Fit for Prints

The string of rooms on the ground floor of the funky Sibell-Wolle Fine Arts building that are rather grandly known as the CU Art Galleries have just undergone a makeover that makes them more worthy of the name. The formerly plain-Jane spaces have been dressed up with a fresh coat of paint and some light renovation, including the addition of a diagonal wall of glass and galvanized metal panels that mark the entrance. These changes were brought about by Susan Crane, director of the CU Galleries, who worked with the University of Colorado's facilities-management office to tie the construction to another project designed to bring Sibell-Wolle in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. But in the process of acquiring an elevator, the building also acquired what promises to become a true gallery space.

While Crane is pleased with the remodeling work and particularly happy to have had her place thoroughly cleaned, she's hardly begun. She wants more than nice rooms in a grungy art building: She wants a proper museum constructed somewhere on the Boulder campus. Given her background, Crane's ambitious plans are no surprise; she came to CU from Atlanta's High Museum, having previously worked at the Walker in Minneapolis and the Albright-Knox in Buffalo. CU chancellor Richard Byyny and Arts and Sciences dean Peter Spear have already bought into her idea, which calls for the museum to be built as an element of new and badly needed studio facilities, with "a separate presence from the exterior," Crane says. Visionary architect Antoine Predock is working on the initial planning phase in conjunction with RNL, a Denver-based architectural firm.

But where on the crowded campus could such a facility be built? "There are a hundred possibilities," says Crane, unconvincingly. Fortunately, one of them is not Grandview Terrace, so preservationists can breathe a sigh of relief. That historic neighborhood just north of campus, a delightful assortment of residences from the early twentieth century that was long ago dubbed "faculty row," is the subject of an ongoing threat from wrongheaded university planners who want to demolish most of the area for campus expansion. But not for a combination museum/studio space---a more likely spot for that is on top of the Euclid Street subterranean parking structure near the University Memorial Center and just off Broadway, a location that would encourage non-campus visitors. "The parking lot was built so that a building could be constructed over it," notes Crane.

The soonest the museum could be up and running is "2006 to 2007," she says, "if everything goes according to plan--which it never does." So in the meantime, Crane will have to make do with the freshly scrubbed CU Galleries, which are hosting two exhibits that inaugurate the new look and also highlight CU's mammoth print collection. Even so, many of these prints have not seen the spotlight of day for decades, if ever.

Under the direction of art historian and now-retired professor John Hoag, CU had long collected prints--but it attained its current premier position among Colorado institutional collectors by default. The Denver Art Museum's print collection once rivaled CU's, but over the last few years the DAM has been foolishly deaccessioning its holdings in the medium; plans call for dumping still more in the very near future. CU, however, is enlarging its collection, already "the largest and most important collection of prints in the state," says Crane. "I like the intimacy of works on paper, including prints." (Prints also have a certain economic appeal, since an entire collection can be put together for what otherwise would buy a single painting.)

The first of Crane's two print shows, Mark Makers: Painterly Abstraction From the Colorado Collection, fills the entry gallery. It's a small but smart display featuring modern and contemporary prints by some of the biggest names in the business. Many of these prints are abstract-expressionist, and if the concept weren't so familiar, it would seem oxymoronic: Abstract-expressionist style is reliant on spontaneity, whereas by definition, printmaking is about careful replication. Still, you can't argue with results this good.

Just inside the entrance are a pair of Robert Motherwells: a diminutive etching, "Untitled (AFA 131)," done in 1966, and "Pauliac #2," a larger vertical piece from the 1973 "Summer Light Series" that uses collage, lithography and screen printing (among other techniques). The etching is like a Rorschach test inkblot marking one extreme in Motherwell's approach; "Pauliac," with its hard-edged, constructivist character, reveals the opposite tendency.

Near the Motherwells is "Lot's Wife," a three-part, vertically stacked color lithograph from 1971 by the late artist's onetime wife, Helen Frankenthaler. Never literal, Frankenthaler merely suggests what became of Lot's wife--she was turned into a pillar of salt--by leaving the center of the three connected sheets blank. Another classic example of abstract-expressionist style is "Mercury," a Sam Francis lithograph from 1963. Totally avoiding both literal and figural elements, Francis suggests the mythical figure of the title through gestural lines and horizontal and diagonal forms.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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