Denver Master of Contemporary Art, Roland Bernier, Has Died

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On Friday, June 19, artist Roland Bernier died after having suffered a heart attack the week before. Until recently, he'd been active in the Denver scene, where he wasn't just an accomplished artist, but an advocate. Art was his life, and Bernier regularly attended exhibition openings with his wife, Marilyn, to see what other artists were doing and to show his support. It was apparent that his health had been in decline for the last couple of years, but things had gotten much worse for him during the last few months.

Bernier was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1932. Right after high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and finished his enlistment at a base in Austin, Texas. He subsequently earned a BFA there from the University of Texas before heading to California, where he earned his an MFA in at the University of Southern California in 1960. He returned to Texas, moving to Houston, where he taught and exhibited his work in galleries and museums. At the time, his work was abstract expressionist, but beginning in 1964, he started to incorporate letters, numbers and words into his compositions which would anticipate his later conceptual efforts.

In 1966, Bernier moved to New York to pursue his career, and his work became wildly experimental, expanding from paintings to sculpture and installation. He gained some measure of success with these pieces, which were exhibited at top galleries, including the Modern Masters Gallery. As a day job, he taught art to seniors at a community center where he met Marilyn. In 1972, on a whim, he abandoned the work in his studio, moving to Baltimore with Marilyn. After that, they wandered to Denver, where they had no plans of staying. But in 1973, Bernier began teaching art at city of Denver’s Park Avenue Center.

After a couple of years, Bernier hit a creative dry patch and gave up creating art for around a decade. Then in 1985, he went back to his studio and soon after produced an accomplished body of new work that was shown at the influential Cydney Payton Artfolio. His paintings of this time were abstractions that incorporated pseudo calligraphic elements that were evocative of letters but were indecipherable as such. These works gave way to sometimes enormous abstracts that bridged pattern-painting with expressionism in that they were covered in rows of marks that were simultaneously organized and freely done, as in a painting like “Graffiti."

By the early 1990s, Bernier was shifting away from these earlier abstractions — which are stunning — and beginning to create wholly conceptual works with some post-pop elements. These pieces were as non-abstract as it is possible to be since they were literal — with Bernier using letters spelling out words as his only pictorial or compositional devices.

The words were made of standardized letters that had been stenciled or had been cut out of wood or Mylar so that they were three-dimensional. He covered panels with stenciled or cut letters in the manner of paintings, but he also covered walls, solid rectangles and even women’s shoes. The words were free-associational in meaning but were assembled together into the same piece according to how many letters each of the included words had. This means that there were no real messages that he was trying to convey with the selected words — just random words exploited for their visual character as they appeared when they were printed out.

Bernier's work has enjoyed wide acceptance around here since the 1980s and has been exhibited extensively in many of the city’s top galleries, including the Mary Mackey Gallery, Hassel-Haeseler Gallery, Robischon Gallery and Spark Gallery. His current representative is Walker Fine Art which presented a retrospective in 2007; just last year, gallery director Bobbi Walker helped to place a major Bernier installation, “Wall of Words,” into the collection of the Colorado Convention Center.

In addition, Bernier's work has been shown at the Denver Art Museum, where he was the subject of a 2001 solo, Between the Lines: Word Works by Roland Bernier, that was curated by the late Nancy Tieken. His pieces have also been exhibited at the MCA Denver, the Kirkland Museum, and the Arvada Center, which included a body of his work in a major group outing there a few months ago. Furthermore,  the DAM and the Kirkland have Bernier’s work in their respective permanent collections.

A celebration of Bernier’s life is planned forThursday, June 25 at 6 p.m. at Walker Fine Art, 300 West 11th Ave #A. There are no plans yet for a memorial show but let’s hope that happens because Bernier really earned that kind of honor.

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Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


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