Colorado finally shows true love for Allen True

During the first half of the twentieth century, Allen Tupper True was Denver's premier artist, but in the succeeding decades, he slowly fell into obscurity — known chiefly by local art historians and, because of his murals, supporters of local historic architecture. But three recent projects dedicated to True have begun to right this wrong. The first was 2009's Allen Tupper True: An American Artist, a book written by Jere True, the artist's eldest daughter, and Victoria Tupper Kirby, his granddaughter. Then there was Allen True's West, a documentary by Joshua Hassel that was shown on KBDI-Channel 12.

And now there's Allen True's West, a three-part exhibit that takes place at three separate venues in order to highlight the artist's interest in three distinct mediums. The Denver Public Library is examining True's work as a book and magazine illustrator, while the Denver Art Museum has picked up the story with True's easel paintings. And finally, the Colorado History Museum is showcasing his murals.

True was born in Colorado Springs in 1881; his father owned a mule train business, and his mother was a teacher. But when True was six months old, his father took a job as an agent for Standard Oil, and the family moved first to Mexico City and then to El Paso, Texas. As a child, True showed a talent for art, and his earliest existing drawings — pencil portraits of frontiersmen and Indians — were done when he was only ten.

The family moved back to Denver when True was a teenager. After graduating from Manual High School in 1899, True attended the University of Denver for two years, during which time he became determined to be an artist. He applied to and was accepted by the prestigious Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. True's talent was noticed immediately, and in 1902 he was recruited by Howard Pyle to attend the artist's illustration school in Wilmington, Delaware. The young True remained with Pyle for most of the next five years, thus beginning his successful career as an illustrator.

Given this biographical fact, it makes sense to begin with the library part of the True show. Here curator Julie Anderies (who also coordinated the entire project) has brought together True's original paintings and the published illustrations based on them; most are from 1905 to 1916, his illustration heyday. Pyle encouraged his students to draw what they knew, and for True that was the West: Most of his illustrations took up the topic of the Old West or the then-contemporary West.

A memorable image is "Alpine Climbing in Automobiles," published in Century Magazine in 1905. It is displayed near the black-and-white oil painting on which it is based, titled "By Way of Contrast: Automobiling in the Rocky Mountains." In this set of images, a car has just passed a wagon pulled by a team of horses. The scene is dramatically rendered, a standard feature of illustration, with the car looking as though it could slip off the mountain at any moment.

There are inherent difficulties in displaying these illustrations, however, since they are very small, having originally appeared in bound books or magazines. All of these pieces are in cases with protective plastic sheets in front of them — necessary for their safety, but alienating to viewers. Exacerbating this problem, the paintings are also protected by plastic cases, something you don't often see. If all of this weren't enough to put viewers off, the show itself has been bombastically over-designed, with tons of wall text and blown-up images competing with the humble pleasures of the illustrations and paintings. It's a 1990s trend in exhibition design that ought to be out of favor by now.

This is not a problem at the DAM, in the second leg of the True show, where the artist's paintings have been straightforwardly presented. This is partly because design director Dan Kohl, who favored the junked-up approach, has left the museum.

True had been painting all along — his illustrations were based on paintings — but in the art-world hierarchy, fine artists are a few notches above illustrators eight days a week. So, though he'd already exhibited his easel paintings, True went to London in 1908 in pursuit of better credentials, studying at the National Art School. There he met renowned muralist Frank Brangwyn, who hired the young artist as his apprentice.

The association with Brangwyn, which lasted a year, had many effects on True's career and his developing style. The DAM's Peter Hassrick, emeritus director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art, curated this part of the show, and points out that the paintings done before 1915 reveal an obvious debt to Brangwyn, in particular the use of dramatic contrasts in different parts of the pictures that go from dark to light.

But by 1915, Hassrick adds, True had encountered the work of the Taos School, both in pieces exhibited by those artists at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and in art he saw during his honeymoon in New Mexico that same year. Ready for a change, and to make a clean break from his past as an illustrator, he began doing work that was closely associated with the sun-drenched neo-impressionism of the Taos School, a group that still represents a peak in the history of American painting.

In "Santo Domingo Corn Dance," True does a rapid-fire and very brushy rendition of the colorful scene. I loved the Brangwyn-esque pieces, but I was really swept away by the Taos-inspired ones. I should point out, too, that True's paintings are rarely exhibited and are much less well known than either his illustrations or his murals.

Those murals are on display in the lower level of the CHM, in a show organized by Alisa Zahller. As at the DPL, there's a heavy-handed installation design with tons of text and big photo murals, and although I disliked the approach almost as much as I did at the DPL, there's an argument to be made for it. Some of True's murals are permanently installed in buildings and others were destroyed, meaning that some of the actual pieces were unavailable — so it makes sense to include pictures of them.

There are actual murals in the CHM show, as well, including a pair of tremendous proto-regionalist works, "The Marketers" and "The Refiners," both done for an oil company in 1927 and now in the Anschutz Collection. Depicting people at work was a favorite idea for True, and examples of it can be seen in murals at the old Mountain States Bell Telephone Building. These are still in situ, but the CHM show does include preparatory pieces for them, such as "Mountain Telephone Construction," from 1927.

Another frequent topic for True was the American Indian, and his masterwork in this regard is in the former Colorado National Bank, a building that has just been sold for conversion to a hotel, with the promise that the fabulous murals will be saved. As with the phone company works, there are artifacts related to the bank murals at the CHM.

True's mural career pretty much petered out after WWII, when commissions for his work essentially dried up. He died, fairly broke, in 1955.

It's great to see this trio of cultural institutions working together again, as they did some years ago with Real West. But the three shows in Allen True's West aren't as large, and it would have made more sense to present them together.

One other thing: True actually had a fourth phase to his artistic life, but there was no show to illuminate that. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the war years of the 1940s, True was a designer. Among his credits is the bucking bronco on Wyoming's license plate, an iconic image if there ever was one, and a rare example of a design in continuous use for nearly a century.

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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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