It’s upsetting to see the Denver Art Museum’s stately Gio Ponti tower closed and its front ripped open, but it’s all to the good. The unsightly construction work is making improvements to the building so that it can last another half-century, and the iconic stainless-steel tube entrance is safely stored, awaiting reinstallation.
But until the building reopens in 2021, the DAM faces some challenges. Before the chain-link fences went up, the Ponti was like a dignified sentry at the southwest corner of the Civic Center, and looked spectacular in relation to the nearby Denver Central Library. The structure was gorgeous from the other side as well, and, as viewed to the north from the Martin Plaza, helped create one of the finest urban passages in the city. Part of what gave this area its super-urbane look was Mark di Suvero’s “Lao Tzu,” DAM’s best outdoor sculpture and arguably the finest work of art in a public place in the city. But it, too, is now in storage. (At one point the idea of not returning “Lao Tzu” to its original spot was tossed around; hopefully that notion has been tossed out — as far as it’s possible to throw it.)
More prosaic is another problem created by the Ponti rehab: For the time being, the museum has lost more than half of its exhibition space and is limited to the Hamilton Building. With the current Rembrandt blockbuster — the kind of show that inspires suburb-dwellers to drive downtown and even pay for parking — the place is mobbed. And just wait until the Dior exhibit opens November 19!
But on a recent visit, I found even the small shows packing them in. On the second floor is Claes Oldenburg With Coosje van Bruggen: Drawings, but there’s a prerequisite component on the Martin Plaza: “Big Sweep,” a monumental sculpture by Oldenburg and van Bruggen comprising a gigantic broom, a dustpan and wads of paper. Oldenburg made his name in the 1960s as a pop-art pioneer, creating enormous sculptures of such mundane objects as baseball bats and erasers, which he sometimes rendered as though they were pliable rather than rigid. “Big Sweep” is an heir to this classic work, but also shows the profound influence of van Bruggen, whom Oldenburg married in 1977; their first collaborative piece was created a few years later, in 1981.
Like Andy Warhol, Oldenburg was originally interested in re-contextualizing the ordinary, but “Big Sweep” employs exotic references to everyday things, notably that weird broom, so it has a mannered post-pop quality. (Since the piece was installed outside the DAM in 2006, people have climbed all over it to have their photos taken, which really bugs me. When did sculptures become conflated with playground equipment, anyway?)
For Drawings, Julie Augur, the DAM’s adjunct curator of drawings, tapped the Lauder gift to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Donated a decade ago, that collection included many Oldenburg drawings, in particular significant early ones, and the oldest reveal that Oldenburg got to pop via abstract expressionism. One of his first steps in that journey is seen in 1961’s “Store Window — Yellow Shirt, Red Bow Tie”: Oldenburg’s scribbly, highly abstracted drafting is so elegant, it will take your breath away. By 1965, Oldenburg had become famous for works such as “Study for a Soft Toilet,” which takes the recognizable parts of a toilet and depicts them stuffed like pillows. In “Nude With Electric Plug,” Oldenburg arrays his famous electric plugs around a nude woman, pointing to the implicit sexual connotations. The show also includes some of his absurd architectural proposals, like the fireplug skyscraper and kitchen-faucet cathedral.
Compared to the older Oldenburg drawings, which are so freely fleshed out, the later collaborative pieces with van Bruggen, such as “Soft Shuttlecock Raised” and several preliminary studies related to “Big Sweep,” are less expressive and more illustrative. In addition to the drawings, the show includes “Clothespin,” a sculpture that’s much smaller than “Big Sweep.” I think it’s also the best Oldenburg at the DAM, because of the way it economically crosses highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities in a single gesture.
Upstairs on the fourth level is Eyes On: Julie Buffalohead, curated by John Lukavic and Denene De Quintal. The updated magic-realist paintings were created specifically for the show by Julie Buffalohead, an enrolled member of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma. In them, she explores her childhood memories through the animal symbolism of the Ponca clans, and also takes on current topics, especially the environment.
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The paintings all have washy grounds that typically, but not always, lay out a rudimentary landscape. The figures that Buffalohead paints on top are anthropomorphized animals, many of them wearing clothes, that indicate individual clans. A striking example is “A Little Medicine and Magic”: On the right side, a coyote is impersonating a standing woman in black high heels and a ’50s pink dress, who’s pointing to a bunch of skunks standing on each other’s backs and holding her purse — and her lipstick, which they’ve used to adorn their behinds. This scene refers to the Maka clan, represented by the skunks, who have outsmarted the trickster, the coyote in drag. The coyote makes another appearance in “Straight Legs,” lying on a bed like a teenage girl, surrounded by birds and a deer; Buffalohead’s home clan, the Nikapashna, is represented by the deer. All of the paintings have this kind of narrative content, though not all incorporate the coyote. Whether the viewer knows the specific Ponca elements or not, the pieces still work on a purely painterly level. Besides, a coyote in a dress is not so different from a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
With everything crammed into the Hamilton, modern and contemporary art has been pushed to the edges. But if you look in the DAM’s nooks and crannies, you’ll find treasures like these Oldenburg and van Bruggen drawings and the Buffalohead paintings.
Claes Oldenburg With Coosje van Bruggen: Drawings, through January 6; Eyes On: Julie Buffalohead, through February 2, both at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-913-0131, denverartmuseum.org.