Dale Chisman in Retrospect could be the most significant art event of 2011

It was back in 2007 that MCA Denver first made plans for a major show of new works by legendary Denver abstract painter Dale Chisman. The museum had just opened the doors to its brand-new David Adjaye-designed building, and Cydney Payton, the MCA's director at the time, had asked Chisman to create a show based on the four seasons.

This idea for a Chisman solo was appropriate in so many ways. Not only was Chisman one of the state's greatest painters, but, as one of the MCA's founders, was instrumental in the museum's very existence. To address the new body of work, Chisman asked his friend and fellow artist Jesus Polanco to come out from New York to help prepare the five (not four, as might be expected) mural-sized pieces.

Of course, it was not to be. Though there were other Chismans hanging at the MCA in 2008, they were on view for the artist's memorial service. With his death, there was immediate talk of presenting a proper salute to his career in the form of a large exhibit. But a complication arose because of a financial dispute between Chisman's longtime dealer, Robin Rule, owner of Rule Gallery, and the artist's daughter, Rebecca Chisman, who had decided to entrust the estate instead to Robischon Gallery.

When the dispute was resolved and discussions for a show renewed, a number of spots were considered. But like many other people, I thought it should be presented, for historic reasons alone, at the MCA. So I was disappointed when it was announced that the posthumous Chisman salute would be at RedLine.

A few weeks ago, the much-anticipated Dale Chisman in Retrospect was finally unveiled, and after taking it in, I have to admit that I couldn't have been more wrong about the choice of venue. RedLine is the perfect place for the show. With more than forty works, many of which are gigantic, the MCA's entire second floor would have been needed to accommodate it. There's simply no space at the museum that is as large, grand, or monumental as the main exhibition room at RedLine.

Though she shares credit with a raft of others, the lead curator of the show was Jennifer Doran, who together with her husband, Jim Robischon, owns the Robischon Gallery. Since there is no comprehensive accounting of Chisman's works or their whereabouts, Doran relied on the paintings and works on paper from his estate and from various collections that were known to have Chismans in them, notably the Denver Art Museum and the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art.

Both Doran and Chisman's daughter have told me that because of this limitation, the show isn't a proper retrospective — and it's not — but the pieces that they were able to locate provide a coherent walk through the artist's stylistic development over several decades, with no obvious holes in the story.

Doran also designed the exhibit, and it's gorgeous, leading several people to tell me that they felt it was the best show they'd ever seen in Denver. I can't go that far, but I will say it's one of them. One decision by Doran that I should hate but don't is the reverse chronological order of the hanging, with the most recently done works at the front and the earliest pieces at the back. I think the decision was made because of how different the handful of '70s works are from what we think of as Chisman's signature style — and because they might be jarring up front. Interestingly, these early pieces were done during the decade and a half that the Denver-born Chisman spent living and working in New York, and they reveal that his return in 1984 prompted a spectacular change in style and led quickly to the development of his mature phase.

The reverse order also makes viewing the show akin to recalling a series of memories, with the most recent ones coming first and the earlier ones springing to mind later. And so it works on some fundamental level.

But since I don't think that way, I need to start with the earliest pieces and work my way forward. The oldest painting in the show is "Head Unwrapping," from 1974, which is hung unobtrusively in a back corner. Though it looks very different from the later pieces, especially because it has a representational image in it, there are some things about it that anticipate the approach Chisman would come upon ten years later. The "head" from the title is abstracted, but it's clearly a head. This suggests that the pure abstractions in his later work are based on the figure — something I never fully realized until I saw "Head Unwrapping." Not only that, but the painting also features the illusion of three-dimensional space — the head is clearly much closer to the picture plane than the ground that recedes behind it — as is the case with his signature pieces. So this dialectic between front and back is another characteristic of his later work that began forty years earlier, something else I could only have realized from seeing this show.

Then there's the relationship of this piece — and by implication, everything else Chisman did — to the work of Francis Bacon. In fact, it appears that "Head Unwrapping" serves as something of a Rosetta Stone for the artist's ultimate pictorial strategies.

After moving back to Denver from New York, Chisman quickly replugged into his old circles of artist-friends, many of whom had been classmates at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Chisman earned his BFA and MFA. He also threw himself into the middle of the burgeoning alternative scene by joining the Pirate co-op, then a hotbed of creative growth, with Chisman thus becoming something of a guru to younger artists.

The paintings from this period represent the first of the classic Chismans, and they are breathtaking. The subtle, neutral palettes of the New York paintings have been supplemented by bold shades — in particular, black, red and yellow. Chisman also replaced the careful detailing of his older works with the expressive, painterly gestures that characterize the later pieces. A magnificent example is the "The Ring," from 1989, now owned by the DAM.

Chisman's rough brushwork and taste for preserving paint drips and runs — which are seen in "The Ring" and in all of his classic paintings — link his style to that of the abstract expressionists of the mid-twentieth century. But it's important to point out that despite this obvious association, Chisman pointedly violated the established standards of abstract expressionism in several significant ways, not the least of which are his oblique figurative references and his construction of pictorial space. That makes his work more post-abstract expressionist and less a revival of the earlier style. Along these same lines is Chisman's habit of dividing the paintings into two or more distinct color fields, which also violates the tenets of abstract expressionism.

His 1990s work furthers these themes, but the pieces are notably denser and more heavily painted, as exemplified by the Kirkland Museum's "After Image," from 1991; here it looks as if the paint was applied to the canvas with a trowel.

I'll conclude my discussion with the works created in the 21st century. In these, Chisman's palette gets lighter and includes cheery pastel shades. A number of these pieces, such as "Bee Balm," from 2007, and "Word," from 2008, are crowded with abstract elements derived both from geometric shapes and organically derived forms.

The last piece Chisman completed before his death is "Puppet Show," which is spare in its palette and from a formal standpoint. The top half is essentially empty save for sketchy figural elements that beg to be read as a puppet and its spirit rising toward the top left. "Puppet Show" made me fantasize about what those paintings of the four seasons would have looked like if Chisman had been given the time to paint them.

I know it's only February, but I don't think it's too early to call Dale Chisman in Retrospect the most significant Colorado art event of 2011.

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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