And while the new address is at 100 Poplar Street, the dramatic backside of the neo-modernist glass, metal and brick structure anchors the busy corner of First Avenue and Quebec Street.

Unfortunately, the still-under-construction Lowry Town Center is just across Quebec, and this national-class example of new urbanism looks just as unplanned and graceless as the old suburbanism, even if individual elements such as the library are pretty good. Maybe the disparate parts will come together when everything's completed.

The complicated geometric shapes on the outside of the building correspond to soaring spaces on the inside. Visitors enter the library through oversized automatic doors, and the interior is a riot of sights. The floors are lined with thick carpet tiles laid in various patterns. There's a big bank of brand-new computers and a bigger selection of videos to check out. There are gigantic, comfy chairs and a cafe of sorts. There may have even been books, but I didn't notice.

Something I did notice was the public-art component of the project, mandated by city ordinance. The piece, "Lowry Trios," a casein on panel (detail above), is by respected Denver painter Stephen Batura, who worked at the Central Library until last month. Though it functions as a mural, in reality it's a twelve-part cycle of related paintings depicting the history of Lowry and Montclair from the 1880s through the 1950s.

The individual paintings are of various sizes and are hung in three groups of four in a vaguely constructivist arrangement made more obvious by the fact that each painting is a monochrome. Some of the paintings render intimate scenes of people, like a group of pilots standing in front of a bomber; others feature wide-angle aerial views, including one of the 1912 Phipps Memorial Sanitarium and another of its replacement, the old Lowry Air Force Base.

The Batura can be seen Monday through Saturday, during library hours. It's in the back of the building on the first floor, hanging above eye level on a cantilevered wall that hovers over the fireplace. You'll have to step to the rear of the room to see it and peer over shelves of -- oh, there they are -- books.

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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