Balancing Act

The art season runs from September to May, roughly paralleling the academic year. There is even a corollary to summer school, in the form of the art world's light summer season, which is just now winding down. It's September, the kids are back in school, and a new season is about to get under way at any time.

But before that happens and it's too late to reminisce, I'd like to recall last season, which was important in several ways -- not the least of which is the fact that it began the weekend after September 11.

This exercise is more than a nostalgic stroll down memory lane. A number of things took flight in the art world last year that will assuredly come home to roost this year, for better or for worse.

Perhaps it was the timing of the season -- hard on the heels, as it was, of one of our country's most trying events -- that resulted in a year of mixed messages and contradictions. Whatever the reason, when it comes to 2001-2002, there was good news, and there was bad news.

I'll start with the good news.

There was a real surplus of first-rate exhibits just about everywhere, among them several that indicated directional shifts and trends. Surely the most obvious recent curatorial current was the presentation of shows devoted to the art history of the West in general, and Colorado specifically. There have been more shows of this type since 1999 than there were in the previous two decades. Apparently, the turn of the millennium put everyone in a retrospective mood.

Local interest in Western art history is a relatively new phenomenon. Until now, Western art has generally been ignored around here, or -- worse -- regarded as an embarrassment.

Nothing demonstrates this dramatic shift better than the Harmsen Collection, which was unveiled last fall at the Denver Art Museum. The collection, which is housed on the DAM's seventh floor, was put together (and subsequently donated to the museum) by Jolly Rancher millionaires Dorothy Harmsen and her late husband, Bill Harmsen.

The huge Harmsen booty contains many notable works of Western art -- in particular, important paintings by the Taos and Santa Fe masters, including a transcendentalist-style Raymond Jonson that is a genuine masterpiece.

More evidence of the Western-heritage craze was found in Colorado Landscapes and the New Age of Discovery, put on last winter at the Loveland Museum and Gallery. In this beautiful exhibit, painter, collector and curator Doug Erion explored Colorado art from the early twentieth century. Among the standouts were stunning paintings by Broadmoor Academy teachers Birger Sandzen and John Carlson.

Like the Harmsens, Erion included the works of early modernists such as Vance Kirkland and Charles Bunnell as part of the story. Many of the paintings in the show came from yet another collection that, like the Harmsen, was put together by local millionaires -- in this case, Kathy Loo and the late Dusty Loo.

It's not clear what will eventually become of the Loo Collection, (though word is that Kathy Loo would like to see it on public display somewhere). Let me put my two cents in: I think the DAM should avidly pursue getting it, and the sooner the better. Oh, I know that the museum has announced that it will not accept gifts for the time being, what with the new wing under construction and all, but they'd be crazy not to make a play for this one.

As revealed by the inclusion of Jonson, Kirkland and Bunnell in these collections and shows, the rubric "Western art" is no longer limited to landscapes and cowboys and Indians. The term also comprises the early modernism done out West, such as transcendentalism, cubo-regionalism and surrealism.

It's hardly surprising, then, to also find Colorado abstractionists from the '40s through the '60s getting reappraised in the market as an outgrowth of the retro-mania. A number of these artists, some of whom have been dead for decades, were either the subject of solos or were included in group shows last season. And ongoing or new interest in long-dead artists is not the norm; contrary to popular belief, when an artist dies, demand for his or her work generally does, too.

Still alive and able to enjoy the recent revival of interest in his work is octogenarian Al Wynne, whose paintings became well-known last season. This reappearing act on Wynne's part came after a many-year hiatus from the Denver exhibition scene. An acknowledged master of Colorado abstraction since the 1950s, Wynne is among the premier abstract-expressionists working in the West.

Wynne's work was featured in 5 Abstract, at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, alongside that of three other abstract painters (Clark Richert, Dale Chisman and Bev Rosen) and a modernist sculptor (Bob Mangold). The show, organized by MCA director Cydney Payton, was one of the most significant efforts of the entire year.

Wynne, Richert, Chisman and Mangold all have a place in Colorado's art history, as well as being players on the contemporary scene. Last season, Wynne was the subject of a solo at Ron Judish Fine Arts. Richert and Chisman got the same treatment at the Rule Gallery, and Mangold was part of a group show at Artyard. (Rosen no longer paints or exhibits.)

