The art world is constantly searching out fresh material, which is why there's always interest in talented artists in their twenties. But another way to come across stuff that's new is to rediscover artists who've been out of sight for a long time -- people who are typically in their seventies. That's what's on hand in Mel Strawn: Retrospective: 1957-2004, at the diminutive Sandra Phillips Gallery.

Though I was aware of Strawn's reputation, I'd seen only a few pieces by him before this show, and I'll bet most of you haven't seen any. This isn't surprising, because in the past fifteen years or so, he's almost never had a show here in Denver, though he did exhibit fairly frequently elsewhere.

Despite the title, this is not really a retrospective of Strawn's almost-fifty-year career as a painter and printmaker. Come to think of it, it couldn't be: The Sandra Phillips Gallery isn't big enough to accommodate one! Guest curator Sally Perisho dealt with the lack of space by choosing one or two pieces to represent each of the major phases of Strawn's oeuvre. This approach provides a kind of index to his stylistic development, though Perisho expanded the number of selections from his pattern-painting years.

Strawn himself has ensured that a proper retrospective could one day be possible by salting the permanent collections of several local institutions with his work. Beneficiaries of his art largesse include the University of Denver, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Denver Public Library, the Colorado History Museum and the Kirkland Museum. "I've gotten a lot from this part of the country," Strawn says from his mountain home in Salida, "so I'm giving something back."

Even though Strawn was born in Idaho, one grandparent on each side grew up in Colorado, so he considers the state his ancestral home. He attended a variety of art institutions in California in the 1950s before earning his BFA in 1955 and his MFA in 1956 at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Beginning in the late '50s, Strawn embarked on a teaching career, instructing at such places as Michigan State University and Antioch College in Ohio. In 1969 he came to Denver to take over as head of the art school at the University of Denver, where he was the immediate successor to the legendary Vance Kirkland, who had just retired after three decades at the helm. Strawn held the post until 1984, when he left to teach at Western Michigan University. In 1988 he returned to Colorado, where he's remained ever since. The Sandra Phillips show is his first solo presentation in a Denver commercial gallery since moving back, but, he notes, it is also the thirtieth one-artist show he's had during his lifetime. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Mel Strawn starts off with two great 1950s abstract-expressionist paintings, "Lookout" and "Joust." Abstract expressionism was the style of Strawn's work during his graduate-school days and immediately afterward. Both paintings -- but especially "Joust" -- are clearly related to the contemporaneous work of Richard Diebenkorn. And guess what? Diebenkorn was Strawn's graduate advisor at the College of Arts and Crafts.

In the '60s, Strawn took a sabbatical in France and also traveled to Spain and Portugal. A pair of paintings from this period represents a clear change from his earlier works, especially because of the introduction of hard-edged geometric elements. They anticipated the pattern paintings Strawn began to do in the late '70s and continued to create over the next fourteen years. They also bear a strong relationship to the work of the other pattern painters active in Colorado at the time, notably George Woodman, Clark Richert and the rest of the Criss-Cross crowd, a loose association of geometric abstractionists in Boulder.

Strawn, however, labels this a superficial, misleading comparison. "The cellular-pattern paintings have absolutely nothing to do with what was going on here, because I never got up to Boulder, where so many of the Criss-Cross people were exhibiting," he says. "In those days, we weren't flooded with information the way we are today."

Even so, if ever a show were done about the pattern painters of Colorado, surely Strawn's creations would be grouped together with Woodman's and Richert's, because despite the clear differences between them, all three were, without a doubt, riffing off the same zeitgeist.

The pattern paintings, which make up almost half of the display at Sandra Phillips, are all done according to theories Strawn developed during the '60s before moving to Denver. For each one, he drew up a tiling pattern limited to four basic shapes brought together into a single arrangement. Strawn believes that four is the ideal number for designing shapes with built-in structural connections, because the pattern can repeat over and over to the margins of the canvas. "There are no other tile-like systems on earth that are like mine," he says.

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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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