While this retrospective trend certainly made itself known last season, an opposite trend was also seen in spades. More so than in recent years, emerging artists seemed to show up everywhere -- and not just in the alternative spaces, as you'd expect, but at any one of the 'big five' (Judish, Rule, Robischon, Carson-Masuoka and Havu), and at newer venues like Andenken, Fresh Art, and especially the up-and-coming Cordell Taylor.

Among the rookies that broke into the big leagues were abstract painters Karen McClanahan and John Morrison, as well as newcomers to town (and thus to the scene) Amy Sloan-Kirchoff and Chad Colby. Debuting wet-behind-the-ears modernist sculptors included Zach Smith, Jonathan Stiles, Todd Oliver and David Mazza. Interesting newish photographers such as Kelly Shroads and Jason Patz also premiered. There were lots of others youngsters busy making art around town and, even more remarkable, getting the opportunity to show it.

Overall, the 2001-2002 season was a glittering one, but it may also have marked the end of an era, and that's the setup for the bad news.

As noted earlier, last season unfolded after the tragic events of last September 11, but the shows had already been lined up. Therefore, they reflected not the post-9/11 world, but the happy days of the months before. In fact, nothing could have represented last season worse than its healthy appearance. Unfortunately, the effects of the era-changing calamity will be more keenly felt in the upcoming 2002-2003 season.

One indicator of a future direction is what could be called the increasing appeal of "comfort contemporary": art that is credibly contemporary but simultaneously comforting in these uncomfortable times.

This direction is best exemplified by one of this season's big shows, Sandy Skoglund, which opens this weekend at Rule and is devoted to the famous photographer and installation artist.

The urgent search for comfort originated with the 9/11 disaster. One common reaction was that people turned inward, and they stopped doing things like going shopping or going out to dinner, or, for our purposes, going to galleries. This consumer ennui lasted all through the fall and winter, leading to a national slump in retail sales.

The retail rollback could have dire consequences for the art world that I'm loath to consider. The galleries, including the bigger ones, have had to deal with sluggish sales all year, and that ain't good. People just aren't spending like they used to, and expenses keep rising. Something's got to give.

I know the ugly details of this sorry story not because the dealers are complaining to me -- they never would -- but because the artists have. Artists who make their living on the sale of their art are wailing to the high heavens about the ruinous situation.

The retail slump, though, means more than tough financial roads for galleries and artists. It also means that the government entities that fund public art venues have less money.

The first indication of how bad it was going to get came a couple months ago, when Republican governor Bill Owens, no friend of the arts, exercised a line item veto in order to cut 40 percent of the money available for distribution by the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities, the state agency charged with funding public art. The cuts were pointedly aimed at those Denver-area institutions, commissions and groups that receive funding from another public source, the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

But, like the state, the SCFD has less money to distribute this year than was estimated last year, which means more bad news for local art institutions. One prominent victim of such funding cuts is the Denver Art Museum. In part because of a loss of almost half a million dollars in SCFD money, the DAM recently announced cost-cutting moves that include layoffs and intermittent floor closures.

Still, the biggest economic story of the last twelve months has to be the free fall of the stock market. Not only were tens of billions of dollars lost on Wall Street following 9/11, but unbelievable displays of corporate corruption, such as those at Enron and likely at Qwest, have caused mayhem on the trading floor.

This means that alongside skimpier public funding, public art institutions have also had to face leaner times in the arenas of corporate and private giving, which only makes a bad situation worse.

The stock-market fiasco has also hit affluent collectors, which brings us back around to the galleries. The presence of such clients in the art market assures the health of the art world, just as surely as the existence of the artists. But wealthy customers have been hit hard financially, and they're spending less because they have less to spend.

It's hard to end this discussion on a high note, but I'll try. If everything goes well -- if art sales continue to putter along, if retail sales generally hold and tax revenues remain constant -- Denver's art scene and its denizens may make it through this hard-luck life with no serious casualties. At least I hope so.

The art world has come through much tougher times than these because of the dedication of its various members, who toil away regardless of the financial rewards. So we can expect that strong shows -- some expressing the trends seen last season, some forging new trends -- will be featured in the coming one. And won't that be nice

And maybe, just maybe, you can pull yourselves away from the nonstop 9/11 memorials long enough to force a giggle at those ever-so-familiar -- and therefore comforting -- Skoglunds at Rule. For a stolen moment, you might be able to pretend that the current difficulties are all part of a bad dream.

Too bad -- I just can't bring myself to do it.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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